P.J. Hruschak’s Timeline of notable video game villians (2006-01-18) has a whimsical “evolutionary highlight of evil” angle. The first three entries are

  • 1958-76 The Dot (Pong)
  • 1977 The Word ‘GRUE’ (Zork)
  • 1978 2D Monochromatic Aliens (Space Invaders)

Hruschak uses a 1977 development date for Zork (rather than the mass commercial release, 1980) in order to get a nice evolutionary line - pixel, word, image - with interruptions like Tetris being the exceptions that prove the rule of a long climb to total 3d immersion. Of course, commercial text adventures at their height coexisted with arcade graphics, and abstraction has had strong success throughout … but the timeline is supposed to be fun, and I want to focus on my favorite fun part:

There is something evocative about describing a word as an enemy. Not a non-player character, not a code process that checks for darkness, but a word. While the Thief was both a more complexly coded and complexly developed Zork antagonist, the Grue is wonderfully wordlike - stubbornly non-visual, a signifier with no signified, a legend, an idea, a “sinister, lurking pressence,” an almost-abstract cause of death with unseen jaws.

I can think of only a few other games in which words could be described as opponents - although I’d like to make a list. In the abstract, all word games might count (crossword puzzles, scrambles, etc.) but most puzzles preclude the sense of agency and interactivity I’m imagining in animistic word-adversaries - the letters are components, not interlocutors. In literature, a classic example of word animism is the speech on words by Humpty Dumpty:

…after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them - particularly verbs: they’re the proudest - adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs - however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

‘Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’

‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’ (Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking-Glass” Ch. 6)

The closest comparison I can think of in classic computer games is the many alphabetic antagonists of Cliff Johnson’s “3 in Three” (1990):

One day in Corporate America, a freak power surge zaps the number 3 off her cozy spreadsheet home and into the heart of the computer where numbers don’t count and the letters spell disaster.

In “3 in Three”, individual letters rather than words are the antagonists, although they behave in a very collective way - most groups of letters form a clique or herd, with our protagonist ‘3′ as the outsider.

For an idea of the progression, see the “3 in Three” gallery of screenshots - like Johnson’s previous “Fool’s Errand,” (and later works such as “7th Guest” and “Myst”) the game is a narrative progress through a set of puzzles.

There may be something perverse in choosing personification as a principle, rather than looking at words that treat words and letters as objects-in-themselves within a story context. In IF, this could possibly include words of power (as in Zork II, or Wishbringing), but it would also include many interesting contemporary experimental works such as Andrew Plotkin’s “The Space Under The Window,” Dan Schiovitz’s “Bad Machine,” and most perhaps most significantly Nick Montfort’s “Ad Verbum,” which does not personify language much but does experiment with almost every other form of direct language interaction imaginable.

In these examples, we might consider words the antagonists in as much as a locked door is an antagonist. Regardless, having even personified words as antagonists may always imply puzzle-based interaction… in as much as individual words and letters are symbolic orders, and a puzzle is an interaction with some symbolic order. Where could personified language lead in the evolution of interactive antagonists? For sheer complexity and sophistication, language is a tough act to beat… and a tough one to implement.

1 Response to “The word 'GRUE' as antagonist”

  1. 1 WRT: Writer Response Theory » Blog Archive » Theorist Games

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