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Interview with Patrick Johnston on 3DTextAdventure
Developer:Patrick “Auspaco” Johnston
Release Date:June 2014
Article Posted:July 2014

Released June 20, earlier this year, 3DTextAdventure, a short three puzzle adventure game, was developed by Patrick “Auspaco” Johnston. Fully playable and enjoyable, with a surprisingly detailed and intriguing story for such a short game. 3DTextAdventure is primarily an experimental tech demo and proof of concept for a first person, 3D, adventure game with text input controls. With fully modern 3D graphics, 3DTextAdventure is set in a future scifi world where people travel with teleporters and flying cars. Your substandard teleporter suit has just malfunctioned and sent you to an empty lab, out of power your only companion is the suit’s zany artificial intelligence. You move around just like any ordinary FPS, and “look” with the left mouse button. Looking causes the AI to analyze the video feed and tell you what objects are in front of you can can be interacted with. You can then type commands like “examine datapad”, “take banana”, or “use plant”.

[Adventure Lantern]: What are some of your favourite text and graphical adventure games, any games that inspired 3DTextAdventure?

[Patrick Johnston]: My all-time favourites are the first three Leisure Suit Larry games by Sierra. After that they abandoned the text-interface and the graphics were starting to lag behind other modern games. I really loved Grim Fandango as well, which was beautifully written and executed.

[AL]: Did you have any experience making games going into this project??

[Patrick]: I've programmed all my life, and while I have written a ton of software, and always wanted to write a game, I never quite got around to it. One of the big issues is that I'm terrible at art, which when contemplating creating a game of this type is a problem. I have worked on a few minor games, that were never released.

[AL]: What did you need to learn to complete this project? What engines/tools/languages did you use?

[Patrick]: When I started with the game, I had all of the tools I needed. I used the Unreal Development Kit (UDK), which is also used by a lot of AAA first-person shooter games and had the graphical pedigree to achieve what I was after. The programming wasn't going to be an issue, and luckily I found someone else who was able to provide the graphics. The biggest thing I had to learn was how to make a game fun, and interesting. Lots of beta-testers were invaluable in that regard.

[AL]: When did you start actively developing 3DTextAdventure? How many hours have you put into the project?

[Patrick]: I started on the game in late 2013, and spent about five months putting everything together. All of it was done in my spare time, as I have a family and a busy day job. It's hard to estimate the exact number of hours, but I'm guessing around 300 hours.

[AL]: You stated that the level was not designed for this game, but was developed separately by the 3D artist Tor Frick, how much did the level influence the game design?

[Patrick]: When I started thinking about putting a game together, I knew from past experience that I wasn't able to do the graphics myself. For this game to work however it really needed something amazing in that department. The whole idea was to combine a text-interface with modern graphics, to try and capture the best of both worlds. I had begun looking for a world that I could use to slot my concept into, and I ran into the Sci-fi Lab by Tor Frick. Now Tor Frick is a top-level artist who has worked on some amazing titles, so his work is some of the best in the world. He's also very generous and had provided the level (in UDK) for download. Suddenly I had this beautiful 3D world that I could work with.

So how much of the design was dictated by the level? All of it. I basically started from what I had and thought about what sort of story and puzzles might be fun to play. In some ways it was a really good way to do it - It's easy to get bogged down in a universe of infinite possibilities when you have a blank slate, but I had all sorts of limitations. I had a corridor, boxes, and a few rooms. Inventing a plausible story that was also entertaining was very challenging, but also a lot of fun for me.

[AL]: The level itself is apparently a tech demo, made with an extremely limited number of textures. Was this simply a coincidence or did you like the idea of using such a level? Did this affect the game in any way?

[Patrick]: That was just a coincidence. I guess people like Tor Frick get so good at producing incredible work that they need to challenge themselves. To be honest though if he hadn't done something so insanely difficult, he probably would never have released the level itself for people to verify what he had done. A lot of artists produce stunning levels as part of their portfolio, and you get to see some amazing screenshots and videos, but it's rare for them to release everything into the wild.

[AL]: Instead of the standard cursor select for first-person based interfaces you went with the unique whole-window select/look. Can you walk me through your reasons for this design decision?

[Patrick]: One of the difficulties with this type of game is that you can't look at something and click on it to see if it's something that can be manipulated in the game. You have to describe it in text. I didn't want people to be hunting for the correct noun when describing something so having the AI list everything it has detected was a convenient way to give people a hint. It was a tradeoff though. It would have been nice to have people not be able to shortcut things by just randomly looking everywhere, but it would also have been incredibly frustrating.

[AL]: You have stated that this game is an experiment to see if this combination of features works. Do you consider it a success? Do you think this adventure style could ever be commercialised, turned into a fully-fledged subgenre, or ever be more than simply a one(or two)-off experiment?

[Patrick]: I'd like to think that it was a success, but it's such a hard thing to measure. Most people enjoyed the experience of playing it, and a lot wanted it to be longer or see more games of this type, so I think it is a success in that regard. Unfortunately it hasn't had as many downloads or spiked as much interest as I would have liked. I could have done a lot more marketing but I was hoping that the adventures out there would like it and spread the word. I'm immensely proud of it though, whatever happens.

Would it work commercially? I think it could, especially if it was made by a team rather than a solo developer. One of the reasons I made it was that it was the style of game I'd really like to play. It's definitely a niche market, however I was surprised by the response from some of the younger players who weren't that familiar with text adventures. They tended to compare it to things like Half-Life and Portal, which still retain a strong sense of story while having a beautiful first-person experience.

[AL]: What do you think games like this specifically offer the adventure gamers? What sort of experience/gameplay/story are they specifically suited for, in your opinion?

[Patrick]: I remember reading an article about the evolution of adventure games. Early on they were the ONLY games around, and the graphics (for the time) were amazing. They were what you'd show your friends to impress them how good your new computer was. While it is contentious, I much prefer a text interface to a simple point-and-click. I feel it offers a certain richness, and introduces more puzzle types. I'm not suggesting guess-the-verb is a good puzzle, but I remember in Leisure Suit Larry having to type "make rope from hemp" and being thrilled when it was correct. It seemed more satisfying to me than dragging one icon onto another. The limitation of the text-interface is that it's useless for anything real-time. You can't go around fighting zombies by having to type "shoot" all the time.

The ideal experience offered by this type of game is the same as most adventure games: A leisurely puzzle. In particular this type of game has the potential to offer a more immersive experience, as well as harnessing modern graphics so that it can be something you can amaze your friends with. Combining this with some of the new VR technology like Oculus has huge potential for adventure.

[AL]: 3DTextAdventure is a very short game with generally simple puzzles. Do you have any examples of puzzles that would really take advantage of the power of the text input, specifically wed to 3D graphics, that you would like to see or use yourself?

[Patrick]: Unfortunately as a sole developer, with a game driven by the available level there were a lot of things I didn't get to put in to really leverage the text interface. I'd really love to put in a few more things like "make rope from hemp" that challenges the player to know what they are trying to achieve by using items. I'd also like to put in more puzzles that require some real-word knowledge, like mixing baking-powder and vinegar to create a mini explosion, or maybe even something really bizarre like needing to make a sponge-cake from the ingredients. The text interface could be used to force the player to know the rough amounts and the method – like separating the eggs, whipping the whites, adding flour etc. In a standard point and click you'd just drag things onto the bowl and keep clicking the “use” button. The text-interface version would force you to know a bit about the recipe, and require more effort to solve the puzzles.

[AL]: And finally the question that I have been most dieing to ask. So what is in the future for you and 3DTextAdventure? Will we be seeing more games from you in the future, any chance of commercial titles? Are you or do you plan to work on another 3D text adventure; And if so will we see more of that eccentric teleporting suit?

[Patrick]: Working on the game was a lot of fun, and I'll continue to work on other games for sure! At the moment I'm working on another game, which is not adventure or text related. It still has a strong story however. I would like to do another 3DTextAdventure (and maybe even come up with a proper title!) at some point in the future. If I can find an inspired artist who can do the graphics then it may become a reality.

For a short window, mostly during the industry's transition from text adventures to the modern point and click graphical adventures, there were adventure games that joined a game world displayed graphically with text input commands. From the 1980 adventure Mystery House, known for being one of the first adventure titles with graphics; To King’s Quest, four years later, featuring player-character movement on screen paired with text commands. This concept was tried, tested, and expanded upon; And ultimately lost to history, until now. Both of these examples have similarities to 3DTextAdventure, but with its fully explorable, in real time, 3D world and first person perspective, it is in a class all of its own.

Whether you have nostalgic predilections for text adventures, always wanted to try one but was worried about the steep learning curve, or just love adventure games and a good story, you should try 3DTextAdventure. It is a free, small, quick download, and only a 30 minutes to an hour long game; So there is literally no reason not to. After that, you have a few other options if you want to try some other games heavily inspired by ancient text adventures: The first person point and click Dead Cyborg, the heavily multimedia modern text adventure Cypher, or the partial remake of the original Zork into an Oblivion mod. And there are many others, including thriving, if niche, freeware text adventure communities.