Interactive Fiction's New Soundtrack
Stephen Future and I sat down with Adam Parrish to talk about text adventures and about his new musical instrument, the Frotzophone.

"No one answers. Your teeth continue to hurt, and la, now you have another child at your teat."
"The magistrate walks by and is shocked, shocked. He does not have a pennyfarthing, so he continues on his way to the baths. Your new babby is crying."

Before the advent of graphical games, computer programs called text adventures were developed on mainframe computers by hackers trying to see what these new machines were capable of. They found ways to showcase the gaming element of computers with only text as their medium. The first of these games was called Colossal Cave Adventure, programmed in 1976. A company called Infocom created Zork and other games later on, and the phenomenon of interactive fiction spread even after Mystery House, the first graphical adventure.

In a world of expansive 3-D environments and eye candy, it might be expected that these games would fade away, never to be heard from again. But according to Adam Parrish, the number of games created today eclipses the number created years ago. The IF Archive, one of the main sites of the IF subculture, hosts thousands of text adventures.

We talked with Adam Parrish about his Frotzophone, which uses the actions of someone playing a text adventure to create a sonic environment that corresponds to the player's interactions with objects in the game. For instance, if a player picks up a key, the game will recognize that the key has been picked up and will generate a specific sine wave that reflects this.

The instrument tracks where the player is within the game's map and plays different tones based on the player's interactions with his environment. According to Parrish, the initial impetus for the project came from his interest in maps: "specifically, the intersection between maps, games, text, and music." When asked about the relationship between maps and text: "If I want to tell you how to go somewhere, I'll draw you a map or write you an algorithm. I won't use words."

Technical details can be found at Parrish's Frotzophone development blog. Needless to say, it's pretty damn complicated.

The project began with Parrish's fascination with the cartography of fictional worlds. To him, these maps are abstractions of the game world they represent. Essentially, instead of picking a guitar string or blowing into a trumpet, the Frotzophone is played by exploration of these maps and interaction with the objects. Although the computer is unaware of the narrative structure of the game, the instrument can only be played by progressing through the game's plot. To the computer, an object is only "an entity with data associated with it," but the player hears the tones as part of the developing story.

For a recent Frotzophone performance, Parrish wrote a text adventure which he played from start to finish -- about twelve minutes altogether -- as the audience watched the visualization of the story's map and listened to the music. He asks: "Why are people willing to sit there and read what I'm typing for twelve minutes?"

The answer is that it's awesome.

Parrish is currently studying in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU and preparing his thesis. He describes being interested in the manipulation of text because text is "spatial, non-linear, semantic, combinatorial, universal, and persistent." When asked whether he thought that a new audience was being introduced to fiction through text adventures, Parrish said that he "[doesn't] think anyone has been introduced to serious reading through IF," but that a new generation of writers is able to contribute in a medium that didn't exist before.

More information, photographs, and audio clips can be found at his Frotzophone page.

Posted by kevin on Wed, 19 Mar 2008 07:57:22 -0400 -- permanent link

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