The Virtual Space-Time Continuum

The word space has a multitude of meanings depending on context. Space can mean leg room on an airplane or the distance between two letters in this essay. Kids want to grow up to become astronauts and travel to outer-space. The movie Office Space, about corporate obedience, depicts software engineers confined in a small cubical. All of these examples of the term have one thing in common: tangibility; physical areas that can be occupied by other physical objects. Consequently, the concept of defining space in a digital medium within the parameters of space in a physical medium is a bit tricky. Herein requires the additional adjective to term the phrase “virtual reality.” A virtual world being defined as not physical or existing in a world in which we humans can not taste, touch, or see, introduces new problems in comparing artifacts which utilize computer generated environments . The concept of virtual reality implies the existence of a two or three dimensional visual representation of a space. But is the concept of virtual representation in a digital medium restricted to what can be seen in the physical world? If not, what exactly is virtual representation? Does a program need to show pixels on a screen in order for it to be classified as a virtual world – let alone an expressive digital medium? The text adventure computer games Zork and Book and Volume challenges the stereotype that objects must be graphically illustrated in order to become virtual representations and provides some interactivity and control of the environment with text descriptions. While both games conflict the traditional notion of virtual being visual, they each perceive space differently.

Virtual representation, a phrase tossed around in film, art, and interactive media, must be classified in order to understand space. Humans have difficulty comprehending the concept of space being anything but, as mentioned before, an actual physical medium containing other real, physical objects in a dimensional world. For example, a spaceship is a vehicle that travels through space. Thus, the definition of virtual reality or virtual space quickly becomes ambiguous in relation to dimensionless worlds. Authors try hard to immerse their readers in their works and trust their readers to come up with worlds in their mind. With the exception of children books, there are usually no illustrations, or visual representations, of the scenes in books, plays, or poems. Yet the story itself creates the environment via text descriptions, and the reader is compelled to render the graphics in their mind. The same idea applies in Interactive Fiction.

Zork illustrates space via text descriptions and obligates the player to conjure up visual representations of objects, setting, and the world with their imagination. Player moves in a bounded three dimensional grid. Each cell in the grid can contain a space or another grid.

Obviously, two or three-dimensional environments generate a much different experience than Zork‘s zero-dimensional reality because computer graphics and visuals are fed directly to the user. The user is not required to imagine the reality; instead, reality is brought to the user. Games such as Grand Theft Auto bestow images unto the player. This is how your character looks, this is how it looks when you drive this fast, or this is what the sky looks like.

It is a misconception that text adventure games allow the user to envision their characters’ hairstyles and world, as in fact it is the limitations of the descriptions of the world that require the player to visualize various objects in the game.

If there was an evolutionary scale in Interactive Fiction genre, Nick Montfort’s Interactive Fiction Book and Volume would be the next progressive step after Zork. A critical difference between Book and Volume and Zork is the dynamics of the spaces. The world in Zork is static; text output is the same wherever a player goes in its space and only alters based on character and environment state. Contrastingly, Zork utilizes space, time, and a little bit of randomness when producing descriptions. Albert Einstein said, “Space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind union of the two will preserve an independent reality.” Walking to Starbucks block (location), a player may not be able enter if the shop isn’t open (time), and the player may also notice an ambulance driving through the street (randomness) as his pager buzzes because he forgot to email his boss (state). The player is literally inside a narrative and creates a story based on the decisions made in space, state, and time rather than just space and state. This use of a multi-dimensional space is not visual; however, closer to the real physical world thanZork . Based on these two games, it’s clear that visuals are not required to generate a virtual space. In fact while visually Book and Fiction has no graphics, popular graphical multiple-dimensional games such as Grand Theft Auto are virtual representations of the virtual world in Book and Volume.

Unfortunately, Book and Volume, while still thought-provoking, fails to address a couple of key areas. Book and Volume attempts to be a piece of Interactive Fiction and an enjoyable game yet ends up being neither. Books are linear, and whether or not someone decides to take one day or one week to read the latest Harry Potter book, the reader will eventually read the last chapter. However, Book and Volume is very difficult to complete. There exists player obligation in feeding, resting, and generally taking care of the virtual player. Instructions are indistinct and vague, and despite the save feature, players find themselves restarting the game after losing repeatedly. The game attempts to deliver political messages, yet those messages are not shown to anyone who can’t reach it.

Space and time are one and the same. In order to convey a sense of space, time is needed, and vise versa. While Zork presents the fundamental idea that worlds do not necessarily need to be visually represented in adventure games to be successful, Book and Volume experiments by adding the time dimension to the free roaming structure that Zork originally introduced.