Speaking Out for Change: The Evolution of the “Talkie”

Speaking Out for Change: The Next Evolution of the “Talkie”

It's been two decades since the emergence of the video game "talkie", and the inescapable truth is that there's been very little evolution in adventures ever since.  But as the saying goes, the more things change the more they stay the same, and the future of the genre may very well be the talkie all over again.  A brand new type of talkie, of course, but a talkie nonetheless. 

It's all very well and good for a game to talk to you, with pre-scripted dialogue lines recorded by voice actors in a studio long before you ever hear them.  But that's not really talking, just playback. So what about a game where you talk to it?  Impossible?  Not at all!  I've spoken to automated routing services that understood my commands on the phone before, so why not a game? 

One of the unfortunate byproducts of the move from text to graphic adventures was a significant loss of interactive freedom.  Even a basic text adventure can offer so much more personal control (however illusory it may be) than its modern day point-and-click counterparts.  Encountering a small mailbox in front of a white house, you could try opening it, looking at it, depositing something, emptying it, kicking it, kissing it, pushing it over, covering it with graffiti, or talking to it (hey, you never know).  True, far too often in the genre's early days the parser didn't understand what you were trying to tell it, but that was a technical limitation of the time that no longer applies.  That said, staring at a blank screen and typing just isn't going to cut it for most people today, so more text adventures really isn't the answer. 

Early SCUMM games like Maniac Mansion offered many more interactive options than modern adventures

SCUMM-era graphic adventures scaled back the interactivity, but still allowed a wide variety of verbs to play with.  With each hotspot giving you as many as fifteen generic options (not including inventory), there was still plenty of choice available.  And yet it was a nuisance to continually drag your cursor back and forth between action commands and the environment.  Before long, experimenting became more of a pain than pleasure.  Sierra refined the process further, reducing interactive options yet again and allowing right-clicks to cycle commands, but this too grew tedious over time.  The "verb coin" provided an elegant solution, eliminating additional mouse clicks at the expense of still more possibilities.  But even click-hold-slide-select is a hassle when multiplied by hundreds or thousands over the course of a game.

Most graphic adventures nowadays dispense with all semblance of individual control in favour of purely linear scripting.  Sure, you can click what you want (so long as it's a hotspot), but the player's only input is to click, guess what might happen, and hope it's what you seek to accomplish.  (Often getting nothing more than a "that won't work" for your troubles.)  Many games add a "look" option as well, and the verb coin is still around, occasionally offering another choice or two.  But for the most part, we've been reduced to one-click-fits-all interaction.  It's very restrictive, but simple, streamlined, and fast. 

I'm thankful for the "fast" part.  My time is limited, and I have no desire to spend literally hours of it "playing the interface" rather than the game itself.  But I do lament the loss of personal involvement in my adventures, and I wish there was an alternative to typing or a tedious series of mouse clicks to accomplish what text adventures could (at least theoretically) do from the start.  If only we could sit back and simply TELL the game what we wanted to do!

Well, why can't we? 

Of all video game genres, arguably none are less tactile than adventures (excluding direct control titles like Dreamfall and Sherlock Holmes, which remain few and far between).  You simply couldn't take hands-on control away from a shooter, RPG, or strategy game, but there's a reason the term "point-and-click" is largely referred to (outside genre circles) with derision: the act itself is boring. There is nothing intrinsically fun or inspiring about sweeping the screen, clicking hotspots, watching a character plod around, then be force-fed whatever scripted action (or response) the developer saw fit to provide.  That's one second of active engagement for many times that of passive spectacle.  Yawn. 

No, the appeal of adventures comes from the thinking, not the doing, and with most adventures resigned to click-and-pray mechanics these days, not only isn't there all that much thinking involved anymore, we spend far more time watching than acting. We accept it because it's so efficient, and because we'd never sacrifice the pretty pictures that come with modern games, but as entertainment it's a far cry from the more rewarding means of interaction we once enjoyed. By eliminating the mouse in favour of speech, could we finally have both?  

Retail products like Dragon NaturallySpeaking make speech recognition easily accessible

We've all seen futuristic sci-fi where everything is controlled by voice commands, and it's an appealing prospect.  Usually things go disastrously wrong (HAL says hi), but that's only when computers are so smart they're able to think and talk back.  I'm not asking them to do that much, merely listen and respond as they've been programmed.  And that's not science fiction, merely science.  In fact, speech recognition programs have been around for quite a while, but like all new technological breakthroughs, it's taken until now for them to reach a reliably functional level.  They may still largely be an automated annoyance on the phone, but voice-to-text programs are currently in use in many professional fields, from healthcare to law to education.  If it's good enough for "important" jobs, is it not good enough for a game? 

And you know what?  It's pretty cheap.  I was under the mistaken impression that such an option would be cost-prohibitive.  It probably was in years past, but now there are highly respected retail programs like Dragon NaturallySpeaking for only $200.  Surely that's well within reach for an enterprising developer looking to forge a new path.  And if not... well, coughKickstartercough.  This is the sort of tangible, justifiable expense I'd gladly contribute to if necessary.  There are even open source options to explore for those more technically than financially inclined.

Continued on the next page...

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Jack Allin
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