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Aisle: Twenty Years Later
Aisle by Sam Barlow is one of the foundations of post-Infocom interactive fiction. This isn’t just from the impact on other one-move games, such as Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle (played for laughs), or Rematch (played for puzzles), or even more recent games like Midnight. Swordfight. that take the one-move conceit and expand upon the time frame elliptically. These games are all definitely using Aisle as a call back, and the one-move game that disrupts expectations can an important tool in the IF writer’s toolbox.
(And if you haven’t played Aisle before, do yourself a favor and give yourself twenty minutes or so to dig into it.)
No player, even in the most open sandbox world, can do everything they want. But here, in this shopping aisle—for one moment at least—there is freedom.
Aisle’s emotional core comes from the exhaustion of all possibilities. This is a root gameplay experience of parser games from the beginning—in a puzzle-based game, if you’re stuck, the hints recommend that, perhaps, you haven’t tried the right command. When this becomes an unpleasant, frustrating experience it becomes a “guess the verb” problem. But all parser games, to an extent, are guess the verb games, unless (in a version of minimalism on another axis), most of the commands themselves are stripped away. But in Aisle, this becomes a rich set of possibilities. Because it is one glimmering moment in time, one that can also stretch back into the past through memory recall, it invites the player to try everything. And it duly rewards the player with rich bits of story with seemingly throwaway commands (“jump” is particularly harrowing). By making Aisle so dense with story in its “default” responses, more elegantly than most games that have become before or after, it hints at the freedom of a gaming environment that is, by definition, about constraint. No player, even in the most open sandbox world, can do everything they want. But here, in this shopping aisle—for one moment at least—there is freedom.
Aside from the one-move conceit, I think Aisle also points towards a greater shift in design philosophy, in a much more expansive view of what interactive fiction could be. Almost in spite of itself, it is like an alternate-reality version of a mobile game before the entire architecture of mobile gaming was even invented. (Of course, interactive fiction was available on handheld platforms like the Palm Pad and the Apple Newton long before the iPhone.) While still a parser game, and the tactile sensation of typing in the various commands lends a lot to the context of each move (compared to clicking or touching a series of choices), the experience of time in the game feels similar to a game that you might play for a few minutes while waiting for the train—one in which you can get a complete experience.
The fact that this experience is deeply touching and emotionally reaving once the entire mosaic of Aisle’s protagonist comes into view is more an indictment of what mobile gaming has failed to become (with notable exceptions), rather than making Aisle seem dated or out of touch.