PAX East obliterated Jared Sorensen’s voice but he still had an event left to run. Players were counting on him. The convention schedule had the game session locked in. Sorensen, his voice already spent on conversations and events in the noisy convention venues, seemed fucked. But Jared Sorensen didn’t quit.
Sorensen was on the hook to run one of his new Parsely games on Sunday afternoon. Parsely games, if you don’t know, evoke classic text adventures through live, face-to-face play. One or more players (sometimes many more than one) issue commands to a person who parses (get it?) the players’ instructions in the fashion of an old text adventure, thereby navigating intriguing, frightening, exciting adventure environments like in days of yore. The players take on the role of explorers and collectors and the parser takes on the role of computer emulator, taking in the player inputs and doling out brief descriptions of the environment and the action.
“You’re in a dank cellar. The water here is ankle-deep. You smell gasoline,” the parser might say, then: “Exits are North, East, West.”
“Go East,” says a player on her turn.
That sort of thing. This might hearken back, for you, or it might be a retro novelty. At first. It doesn’t take long for play to overwhelm novelty, for participants to sink into the actual process of play and forget about the gag in favor of puzzle-solving and immersion in the experience. That each Parsely adventure is condensed onto an evocative brochure-like thing for about $5 adds to the value—it’s a lot of fun for the price.
That last Sunday of PAX East 2012, Jared Sorensen was running his new Parsely adventure, Z-Ward, involving a hospital stocked with zombies. I was helping out at the Games On Demand table, trying to recover my own voice, when word reached us that Sorensen was running Z-Ward without his voice at all. He’d been hooked up with a laptop, a basic word processor, and a projector. The audience issued their commands verbally and Sorensen responded via text, typing out his responses so they appeared on the back wall of the conference room in real time.
I wanted to see this for myself. I headed over to the event space, hoping I could just slip quietly into the back of the room and observe a few turns without being noticed. I found two pairs of double doors, both alike. Beyond them, a conference room with dozens of people seated at round tables with white tablecloths. More people stood or sat along the walls. Everyone looked to the far wall where simple black text appeared against a plain white background. Everyone was quiet.
Sorensen, dressed all in black, sat at his keyboard. He typed. On screen, we—all of us players, alone together—entered a hospital chamber where a zombie was lashed to a chair wired with cables running to a wall switch.
In the real world, the door clicked shut behind me.
Someone took their turn. Quietly, she said something like, “Flip switch.” Quietly, the room gasped and giggled.
In the zombie hospital, the lights flickered and dimmed. In the real world, people giggled as we read it on the screen. In the hospital, the zombie convulsed and bucked against its bonds. In the conference hall, people made sad sounds. One of the zombie’s eyes exploded, splashing some kind of goo onto our collective cheek. The players gasped, grossed out. Then, in the hospital, the power went out. We were plunged into darkness.
Sorensen awaited our input. A facilitator turned to those of us in the doorway and asked, “Do you want to take a turn?”
I waved to indicate “no.” I was just there to watch.
Sorensen pointed at me from across the room. I was a fool to think I could slip in without Jared recognizing me, I guess. I stood still, tried to think. I didn’t know what resources—a lighter?, a flashlight?—we players had.
Words appeared on the screen: Will go.
I stood still.
I opened my mouth. “Get goo,” I said.
The room giggled.
Words appeared, describing the scraping of goo. For later?
The rest of the room took over. Another player navigated us to a circuit box and restored power. I had to get back to my post at Games On Demand.
Stepping back into the tabletop hall was like walking into angry surf. The room roared. The sound swallowed me up. But inside I couldn’t quite shake the eerie and beautiful silence of those Parsely players—alone together—quietly exploring an imaginary place conjured up in a hidden space within PAX. Tables full of roleplayers were creating imaginary spaces and fictional characters throughout the tabletop hall, but they vied with the ambient droning inside that hangar-like space, leaning in to hear each other. It was that room that had taken my voice and Sorensen’s.
The Z-Ward players had cut a hole in the noise. They had found a place where play trumped the roar. In there, Sorensen didn’t need his voice.