I played through Planetfall recently (still an amazing game, about which more later); but, before doing so, I had to decide what platform to play it on, given the plethora of Z-Machine interpreters. And I decided to give Frotz on the iPad a try.

That was an experiment, but not a particularly eccentric one: I far prefer reading PDFs on the iPad to reading them on a computer screen, and it’s better for reading e-mail, blog posts, etc. as well. In general, if you want to read text, the iPad (in vertical orientation) is the way to go: it does a great job of being a programmable sheet of paper. So, given that, interactive fiction seemed like a pretty good match. (And in a horizontal orientation, it’s a natural match for point-and-click adventures; I certainly thought it was a good fit for Puzzle Agent.)

The verdict: it worked well, but not as stunningly so as I’d hoped. For one thing, a text adventure (at least in its Infocom iterations) isn’t something that you play just with a device: you play with pen and paper at hand, to make a map and take notes. So I couldn’t just curl up on a sofa with the iPad: I had to be sitting somewhere where I could write and draw. Now, that’s not necessarily a drawback for playing on the iPad as compared to a computer: I’d have the same problem if I were trying to curl up with a laptop! But it does mute one of the iPad’s main advantages.

Also, the interface isn’t a joy to look at and use the way, say, Reeder is. The margins are nonexistent, the font is too small, there aren’t the sort of surprising touches that the best iPad apps have. Again, this doesn’t make it any worse than a computer Z-machine interpreter would be, but it missed a chance to be better.

And, finally, there’s input. The iPad is great for reading and for touch interfaces; it’s acceptable but slightly annoying to use for typing. Which you do a lot of while playing a text adventure! Also, not infrequently you’d like to use the up arrow key to edit your previous input, but that’s not available on the iPad. So that’s a bit of a bummer, the one area where a computer has a clear advantage.

Those are the downsides; the truth is, though, that most of them aren’t downsides as much as a lack of a potential upside, and it remains a nicer device to get close to than a computer. Still, there’s a lot of room for improvement! At a minimum, I’d prefer better layout and typography; and if somebody could come up with a keyboard interface that was a little less grating (maybe providing an up-arrow somehow, maybe somehow working each game’s dictionary into the autocompletion?), that would be great. And if there were a good way to draw maps in-game, that would be awesome: I see that Frotz does have a note screen (though I only discovered it after finishing Planetfall), but most of the time what I really want to do is draw maps instead of typing textual notes.

My guess is that I still prefer text adventuring on the iPad to text adventuring on a computer. But it’s closer than I expected; I should probably do my next experiment on a computer instead. Fortunately, I was impressed enough by how well Planetfall has held up that I’ll probably do so sooner rather than later!

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