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PLAYER Festival: The Unbuilt Room

The Unbuilt Room is a 1980s computer text adventure made real.You remember text adventures: "You're in a room...", "Exits are North and East", "GET LAMP", that sort of thing.

Last weekend saw the much anticipated PLAYER Festival come to the Science Museum, and I was there to run the length and breadth of the museum and try out the many intriguing ‘live gaming’ experiences – which ranged from a version of Pong to a real-life first person shooter (without real-life guns, obviously).

I’ll be writing up all of the games I got to try, but I wanted to start with The Unbuilt Room. Because it was awesome.

It was basically a 1980s computer text adventure made real. You remember text adventures: “You’re in a room…”, “Exits are North and East”, “GET LAMP”, that sort of thing. Nowadays, they’re called ‘interactive fiction‘ and have a significant cult following – but back in the days of rubber keyboards and cassette tape loading errors, text adventures were a mainstream videogame genre. (Check out The Digital Antiquarian, a fantastic blog about the history of text adventures in the US.)

Seth Kriebel was our host for The Unbuilt Room, which was situated in a small room tucked away in a corner of the Museum’s second floor. He’d face each of the six players in turn, describe – in an unnerving, impassive near-monotone – an imaginary room from an imaginary map, then ask: ‘What would you like to do?’

Turn by turn over 20 minutes, we got to explore the small world of Seth’s devising, and solve basic puzzles to progress: sinking a putt on a Crazy Golf course to lower a drawbridge, lighting a lamp to find a new door in a dark room. It was amazing how evocative it was: the ‘world’ was only a few rooms big and the descriptions were sparse but, just like in a computer text adventure, I had a vivid picture of the game world in my mind.

The 20 minutes flew by. It felt strangely thrilling to be on a little adventure with five strangers. Our group didn’t talk much – we weren’t forbidden from discussing our next move, but British reserve seemed to prevent it. Even so, there was a spine-tingling sense of shared discovery and achievement as our individual decisions combined to push us forward. And as a gaming-obsessed child of the 80s (favourite adventure game: Fantasia Diamond on the ZX Spectrum), I was bewitched at the way the language and puzzles of a digital text adventure unfolded in real life. Truly immersive gaming – and without a single transistor of technology in sight.

Seth kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions about the performance.

What’s running through your head as you take us through the adventure?

“Ideally, nothing! I should be listening to the players. If I think too much about what might happen next I’ll miss what the players are doing right now. Inevitably, I prepare a bit for what’s coming next, but if my concentration wavers I’ll suddenly realise I was thinking about something else and panic that I missed something the players said. After several shows in a row it gets quite tricky to remember which group did what… Did this group pick up the matches in the Forest? Or was that the last group? If I ever wind up with a spare moment while the players decide what they want to do next I just try to remember to breathe.”

What was the best player reaction you saw during the PLAYER Festival?

“I love how people react to the Crazy Golf bit. Sometimes, when I tell them they have putted an imaginary golf ball into an imaginary hole, they shout “Yes!”, as though they’ve made a tricky shot in real life. It’s nice they get so wrapped up in the game!”

What’s next for The Unbuilt Room?

“Each version of The Unbuilt Room is different. The format – how I interact with the players – is the same, but the imagined world changes each time. In some cases it is based on the building where it is performed: the players are led on a circuitous route around the building to the performance space. Then, when the game begins, their imagined journey begins back at the beginning of their real walk around the building. In the imaginary world, of course, the rooms can be very different from the real rooms – even basic physics isn’t an obstacle.”

“I’ll be presenting different versions of The Unbuilt Room at Stratford Circus in east London 14-16 October and at The Nightingale in Brighton on 29 October, plus I have a few more in the pipeline for later this year and early next.”

More details at Seth’s website.