Virtual Rooms, or a Spatial Metaphor

In early text-only computer games such as Adventure and Zork, the basic unit was a room.

A description of the room located the player and provided some clues for continuing in the game. The order in which one visited rooms was usually not important, but the order was constrained to an extent because no one room led to more than a few other rooms. Some rooms had only one entrance/exit; others had several. A complex area could be broken up into separate rooms, e.g. "front of cave" and "back of cave."

A few areas, notably the maze (at least one of which was typically included in each game of this kind), were exceptions that did not function like other rooms, but the convention of the room was essentially consistent. Rooms could thus be connected in a variety of ways, some of which would make impossible any realistic map of the game environment. For example, a series of northward exits leading from room A to rooms B, C, D, and E could ultimately take the player through a northern door in room E that inexplicably (but consistently) opened into room A. (Some rooms could be thought of as "magical rooms," with doors and passages that did not conform to logic.)

It is important to note that a structure consisting of "rooms" or other representations of virtual objects need not reflect in any way the actual structure of the data as they are stored in the system; i.e., the data are entirely fluid and not bounded by space. The user does not need to know anything about how the data are stored or arranged within the storage system. This goes back to the user metaphor: the system's designers can choose how the user will perceive the system. Being virtual, a "room" can contain infinite other rooms, and each of those can contain infinite rooms, and so on. Thus a room concept is not at odds with any model of limitless links or nested tree structures.

The greatest problem with rooms (as well as maps of rooms) is that they may invite users to think of virtual space in too literal a way. A combination of rooms with both doors and windows (in which a "door" might lead to one kind of information and a "window" to other kinds), or a metaphor that combines two-dimensional movement (as on a mapped surface) with "zooming in" and "zooming out," may be more flexible.

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Hypertext Breakdown, by Mindy McAdams
Copyright © 1993, 1995 by Mindy McAdams. All Rights Reserved.
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