Inform 7 for the Fiction Author

Jeff Nyman recently raised the idea of having a guide to Inform 7 specifically written for an experienced fiction author without background in IF, and I posted a brainstormed outline for such a project. The formatting was pretty ugly on Usenet, though, and I had a few ideas for revisions, so here is another, longer and better-laid-out version of the same thing, with more links to relevant games and articles.

This still isn’t nearly into the shape I would use if I were actually going to write this book — and I don’t have time to do any such thing right now anyway; I have a bunch of things to do for Inform 7, feelies.org, and the long-neglected theory book before I could take up a project of this magnitude. (And I’d like to have a little time to work on a WIP of my own — IF support work has pretty much wiped out my time for that kind of thing lately.) But possibly people will find the brainstorming interesting, even if it isn’t worked up into a complete document.

Theme and Interaction: Designing Action and Puzzles Relevant to Story

  • What interaction adds to narrative
    • Exploration
    • Choice
    • Complicity
    • Role-playing
    • Resolving Challenges (mostly puzzles in IF)
  • Deciding what sorts of action are appropriate within the story
    • Some standard action types in existing IF
      • Pure exploration
      • Manipulating machinery and/or physically realistic systems
      • Magic use
      • Detective work and discovery
      • Word-play and surreal interaction
      • Conversation/emotional interaction
  • Designing a model supporting this action type
    • Determining the essential elements of the model; things and kinds
    • Considering how the elements interact; properties, adjectives, and relations
    • Displaying the relation of model elements to the player; inventory listing, room description, printing the name, and more
    • Creating actions whereby the player can manipulate the model

Setting — see also J. Robinson Wheeler’s article

  • Creating rooms and objects (Chapter 3 of Inform Manual)
    • Place as a reflection of its history and purpose in the story
    • The gun over the mantlepiece rule more important than ever, since you must physically supply any objects that are going to be critical in the action
    • Purposes of room descriptions in communicating possibilities to the player
  • Varying descriptions of rooms
    • Using embedded [] elements in say phrases and descriptions
    • Using “writing a paragraph about”, etc., to control the way objects are described
      • Discussion of whether it’s necessary to report everything present in a room; drawing the player’s attention to one thing or another. (see Nothing More, Nothing Less)
  • Designing a map
    • Techniques in map design for creating a coherent geography, etc.
    • Backdrops to create scenery visible from multiple places (Chapter 3)
    • Doors, vehicles (Chapter 3)
    • Tying places together with descriptions of travel between rooms (“Up and Up”)
    • Large locations represented by multiple rooms (“Tiny Garden”, “Stately Garden”)
  • Interactive parts of a setting
    • Machinery, e.g., that reveals something about what the area is used for
      • Devices, on/off switches, settings and so on; creating mechanisms
      • Adjectives and physical states
      • Actions that apply to numbers and units (chapters on Units, understanding)

Atmosphere — making areas seem alive and setting a mood (see Anchorhead)

  • Time
    • Creating a schedule of background events (see chapter on Time)
      • Weather, time of day (Weather extension)
      • Shops opening & closing, etc. (“IPA”)

Exposition — letting the player discover material without info-dumping

  • Writing a good introduction — see “The Overture” in Craft of Adventure
    • When play begins: … rule
  • Hinting, drawing the player’s attention in the right directions
  • In-game sources of information
    • Books, computers, consultable devices (Basic Actions chapter, “Reading and Talking”)
    • Other characters (though postpone detailed discussion of conversation)

Plot

  • Planning scene structure
    • Using the scene mechanism (Chapter on Scenes)
    • Moving the player from place to place (chapter on Change)
    • Changing rooms and moving objects around between one scene and the next (chapter on Change)
  • Using time out of sequence
  • Linear vs. branching narrative
  • Conveying the shape of the narrative
    • Foreshadowing
      • In descriptions and events, much as in static fiction
      • In action, by teaching the player commands that are going to become important later
        • Teaching complicated new actions in small steps
        • Giving simple initial challenges to the player
        • Creating actions that work in a consistent way throughout the IF
    • Tracking and signalling progress through the story
      • Score and alternatives to scoring
        • Score manipulation commands (Chapter on Time)
        • The-story-so-far summaries and the like; using tables to build these; “Goat-Cheese and Sage Chicken”
      • Using the status bar (make analogy to page numbers, if writers are resistant to having one)
        • Status line elements — “changing the status line”, “rule for constructing the status line”
        • Basic Screen Effects
      • Concept of “plot progress” or triggers — what the player knows or has done so far, or important things that have happened, relative to what still remains to happen
  • Writing endings
    • Single and multiple endings
      • Function of multiple endings
      • The function of losing endings in the work overall: dead ends and failure states
    • “when play ends” rules

Pacing: individual scenes

  • Actions as they affect perceived pace for the player
    • Types of action (see Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies)
      • Low-suspense commands like LOOK vs. more dramatic actions
      • Density of dramatic behavior –> perceived intensity of scene
        • Overview of the standard library actions and which produce dramatic results; using the ACTIONS index
        • Controlling the passage of time; making actions that take no game time (“Instant Examine and Look”, etc.)
    • Quantity and quality of feedback
      • Replies different from the standard library response (see also below)
      • Giving enough response to an action that a player remains interested but not so much that he feels he has no control over events
      • The use of cut-scenes
        • Printing large quantities of text in Inform 7
  • High-suspense scenes (combat, physical danger, etc)
    • Every turn rules that keep events rolling (see Heroine’s Mantle)
    • Timed puzzle scenarios
    • Impact of SAVE/UNDO on these scenes; some discussion on whether to disable (concluding: please don’t!)
    • Providing lots of clues about what to do next so that the player doesn’t trip in these scenarios: if we want a scene that plays like an action scene or swash or something, the player should spend minimal time thinking about what to type next
  • Trapped/set-length scenes (being locked in a cell, on a journey, etc)
    • Pacing when the player is faced with a single problem to solve
      • Focus, controlled frustration
      • Opportunity to convey information, esp. if the player is unable to leave while he hears/sees an event (see Christminster, Delusions)
    • Legitimate ways to trap the player
      • Preventing actions during a scene — using “during”
      • Writing sensible refusals while the scene progresses
    • Maintaining interest while working on the single problem
      • Designing puzzles with feedback for partial solutions
      • Atmospheric techniques to maintain local color (see Atmosphere)
      • Internal monologue, development of character reaction to situation (see also Viewpoint and Viewpoint character)
    • Scenes with a minimum length where player cannot finish in less than N turns
  • Exploratory scenes
    • Leaving hints and guidance to move the player along (“Entrapment”)
    • Exploration with a specific goal in mind, giving shape to a sequence
      • Descriptions and reactions that reflect what player already knows
      • Tracking what player has seen (perhaps introduce Epistemology extension, “Prague Job”, “Unexamined Life”, “Solitude”)
  • Conversation scenes
    • Switching control between the player and the non-player character
    • Different functions of conversation
    • (Probably would leave the particulars of this until later, since it’s complicated to implement and depends on your conversation model)
  • Ending scenes with a hook
    • Making the final action of a scene important (and something that feeds into the later parts of the game)

Pacing with Puzzles; Puzzle Structure

  • Puzzle pacing vs. scene pacing; concepts of linearity and breadth
  • Geographical puzzles
    • Puzzle types supported by the existing library; standard puzzle design issues
      • locks and keys (chapter 3; Locksmith)
      • Vehicles
      • Characters guarding spaces
      • Light (chapter 3; “descriptions of a dark room” in activities chapter)
    • Designing a map with pacing in mind
  • Research puzzles
    • Making sure the player has learned background before moving on
    • Tie back to “in-game sources of information” above, perhaps
  • Structuring the plot around time blocks in which different things are possible (Anchorhead, Christminster)

Conflict and Motivation

  • Setting goals for the viewpoint character
    • Problems in forcing viewpoint character into one emotional state or another
    • Leaving goals partly open, including some element of choice (not a required feature of a work of IF, but again worth thinking about)
    • Refer back to exposition section for some ways to give a character background history
  • Conflict with self/internal urges (see The Baron, Shrapnel, Rameses)
    • Design issues to do with forcing player action / taking away some player control
    • “try doing x” and other action-forcing gimmicks; cut-scenes
  • Conflict with other characters (see Plundered Hearts, Shadows on the Mirror, Spider and Web, Elysium Enigma)
    • Standard puzzles involving characters blocking player progress; missions for characters
    • Withholding or offering information to characters; struggles over knowledge and information (anticipates stuff about modeling character knowledge, but we’ll get to that later)
    • Modeling characters who are actively working against the player (When in Rome 2; in less simulationist terms, Gourmet)
    • More on conversation later
  • Conflict with the natural environment (see Hunter, in Darkness, I-0)
    • Refer back to use of geography and setting
    • Physical modeling; appropriate degrees of detail; the fine line between fun and frustration
    • Ways to do timed puzzles; “MRE”; background on (deprecated) hunger, sleep, and disorientation/maze puzzles
    • Possible more sophisticated ways to do struggle-against-nature
  • Conflict with a social system or circumstance (see “Wishbringer”, Kaged, Square Circle)
    • Repression as expressed by limitations on player action
    • Use of strongly-reactive other characters who respond rapidly to deviant behaviors
    • Use of frequent (undoable) death as a way to heighten stress; death and afterlife commands in Inform 7

Viewpoint and the Viewpoint Character

  • Characterization
    • Physical description
      • Describing the viewpoint character in response to X ME
      • Giving the viewpoint character appropriate clothes
        • Creating inventory; controlling description within inventory
        • Selecting what to model depending on the focus of the piece, since not every character needs a full set of clothes, but this is sometimes appropriate to have for some characters
      • Abilities
        • Giving viewpoint character appropriate tools and props
        • communicating what the character is and can do from the outset
    • Action refusal messages: what the character won’t do reveals who he is (see Rameses)
      • Using extensions or rules to change the default library messages
    • Room descriptions and character attitude (see Common Ground)
    • Allowing the player to role-play and explore the character
  • Using internal monologue
    • Modeling character’s attitude and discoveries
      • Tracking
      • Representation to the player
        • Triggering internal thoughts automatically
          • Using every turn rules to interject thoughts independently of player action
        • Triggering thoughts as a response to player actions
          • Writing special response/instead rules for special situations
        • Allowing the player to explore mental state interactively
          • Implementing commands involving thought: THINK, REMEMBER; “Merlin” example
          • Writing commands that apply to things that aren’t visible; scope manipulation, representing abstracts
        • Allowing the player to express mental state for the character
          • Implementing common gestures (even if they don’t much affect the surrounding world)
            • KICK, SMILE, FROWN, SHOUT, ETC.
            • Making sure these behave appropriately around other characters — sometimes these may be more trouble than they’re worth
  • Changing the viewpoint character
  • Voice

Other Characters

  • Reactive characters who respond to/notice what the player does
    • “in the presence of” and related rules; “Day for Fresh Sushi” example
    • Physical interaction with characters
      • Standard library actions (KISS, ATTACK, SHOW, GIVE)
      • Combat and action sequences
        • Some problems with randomized combat in IF
        • (May refer back to action-scene stuff earlier)
      • Sex sequences
  • Characterization in absentia
  • Conversation
    • Basic action stuff on conversation
      • Choosing a conversation model for your work
      • How to use ask/tell (chapter on Basic Actions; Conversation Rules extension)
      • How to substitute in TALK TO
      • How to use conversation menus; Simple Chat extension
      • Advanced conversation model design
        • Actions that apply to abstract/otherwise invisible objects; scoping
        • Representing relationships between topics and statements
        • Organizing data with relations and tables; sorting tables; nesting table references
    • Writing good conversation output
      • Giving player topics to follow up on, in ask/tell scenarios; “Chronic Hinting Syndrome”
      • Presenting gesture and attitude of the character
      • “Talking Head Avoidance Device”
        • Involving the surroundings in the conversation
        • Letting the character do minor actions while talking
    • Using scenes to structure conversation
  • Automated character behavior
    • Creating actions for other characters to perform (“Advanced Actions”)
      • Using abstract actions such as “dine” or “fidget” which the code can then resolve into more specific acts (“The Man of Steel”)
      • Goal-seeking (but talk about how this is likely to affect the author’s control over the story; design appropriately)
        • Chaining before rules to produce basic goal-seeking behavior (“IQ Test”, “Boston Cream”)
        • More sophisticated multi-track goal-seeking using Reactive Agent Planner
        • Concept of plot-oriented goal-seeking rather than goal-seeking by NPCs
    • Tracking character knowledge
      • Relations, again, as a way to keep track of things
      • Modeling information that is more than two-way (e.g., knowledge held with degrees of certainty)

16 thoughts on “Inform 7 for the Fiction Author

  1. Emily, this does look like a great outline. Quickly, I’ll just mention two things:

    You’ve emphasized the things that are new in interactive fiction, or what’s new about old story elements when moving into IF. I imagine that if you keep the focus on this in the writing you’ll avoid boring or patronizing your intended readers. For instance, the basic principles of exposition and conflict that you mention are probably well-known to writers — although not how to implement them in IF will not be. You might want to not cover the basic ideas in as much detail as the IF-specific implications of them.

    Your points about puzzles and puzzle structure seem useful but rather low-level, maybe even mechanical. Why not also consider types of puzzles at a higher level than locks and keys, light, vehicles, and so on? There are puzzles that are solved by recognition of what seemingly strange items are, ones that require close examination and detection, and ones that require a sort of almost scientific experimentation, which helps the interactor figure some system, magical or otherwise. Sometimes you also have to be empathetic and aware of human nature to know the right things to ask characters. I don’t know if a good typology of puzzles at this level has been written, but I’m sure that wouldn’t stop you.

    Good luck.

  2. “For instance, the basic principles of exposition and conflict that you mention are probably well-known to writers — although not how to implement them in IF will not be. You might want to not cover the basic ideas in as much detail as the IF-specific implications of them.”

    Right — I wasn’t envisioning this as an opportunity to hold forth about Exposition For Dummies or the like, just a way to organize some common IF techniques so that the reasons for them would be clearer to a non-IF audience.

    “Your points about puzzles and puzzle structure seem useful but rather low-level, maybe even mechanical.”

    The Bates article I link to has somewhat more detailed stuff here, but I confess I’m not entirely happy with how I deal with puzzles in general; there’s much, much more I could say about them, but little of it maps back to conventional fiction. And it’s possible that some authors wouldn’t be interested in that anyway and would prefer to be writing something essentially puzzleless. I’m still thinking about how one might deal with this.

  3. Also, one thing I would add regarding the notion of mapping everything to conventional fiction: when I started discussing these things with Emily, the goal wasn’t so much that these ideas were *only* for writers. Rather, that the techniques of writing could be used (even by non-writers) to put together a quality game.

    In other words, the basis of text-based interactive fiction is telling a story. That story is in the format of a game, but it’s a story nonetheless. Whether a writer of conventional fiction is creating text-based IF or someone who isn’t a writer, what makes a good story a good story often doesn’t differ. What does differ is how things are implemented. Some people who are not writers may not understand exposition or some of the more “basic” elements of the craft of writing.

    I also agree with Nick’s idea of puzzles. Along with an emphasis on second-person, I think the notion of how puzzles are considered in text-based IF has been one of the elements that has stopped people of thinking of the format in terms of true story-telling. A “puzzle” can be centered around figuring out what motivates the protagonist; or what motivates the antagonist; or what kind of world is being explored and how it works.

  4. “In other words, the basis of text-based interactive fiction is telling a story. That story is in the format of a game, but it’s a story nonetheless. Whether a writer of conventional fiction is creating text-based IF or someone who isn’t a writer, what makes a good story a good story often doesn’t differ.”

    To a point. But I hesitate to go too far with this: the interactivity is crucial, and one needs to think about the opportunities it provides. Otherwise, you get things that might have been okay stories if written out on paper but really collapse as IF; and this issue goes beyond what I would call “implementation” (which I associate with coding and low-level design).

    “I think the notion of how puzzles are considered in text-based IF has been one of the elements that has stopped people of thinking of the format in terms of true story-telling. A “puzzle” can be centered around figuring out what motivates the protagonist; or what motivates the antagonist; or what kind of world is being explored and how it works.”

    Well, quite, but my thinking was that it might be better to introduce that kind of interaction differently and not to call it a puzzle at all — that terminology might be offputting to writers and make it harder to think about the story purpose of such sequences, but it also implies that the goal is to challenge the reader and get him stuck; whereas I find that abstract, character-based interactions like this (where we’re trying to figure out character motivation, or the like) need to be designed to be relatively transparent and have multiple success states. That is, from a puzzle design perspective, they should rarely impede progress forward in the story, even if the player finds it more challenging to accomplish one particular outcome.

  5. You mentioned that you had, among other things, work to do for feelies.org. I don’t think anything new has been available on that site for a couple of years, and I’ve been assuming the idea was dead. That had disappointed me, as I still think feelies are cool regardless of the sophistication of electronic graphics that can now be created. Are you planning to resuscitate the effort? Do you sense much interest among IF authors in creating feelies?

  6. (Emily) “But I hesitate to go too far with this: the interactivity is crucial, and one needs to think about the opportunities it provides.”

    Definitely agreed. I just want to make sure that it’s realized that story forms the basis of interaction, rather than the reverse. Readers interact with a novel as well as a film as well as a screenplay as well as a game. The common element there is how the story is presented and the level of interaction that can be accomodated.

    Ultimately, I agree: the emphasis is hopefully on what the particular level of interaction in text-based IF offers to the generic concept of ‘telling a story.’

    (Emily) “Well, quite, but my thinking was that it might be better to introduce that kind of interaction differently and not to call it a puzzle at all — that terminology might be offputting to writers and make it harder to think about the story purpose of such sequences,”

    Agreed. That said, writers are used to thinking in terms of obstacles (or complications). That’s not terribly removed from the notion of a puzzle, at least in terms of the end result for the protagonist (player). Your point is well taken, however, that perhaps this is a distinction that needs to be not only made clear, but made clear in light of the interaction possibilities.

    (Emily) “…but it also implies that the goal is to challenge the reader and get him stuck; whereas I find that abstract, character-based interactions like this (where we’re trying to figure out character motivation, or the like) need to be designed to be relatively transparent and have multiple success states.”

    The ‘challenge the reader’ part I would say is not only implied, it’s necessary; most good fiction does challenge the reader to some extent. The ‘get him stuck’ is where I agree the problem could come in. To a certain extent, the lack of ability of a player to discern motivation of a character should not necessarily stop up the game (any more than a viewer failing to understand a character in a movie stops them watching the film; or the reader of a book failing to grasp the motivations of the protagonist). *This* is where I see the interaction coming into play; the skillful (game/story) writer has to utilize the interaction such that people can progress through the game/story at various points, even when they don’t have the ‘full picture’ as it were.

    (Emily) “That is, from a puzzle design perspective, they should rarely impede progress forward in the story, even if the player finds it more challenging to accomplish one particular outcome.”

    Yup. Had I just finished your sentence first I could have avoided typing out the above. :) In essence, I totally agree.

  7. Re feelies.org: We’re not exactly going to resuscitate it quite as it was, but a streamlined version: we had a few years of running it and observing the successes and hiccups (of which there were quite a few — the idea of producing stuff to order sounds better than it actually is in practice). At this point I think it would be better run on an easier model with one person doing inventory and fulfillment but not actually producing anything, while the authors create packets and supply them. We have a fulfillment volunteer who is not me — also important because I travel too much to do this very well. And we have been talking about updating the website with simpler instructions for authors, and bringing it back to the attention of RAIF; I think there are a bunch of people out there who aren’t even aware of it. But to answer your original question: yes, there are some authors I know of interested in supplying new packets.

  8. (Jeff) “Definitely agreed. I just want to make sure that it’s realized that story forms the basis of interaction, rather than the reverse.”

    Well — you want to make sure that more people approach IF creation in this way, with the result (you hope) that they will produce works that you find more aesthetically satisfying and which respond to similar kinds of critical analysis as books and movies do. (At least, so I read your arguments so far.) This is an understandable wish, but it’s not a *fact* about IF design that story has primacy over interaction; plenty of IF is done differently, and I would argue that plenty of that is valid, enjoyable, and even artistic work in its own way.

    It may be that story needs to be primary if the work of IF is to succeed as storytelling; but I would hesitate to say even that, or at least to say it in that way. In my experience, the story to be told and the interaction design have to be done together; the *how* of storytelling does affect *what* can be told. Which might seem damning to the medium, except I think the same is true for film and to some extent the novel as well. There are some things that cannot be shown; there are others that are quite hard to describe in words. There are certainly things that cannot be put on stage. Yet this hasn’t stopped some quite fantastic stories being told in dramatic form. In any case, the concept of some abstract, ideal narrative that can be rendered up in different media — with different techniques but without substantial intrinsic change — is essentially bogus.

    I’m also not completely convinced that it’s useful to talk about novels and films being “interactive” in the same way that IF is interactive. I agree that the experience taken from any given piece depends partly on the reader/viewer; that to understand a work we need to think about differences between the social context of production and the social context of reception; that the reaction of a live audience has subtle but important effects on the way something plays on stage. But the interaction in IF is qualitatively as well as quantitatively different, and ignoring that fact will tend (IMO) to lead to bad design.

    To get back to something you said in an earlier comment: “how authors can write IF” (which is what your focus group/class experiences were pointing at) is *not* going to be the same kind of text as “how IF authors can write in a more literary way” or “how IF authors can tell better stories”.

    There’s some overlap of content, sure, but in the first case I would not expect to explain what exposition is or how (in general) it can be done well; in the second case, I would not expect to explain what an object description is or introduce, as though it were a novelty, the idea that the player can discover back-story through exploration.

    Anyway! If I seem faintly resistant, it’s not because I’m against the idea that there is a lot more storytelling potential in IF than we’ve yet seen. I disagree with you that the second person issue is as critical as you think, but this is a detail. Like you, I would be interested to see more contributions to IF from experienced authors of conventional fiction. But (and we haven’t seen much of this lately, but it certainly happened some in the commercial era) the IF historically written by conventional authors has often been less than successful, largely because they didn’t understand how interactivity bends the way you tell a story. We’ve learned a lot in this department. Though it’s uncommon to lay out IF techniques in terms of the ways they serve storytelling goals, almost none of what I put in that outline is really *new*: it’s merely a reorganization of things we’ve tried and discussed, in some cases over the course of many years.

  9. (Emily) “This is an understandable wish, but it’s not a *fact* about IF design that story has primacy over interaction;”

    I agree. I more meant to say that regardless of the role of interaction, story-telling is what often matters. Now, granted, if you’re writing a game that’s meant as an “abuse” or as an artistic creation (such as a one room example or a “one move” game) perhaps that element of story telling doesn’t matter. But games like “Anchorhead” or “1893” work because the interaction works as part of the story itself. Or, at least, that’s my contention. All the interaction in the world won’t save a game that has a horrible story. That’s another contention of mine.

    I think the fact that so many such games do exist in text-based IF, and are still played, where a similar such novel would have been discarded, is because they don’t face the crucible of fire that exists for novels, movies or retail games.

    (Emily) “…plenty of IF is done differently, and I would argue that plenty of that is valid, enjoyable, and even artistic work in its own way.”

    Most definitely agreed. Even in novel writing or film-making you’ll see various ways of doing things. Of course, in all those ways its a variation on telling a story. What that telling does is force the reader/viewer to interact in a different way with the work. (That interaction, for example, can be emotional involvement; it can be intellectual involvement [solving puzzles], etc.)

    Again, though, if the goal of a given text-based IF is *not* to tell a story (or, at least, not anything cohesive that you could call a story), then everything I’m talking about is moot. I’m not sure how many people are striving for that kind of thing as a general rule. I’m guessing that the goal of many is to tell a story. And, again, if one possible goal is to widen out the appeal of text-based IF and a system like Inform 7, those people who come to it are mostly going to be doing so with the intention of telling a story. (In my experience, only those who have a great deal of experience start worrying about being overly artistic for its own sake or pushing the envelope, as it were.)

    (Emily) “I’m also not completely convinced that it’s useful to talk about novels and films being ‘interactive’ in the same way that IF is interactive. …. the interaction in IF is qualitatively as well as quantitatively different, and ignoring that fact will tend (IMO) to lead to bad design.”

    I do agree that the interactivity as it manifests is different; I don’t think there’s any doubt of that. The interactivity of a film is different than that of a book and both are different than what you would get on a stage play.

    Yet, if you look at game development for various types of games (whether those be RPGs or first-person shooters or graphical adventures), many companies do follow many of the same ideas that are taken from the craft of novel writing, the craft of screenplay or film writing, etc. Everyone knows the interaction is different with a game; but those other areas (that work to tell a story) can inform some aspects of what it means to create a compelling game. Yeah, games like “Tetris” don’t have to worry about this. But games like “Sam and Max” do.

    The point here is that the one way the various media are interactive in the *same way* is getting the reader/viewer engaged. Each media has to consider what that means given its own constraints. That’s where your qualitative and quantitative differences come in. But, to me, if you don’t have the basics of how to tell a story or present a story, it really doesn’t matter what level of interaction a given medium provides you.

    (Emily) “To get back to something you said in an earlier comment: ‘how authors can write IF’ (which is what your focus group/class experiences were pointing at) is *not* going to be the same kind of text as ‘how IF authors can write in a more literary way’ or ‘how IF authors can tell better stories’.”

    Just to be sure: the goal wasn’t so much “how authors can write IF.” Rather, it was how what authors *do* (effective storytelling) can inform the creation of works of text-based IF that might give it some wider appeal or get other groups (writers being just one of them) interested. So, for me, it is more about “how IF authors can tell better stories” by being better informed of what makes a good story; what things are done well in other media that also tell a story; how those ideas can be translated into a medium that has a different form of interaction model but that — in many cases — still seeks to tell a story that engages the reader.

    *Then* — and in parallel — tying that in with how someone could learn a system like Inform 7 and apply those techniques in light of the interaction possibilities that are allowed to the reader/player.

    One of Inform’s contentions is that it’s a tool for “writers intrigued by computing.” I wanted to put that to the test. In doing so, I realized that regardless of whether or not that claim held up, those who have studied writing and practiced it can, perhaps, help understand how text-based IF systems can be designed or how text-based IF games can be produced.

    (Emily) “Anyway! If I seem faintly resistant, it’s not because I’m against the idea that there is a lot more storytelling potential in IF than we’ve yet seen.”

    Not a problem! I’m glad you’re resistant in the sense that you’re forcing me to think. I’m no expert. I’m just a guy trying to put various and sundry observations together into a cohesive whole that may or may not have any relevance on the craft of writing text-based IF.

    (Emily) “I disagree with you that the second person issue is as critical as you think, but this is a detail.”

    Understood. For me, I definitely think this is crucial but leave open the very real possibility that I’m chasing a unicorn here. My reasons about second-person extend to just about every form of art out there that tells a story, including other game formats (which also deal with the same interaction differences as text-based IF).

    As an exercise, I’ve taken scenes from movies or chapters from books and re-written them in the second person just to see what it sounds like. I’ve done likewise for scenes in games like “The Longest Journey”, “Dreamfall”, etc. It’s an enlightening exercise that I recommend people take. I’ve also taken examples of text-based IF and rewritten portions of those games in third- and first-person. In all cases, I just wanted to see how things “sounded.” Again, though, all this means nothing but I just throw this out there by way of explanation in case it seems that I’m unnecessarily focusing on one element that I haven’t given consideration to.

    (Emily) “…the IF historically written by conventional authors has often been less than successful, largely because they didn’t understand how interactivity bends the way you tell a story.”

    Okay, and that’s a good distinction … but note there that you’re basically (I think) saying what I was indicating as well.

    I agree about the interaction. It’s crucial. But it’s a means to an end. The end is telling your story in a way that engages the reader/player so that they keep reading and/or playing.

    This is exactly what I found were the conceptual hang-ups in the class I was teaching: how do I use this interaction to *tell the story that I want to tell?* Notice the focus was on the story, but the recognition was that the interaction was a crucial element to allowing that.

    (Emily) “…almost none of what I put in that outline is really *new*: it’s merely a reorganization of things we’ve tried and discussed, in some cases over the course of many years.”

    Maybe this is what I’m missing. I really haven’t seen this focus at all, even on the newsgroup. I’ve read “theories” of text-based IF and debates on “simulationist vs. narration models” but I’ve rarely seen anything that people can truly *use* to consider how story and interaction work together to provide a satisfying experience. I’ve seen discussions of whether or not you should have bathrooms, whether sleep and feeding should be incorporated, how to intelligently deny a player’s actions, etc. I’ve seen discussions about “more intelligent NPCs” but nothing concrete about what it means for an NPC to have character or motivation and how that could be manifested to a player as part of the interaction.

    But I haven’t seen a resource that someone could read and say “okay, here’s some ideas of how I can use the unique aspects of interaction that text-based IF provides to create a compelling story within my game.” The emphasis seems to be on the granular interaction (should the toilets in my game flush?) rather than on interaction+story, which is what I think you were indicating earlier.

    So my overall argument is that a different approach is needed to present text-based IF so that interaction+story is considered more.

  10. (Jeff) “But games like “Anchorhead” or “1893″ work because the interaction works as part of the story itself.”

    I might buy this for “Anchorhead”, but the story in “1893” was, I found, pretty much a disposable framework for the real business of the game, which was to explore the massive and thoroughly-documented environment of the Fair. This is one reason why the game worked much better in its photograph-augmented commercial version. Now, curiously, “1893” has been the most successful commercially-sold IF of the modern era, which seems to argue against the idea that strongly story-oriented IF is the only kind likely to be palatable beyond the confines of the amateur community. (I’m leaving Mr. Sherman out of my calculations here because his sales figures have never been publicly released and because I have never played one of his for-sale works. I have played one of his competition games, though, and I would characterize it as being more puzzle-oriented than story-oriented.)

    (Jeff) “I think the fact that so many such games do exist in text-based IF, and are still played, where a similar such novel would have been discarded, is because they don’t face the crucible of fire that exists for novels, movies or retail games… Again, though, if the goal of a given text-based IF is *not* to tell a story (or, at least, not anything cohesive that you could call a story), then everything I’m talking about is moot. I’m not sure how many people are striving for that kind of thing as a general rule.”

    Lots of people are interested in writing and playing IF whose principal goal is to amuse (by providing witty feedback to actions) and challenge (through puzzles), and find a narrative focus to be of secondary value at best, distracting at worst. These people often post in other forums than rec.arts.int-fiction, which does, I think, have values closer to what you suggest, as a prevailing culture. But that’s partly because another sub-culture has mostly given up on the newsgroup as a place to communicate. A recent IF-List post by Ben Parrish is illustrative:

    One reason I lost interest and never found it again with any sort of
    fervency was that most of the games produced by the modern IF
    community seemed to me to fall into categories like:

    1. Badly done games.
    2. Joke games.
    3. “Clever” games, trying to take the medium in a new,
    more sophisticated direction.
    4. Games trying like heck to tell an emotionally resonant story (see
    other thread).

    The one category that I think IF can actually succeed in (and if you
    look back to the Infocom days, already has) is this oft-forgotten one:

    5. Fun.

    There is no blame here. When I toy with the idea of writing a game,
    my first thoughts always go to “I want to really *say* something with
    this game! I want to transcend all concepts of what IF can be! I
    want to leave the player an emotional wreck, having forced him to look
    at his life… and the universe… in an entirely new way!”

    But ultimately, a game like that is generally going to suck…

    And similarly numerous posts on the ADRIFT forum, SPAG reviews that start off with some variation of “I’m sick of so-called literary IF, so I was relieved to play this genuine text adventure…”, the occasional posts on the newsgroup from people who find the term “interactive fiction” insufferably pretentious, and so on. These people aren’t trolls (well, most of them aren’t); they just happen to have a different perspective on what the medium has to offer and/or what they enjoy in it, and they’re often irritated when other members of the community try to redefine IF so as to discourage authors writing the kinds of games they want to play. A thorough discussion of this schism, and how it’s affecting the community, would probably need a post of its own. Suffice it to say that while I find some of the rhetoric a bit excessive, I do sort of understand what they’re getting at. A well-made text adventure in the sense that they mean — one whose puzzles fit together precisely and are well-implemented, one that challenges and amuses — takes non-trivial craftsmanship, and often has real aesthetic merit. It’s just not narrative merit. While I’m interested in seeing IF explore further what can be done with interactive story-telling, I still enjoy a game like the recently recommended “Adventurer’s Consumer Guide”, and I would be sorry to see such things cease to be produced.

    (Jeff) “Just to be sure: the goal wasn’t so much “how authors can write IF.” Rather, it was how what authors *do* (effective storytelling) can inform the creation of works of text-based IF that might give it some wider appeal or get other groups (writers being just one of them) interested.”

    That may have been something that it was your goal to explore, but when you settle into the details of the responses of the writers, you’re (functionally) addressing the question of how to educate them. *My* contention is that there are (at least) two resources that could be written here, an IF-techniques-for-those-who-know-narrative resource and a narrative-techniques-for-those-who-know-IF resource. The outline of these might be much alike, but the text would not be.

    (Jeff) “I agree about the interaction. It’s crucial. But it’s a means to an end. The end is telling your story in a way that engages the reader/player so that they keep reading and/or playing.”

    Not necessarily. I can believe that’s how your group of writers came to it, but there’s heavy selection bias here; and the argument that these writers would produce better story-oriented IF than the rest of us is (with all due respect) still unproven. It may be true, but we’re at an early stage of the experiment. They haven’t done anything that we could point at and say, “whoa, check it out, finally someone who really knows how to tell a story has come to our medium!” It is possible, certainly, and I sympathize with Graham’s intention to at least try appealing to these people in the form of Inform 7, though my own interest in the language has more to do with its power and ease of use in other respects. (Not everyone finds it so. Fine. That’s yet another different argument.)

    Anyway, to pick this apart a little, your sentence has a couple of assumptions rolled into it. One is that the reader/player will keep participating only if his attention is drawn in by story rather than by any other aspect; this is demonstrably false for the audience as a whole, though it may be true for specific players. Another, subtler assumption (if I’m reading you right) is that interaction is mostly good for adding entertainment value to the story, or as a novelty, a “fun new form” for the craft of story-telling. I don’t think that that’s true. I put exploration, complicity, moral choice, etc. under “what interaction adds to narrative” at the top of the list because IF lets you do things with story-telling that are simply not possible in novels or films.

    There are several aspects of this.

    One is that IF tends to shift certain parts of the story out of a linear structure, with the result that a person summarizing the plot of a piece of IF will come up with something very much shorter than they would find for a novel of the equivalent number of words. Granted, some of those words are narratively insignificant matter, such as generic library responses to unimportant actions, which are there mostly to contain the player while directing his interactive energy elsewhere. But (in most story-oriented IF) by far the majority of them go to provide context — to hint at aspects of the viewpoint character’s personality, to convey information about the world in which the story takes place, to fill in the background of the story. In a novel, some of this might be better shown through short scenes, flashbacks, anecdotes about characters/history/institutions, or other elements that could be structured as events and perceived as plot. (Obviously novels also make use of viewpoint character attitude and so on. I’m just talking about where the majority of the words are going.) In IF that same information is diffused through the environment and made available to the player by exploration. The artistically cool thing is the way this allows an author to write a story whose backstory is developed in some proportion with the player’s interest therein. Not every piece of IF capitalizes on this to the same degree, but the potential is there. It’s possible through gating mechanisms (such as puzzles, structured map design, scenes that occur automatically at certain points, or even programmatic tracking of what the player knows) to make sure that the player does encounter all the pieces of information that the author requires him to know, so this doesn’t put all exposition on an optional footing by any means. Still, the possibility is there.

    We’ve also seen, and this has been discussed a good deal more, how the player’s participation in driving IF forward changes the way events are received. This is the complicity issue; and it can make a powerful IF experience out of something that would be much less interesting as a static story. The IF Art Show’s recent Rendition is a gesture in this direction. I didn’t find it as compelling as some people have, largely because it didn’t strike me as being much besides an exercise in testing player complicity; it would have been a more effective test if I had been more interested in it, if I had been tempted to keep playing. As it was, after a move or two I wasn’t terribly curious to see more of the piece, so had no incentive to combat my natural urge to quit.

    Choice and role-playing are even more theoretically contested, but there are un/underexplored possibilities remaining here as well. What we’ve seen so far, though, is enough to suggest that giving the player a choice requires quite rigorous interaction design: the player has to perceive that the choice exists and be aware of his options (or, if he’s not aware of the full set of options, at least to be conscious that he can strive for different oucomes in the game); the commands issued in the game have to relate somewhat fluidly to the choice being made, or the result feels stiff and choose-your-own-adventure-like; narratively uninteresting choices (“quit my job as an assassin and become a social worker”) have to be avoided or deftly closed off. In my experience, IF with a well-designed choice may actually produce a more compelling experience — more memorable, and perceived as higher-quality — than IF with an important choice. As Stephen Bond is fond of pointing out, the premise of Slouching Towards Bedlam is basically silly, the critical decision difficult to wrap your mind around, and any moral question pretty far removed from what any real person is ever likely to encounter. Where the piece succeeds is in making that choice smooth and accessible to the player. Would the results be better still if the fundamental decision were more plausible and more relevant? Quite possibly. But I’ve seen IF with more plausible, relevant questions that didn’t seem interesting because the choice was ill-defined, or because the interaction was too mechanical. This is the most often-cited flaw in “Floatpoint”.

    Making good use of interactive possibilities requires the author to distinguish between the experience he wants to convey and the plot structure backing that experience. I might, possibly, be willing to call this a distinction between narrative (=plot) and story (=experience), but I think theorists of narrative would wince. Some day I need to finish reading and review Marie-Laure Ryan’sAvatars of Story, which does the best job I’ve seen so far of laying out terminology for narrative that is actually useful for discussions of interactive storytelling.

    In any case, this experience != the plot. This is demonstrated pretty clearly whenever someone tries to rewrite a piece of static fiction as interactive fiction: very often the results are ineffective when the author tries too hard to recreate all the events of the original. The setting often feels thin and underimplemented, and even when the author makes some effort to flesh it out, it’s usually obvious that this is just meticulous window-dressing, because there’s no important role for these doggedly-written object descriptions other than to satisfy a player who insists on examining the scenery. Gameplay is often railroaded. The motivation of the main character and the motivation of the player rarely converge. This is something you can partly fudge over by putting the IF into first- or third-person, but there remains a problem anyway: if the player’s goals in playing the work do not produce any interesting tension with the viewpoint character’s goals in the narrative, the result is going to be a little awkward, a little flat. This doesn’t mean that they have to be the same goal — the player may actively be rooting against the viewpoint character, or struggling to do what the PC doesn’t want to do, as has been explored in Varicella, Rameses, LASH, Shrapnel, and quite a few others. But there needs to be some kind of productive tension or the whole thing starts to feel as though I-the-player am just an organ-grinding monkey — turning a crank to make the prose come out. I suspect this is one of the major things that turns people off about certain nominally story-focused IF. If one is going to be in the position of going through arbitrary, author-determined steps in order to move the IF forward, it’s more fun if those steps at least involve the fun of a challenging puzzle; the result isn’t a better story, but at least the experience has got something else going for it.

    I’ve seen the same problems occur when someone sets out to do storytelling in IF with the idea that this means a) designing a plot suitable for static fiction and then b) implementing this scene by scene in interactive form. When I read some of what you write, I worry that you might be intending authors to approach IF this way. I do not think it is a productive route to finding IF’s true value as an art form. Personally, I think it’s more useful to consider the overall experience as a fusion of story and interaction.

    (Jeff) “Maybe this is what I’m missing. I really haven’t seen this focus at all, even on the newsgroup… I’ve rarely seen anything that people can truly *use* to consider how story and interaction work together to provide a satisfying experience.”

    Sure. But the thing is that all of these techniques I lined up have been developed, partly in aid of interactive storytelling, whether or not anyone out there so organized them.

  11. Regarding feelies.org, I’d like to say that if you sold IF-related t-shirts (and I mean funny t-shirts, like the ones at the ELER shop, only about IF people or game characters, like Tracy Valencia, for example), I’d definitely buy one. Or more.

    And regarding the puzzles issue, I agree with Jeff. Puzzles are a tool to make the story advance. It would be lame to think of them as levels in old arcade games. In that respect puzzles are fundamental for IF. Without them there is no real Interactive Fiction. The only reason why some literary pieces of IF are so renowned is because they are entertaining to read, but they do a really bad use of the medium.

    I have told this story many times (I can’t promise this will be the last one, though), but it’s still a good example of what I try to say. A couple of years ago I was writing a game in colaboration. The game started with the PC being chased by the police through the backstreets of some unknown city. After escaping, he goes to his secret place to take his heroin dose (the PC was a drug addict), but he is so nervous and so anxious that he can’t find his syringe, so he has to look around for it with the added difficulty of being increasingly nervous and anxious and hallucinated.

    Both puzzles, individually addressed, were lame. They were a maze and a find-the-key puzzle, respectively. (The oldest tricks in the book, so to speak.) But they worked because they were so incardinated in the story that they were almost invisible, which should be, in my opinion, the goal of all IF puzzles. The games I like the most have this structure: One puzzle after another. That, at the very least, keeps things challenging and entertaining. And if done right, they make the story advance smoothly.

  12. Pingback: More I7 Resources « dis-lexia glob

  13. Pingback: Hammer, Saw, Wrench « Jim Aikin’s Oblong Blob

  14. Pingback: Complicity: Building Interactive Narratives | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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