iPhone IF and CYOA

Two applications in the new iPhone App store caught my attention particularly: an implementation of Advent (already discussed some on RAIF), and what looked like an educational Choose Your Own Adventure book (or similar) called “The Battle of Waterloo” (from TouchTomes, by Graham Perks and Elizabeth Jones).

They’re both seriously disappointing. Advent is, I think, basically a case study in how to do an interactive fiction interface wrong on the iPhone. There’s no scrollback. The background images (of cave interiors, your feet, whatever) are distracting. The creators haven’t leveraged the game dictionary to provide helpful autocomplete for commands — something that should be possible and would make command entry considerably less laborious on this platform. Overall, yuk.

“The Battle of Waterloo” is indeed a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and is as unpredictable and surreal as the original series. Some of the outcomes lead to swift military outcomes (so swift, in fact, that it’s hard to get a clear sense of what is going on in the battle). But there are also inexplicably horror/paranormal outcomes, which make it seem more arbitrary and less like historical re-enactment. Add to that an assortment of typos and punctuation errors, badly written dialogue, maps too tiny to read (but which you can’t zoom into), and a maze for pity’s sake — and what you get is essentially a mess, something that reflects almost none of what we’ve learned in the last several decades about interactive storytelling or multimedia education.

On the positive side: I do find the iPhone screen big enough to read comfortably. There’s room for good stuff to be done for this platform. It just hasn’t happened yet.

6 thoughts on “iPhone IF and CYOA

  1. So, is it possible to get any application you want onto an iPhone, or can you only do it through the iPhone App store? If the latter, what is the policy for inclusion in this store–who gets to decide whether you may distribute your software, and based on what criteria?

    Because of Apple’s recent history–especially their bizarre attempts to make sure that only their own software can communicate with iPods–I am very suspicious about any new Apple product; and I wouldn’t be surprised if (a) only programs on the iPhone App store can be installed on an iPhone, and (b) you have absolutely no rights or guarantees as a developer about your software being put on the iPhone App store and being kept there. If these suspicions are right, and let’s hope they’re wrong, then I doubt good stuff will be done on this platform.

  2. I’m pretty sure it’s more restrictive than you’d like — I seem to recall from the last Steve Jobs keynote that it’s possible to distribute applications outside the App store, but only to small, pre-approved groups of people. (They seem to be envisioning, for instance, a professor sharing an app with a class of students, and absolutely not an open source app movement.)

    Apple does have an approval process for what goes into the App store; I don’t know the details of this.

    Personally, I don’t think this is likely to supplant other locations and methods for distributing IF; in particular, I agree that it would be a large investment of faith to create new IF specifically for the iPhone without any certainty that it would be (and remain) distributable in the long run. But then if we’re talking about putting Z-/Glulx interpreters on the iPhone, it’s not as though things written for the platform need be inaccessible to the rest of the world.

    However: there is at the moment an audience of people hungry for new stuff to play on their new machines. I see that as a possible outreach opportunity; just not one that I have the technical skills to make use of myself.

  3. I suppose that a lot depends on the approval structure. If you can get your application approved before you actually write it, people will be more inclined to invest their time in actually making it happen. The prospect of spending 100 hours coding up a Z-code interpreter for the iPhone and then finding out that Apple won’t allow you to distribute it doesn’t sound very enticing. :)

    Also, I wonder how this would work with interpreters. If you allow an interpreter on the IPhone, and you allow this to interpret any and all files of the correct format, then you have basically opened up the platform. (Except for memory limitations, even Z-code is, I believe, Turing-complete.) Since the whole philosophy behind the device seems to be not to open up the platform, Apple might not be willing to go that way.

  4. How long the interpreter would take, I don’t know — there is, after all, already a version of Frotz for jailbroken phones, and Andrew Hunter seems to have had at least partial success working on a Zoom implementation (though I really can’t guess how far that got). But it’s possible that for the right programmer with the right experience or pre-existing technology, this isn’t a 100-hour project.

    On the second point, I see what you mean, but the presence of ebook readers on the app store makes me think that the interpreter-for-free-added-files model might not be off-limits. While the Z-machine is Turing complete, it is pretty hard to imagine z-code “game files” able to run fast enough and attractive enough to compete with their non-IF applications.

  5. To me, I think this is missing the point a little — the easier way to get IF onto iPhones is to make an interpreter that works with Safari. Parchment and GlkOte seem promising… between the two projects, I feel like something solid is going to arise.

    Once that’s in place, you don’t have to sweat getting approval etc. — you just have people navigate to a URL. It is true that you get a certain amount of publicity for having a listing on the App Store, but I don’t think your average author is going to care enough to go through the approval process.

  6. the easier way to get IF onto iPhones is to make an interpreter that works with Safari

    Maaaybe. I suspect an iPhone-optimized terp could be a much smoother experience, though, because things like screen space usage, customized shortcuts for typing, etc., become so important on the phone.

    It is true that you get a certain amount of publicity for having a listing on the App Store, but I don’t think your average author is going to care enough to go through the approval process.

    Your average author, almost certainly not. We could probably get a small collection of good stuff out there, though, especially if the community made a concerted effort, and/or someone with a developer’s license were willing to shepherd some things through the process.

    I feel guilty blue-skying too much about this, given that it is not something I can arrange myself. But yeah, I’d say my interest here is about 20% wanting to be able to play IF myself on my iPhone and about 80% interest in raising the IF profile in another venue.

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