A couple of weekends ago I went to Phrontisterion 7, a living-room-sized conference on interactive storytelling run by Chris Crawford at his home in Oregon. Participant comments from that are now available.
For context for people who weren’t there: it was a really wide-ranging discussion about what projects currently exist in interactive storytelling and how/how well they work (Saturday) followed by forward-looking stuff about what to do next (Sunday). On Saturday, we talked about (among other things) Prom Week and Storybricks, Storyteller, LA Noire, Chris’ plans for Storytron 2.0, StoryNexus, ChoiceScript, and the project that I’m working on for Linden Lab. Though there weren’t formal presentations on these items, people also talked a bit about conventional interactive fiction, and about Varytale and StoryDeck.
Sunday was directed more at the question of “well, what next?” — and that was a more challenging discussion, one that I think frequently frustrated Chris. We generally agreed that we’re not trying to reproduce the Holodeck as such, at least not in its full technicolor, surround-sound, smell-o-vision glory, and quite possibly not in most of its other aspects either. I may possibly have gone on a short rant on the value of text, darn it, you know, with words, and how text is not inherently a second-class citizen and a cheap substitute for the greater expressivity of visuals. (Visuals are cool, and if there were to be a Holodeck that could conjure up a 3D immersive sensory experience, you bet I would want to try that thing out for sure. But. The art I personally want to create is made of language.)
Sunday afternoon involved a fair amount of argument, and I think, if Chris will forgive me, this is because he was looking for an agreement that all existing forms of interactive storytelling are failures and that we should be jointly pursuing a particular grail, a particular type of engine and storytelling experience. But this is much too extreme a position for me to sign on with. A lot of really interesting interactive storytelling has already been done, though the media are all still in their infancy; there are many valuable directions to pursue in the future. Eventually that conversation turned, more mundanely but perhaps with greater clarity, to the question of how interactive storytelling can work as a commercial enterprise.
But all this arguing did help refine my thinking about something else.
Chris more or less explicitly invited me to argue for a bold future of wealth and success for traditional IF, and I declined to do so: I don’t see parsed IF ceasing to be a niche product with a small dedicated audience. That audience is larger than most of the IF community tends to realize, and we’ve made some excellent progress on accessibility and outreach in the last few years. But it’s still on the scale of these things small. The parser is just too much of an accessibility challenge, and we haven’t found a way to obliterate that; and I think we’re not going to change it completely any time in the near future.
Several people have asked me recently whether I’ve “switched to” writing CYOA, in the wake of Bee, and in light of my previous comments about the parser; to which the answer is no, I really haven’t. I still have parsed IF works in progress. I’m also doing things that are neither parsed IF nor CYOA. I have another project that’s interactive epistolary story, for instance.
What has changed is simply this: I have more access to more different tools now. There are a lot of projects done in traditional IF languages that are a poor fit for the traditional world model or the traditional parser or both — but IF tools are out there and they have cross-platform support and they’re supported by a community and a history, and maybe the tools that are really suited to some of the things people want to write just don’t exist yet.
I say that despite the proliferation of CYOA-plus-world-state tools we’ve seen in the past year or three: Undum, Varytale, ChoiceScript, StoryNexus, inklewriter, Bloomengine, and the gamebook mode for Quest, as well as the proprietary software underlying Coliloquy and the Take Control books, going alongside older platforms like Adventure Book and Twine and probably dozens of smaller, more fiddly CYOA tools that have passed by over the years. Some of those tools do pretty lightweight variable tracking, some allow for richer math, some have randomization, some explicitly track inventory or have a room-based world model instead of being narrative-node-based. So we’ve got a lot of options if we want to write that general kind of thing.
But that’s not all there could be in the text-plus-some-underlying-model space.
For instance: what about an engine suited to text-based resource management games like Olivia’s Orphanorium? The text output was essential to the flavor and intent of that game, but the text input was often cumbersome and repetitive. A CYOA-ish ability to click actions might have worked better, but there was a lot more back-end simulation going on than CYOA engines typically handle. I constantly see people on the intfiction forums asking questions about how to write games with stats tracking and character creation and heavy simulationist features of this kind, and yet very few such games ever make it to release. Could that mean there’s an authorial desire here but not adequate tool support? Maybe the ideal tool looks like Inform/TADS/whatever + a clickable, lightly graphical Vorple front end, but maybe it looks like something totally new and custom-rolled.
There are multiple other directions I can imagine the text story/game toolset going, but as I am working on some of them myself, I’m not going to tout those before they’re ready. And obviously there are directions I haven’t thought of either.
But someone is going to think of them, and soon. To come back to the commercial question, there’s money here. There’s also artistic potential. I have my doubts about the salability of the parser, but none about the rest of the IF package. Text-based interactive stories using some sort of state tracking or world model? There’s a huge future for those, the forms that exist are already making money, we’ve only barely scratched the surface of the possibilities, and there are vast tracts of unexplored terrain in this vicinity.
I’m not trying to bury old-school IF, and I’m not abandoning Inform. (Believe it or not, work on the next release is ongoing; just slowly, slowly, behind the walls.)
I just think there are so many things people have been trying to accomplish by arm-wrestling the parser or world model in a traditional IF engine, that could be done better by other means.
(ETA: Immediately after posting this initially, I ran across this new interview by Zarf, in which he argues — as he has at more length in the IF Theory Reader — that the parser and the ambiguity it creates is the core, the fundamental mechanic, of IF. And that’s a fair way of looking at it, if not exactly mine. But if one accepts Zarf’s definition of what IF is, I would say that I am interested in a lot of things that are not IF but taxonomically adjacent to it.)
A small postscript, speaking of ideas about interactive story: here’s a cool article from Robert Yang comparing Varytale and specifically the structure of Bee to the rule-based dialogue work presented by Elan Ruskin at GDC 2012: both are looking for the most specific event they can trigger. I hadn’t thought of that line of comparison myself before.