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Friday, October 1, 2010

Why I Love Interactive Fiction

Hello! I'm back! Yeah, I know. So much for blogging on a daily or even weekly basis, huh? But I've been pretty busy at work during the day and pretty busy working on this show during the evenings, so... yeah. But I promise for the upcoming month I plan to post on a regular basis and to focus my posts (mostly) on a particular topic which brings me to the subject of this post: 

I love Interactive Fiction.

What is Interactive Fiction, you ask? Well, mostly it's a particular medium of computer games originating in the late 70's early 80's that is entirely text based. Classic titles, like Zork, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and this awesome Sherlock Holmes Infocom game I spent MONTHS playing when I was in the fifth grade. The conceit is pretty simple: You're presented with a piece of text and then a prompt. Let's take an example from Savoir-Faire by Emily Short after the jump...

Kitchen Garden
West is the wall of the kitchen. Most of the space along the wall is planted with herbs -- bay, parsley, stalks of mint -- left of the open doorway. To its right is only a drainage ditch, catching the outflow of a pipe that comes through the wall.
In one corner of the plot is the well, drilled many deep feet; in another is the antique sundial.
A tangle of climbing roses covers almost completely the wall and door of a shed to the southeast.

That little triangle is a prompt, which theoretically allows you to type anything you'd like in it. I say theoretically because in reality these kind of "games" generally only understand a limited set of commands. Things like "look at sundial" or "take rose" or "ask the drainage ditch about the parsley". Granted that last command would probably work better with an animate object, but you never know!

Some people I've tried to get to play these games are discouraged by the perceived lack of interactivity. After all, they assume every action they can think of should be implemented, and they get discouraged when not everything they type gets a suitable response. But it's important to remember when playing these games that there's only so much the writer can program. Even the most implemented games (I'm thinking Blue Lacuna and Violet) can't think of everything the player would want to do. It's a stumbling block of the genre but one you get quickly used to after a while.
The evil Purple tentacle from Day of the Tentacle

My mom got me started on these type of games. She poo-pooed my love of the graphic adventure games I was such a fan of as a kid (think Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle (which are awesome by the by)). To her, those games were equivalent to comic books, or illustrated children's novels. Like serious literature, the only images used in serious computer games were the ones created by your own mind.

And I think, at the most basic level, that's the biggest reason why I love these kind of games. They can create an atmosphere and story that I think would be impossible in any other kind of medium. There's something delicious about finding yourself in a fully and beautifully described world and getting yourself lost in it, just like getting lost in a Dickens novel. 

I have to admit, that some of my favorite games are big sprawling pieces (of which there aren't too many) that you can get completely lost in. I would highly recommend Worlds Apart, but even shorter works can easily do the trick. Try Shade by Andrew Plotkin, which is a superb example of mounting surrealism and dread.

I've been a fan for quite a while, and have played the games from the IF Comp since I was a teenager, back in 1998. My only quasi-successful play was based on an idea I originally conceived of as a work of IF (that's an acronym, I'll let you figure out what it means). But I never was much of a programmer, and even though I dabbled a bit with Inform 6, one of several programming languages, after college, I never created anything substantial enough to show anyone else. 

Part of my problem is that my ideas are always preposterously ambitious. The only game I've written, Party Foul, was aided considerably because by the definition of the competition rules, the game world was limited to a small space and I only had two months to write it. Despite batting around a couple ideas for this years IF Comp, I couldn't start anything that wasn't insanely out of my skill level. (though frankly, Part Foul was insanely out of my skill level and I only got through it with extremely inelegant coding and an awful lot of help from these folks).

But the good news is that since I didn't submit anything, I can write about the submissions instead, which is what I plan on doing for the next month. When I entered the JIG competition last winter, I cherished reading any reviews I could find, not just of my own work but of the other (really good! (mostly)) pieces in the race. I don't know if anyone's going to wind up reading these reviews. I know for a fact that there are going to be funnier reviewers and more cogent conversations on the games. 

I've never been involved in an online community before. I never participate in online forums or comment feeds, though I often read them. I've been a lurker for a very long time in the IF community, and frankly that's hardly surprising. One of the other reasons I love IF is because the only people who are involved lie in a peculiar union of people have a programming and literary mindset. These people are as smart as they are esoteric. Much smarter than yours truly. I'm consistently astounded by the abundance of craft and genius shown by this esoteric group of people, all of whom seem deeply interested in narrative theory. The reason I've never participated before (despite every year, always playing the comp entries, this will be the first year I'll actually judge) is because I feel as if I've never had anything new or insightful to add to the conversation.

And I still don't, really. But October lays before me like a giant wasteland, a gaping hole between the flurry of rehearsals and performances that will consume me until June. 

This asshole's the reason I don't watch the show.
I'll try to continue posting puzzles and cartoons, as I've enjoyed doing both. I've given up on Top Chef Just Desserts, as there are several contestants that are so gratingly annoying that I can barely stomach the show (which is too bad, because looking at the end results makes me want to lick my television set (though I wouldn't recommend it unless you want to get a nasty electric shock to your taste buds)). In the meantime, I'm going to post reviews and musings on the games I'll be playing. I hope you'll enjoy this journey as much as I plan to.

1 comment:

  1. Brooks: Fascinating article. I know so little about this genre, possibly due to my advancing age. Several phrases about writing caught my attention. I've posted about this on the wyomingarts blog.