I guess I've said what little I have to say on the subject of interactive fiction for the time being. This part of my blog is going on indefinite hiatus. If I get around to finishing a work of IF that incorporates some of my ideas, I may return, but that doesn't seem likely in the near future.
It has been a pleasure interacting with folks in the IF community.
Video Games as IF 02/27/2011
Most of you are familiar with the IF Arcade compilation – classic video games reimagined by IF. In my perambulations about the internet, I've come across a handful of more recent video games envisioned as IF, by non-authors.
I imagine they were mostly created for their incongruous humor and a bit of nostalgia, by one-time fans of the medium who haven't played much IF since the '80s.
This was originally just a "screen capture" posted by user ianwarren on the b3ta boards, but was subsequently made into an actual IF game by Bill Meltsner.
As seen on Randall Munroe's nerdy webcomic, xkcd.com.
A spot-on VHS-quality '80s "commercial" for Valve's Portal, complete with commercial buffers. It's unclear whether the creator was aware of Activision's 1986 interactive novel by the same name.
How do we entice new readers to IF?
Unfortunately, I think a lot of existing IF isn't what the average reader is looking for. The characters and conflicts (such as they are in many IF titles) don't interest them, and learning to play requires too much effort, too many unfamiliar elements.
Do we dumb it down? Cater to fans of popular genres? Most of us would die a bit inside at the prospect of typing KISS EDWARD into a Twilight IF fanfic. On the other hand, while I won't touch anything by Stephenie Meyer, I would definitely read an interactive young-adult vampire romance by Emily Short, because it would have complex characters with interesting interactions.
But let's say we have a new "IF-lite" title that's catchy and reasonably easy to get into. How do we get readers to it?
I think we can learn a bit from some other one-man creative enterprises with free or cheap products: webcomics, online novelists, and indie video game developers. The good ones all do a reasonable job of promoting their works on limited budgets.
For example, indie gamers usually have a dedicated website or page for screenshots, videos, demo downloads, freebies, etc. Some examples would be yofrankie.org, afistfulofcows.com, and fiveminutemmorpg.com. Graphic novelists have the same sort of thing: wormworldsaga.com, and sevenextraordinarythings.com. The better online novelists' pages tend to be less visual, but still professional: davidwellington.net, craphound.com. Aaron Reed’s lacunastory.com is a start, but most IF writer websites look like they were designed by, well, writers.
Digital delivery is a powerful thing, but it's hard to download "feelies," the physical objects that allured players to buy golden-age IF titles. However, we can offer similar enticements digitally. For example, James Patterson's young-adult Maximum Ride and Witch & Wizard series launched free iPhone apps that allow readers to take pictures "with" characters from the books, create wanted posters, and do personality quizzes, as well as read the first few chapters. Some iPhone CYOA titles have unlockable art. Echo Bazaar encourages social networking, and thus word-of-mouth/link. The right kind of IF game could incorporate a worldwide high score board, alternate reality gaming elements, or digitally tradeable aids and items — creating a sense of community and joint exploration.
At the very least, we need good cover art. A quick search showed that most indie/free novels have pretty sad cover designs, so we're not alone, but readers do judge books by their covers, and if ours don’t even have one, or it’s clip art...
Most IF titles also lack a good tagline or dust jacket blurb. We're not short on interesting and unique concepts, but we need to hook readers with them when they're browsing an IF database or a writer's website.
The last time I was in an airport, I saw "trailers" for new novels playing on screens at the bookstore. They were mostly slide shows or details of the cover art, with title cards and a voice-over, but held my attention with audio/visual while pitching the book’s idea. I think there’s something to be learned there for promoting IF as well, even if it was just a good animated banner ad or something.
Perhaps because of my background in advertising, a lot of these ideas use artwork. Graphics require hiring an illustrator or graphic designer, and maybe a web designer. But the aforementioned developers and writers budget for that, and IF like Floatpoint and Everybody Dies definitely benefits from having professional-quality illustrations.
For the time being, interactive fiction is a non-paying market (with a few exceptions). But there are thousands of game developers, filmmakers, webcomic artists, novelists, bloggers, podcasters, composers, and entertainers that offer a free digital product, but promote it like they were selling it. They believe in their medium, and they're shooting for something bigger (a contract, living off ad and book sales, etc.). Interactive fiction has some of the most enthusiastic enthusiasts, but we need to convey that excitement to new readers if we're to entice them.
[A while back, Jim Aikin asked about how to entice and reward players of IF. This post is my thoughts on enticing, and I hope to write more on rewarding in a later post.]
The Next Big Thing 01/10/2011
Harry Potter. The Da Vinci Code. Twilight. I predict that during my lifetime someone will write the new popular bestseller, but it will be digital and interactive.
It won't have a command prompt, but it won't just be CYOA, either. People will read it on their browsers, Kindles, and iPhones (or whatever we use by then), and it may involve graphics, social networking, limited interaction with other readers, but it will read more like a novel than a game. It could be released as a normal series, or open-ended and constantly updated, like Echo Bazzar, and fans will form communities around debating every possibility and ending, each backstory, all secret areas.
Interactivity is this new generation's native language, and I think it's inevitable that the fiction they read becomes individualized, networked, and always-on.
Jason Shiga 12/06/2010
I commented on the absence of minorities in GET LAMP, but forgot the brief interview with the one person I actually recognized: Asian-American cartoonist Jason Shiga.
Jason talked about children enjoying CYOA books because they don't get many choices in real life, and there's definitely a child-like exploration and fantasy to many of his works — as well as a vindictive and violent hand of Fate. Also, Jason has a mathematics degree from UC Berkeley, and his mathemagical brain clearly informs the different formats of his interactive comics.
I consider Meanwhile his magnum opus so far. You can read a black-and-white online version of it at his site. I bought the original xeroxed and hand-cut version, but you can apparently only get the commercial full-color print version from Amazon.com now, which I haven't seen. He also created a giant poster of it.
Meanwhile is a brilliant interactive use of the spatial medium of comics — instead of necessarily reading left-right, top-bottom, you follow tubes between panels, which sometimes branch at choices, and often lead off the page on to a tab which you must flip to. The first choice is between vanilla or chocolate ice cream, but you quickly realize that Shiga is able to transcend the CYOA medium with ironically mirrored events, unsettling discoveries, and a story that explains quantum physics even as the tube structure mimics the concepts presented. Here's Jason with a brief explanation of his book:
Check out Jason's site, shigabooks.com, to see online versions of some of his comics. I recommend his interactive The Last Supper, The Bum's Rush, and April Fooled, and his more traditional Bookhunter and Fleep. Unfortunately, another of his full-length interactive works, Knock, Knock, isn't even mentioned (apparently out of print). It's incredibly ambitious: the main character is trapped by a killer in a room full of objects to be interacted with in any order, and all the possible three-choice sequences are drawn out — but only one leads him outside to safety and the shocking reveal.
Here's a video review if you want to see more of Meanwhile. And a 2004 video interview that shows more of his work. If all this makes you want to make your own interactive comic, Jason explains how to fold a short branching booklet (and demonstrates a few of his comics):
And for those who dislike CYOA books because they don't track variables, Jason has Hello, World, a "programmable" comic that tracks inventory choices in a split layer of the book:
Cool Stuff 11/25/2010
I've added another page to my site for stuff I like or want to talk about that's not related to interactive text. It's under the "Cool Stuff" link in the header. Technically this post belongs over there, but whatever.
My wife and I were thinking of entertainment options besides watching a DVD and that didn't involve going out. We finally hit upon playing an interactive fiction game together. She's never tried IF, and I wanted to experience something new to both of us, so we tried Rover's Day Out, winner of the 2009 Annual Interactive Fiction Competition.
We played for over an hour, and got about halfway though it, I estimate. I typed, and she suggested actions when we were figuring things out, and we had a good time. She caught on very quickly, even to Rover's unusual framework, and learned to skip the room descriptions and other repeated text and read just the new information.
I'd meant to be a bit more scientific, and give her a title to figure it out on her own while I watched, to see how someone would approach IF having no background. However, this was actually enjoyable for both of us, and hopefully we'll finish Rover's, and many other titles in the future together. And, yeah, I'm bragging a bit that I have a wife who'll play IF with me.
GOT LAMP 10/24/2010
I just finished Jason Scott's IF documentary GET LAMP.
CYOA Goodness 10/21/2010
Choose-your-own-adventure books are often slighted by the IF community for their simple branching structures and lack of true interaction/world modeling. Fair enough, but I think interesting stories can still be told in this semi-static medium, and each of the following games is notable for its presentation or story.
Thousand Dollar Soul
A sci-fi story that is deeper (and creepier) than it first appears. You'll have to play through several of the 35 endings to piece the whole picture together. The interface allows you to back up as much as you want.
A visual novel about a relationship with a needy friend. Or is it?
An interactive zombie survival movie. It has the usual limitations of interactive movies, plus horror movie clichés, but does some clever things with a few branches, and dying is as fun as winning.
Dead Frontier: Outbreak
Dead Frontier: Outbreak 2
Two zombie apocalypse choose-your-own-adventures, with music, voice-over, and background graphics. Click to skip through text.
Choice of Dragon
Choice of Broadsides
Choice of Romance
Choice of the Vampire
These are the best written on this list, and mechanically interesting as well. Each game tracks attributes for your character's choices, and the story changes based on your attributes, sometimes in substantial ways. While I'm not usually a fan of the genres they chose, all but Vampire got me hooked. It is in itself notable for the broad scope it attempts, though it ultimately fell short of a good story, in my opinion.
Approaching Absolute Zero 10/14/2010
At AdventureDevelopers.com, Beiddie Rafól has written a feature called The Cold Hotspot. The Adventure Developers site is geared toward graphical adventures, and the feature's four articles (1, 2, 3, and 4) discuss the fallen state of once-popular adventure games, and possibilities for the future. According to Rafól, there are almost no commercial adventure releases and he describes a vicious cycle of unwillingness to change format or content, poor market research, ineffective advertising, and lack of financial success or backing. He mentions a cluster of recent or in-development titles as bright spots in a dimmed corner of the gaming market, and hopes they and yet-future adventure games will attract the growing segment of gamers who want to think and discover instead of twitch and destroy.
The feature was written in 2005.
As you can tell (or already knew), graphical adventures and IF have a lot in common as mediums: an early form of computer game, once popular and commercially successful, now virtually unknown in the PC and console market, even if you define them more broadly than purists insist upon. And IF is even farther behind adventure games in brand recognition, commercial success, and inflexibility in the face of today's market forces.
I'm sure articles similar to Rafól's were also being written about IF five years ago. Since then, the gaming industry has continued to boom. The number of casual gamers has increased dramatically. The fiction market is still huge. This generation reads and links copious amounts of digital text in e-books, websites, blogs, forums, comments, social networking, IM, and texting.
Yet adventure games and IF continue with virtually zero market share. What gives?