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I got really sick once as a kid, and my folks bought me a choose-your-own-adventure book. I loved it and checked more out from the library, but soon saw a pattern: the choices presented rarely gave me any idea of their outcomes, too many choices ended in me dying, and others led to the same place and so were no decision at all. That lessened it for me, and since all I could find were adventure CYOA books, I soon got sick of them and read other things.

About a decade later, I discovered interactive fiction. Ditch Day Drifter was one of the first, and I really enjoyed the puzzles and exploration. However, after playing a few titles, I found that I was punished with unsolvable roadblocks if I didn't methodically explore and probe everything, but I was also punished with "I don't understand" and "You can't do that" messages if I experimented too much. And who ever read a story with the sentence "There is a box (empty) here"? Or one that made me type "kaleidoscope" correctly 17 times to read to the end? Or told me there were seats in the car, but when I tried to LOOK UNDER SEATS told me I could see no such thing here, and after I realized I needed to look under one SEAT, said "Which do you mean, the seatbelt, the driver's seat or the passenger's seat?"

I still play IF, of course. But I'm not surprised that few people are attracted to it these days, and are content with the cliched interactivity of video game plots or CYOA books. At least those don't talk weird and interrupt the story all the time...

Recently there's been a lot of talk about attracting new readers to IF, especially given the huge markets of casual readers (print and digital) and casual gamers.

Is the solution to change IF itself? If so, how? Just mention modifying the interface, and IF diehards act like you're going to hack into ifarchive.org and remove the command prompt from every file.

What about some sort of hybrid to bridge readers from CYOA to IF?

Or is there a more fundamental solution? In
1975, the creator of Adventure ingeniously designed around computer processing and memory limitations to create an enjoyable experience. These days we're no longer limited by hardware – our constraints are the tastes and habits of today's readers and players. With the expertise of 35 years since Adventure, can we start from those limitations and create a new enjoyable experience? One that's as fun as reading a book, as familiar as browsing a blog, but as robust as exploring Ditch Day Drifter?

 
 
Recently Emily Short [twice], David Cornelson, Nick Montfort, and others have written about the command line/parser in traditional IF, and whether we can improve or eliminate it. Understandably, when a player tries IF for the first time, they are usually confused by the command line and the many conventions that go with it. They end up with more error messages than story, and are unlikely to persist.

The command line will live on as long as authors and readers keep enjoying fiction made with it. But many have pointed out there is a huge market of readers (print and digital) and casual gamers who ought to love all this free IF, but sadly, they aren't exactly flocking to it.

One reason must be the interface. Another might be the lack of "packaging," both in a marketing sense (few attention-grabbing covers, promotional materials, or sites), and a convenience sense (first download an interpreter, then a file, then find a FAQ or guide). A third for some is that playing IF can feel like using DOS or an early BBS, not reading a book. And if a reader gets past all of these things, they're likely to find most IF is about "you," trapped in an area, examining everything and picking up random things to get to the next area. Obviously, there are exceptions to all of these, but a beginner can't count on finding them before giving up.

I tried to address some of these barriers, and below are mock-ups of my ideas. They fit an iPhone screen, and could be programmed in Javascript to work on mobile devices and browsers. The images are a sequence: the result of each click is shown on the next screen.
Click on images to see a larger version in another window/tab. Firefox and others may shrink the image to fit that window, you should be able to click it for full size.
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Verb icons. Click the verb icon you want to perform, then the word in the text you want to perform it on. The main description and story carry on in the top bar (reflecting any changes you make to them), and immediate responses to your actions show at the bottom. For a working example, see my unfinished story Red.

The way this mock-up turned out, it seems like it would be good to have both a TALK TO and a TALK ABOUT (with whomever you're currently speaking to) icon. And maybe a GO TO icon.
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Inventory. This version leaves its transcript available as grayed text, and only disables links that would break the game (e.g. players can't pick up the same object twice). You can see an example of this method by I.D. Millington at undum.com.

My mock-up also has an inventory, and works somewhat like point-and-click Flash games: clicking on an object in the text either interacts with it or adds it to your inventory, and objects in your inventory can be examined and combined, or used on yourself or things in the description text. As my simple example tries to show, this would allow for some lateral thinking puzzles.

One cumbersome part of the transcript method is having to scroll back for keywords you need, hitting the eye icon to look at the room again, and re-clicking objects for description keywords
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Popup menus. The links look just like the rest of the text, and the reader just clicks on nouns or significant phrases to view and choose from interaction options. This would keep the text "clean" and require no extra panels, but almost everything in the text would need a menu to come up when clicked.

I've shown two styles, the first more of a choose-your-own-adventure flavor, the second more IF puzzle solving. Either would allow you to examine objects and their details, but also manipulate them or make choices that moved the story.

I showed only verbs that served my examples, but the menus could be more consistent, offering the same limited set of verbs minus inapplicable ones based on context (e.g. no TASTE option for the moon). The menus could also use verb icons instead of words.

Inventory + verbs. No mock-up for this one, but it would work as a combination of the first two examples, like a LucasArts graphical adventure such as The Secret of Monkey Island. The player chooses from a list of verbs, and performs them on links in the text or items in the inventory list. Add directional buttons, and you could have most of the interactions of IF or graphical adventures.


Granted, it's fairly easy to create short mock-ups that serve my purposes. These may look like glorified CYOA games to some. The proof will be to create a working story that provides an enjoyable experience. I believe that with some extra work (programming all by hand, without the benefit of a robust environment like Inform or TADS), one could create a fiction system that allows free travel, object manipulation, and puzzles, while still being intuitive and book-like to new readers.
 

Launch

06/13/2010

 
First!