GOT LAMP

10/24/2010

 
I just finished Jason Scott's IF documentary GET LAMP.
  • After the intro, I thought, "Wow, an old computer turning on, then a bunch of old guys talking about caves. That'll keep 'em on the edge of their seats!" I suppose this isn't meant to be marketing or evangelism, but it still could have opened with a hook.
  • IF people are very articulate (and the interviews were well edited). Often these documentaries include a lot of gushing and undirected verbiage, but not with this crowd. As Brian Moriarty said of early IF, it had a "friendly, smart-people feel about it."
  • Were blind players the only minority in the documentary? Not a criticism, just interesting that it falls out that way.
  • GET LAMP made the point that early IF provided an immersive experience under tight technological constraints. In fact, that is part of why it was financially successful and even drove computer sales: interactive text was much deeper than the simple games and graphics of the times. And as Richard Bartle argued, text coupled to our imaginations will always be superior to any hardware. Early IF authors innovated around their constraints to accomplish as much as possible. Some of it worked, some didn't, but they kept trying. It's been said that necessity is the mother of invention, and that constraints can fuel creativity. I sort of feel that since hardware limitations have been removed, IF has been content to stagnate, ignoring the restrictions of market forces, reader demographics, streamlined interfaces, etc.
  • The interviewees seemed pretty convinced that puzzle is the enemy of story, at least for modern readers. On the other hand, solving good puzzles in IF is an experience unparalleled in almost any other medium, and IF junkies will keep chasing that 'aha!' high. But it seems new players need a gateway drug.
GET LAMP was very well done, and I enjoyed it, even the reminiscing about about early computers (I goofed around on my folks' TRS-80 when I was seven). I had hoped it would be a catchy introduction to the medium, but liked it for what it was, and it should hold up well for future audiences.
 

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.

Air Pressure
A visual novel about a relationship with a needy friend. Or is it?

The Outbreak
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.
 
 
I'm familiar with several mediums of interactive text, but it seems each is stereotyped by outsiders. In some cases, the stereotypes are fairly accurate of what has been done in that medium up until now. However, I believe that none of the mediums are as flawed as they are made out to be, just that new works in each tends to be like previous works, forming flawed genres within the medium.

Here are the stereotypes as I perceive them:

Choice-based fiction (CYOA). "Adventure or fantasy genre, written for teens. Arbitrary choices, most of which lead to death. 'Lawnmowering' through each choice branch to find content or endings."

Interactive fiction. "Ugly text. Funky command line interface. 'I don't understand that command.' Examine everything, pick up everything, try everything."

Graphic adventures. "Over-clever dialogue and descriptions, self-referential or in-joke humor. Illogical puzzles. Fetch quests and favor trading. Examine everything, pick up everything, try everything with everything."

Tabletop RPGs. "Fantasy genre. Lots of dice. Nerds in their moms' basements, arguing about whether a Level 14 Elf Mage could actually go two weeks without pooping if he ate only lembas wafers."

MMORPGs and MUDs. "Same as above, but in leetspeak."

Video game RPGs. "Fantasy genre. Unite the 12 Lightshards of the Everglow to defeat Horribus McDarknasty. Fetch quests and favor trading. Grinding. Menu-choice dialogue, and people standing around saying '...' to each other."

Hypertext. "Artsy-fartsy 'literary' writing. Passages joined by link spaghetti. No progress or ending."

Visual novels. "Visual what?"

Video games. "BOOM! BOOBS! THREE DIFFERENT ADRENALINE-DRENCHED ENDINGS!"

Most of these could be lampooned indefinitely, but I think that generally covers it. Comment if there's a medium I left out.

Obviously, I stereotyped these so as to make my point, but I do think most people's objections to an interactive text medium lie with the genres it has become associated with, not with the medium itself.

Fans of IF might complain that CYOA has no world model, only a pruned branching structure, but I think if an interesting story with developed characters were written as a choice-based novel for a good reason, they could appreciate it as much as a static novel (still wouldn't scratch their IF itch, I understand). Similarly, it's not that IF outsiders aren't interested in fiction set in a fully-modeled text world, they just aren't interested in ones about "you" having to pick up everything, etc. (and maybe not interested in learning the command line interface, though I argue IF can be defined more fundamentally than that).

Many complain that mainstream video game titles are just carbon copies of each other with the newest graphics and hardware. But the truth is, each kind of interactive text is almost as locked into their genres and types – and the game engines and input methods haven't updated since the 70s.

I think each of these mediums could learn and borrow from some of the others to create an attractive experience for new readers and players. Some examples already attempting this: Jeepform RPGs like A Bitter Aftertaste that create a literary narrative, similar to improv theater; Sweet Agatha, a book that is physically taken apart and told interactively to a listener; and Choice of Games CYOA stories, written in several unusual genres, with interesting informed choices and personality stats that affect gameplay.

Not everything will work, but if what we're doing now isn't as successful as we'd like (for whatever definition of success), it's time to try something new – and why not start with popular elements from other mediums?
 
 
Picture
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.
Picture
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.
Picture
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
Picture
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.