Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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Archive for the ‘Interactive Fiction’ Category

Virtual Snapshots

Posted by midiguru on April 16, 2014

Time for a tiny bit of boasting. In the course of working on my upcoming much-too-large text adventure game (“The Only Possible Prom Dress,” look for it before the end of the year, I hope), I decided the player character was going to need a digital camera. Implemented as a cell phone, obviously.

Using Eric Eve’s adv3Lite library for TADS 3, I managed to create a cell phone with which you can snap a photo of any object in the game, and then read a list of the photos you’ve taken. (Because reading is all you can do in a text game — there are no images.) This is kind of cool, and it’s less than obvious how to do it. Dynamically created objects and all that.

The game, if it’s ever finished, is going to be a sequel to “Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina,” my first game, which was released back in 1999. Same location, but greatly elaborated. Similar plot premise. Lots of new characters. A few of the puzzles are related to those in the first game, but most are completely new.

Posted in Interactive Fiction | Leave a Comment »

More Fun with Software

Posted by midiguru on April 12, 2014

I happen to be involved in two software-heavy pursuits — electronic music and writing interactive fiction. The differences between the two fields may be of interest to nobody but me, but this is my blog, so here goes.

The software in both fields is sophisticated and feature-rich. But there’s at least a hundred times more activity in electronic music than in IF authoring. In IF, we have probably seven or eight developers, total, who are actively maintaining authoring systems. If you want to do creative work as an IF author, you’ll be using the tools uploaded by one of these kind and generous souls.

There are two main reasons for this. First, the audience for electronic music is at least ten thousand times larger than the audience for interactive fiction. Second, writing IF is much harder than laying out music in a digital audio workstation, so the number of people who even consider writing a text game is very small. The number who ever finish and release their games is even smaller.

The audience for IF is small for two reasons: First, if you want to play a computer game, you’ll probably get more excitement out of a game with video and music. Beyond that, though, playing a text game requires that you think. Few people think while listening to music … or at least, they don’t think about the music.

I’m grateful every day to the developers for producing such wonderful tools. On the IF side, Mike Roberts and Eric Eve are my heroes. On the digital audio side, there are too many heroes for me to list them all, but sound designers like Eric Persing and Howard Scarr would be high on the list, as would Ernst Nathorst-Böös, whose steady hand on the helm has turned Reason into such an amazing music program. Keep up the great work, guys!

Posted in Interactive Fiction, music, random musings, technology | Leave a Comment »

Too Many Puzzles

Posted by midiguru on February 8, 2014

Once in a while I get bored with life in general, and with composing electronic music in particular. At times like this, my mind drifts off in the direction of interactive fiction. I start to wonder, would I enjoy writing a new text adventure?

Yesterday I started taking a look at Eric Eve’s adv3Lite, an alternative library for the TADS 3 authoring system. “adv3Lite” is an unfortunate name, as the project has grown well beyond its initial concept. Yes, it’s somewhat easier to work with than the original adv3 library distributed with TADS — but it also has some spiffy features not found in adv3. My initial impression is that Eric has really accomplished something with adv3Lite (more especially as Graham Nelson appears to have lost interest in supporting Inform 7). Eric has written a number of games, and he knows what’s needed.

So I’m thinking, maybe I could take this 1/4-finished game that has been languishing on my hard drive for a couple of years, recode it where necessary for adv3Lite, and finish it.

The basic difficulty with this notion is that the game is simply too large. It’s huge. It’s unwieldy. It’s bloated. We’re talking more than 80 rooms, most of them containing lots of scenery and at least one or two significant objects, and more than 75 puzzles, some of them requiring that you do several tricky things in the proper order. Even if I finish writing it, nobody is ever going to play it all the way through. Hell, not even the beta-testers (assuming I could recruit a couple of them) would have the patience to play it all the way through.

It’s a fun idea for a game, in my opinion. It’s a sequel to the very first game I wrote, back in 1999, “Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina.” It has more characters than “Ballerina,” more rooms, more complex puzzles, more magic, more oblique literary references — oh, and it’s a love story. Sort of.

Finish it? What a depraved idea.

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Posted by midiguru on January 5, 2013

After taking a break from it for a few months, I’m taking a fresh look at The White Bull, my most recent interactive fiction. The sad truth is, it’s not as good as I hoped it would be.

I’d like to roll up my sleeves and revise it, but I’m not at all sure how to make the necessary changes. The story would probably be easier to rewrite as a novel, but I don’t much care for that idea. For one thing, I don’t feel like writing a novel this year. For another, I’m not sure “The White Bull” would make a good novel either.

The limitations of the text adventure game as a medium make handling the story elements rather difficult. Complex characters are difficult — one reviewer complained that the the conversation system was “basic and not extensive,” which just meant that he failed to discover any of the dozens of conversations I implemented. Characterization issues aside, moving the story forward is even harder. If the reader/player has real choices that can affect the outcome, then many players will never find the path to the happy ending. Plus, if there are four significant paths, that’s four times as much work (or possibly 16 times as much). But if the player has no meaningful choices, then the story isn’t interactive — it’s a linear narrative.

My initial idea for the story was that the Labyrinth — you know, the one Daedalus built to imprison the Minotaur — was not only real but still present in some magical dimension. Theseus, in this reading, didn’t kill the Minotaur; he lied about it.

This idea seemed at first blush to lend itself well to interactive fiction, because the most hallowed trope of text games is the maze. The difficulty that immediately leaps up, however, is that players hate mazes. So the Labyrinth can’t be a real maze. I wrote several regions that look like mazes, but aren’t. I’m not sure that did much good. Maybe I should have just made it a giant maze and forced players to by golly work their way through it. Maybe.

A second difficulty is that in the first part of the story, the protagonist (that would be you, or “you”) has no clear motivation to do anything. As a practical matter, you need to Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Interactive Fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

Black, with Cream and Sugar

Posted by midiguru on July 3, 2012

Non-stationary art got a big boost in 1930, When Alexander Calder invented the mobile. Now that the computer is ubiquitous, the possibilities for non-stationary art — interactive or simply involving unpredictable and non-repeating motion — are staggering. Okay, computer screens can’t do real 3D, and a mobile is real 3D. But even so, the sky’s the limit.

I’ve noted before that if interactive fiction has any hope of being taken seriously as an art form, it’s going to have to present a modern, attractive user interface. To be both attractive and deliverable to users, it will need to run in a standard Web browser. And that means that IF authors who don’t wish to be ghettoized or marginalized are going to have to come to grips, in some way, with Javascript.

The same could be said about almost any digital art form, not just IF. Sure, you can upload your photos to Flickr or your music tracks to Soundcloud, but at that point your audience will encounter that user interface, which may well detract from the experience you would like to convey. You’ll have no control over the presentation. And presentation matters.

The same can be said of conventional interactive fiction played in a browser-based interpreter. Yes, it can be played over the internet, but as an author you still have damned little control over the presentation. If you want that control, you will have to roll your own interface in Javascript (or spend a lot of money hiring somebody who can do it for you).

What I’m discovering today about Javascript is still rather preliminary — these are my impressions, and should not be taken as gospel. I may be wrong. But I’m learning some stuff. I can list seven different reasons why Javascript is problematical, if not Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Interactive Fiction, media, technology, writing | 1 Comment »

Dead Letter Office

Posted by midiguru on May 4, 2012

Apparently nobody is very serious about wanting a solid, modern presentation for interactive fiction in web browsers. My recent blog posts on the subject, which I mentioned in the IF Forum, have met with a thunderous silence. As Adlai Stevenson once remarked, “I’m underwhelmed.”

I suspect that the main reason nobody is hot to tackle this issue and wrestle it to the ground is because nobody really gives much of a crap about interactive fiction in any form. I suspect that the observation I made the other day about Quest — that it’s caught in a negative feedback spiral because nobody who truly cares about producing high-quality work would mess with it — applies to the entire field, not just to Quest.

The 2011 IF Comp was won by a game called “Taco Fiction,” whose premise is that you’re a down-and-out, seriously broke guy. You can’t pay your rent or make your car payment, so you’ve decided that the solution to your problems is to mug a passing pedestrian and then rob an all-night taco joint at gunpoint. You haven’t actually loaded your revolver; you’re not quite that much of a desperado. In fact, trying to hold up a taco joint with an unloaded revolver is sort of doubly pathetic, isn’t it? But there we are. That was the most profoundly meaningful or best developed IF story of the year.

It’s pretty easy to see why any writer who wanted to produce serious fiction (and we’ll include humor in the “serious” category) would look at Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Interactive Fiction, random musings, technology, writing | 12 Comments »

Re: Quest

Posted by midiguru on May 2, 2012

So far, the response has been underwhelming. I post a couple of thinking-out-loud pieces about how a 21st century interface and authoring system for interactive fiction might be developed. I drop links to those posts on the IF forum. And … nothing. On the forum itself, a couple of brief discussions ensue, but if there’s a groundswell of people saying, “Holy crap! You’re right!”, I blinked and missed it.

Alex Warren chimed in, noting that his Quest authoring system produces games that run in a Web browser and is extensively customizable. Alex is always keen to remind people about Quest, and very polite about it. So I had a quick look at Quest. I want to emphasize the word “quick,” because I may well have missed something important. But after an hour or so poking away at it, I’m moving on to look at other things.

The promise of Quest is, “You can write text adventures without programming!” And indeed, you can. To this end, the authoring system makes extensive use of mouse-clicking and little boxes where you enter snippets of this and that. This approach is bound to appeal to aspiring authors who are intimidated by programming — but if you have a bit of programming experience under your belt, having to grab the mouse over and over and over in order to create objects and define their behavior becomes fairly annoying.

This may be a matter of personal taste. If you like the mouse and hate typing, you may respond differently.

Within, or behind, the Quest authoring interface is a powerful scripting feature, with which you can customize your games.  But to get at the power, you have to Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Interactive Fiction, technology, writing | 2 Comments »

Look Through Telescope

Posted by midiguru on May 1, 2012

Yesterday I summarized the problem: The existing delivery systems for interactive fiction (a.k.a. text adventure games) are mired in the 1980s. The early 1980s. Today I’d like to toss out a few ideas about what, ideally, ought to happen in order to bring the presentation of IF forward into the 21st century.

Broadly, there are two ways to move forward: either a massive extension of an existing authoring system, or an entirely new system. Both courses are fraught with difficulties; neither is a stroll in the park.

Let’s take a brief look at the characteristics such an authoring system would, ideally, have. The list below is not intended to be exhaustive — I may have left something out. It’s intended to serve as a starting point for discussion.

  1. The games produced using the new system should be playable, and with an essentially identical appearance and functionality, in MacOS, Windows, Linux, and mobile platforms.
  2. Convenience for the end user should be emphasized. The user should not have to download and install separate interpreter software or a self-contained app.
  3. The authoring system itself should be available on all three desktop platforms, and without too great compromises in terms of utility. (No use of a command-line compiler should be required in one OS, for instance, if it’s not required in another.)
  4. The author should have Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in fiction, Interactive Fiction, random musings, technology, writing | 4 Comments »

Stuck in Lodi Again

Posted by midiguru on April 30, 2012

First a little ancient history, then a rant, and then maybe a vision for the future.

It would have been the summer or fall of 1982, just about 30 years ago today. I had a Kaypro II, my very first computer. Single-sided 5-1/4″ floppy drives and 64kb of RAM. I bought it when the price came down to $1,295, if memory serves. Anyway, my friend Jon Sievert, who had been instrumental in convincing our boss to invest in Kaypros for the office, hung out in his free time and swapped cool software at Kaypro user meetings. This was a couple of years before copy-protected software, and programs were passed around like party favors. So one day Jon showed up at my house and said, “Here, let me make you a copy of this. You’re gonna love it.” And he was right. I did.

What he gave me was, of course, “Adventure.”

“Adventure,” and later, “Zork,” transformed the computer from a rather balky utilitarian device into a magic playground. You didn’t know what might happen.

Another 15 years would pass before I discovered Inform 6 and wrote my first text adventure game, “Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina,” but I knew from the very beginning that this was a creative field I would enjoy. Today I’ve written six or seven text games, using three different development systems, so I feel qualified to make a few observations.

The Kaypro ran the CP/M operating system, a precursor of MS-DOS. The user interface was a command prompt. It looked like this: > The screen had one color: green. There were no graphics, no mouse, no sound, and no notion of networking. When you wanted the computer to do something, you typed a command at the command prompt.

Fast-forward to 2012: Computers today have graphics and sound. Many of them have touch-screens, and they’re small enough to fit in a backpack, or even in your pocket. Worldwide networking is a fact of life.

Today there are several full-featured development systems with which to write and deploy text-based games. And yet, the games produced with these powerful tools still use the command prompt as their primary user interface. Does this seem Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Interactive Fiction, technology, writing | 4 Comments »

It’s a Big, Wide, Wonderful World

Posted by midiguru on April 20, 2012

Recently a couple of threads have popped up on the interactive fiction forum proposing that interested parties write games set in shared worlds. The worlds to be shared were set forth in some detail. As it happens, I found one of the proposed scenarios rather evocative, the other less so. But that hardly matters; I already have a few ideas of my own that I’d like to develop.

What struck me was how easy it is to spin out phantasmagorical ideas for a shared world — and how much more difficult it is to craft an engaging story.

When she wrote an introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley described the little contest that gave rise to the novel. Lord Byron had proposed that he, Percy Shelley, Mary, and a certain Dr. Polidori, who were cooped up in a house in Switzerland owing to an incessant and altogether fortuitous siege of summer rain, each write a ghost story. “Poor Polidori,” she tells us, “had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady who was punished for peeping through a key-hole — what to see I forget: something very shocking and wrong of course … The illustrious poets, annoyed by the platitude of prose, speedily relinquished their uncongenial task.”

And then she says, “I busied myself to think of a story.” (The italics are hers.) That sentence has been a touchstone for me for a very long time.

Storytelling is surely one of the oldest of art forms — and unlike painting and music, its essentials probably haven’t changed much, if at all, in the last hundred thousand years. The most exotic and elaborately imagined world will fall flat if it isn’t animated by a compelling story.

Posted in fiction, Interactive Fiction, writing | 1 Comment »


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