IF, the Mac, and Multimedia

Now that Mike Roberts is updating TADS 3 to support audio fade-ins and fade-outs, I’ve revived a long-standing desire to write an interactive novel with my own music as underscore. Just one teensy problem, though: No one has yet written an HTML-savvy TADS interpreter that runs under OS X.

So if I go to all the extra trouble, Mac users will never be able to experience it. They’ll get a text-only version.

HyperTADS, by Iain Merrick and Andrew Pontious, is an OS 9 app. Reportedly it will run under OS X in Classic mode, but the prospects for getting an audio stream out of Classic mode into AU are … well, I’d be making a blind guess if I said anything about it one way or the other, but my guess is, don’t count on it.

Roberts himself is a Windows user, and has his hands full supporting TADS on Windows.

There doesn’t seem to be enough demand for HTML TADS to entice anyone to develop an OS X interpreter. Glulx (which runs Inform games with multimedia) is available for both Windows and OS X, but looking at the documentation for Inform 7, I don’t see any mention of audio fade-outs. (In fact, as of version 5U92, I don’t even see a way to shut off a sound once it has started!) Fade-outs are absolutely essential for adding a soundtrack to a text-based game, because you don’t know when the player is going to leave the leafy bower and climb down into the gruesome zombie-infested crypt. Or climb out of the crypt and meet the beautiful princess in the leafy bower. So if you do underscore, you have to either chop it off suddenly when the player moves from one room to another — and a chopped-off soundtrack is beyond ugly — or leave the music running in what may be a completely inappropriate setting. Without a fade-out feature, audio streaming under a game is just a cheap toy, it’s not a serious artistic tool.

If I want to write a work of this nature and make it available to Mac owners, I have two or three options, none of them good: I can beseech the folks who write and maintain the Glulx interpreters to implement fade-outs so I can write the game in Inform. Or I can write my own MacOS HTML TADS interpreter. Given my level of programming chops, that could take years. Or I could hire someone to do it for me, which would be horribly expensive, but quicker.

What I really want is not an interpreter, though; it’s a free-standing app. In Windows, you can export your TADS game as a .exe — no separate interpreter required. This is excellent, because it makes it easier for people who are new to interactive fiction to encounter your creative work. They don’t have to download separate components. Even if Glulx had fade-outs, everyone would still have to wrangle two separate components.

This is not all that difficult, but if you’re hoping to attract new reader/players, people who have no previous experience using an IF interpreter, you want to make it easy for them. You don’t want them to have to jump through hoops. There used to be a saying in the magazine business that you lose 50% of the readers at every page-turn. I suspect the same thing is true here: For every hoop that newcomers to IF have to jump through, you’re going to lose half of them. Two hoops and you’re down to 25%. Three hoops and it drops to 12.5%. And the numbers ain’t that large to begin with, folks.

The tools for writing interactive fiction are totally beyond amazing — and they’re free. But interactive fiction is a text medium. The minute you want to add attractive media to support the text, things get a lot more complicated.

As a memorable Monty Python sketch had it, “Of course it’s got an hole in! It’s an hoop!”

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