Dust Gets in Your Eyes

Watched Stardust tonight. It’s a charming movie. I haven’t read the novel, but I’ll make a point of seeking it out; I’m a Neil Gaiman fan already, so I was pretty sure the movie would be good. Aside from one really annoying plot complication near the end — the old Romeo & Juliet message-that-goes-astray trick — the story was amusing and effective.

Earlier in the evening, I spent an hour and a half playing Blue Lacuna, a new interactive fiction by Aaron Reed. It’s far above average — a fine piece of IF. Strong writing, a vivid sense of place and mystery, and an innovative user interface.

In 90 minutes with Blue Lacuna, the story went precisely nowhere. I met one old man who’s charmingly loony and quite talkative, but he’s doing nothing, just hanging around on the beach. The big action-filled moment was when I got hit in the head with a coconut. This is a ten-chapter IF, and I’m stuck in Chapter 2, with no very clear idea how to move forward. There’s no built-in hint system, so “stuck” is a technical term, not just a word that describes feelings of frustration. I’ve encountered four puzzles that seem to be significant, and I have a couple of thoughts about how I might be able to solve one of them. (It will be rather time-consuming.)

In two hours with Stardust, I saw several cold-blooded murders, several swordfights (culminating in the hero having to fight a guy who was already dead and who in consequence couldn’t be killed even when run clean through with a sword), ghosts, evil witches, a unicorn, people being turned into animals and vice-versa, assorted bits of wry humor, smoochies, an airship whose crew catches and stores up lightning, an evil witch being devoured by badgers and wolves, and the coronation of a king.

So, ahh, somebody please remind me: What is it that’s so interesting about interactive fiction? I think I forgot.

The point of this rant is not to disrespect an entire entertainment medium (one in which, I might add, I’m heavily involved). The point is perhaps to remind myself, and to suggest to other IF authors, that we need to remember to put in plenty of elements that will keep our players entertained.

I think it was Theodore Sturgeon who made the following observation (though it might have been another science fiction author of that era). I’m going to misquote flagrantly, but the punch line is accurate. “Your competition as a novelist,” this worthy said, “isn’t Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. Your competition is a six-pack of beer. At the end of the week a guy has a little extra money in his pocket, and either he’s going to buy your book, or he’s going to buy a six-pack. He doesn’t have enough cash to buy both. Your job as a writer is to make sure your book is more enjoyable than a six-pack of beer.”

Since most IF is free, we don’t have to compete for our players’ disposable income. We have to compete for their leisure time (a scarce commodity!) and their affection. That amounts to much the same thing.

Competing with high-budget Hollywood movies is really extraordinarily difficult. But that doesn’t mean we should give up without a fight!

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