Pushing the Boulder

The release today of a new version of Inform 7 has me, I’ll admit it, excited. I’m not sure exactly why. Okay, seeing my upcoming Inform 7 Handbook prominently listed on the News page may have something to do with it. It’s nice to be part of a community of intelligent, creative people, even when the community is as tiny and obscure as the world of interactive fiction.

Yesterday, though, I was feeling less than enthusiastic about IF as a creative medium. I enjoy writing IF, but truth be told, I don’t actually enjoy playing it.

I keep trying. In the last month I’ve spent some time with Blue Lacuna (highly regarded, and from what I’ve seen, I’m sure it’s a great game) and, at the other extreme historically, a mondo version of Adventure. I also did some testing on two unreleased games. In all four cases, I bailed out before getting anywhere near the finish line.

I think I can sum up my problems with playing IF in one word: pacing.

In a novel, we naturally expect that every time we turn the page, something new will happen. A novelist who printed the same paragraph ten times within a single chapter would not retain many readers. Yet this is exactly what happens in interactive fiction, practically all the time!

Even when the game is outputting different text in response to your inputs, most of the outputs are bound to be in the “window dressing” category. When you meet a new character, you might (if the game is well written and has some depth) be able to ask him or her as many as a dozen different questions, and get responses that are nicely written and heighten the realism of the character. Yet it’s unlikely that more than one or two of those responses will move the story forward. You can ‘ask duchess about duke’, ‘ask duchess about king’, ‘ask duchess about herself’, ‘ask duchess about lunar eclipse’, ‘show jewels to duchess’, or ‘show book to duchess’ — and the story will be standing still during your entire conversation with the duchess. Maybe the duchess will say something that will suggest an action you might try; maybe she won’t. Finally it occurs to you to ‘tell duchess about witch’, and the story rumbles into motion.

This is a made-up example; I’m not thinking of any particular game.

The motionlessness may be inevitable, given the nature of the medium. But today I’m wondering about that. Maybe it’s not inevitable at all — maybe we just haven’t figured out yet how to address the underlying structural problem.

The default assumption in most IF is that the model world remains motionless except when the player does something to change it. In some games (including Blue Lacuna) the sun may rise and set, and certain things may happen at certain times of day, but even then, my impression is that mostly what we’re talking about are timed puzzles, not unfolding developments in the story.

If the model world actually changes in meaningful ways irrespective of what the player does, then (a) the model world is a lot more complicated to implement, (b) the player becomes, to some extent, a spectator rather than a participant, which diminishes the interactivity, and (c) the player is far less likely to find a happy ending, because the opportunity to do so may have slipped away.

I’m pretty sure Inform has tools with which to tackle this issue. Its implementation of scenes, for instance. Six or seven scenes might be going on at once, and in each of them, offstage characters might be doing things that will alter the model world. The trick is to imagine a story in which those offstage actions are meaningful, yet not so meaningful that they slam the door on what the player can do.

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2 Responses to Pushing the Boulder

  1. georgek says:

    I think the problem of pacing as it’s related to exposition isn’t unique to IF. You can have the same situation in fiction with your ‘As you know, Bob’s’, right? The problem of pacing with regard to all the other outputs in IF, yeah, that can be a problem.

    Notwithstanding that it seems like many players enjoy that sort of exploratory poking around, I do prefer a story that moves, and here’s what I’ve come up with in my experience playing IF (I guess I should say I haven’t written any, and perhaps this will be telling).

    I think the key to moving the story isn’t necessarily a model world that is doing stuff on every turn regardless of the player. After all, IF is somewhat unique as a player-centric, turn-based text-based genre, and I wouldn’t really want to lose that; there are plenty of other real-time options (muds, Guncho, Adventure games, and graphical-IF hybrids) that contain model worlds with actors doing stuff if you just sit there.

    If the model is acting without the player, I think in most cases it should be in response to a player action, a chain of events where the player is the originator.

    I think the first step to a game that moves is that the player has an explicit goal at all times, and I don’t really mean a task in the sense of unlocking a door or talking to a NPC. The goal should be more abstract than that, and if the player chooses to get there by unlocking the door that’s up to them. However the player needs to know what this goal is. Whether you get this with a UI change or with something in the game itself, it’s vital either way.

    The second step in my mind is to write the game text so that it conveys what you want with minimal overhead. If the style of the game is necessarily verbose I think that can work, but it must be verbose for a reason. Much IF is simply too verbose for what it’s saying.

  2. pouncer says:

    I’m entirely new to IF and inform, but I have a thought well beyond my ability. So, just so that it not die…

    Consider a playing character who wanders into the green room of a theater just before curtain. The non playing characters have a performance to give. The clock is ticking. The show must go on.

    IF the player can navigate the dark twisty passages from the backstage area to the front of the house, and retrieve such treasures as toilet paper, popcorn, etc, from the amenities provided the paying customers for the benefit of the poor players, then he is popular and wins. Otherwise, not so much.

    The “maze” behind the stage changes in a pattern depending on what flats and props are used “on stage” and which block the path. There are traps and space below stage, and the catwalks and lighting channels above. There are superstitions to which all the NPCs react.

    But essentially the play is going to happen. The show must go on…

    How to do this, I don’t know.

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