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.