I wish I was a real programmer. There’s a project I’d like to tackle, but it would take me years and drive me bonkers.
I can handle basic programming concepts well enough to write interactive fiction, but my games use one or another sophisticated library and compiler developed by a real programmer, and when finished they run on an interpreter program that was, again, written by a real programmer. The interpreter is what communicates with the computer’s operating system. I’m doing the easy stuff; the interpreter does the hard stuff.
Tonight I was looking around the Web at the state of interpreters for various platforms. It’s, you guessed it, a maze of twisty little passages, all different. For starters, there’s Twisty, a Z-machine for the Android. Judging by the list of bugs on the SourceForge page, Twisty seems to be languishing. And in any case, it’s a Z-machine.
The Z-machine is obsolete. It ought to be a dead issue. I don’t know why anyone thinks it’s still viable to write a Z-machine. Glulx is quite limited in some ways, but it has some serious advantages over the Z-machine. For starters, the ability to play large games, of which there is now a very considerable number.
There’s also Frotz, a Z-machine for the iPhone. From what I’ve heard, it’s fully functional, but see previous paragraph.
TextFyre makes FyreVM available, and it looks to have some nice features, but it isn’t even an interpreter. It’s a toolkit with which you can build an interpreter, if you’re a real programmer.
I’m not 100% convinced of the desirability of playing IF on a phone, because it involves typing with your thumbs. I guess people get good at that, but it can’t be fun. Also, the screen is too small to show much text. But it would be nice to think of the millions of smart-phone users as a potential market (as in, paying market, but even a large non-paying fan base would be good) for IF. At this point we’re nowhere near that.
Rumor has it that someone or other is about to start developing an interpreter for the Kindle. (This is not just a rumor, either. It’s solid. Out of respect for the muzzle placed on this particular individual by Amazon’s corporate lawyers, I will say no more.) Kindle: Bigger screen, good. But the Kindle interpreter, if it gets off the ground, will be a closed system, and the developer is talking about possibly charging authors to make their games available through this system. In the music industry, we call this “pay for play,” and it’s not something I would be happy to participate in. I hope the developer will think better of this idea; nothing is settled yet. But that’s the point: nothing is settled yet. We don’t know for sure that this Kindle project will get off the ground. If it does get off the ground, it will be of no benefit to anyone who doesn’t own a Kindle. And apparently Amazon is picky about who they release the Kindle Developer Kit to, so there’s not likely to be a rush by IF interpreter developers to exploit that device. (Apple is also rather rude to iOS developers, I believe.)
On another channel, there’s a fascinating development for smart-phones that I can’t talk about because I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement. It could be very cool indeed … except that the person who is spearheading it has a day job. As far as I can see, not much development work is going on there either.
The other night, after hearing that an interpreter called Nitfol can auto-map a game, I tried to download and install it on my Windows 7 machine. No dice. It needs some system-level tools that are not provided by the installer program, so it wouldn’t run. Oh, well. I don’t need auto-mapping, I just thought it would be a cool thing to recommend to people if it worked.
And can we talk about the iPad? Frotz works there as well, I believe. But I’ve learned that the current OS won’t multi-task. For IF, this is a smack in the face, because you can’t keep a notepad program open on the side to take notes while you play a game. Nor can you keep a graphics program open to draw a map while exploring the terrain of the game. So you’ve got this sexy little hand-held device, but if you want to play IF on it, you also need a pencil and paper. Zowie.
And of course none of this has any relevance if you’re writing games, or would prefer to, in TADS 3. It’s all Inform stuff. I like Inform 6, so I’m not complaining, exactly (though I like T3 too). All I’m saying is, the absence of T3 developments is another twisty little passage that seems not to be leading anywhere.
If I were a real programmer, I think I’d probably sit down and create a good Inform/TADS interpreter for the Android OS. I’d attempt to build it in such a way that it could easily be ported to iOS. But alas, I’m not a real programmer.
In any case, we seem to be moving back toward the multi-OS paradigm of personal computing that was the norm in the early ’80s. Osborne, Kaypro, Commodore-64, Atari, Apple IIe … feh. Today we have MacOS, Windows, Kindle, iPad, Android, and probably five or six other things that I haven’t heard of yet. This was why the Z-machine was developed, of course — so that a game could run reliably on the virtual machine, no matter what actual computer the user had. But today the challenges in developing a truly one-size-fits-all cross-platform interpreter would be, I’m sure, at least ten times greater. Maybe 20 times greater. So we all blunder around blindly and bump into things. Feh.