I’ve been working on a new interactive fiction story/game for a few weeks, but I’m starting to lose interest in going on with it. It’s a contemporary dark fantasy on a theme from Greek mythology, and it’s not without points of interest. The concept might make a decent game. But I made the mistake of reading a few great short stories by Margaret Atwood, and a couple by Peter S. Beagle. Now I’m seeing that my characters are one-dimensional and my narrative is wooden.
What’s more, I don’t think my skills (such as they are) are the source of the problem. I think the narrative devices available in IF are simply deficient.
The narrative in IF is sabotaged at every turn by the command prompt. Long cut-scenes in IF are … well, they’re not interactive, are they? When the narrative is cut short in order to stick in a command prompt, the narrative voice has no room to open up.
The topics in IF are too concrete and physical. Atwood’s narratives meander from topic to topic, from the present moment to the past and back to the present. There might be digressions, or observations that pop up. Let’s look at a quick example. Here’s the opening paragraph of a not very dramatic story (“Loulou, or, The Domestic Life of the Language”):
“Loulou is in the coach-house, wedging clay. She’s wearing a pair of running shoes, once white, now grey, over men’s wool work socks, a purple Indian-print cotton skirt, and a rust-coloured smock, so heavy with clay dust it hangs on her like brocade, the sleeves rolled up past the elbow. This is her favourite working outfit. To the music of The Magic Flute, brought to her by CBC stereo, she lifts the slab of clay and slams it down, gives a half-turn, lifts and slams. This is to get the air bubbles out, so nothing will explode in the kiln. Some potters would hire an apprentice to do this, but not Loulou. It’s true she has apprentices, two of them; she gets them through the government as free trainees. But they make plates and mugs from her designs, about all they’re fit for….”
The physical image in this opening would work perfectly well in IF. But what would the poor IF author do with, “This is her favourite working outfit”? That’s the author’s voice, very gently giving the reader some extra information. It wouldn’t work at all in IF. Likewise, “This is to get the air bubbles out, so nothing will explode in the kiln.” The author is explaining something to the reader. Both of these sentences are things that Loulou might subconsciously say to herself — “I have to get the air bubbles out, so it won’t explode,” or, “This is my favorite working outfit.” So they aren’t authorial intrusions, exactly. They’re implicitly coming from within Loulou’s point of view. But IF can’t do interior point of view at all, really, because the only character whose interior we can participate in is “you,” and telling the player what “you” think or feel always sounds heavy-handed, no matter how you sugar-coat it. “About all they’re fit for” is even more clearly from Loulou’s internal voice, as is the throw-away phrase “once white.” This viewpoint permeates the paragraph; without it, the description of Loulou slamming the clay would be one-dimensional.
I’m not going to state categorically that you could never give a narrative this kind of depth in IF. All I’ll say is that I’m pretty sure it would read very weirdly.
But that’s not the end of the difficulties. In IF you pretty much have to give the player something to do. The plot can’t flow forward naturally, because the player can derail it, or at least fail to ratchet it forward. And there does have to be a step-by-step plot, if only in the sense of ‘wear space suit’, ‘open airlock door’, ‘in’, ‘close airlock door’, ‘turn valve’. In a fine conventional story, it may not be clear, until you’re near the end, what the plot is. The point of the story may be quite subtle.
There’s very little scope in IF for developing characters who have any depth. They lack depth because the reader can’t observe them over any length of time. They are observed only in the present, when they’re in the room with you. Brief conversations seldom reveal much depth of character; in IF, everybody you meet is a taxi driver.
The events in a good conventional story might take place over a period of months. The story might trace, over the course of 30 pages, how a character gradually changed. Again, I’m not going to state categorically that you couldn’t do this in IF. But I do think that if you’re interested in doing it, you’d be silly to choose IF as a medium. Write a conventional story.
Once you start thinking about these things — character development, the subtleties of narrative viewpoint — it gets hard to focus on writing yet another three-sentence snippet of conversation on a topic of immediate physical concern (‘ask dave about his grandfather’). The genie is out of the bottle. Or, to return to the metaphor in the title of this post, how are you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve started reading the good stuff?