After They’ve Seen Paree

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?

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31 Responses to After They’ve Seen Paree

  1. Peter Pears says:

    IF has always been deficient, because it’s always been very much under development. Photopia is still hailed has groundbreaking, and it’s been little over a decade. Bellclap was highly innovative in the way it treated the parser as the “angel” between you (God) and the PC (Bellclap). Amnesia remains one of the most unique pieces of IF ever. It’ll always be deficient, until we’ve explored it to its full depth. Until that time, however, we can explore to our hearts content. We are not limited to the conventional IF story/adventure.

    You worry about the viewpoint. Well, if it really does bother you, you can change the viewpoint to third person. Or first person. If you don’t want to do that, well, maybe you’ll find that “This is your favourite dress” isn’t that bad a construction.

    At any rate, your main problem seems to be the classic problem of trying to take one medium and slap it onto another one. That, I’m sorry to say, can’t be done. Can’t be done in film-to-book or book-to-film transaction, and certainly can’t be done static-fiction-to-IF. As you indirectly point out, each of these artforms have different ways of conveyeing information across. They make use of different strategies. What you have to do, and this is the hard bit, is forget about how static fiction conveys to the reader the information that “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”.

    Because in IF, you can’t really have this information like that. Or rather, you can, but it doesn’t really fit. You’re right there. It covers too many images and concepts, and wouldn’t fit in a single command. BUT, you can splice it. You can have some of that informationpopping up on a timer. You can have some of that on the description of the plates. You can have some of that on the description of something else. You can even gently direct the player’s attention to something (say, the plates, indirectly prompting the player to examine them and therefore give the information about the apprentices) just by, on a timer, having Loulou’s attention drawn to them, for whatever reason.

    And if you keep the player interested enough in the next step, it’s not much of a problem. People are used to conventional treasure-hunts, and people are used to weirdness. People are used to the unfolding plot of Anchorhead, with many questions creating even more chilling questions, and the step-by-step world of Photopia.

    Incidently, you *could* come up with a way of observing characters who are in the same room as you. That’d be interesting. I’m not sure there’d me much to gain from it, but it’d be interesting.

    Anyway, my point it – don’t get discouraged. Reading static fiction can be the worst thing you’re doing if you’re working on an IF piece of your own, for the reasons you’ve found out. Accept that IF uses different means to achieve the same effect. Get wild, if necessary, and find your way around what you see are impossible obstacles. You can do it.

    • midiguru says:

      Thanks for the encouragement. I’m a little nervous, however, about your suggestion that I avoid reading literature while writing IF. Aren’t you rather proving my point?

      Yes, information can be spliced in IF — that’s a good term for the technique. But looking at this content as “information” is, I think, simplistic. Those sentences belong precisely in the places where Atwood put them. They’re not detachable chunks of “information.”

      This is what I mean by the command prompt interrupting the narrative flow. If you have to examine the clay to learn something, then what you have is information. If you can simply read about what Loulou is doing, complete with implied internal monologue, it’s not information, it’s a seamless narrative.

      • Peter Pears says:

        Well, “stop reading literature” is probably overkill. What I meant is that, if you’re doing a text-based word and then start reading other text-based works, and those text-based works are static fiction which use the best that SF has to offer… then you might well be tempted to try and use the same techniques in IF, because both are text-based. And you were. And it’s normal. Happens when trying to make graphical adventures and then watching movies.

        You just have to remember they’re different mediums. You can’t afford to fall in love with the techniques one medium uses, or you’ll end up – as you did – bemoaning the fact that you can’t use it on the medium you DID choose. And you’ll miss all the techniques that ARE available to you.

        I mean, of course those bits are not detachable the way Atwood wrote them. That’s why they were written as static fiction. But there are ways, good ways, to present the same information in IF. They’re just different ways.

      • midiguru says:

        I think part of the point of what I’m getting at is that those sentences are not “information.” They’re part of a narrative flow. The interactive fiction medium does not lend itself to narrative flow. Nor to character development.

      • Conrad says:

        “But looking at this content as “information” is, I think, simplistic. Those sentences belong precisely in the places where Atwood put them. They’re not detachable chunks of “information.” This is what I mean by the command prompt interrupting the narrative flow.”

        This is similar to a stage of growth hypnotists go through. When you start out, you’re a “scriptnotist.” You have a script that a master hypnotist has written, and you read the script, hoping that your subject follows along.

        As you get more practiced, you start to see the *strategy* behind the script. Then you make up what you’re saying according to that general strategy, adapting the old outline to where the subject is at the moment.

        When hypnotists are learning to transition from classic chair hypnosis to the wide-awake conversational stuff, the question they always ask trainers is, “What do I do when the subject says something?!?”

        And the answer that trainers generally give is, “Well, then you’re screwed. — No, when they say something, that’s an opportunity to deepen trance. Because they’re telling you what’s on their mind. Now you take that, work with it, and direct it to the next step in the hypnotic process.”

        It’s similar — technically, it’s identical — to moving from storytelling-as-recitation to storytelling-as-conversation. The old rules don’t quite apply anymore, because the audience can now interrupt you; they might not sit still for the same duration — or, you’ll know when they start getting ansy.

        You probably know Saki’s story, _The Story-Teller_ . The trick in IF, of course, is to anticipate audience interruption — to structure the opportunity for it, in fact.

  2. Jimmy Maher says:

    I don’t really disagree with many of the details of this post, but I think it’s somewhat short-sighted all the same. You’re looking at some very good conventional fiction writing and trying to trans-literate its strengths directly into IF, and that’s always going to be a mistake. One could write essentially the same post comparing print fiction to film, noting how film provides no handy mechanism for inserting authorial commentary beyond clumsy voiceovers and the like, how film with its visual vocabulary of concrete images makes abstracts and great swathes of time difficult to communicate, how even a lengthy epic of a film can communicate no more story content than a novella.

    It might be more productive to think not about what IF cannot do as well as print fiction, but rather what it can do better. IF nails setting, for instance; the interactive element can make exploring an environment, revealing layer after layer of detail all the while, fascinating. Trying to convey the same effect in static fiction would just lead to tedium and reader exhaustion. We could also talk about how IF’s immersive and interactive qualities can be harnessed in some types of stories, making (for instance) the implicit game that static mysteries play with their readers explicit and thus all the more compelling.

    You have to tailor the type of story you tell to the medium’s strengths and weaknesses; or, alternatively, choose a medium for the story you want to tell that will let you best tell it. It’s possible that your story idea is better suited for static fiction, and that’s fine. I’m not sure we can make sweeping judgments about the relative values of the two forms from that, however. It’s possible that IF’s strengths and weaknesses make it more suitable for genre tales like mysteries than literary fiction, and perhaps that makes it an ultimately lesser form than the novel. I wouldn’t really disagree with that statement, in fact, at least based on the IF that’s out there today. But it’s possible to do good work in the genre category as well.

    I do feel more and more that the parser is more of a problem than a strength of modern IF, something I never would have said even a year or two ago. The more I learn about user interface design, the more I see what a flawed creation the parser is for creating accessible games / stories. (And I say this even though I have one hell of an emotional attachment to the parser, and personally rarely have problems using it to navigate even through badly designed games. But then I’ve played and programmed so much IF that I know all of the development systems’ “tics.” Newbies don’t have such an advantage.)

    • midiguru says:

      The comparison to film comes up frequently. But is it entirely apropos? It’s true that IF is a different medium than conventional fiction. (I avoid the term “static fiction,” because in my experience good conventional fiction is never static, while interactive fiction is quite often horribly static. That’s what happens when you’re stuck.) But IF is precisely like conventional fiction in that it presents the reader a linear flow of sentences and paragraphs.

      IF does setting well, but setting is not often the interesting thing that’s going on in a story. Also, you’ll note that in that opening paragraph about Loulou, there is essentially no setting. Loulou is “in the coach-house.” That’s it. In IF, you couldn’t even open with that paragraph. You’d have to open with a room description and then give us Loulou throwing the clay as her initial appearance.

      For a contrary example, I’m thinking of some of the over-the-top descriptions of setting in Titus Groan. This novel reads very like IF at times — there’s actually a lost-in-a-maze sequence near the beginning — yet it doesn’t “lead to tedium and reader exhaustion.”

      I’ve noticed that genre stories are popular forms among IF authors. But if a third-rate rehash of a ’50s hard-boiled private eye story is the best we can hope for, that kind of underlines my point, I think.

      I’m not sure what medium my story idea is best suited for. And I think the observation I’ve been groping toward is that the IF medium does not encourage me to find out. It doesn’t encourage me to think deeply about the characters — their past, their passions, their telling little traits — because what would be the point? If you try to shoehorn that stuff into a game, it’s just going to get in the way.

      • Sarah says:

        Paper does not encourage you to think deeply about your characters. Film does not care how deep you think about your characters. Microsoft Word couldn’t give a damn how often you think about your characters. Code won’t make you think about your characters. That’s your job. Period. It is no one else’s, and blaming the medium is a cop-out.

      • midiguru says:

        I’m not sure I agree, Sarah. I think paper does encourage you to think about your characters, as does a word processor — if only in the passive sense that, in conventional fiction, the results of your thought can more readily be conveyed to your intended audience.

        To take an extreme example, if I were writing software that could play chess, I could certainly think all I liked about the character of the Red Queen or the White Knight, but conveying my thoughts about these characters to the chess player would be difficult, intrusive, and utterly irrelevant to the game. In that sense, the medium (chess-playing software) does not encourage one to think about the motivations or personal history of the Red Queen or the White Knight.

        IF is sort of halfway between chess-playing software and conventional fiction. It gives the author some scope to explore these things and convey the results of the explorations to the reader/player, but the scope for exploration is narrower than in conventional fiction, precisely because the medium gets in the way of the presentation.

      • Sarah says:

        That’s a tautology: “writing on paper is more effective, because paper encourages you to think about your characters, because writing in IF is less effective.” Your chess example is completely irrelevant, too, because chess is not about storytelling. IF, however, can be, but certainly not if you give up even trying to write well.

      • midiguru says:

        I’m not sure you understand what I’m getting at, Sarah. I understand that you feel IF can be an effective storytelling medium. But surely, it’s not the ideal medium for all sorts of stories. Film is best for some stories, the printed page for others, the stage for others, IF for yet others.

        What I’m trying to nail down is the question, what sorts of stories is IF the right medium for, and what sorts of stories is it a poor medium for? It appears to me that you’re taking the extreme view, which is that IF is a great medium for any sort of story. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you.

        What I’m saying is specifically that IF is a poor choice for stories that require depth of character, a broad view of events that happen across a span of time, or any sort of narrative flow. These features are found in abundance in conventional fiction.

      • matt w says:

        “Titus Groan…. reads very like IF at times — there’s actually a lost-in-a-maze sequence near the beginning — yet it doesn’t ‘lead to tedium and reader exhaustion.'”

        Well, YMMV. I never finished it.

        On-topic, I’m not sure I agree about this:

        “I think paper does encourage you to think about your characters, as does a word processor — if only in the passive sense that, in conventional fiction, the results of your thought can more readily be conveyed to your intended audience.”

        Well, more readily, probably, just based on the statistics of how many people have done a good job of this in paper-based fiction as opposed to IF. But you can put tons of thought into your characters and still have trouble conveying what they’re like in straight fiction; you certainly don’t want to dump your backstory notes. It’s easy to hit a block where you think, “I have this incredibly important detail; how do I fit it in?” The best way to do it, I suppose (and here I stop speaking from experience), is to put the character in the situation and let all the work you’ve done on her emerge naturally in how she acts and thinks in the scene; and you may even discover new things about her that you haven’t thought yet.

        And that, it seems to me, is something that might be doable in IF as well. Instead of asking “How does she react when she sees the broken window?”, ask yourself “How would she react if she saw the broken window? What if she’d already noticed that the statue was missing?” Which may be more work, and there’s the issue that you don’t want to be writing, designing, and programming on the fly. But it’d still be a question of revealing the results of your thought about the character at the appropriate time, as opposed to shoehorning it in. And I could imagine some folk finding it easier to do in the IF way, where you attach bits to different triggers, than in the read-only fiction way, where you have to figure out the order yourself etc.

      • Jimmy Maher says:

        Come, now, Jim… genre fiction does not mean “a third-rate rehash of a ’50s hard-boiled private eye story,” and as an occasional genre writer yourself I’m sure you know that. Genre fiction works so well for IF (and other types of interactive storytelling) because it orients the player and gives her an obvious sense of direction. If I’m asked to play a crack detective just called to the scene of a grisly murder, I have a pretty good idea what I should be doing. If I’m asked to play a middle-aged school teacher trapped in a stale marriage and wondering about all the things I missed in my staid youth, not so much. Because an IF author can’t make the possibilities for his stories infinite, genre does him a wonderful service by giving the player an obvious path to follow. Janet Murray talks about this quite a bit in Hamlet on the Holodeck.

        And (again, as I’m sure you know) there are many fine writiers working in genre fiction. See P.D. James in the mystery category; Ursula Le Guin and so many others in science fiction; Dan Simmons or even early Stephen King in horror; Tolkien, who essentially invented the modern fantasy genre. Hell, I’m sure there are even good romance writers, but I don’t know enough about the category to say who they are.

  3. Nikos says:

    “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”

    Cut scenes can describe events taking place elsewhere. If this is done in graphic adventures (Monkey Island), then why not in text adventures too? When reaching key points in the game, usually when leaving the current location, a scene was displayed, beginning with “Meanwhile…”, followed by a non-interactive sequence describing events taking place elsewhere (currently or in the past.)

    A graphic adventure was limited to dialog for those scenes. But since this is IF, you could so much more.

    • midiguru says:

      It’s true that cut-scenes can be used in various ways. But I suspect you’re right to use the term “events.” That underscores my point. Returning to the Atwood story (not that it’s a deathless piece of literature, it just happened to be handy), the opening description is followed by several pages exploring Loulou’s complex relationship with a bunch of poets who are hanging out in her kitchen.

      After four pages, we return to the coach-house for a moment. Finished with the clay, Loulou washes her hands in the sink. After four more pages about the poets, she dries her hands.

      Could you do that in a cut-scene? I claim not.

      • Nikos says:

        For this specific example, the “examine” or “think about” verbs work wonders.

        Ultimately though, we should not forget what a text adventure is ultimately about; allowing the player to explore the game world without graphics as the main delivery method. I think that overloading a piece of IF with prose is worse then overloading a graphic adventure with too much graphics. Is all the detail about the relationship to the poets really what the player is interested about? I know I’m not. I’m more interested in plot and the actions that can take place in the game world.

        I have to mention at this point that I never liked Photopia… A text adventure should not be a plain puzzlefest, but neither a novel disguised as a piece of IF.

      • midiguru says:

        I never cared much for Photopia either … thanks for mentioning that.

        Perhaps it’s telling that you dropped back to the older term “text adventure” there. I’m toying with the idea that I should stop trying to write “interactive fiction” and simply write “text adventure games.” That reframing device may be a fruitful way of making the problem go away.

        Besides, I have a couple of neat ideas for mazes. Mazes have no place in interactive fiction, but they’re very much at home in text adventures.

      • Nikos says:

        “Interactive fiction” is just another word for “text adventure”. I think Infocom invented the term. I use both terms to refer to the same thing simply to avoid repetition.

        Anyway, my point is that since you can feel that there’s something wrong with presenting four pages of text to the player between prompts, then perhaps it’s not a limitation of the medium, but what the medium is actually about.

        I just noticed the word “player” in the above 🙂 I don’t think this can ever simplified to “reader” in IF. Or perhaps it’s just me, being somewhat disappointed by the majority of releases the last couple of years, where it’s mostly about stories (and of quite the boring sort, to me at least) rather than trying to deliver an actual game worthy of that name. I guess I’m an old timer 😛

      • matt w says:

        Re: mazes; if the text adventure/interactive fiction distinction does make sense, mazes have a place in interactive fiction; Photopia is interactive fiction if anything is, and it has a maze.

        The problem with mazes isn’t that they’re unliterary or whatever, it’s that they’re by default tedious as puzzles; once you’ve figured out what to do with them, you still have to do a lot of busywork to get through them. The “Aha! Here’s what to do” is exciting; the consequent hand-mapping and note-taking is not, not to mention that it often then takes a while to traverse the maze anyway. There are ways around this (Photopia’s maze is probably my favorite IF puzzle, partly because the solution is so non-tedious; you may gather that I tend to suck at puzzles), but it’s not particularly a text adventure vs. interactive fiction thing. You may know this already.

        (FWIW, I didn’t find the maze in A Flustered Duck that annoying, but it may just be that I blundered into the solution pretty quickly by chance. At least, IIRC, once you got through once, the game let you cross automatically on subsequent tries. That was nice.)

  4. Sarah says:

    You are assuming that “you” refers to a cipher, instead of signaling the PC’s internal voice. In fact, it’s often better if it does. It’s natural, too. People talk to themselves, mentally or otherwise, with “you” all the time: “OK, so you need to get up, go to the store…”

    So it’d be perfectly fine to say “It’s your favorite working outfit.” Natural, even. As far as the rest of the paragraph, why does it have to be tied to (what I assume is) examining yourself? It’d be much better off as an aside after a room description, a daemon message, etc. If you really want to keep strict order, you can fairly easily code it to only appear after you’ve examined yourself and gotten that block of text.

    Does it change the writing? Yes. But it’s an adaptation. All adaptations do.

  5. robohara says:

    To quote from that classic work of Americana (Grease), “The rules are, there ain’t no rules.”

    Perhaps I have the advantage of viewing your problem with childlike eyes, not being a real IF author, but most of the issues you (the original poster) mentioned seemed very simple to overcome to me. For example, I don’t see any problem in telling a player that the outfit is Loulou’s favorite after examining it. In fact, it could be done any number of ways. The simplest of which would be to simply tell the player, in third person. (“The outfit is one of Loulou’s favorites.”) You could go second-person just as easily. (“The outfit is one of your favorites.”)

    In writing, writers strive to show (and not tell) things to their readers. If you can manage to show readers/players that the outfit is one of Loulou’s favorites, you’ll really be on to something.

    As an outsider and complete newbie to the IF scene, it seems to me a lot of authors are lamenting over self-imposed rules. I think IF can be written however you want. While I agree with the fact that “novels IF”, I think there are things that each medium can do better than the other.

    • midiguru says:

      In an absolute sense, you’re right. IF can be written however you want. I could, strictly speaking, write an entire conventional story in which, at the opening prompt, the “player” had no other options than to type ‘read story’, after which the entire story would spill out, punctuated only by “More…” prompts.

      But I think I can safely promise you that IF enthusiasts wouldn’t enjoy the experience.

      In interactive fiction, the narrative is almost always broken up into short chunks, among which the most prominent are descriptions of locations and tidy little conversations between the protagonist and one other character. If that type of narrative suits the story you want to tell, then great — go for it! If not, you have a problem. I’m not saying that the problem is insoluble; I’m simply saying that there is a problem, and that I’m not aware of any easy solutions.

  6. Aaron Reed says:

    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.

    Again, I’m not going to state categorically that you couldn’t do [character development] 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.

    Jim, if you really believe it’s impossible to create narratives or characters with depth in IF, why do you keep trying to write it? It just seems to me that defeatist attitudes often lead to defeatist results.

    • midiguru says:

      Why do I keep writing it? Good question. I may have stopped. Or I may have come to the conclusion that what’s fun is writing text adventure games that have only whimsical, non-serious story elements. I could write a game called, oh, let’s see, “A Flustered Duck.”

      My last three games (April in Paris, A Flustered Duck, and Heavenly) are all, ultimately, satires or critiques of interactive fiction — a fact that I’m quite aware of, but that nobody else seems to have noticed. The waiter in “April in Paris” is, metaphorically, the IF author, who won’t let you get anywhere near the happy ending until you’ve jumped through an arbitrary number of irrelevant hoops. Was that in my mind when I wrote the game? You bet. (There’s more to the game than that. It’s also about love.) Same with the Duck, in a very different way. Riding on a pig … what can I say?

      Which might hint that I think there may be valid reasons, even literary reasons, for writing IF that have nothing to do with character development or narrative flow.

      It’s true that I tend to ask myself difficult questions, but that’s quite different from being defeatist. Failing to ask oneself the difficult questions would be, in a practical sense, defeatist, because it would be a tacit admission that one is convinced one would be defeated by the answers (or by the fact that there are none).

  7. Ron Newcomb says:

    While it is common that i-f is written in second person POV with very short paragraphs, that is just a style. Please feel free to denigrate that style, but ensure that it is that *style* you take umbrage with, not i-f as a whole. While you’re at it, please take the setting-centric focus to task: authoring tools encourage descriptions, i-f writing guides expound on description, players are obligated to EXAMINE everything. Setting is not story. The authoring tools — all of them — don’t seem to know this fundamental fact.

    A few (2 or 3 of them) have started offering scene machinery, but it’s either an add-on module, or is tucked away in the back of the manual.

    I’m toying with omniscient second-person POV in my WIP. (Or to put that another way, second person with periodic off-POV scenes and moments.) I know that that’s something that’s just not supposed to exist. Whatever. A primary example is when the PC leaves the room: the character(s) left there remark on you or your conduct before the “camera” follows you to wherever you went. I nicknamed the device “an entailment.” Besides giving the reader feedback about the ludic goals of the encounter via dialogue that preserves versimilitude, it’s a fine place to foreshadow effects of your agency. Omniscient second-person doesn’t work in theory, but is quite useful in practice.

    Although command prompts can interrupt flow, there’s an art to using them. For starters, change it from the blank-faced UNIX prompt into an actual prompt for verbs, adjectives, etc.

    • midiguru says:

      Omniscient 2nd-person — sounds very cool. I’ll be interested to see what you do with it!

      Not sure what you mean by “an actual prompt for verbs, adjectives, etc.” Is that different from, “Next, you, the detective, decide to…”?

      • Ron Newcomb says:

        Re: prompt: precisely.

        Thank you, though I think the omniscient 2nd person may sound cooler than it is. Usually when one picks a POV, it gives some feature: first person can really dig into the viewpoint character’s mind, third person can show things going on in different places at the same time, limited third is something of a middle ground between the two, etc. But second person seems to be defined primarily by what you can’t do with it. Which makes me ask myself why I’m using omniscient third with a pronoun change. Freshness? I dunno.

        *Does* second person give any feature over the others? Immersion is usually given, but I’ve found the other POVs very immersive for particular stories, so, if immersive, then for which stories?

        I’m also still on the fence about how much to characterize my PC. I know four facts about him that are immutable, but they’re still pretty broad-brush.

  8. Matt Wigdahl says:

    Disclaimer: I’m a programmer, with little background in the arts or literature. But I was thinking that maybe looking at other types of art might shed some light on the distinction between noninteractive and interactive literary forms. Take sculpture and painting, for example. Both are media capable of supporting deep insights into life and the human condition, worthy of long reflection and analysis. But a work suited to the medium of painting might be wholly unsuited to expression as sculpture, and vice versa. Both have their own distinct artistic traditions and techniques, even though they are both broadly visual arts.

    Sure, you could say that sculpture is distinct from painting because it includes a spatial component, or argue about how well current sculptors make use of the third dimension, or note that it’s easier to make much more extensive use of color in a painting than in a sculpture. That’s healthy debate over the inherent advantages and limitations of the forms.

    But is it really useful to make overall value judgements about the inherent quality of each medium based on those types of observations, as you have? IF is very new and very obscure by the standards of traditional fiction. I think writing off its potential as “inferior to the novel” is premature. Games have demonstrated enormous power to engage with and submerge the player into an imaginary world, and I believe the best IF is yet to come.

  9. Gravel says:

    A couple things to throw out there:
    – Pretty much everyone has more experience reading and writing “regular” prose than they have writing IF. IF is young, and our tools are, as much as I appreciate them, not at flexible as one might wish.
    – Reading professional, skilled writers and comparing your own work to theirs is almost never going to make you feel good. I mean, I’ve watched first season Star Trek episodes that are better than my current IF – I’m sure I could make it worse by comparing it to Atwood, but why bother?

    IF has a different rhythm, and I think it’s worth looking at the ways that it works best. I like IF most when I’m not stuck – when I’m just typing and the story-world is unfolding. (It’s one reason I’m not a fan of puzzle-IF.)

    It might be worthwhile thinking about ways experimental fiction works (or doesn’t). Ulysses is very difficult for me to get through – the stream of consciousness may be natural brain talk, but it’s not natural reading talk. How does that compare in rhythm? Read some first-person fiction: how does it deal with these problems of perspective? People have been dealing with some of these problems for a long time. How do other works give you an idea of character, even when you’re just observing a person’s actions in one room or one scene? The soliloquy was a response to a need for some of this – people on stage will just randomly stand up and talk about what they want right at this moment – and it’s a convention of the genre, sure, but people are pretty much okay with it, in the way that I accept that I have to remind myself to look at my surroundings, my person, and my friends in IF.

  10. Conrad says:

    Well, it seems this potter woman is the main character of Atwood’s piece, yes? Atwood is writing in false third person (as I’m sure you know), which is basically first person, with the “I”‘s all changed to “she”‘s, but with the internal information all carried across, for a vaguely telepathic-narrator effect.

    The telepathic-narrator thing isn’t done much in IF — I suppose you could experiment with it — but certainly you could write an IF with such a potter as the main character. All the additional information — the “spin” — would then be accepted as the PC’s voice.

    Conversely, you could easily put in such “spin” if the PC knew the NPC the game was describing.

    And similarly, you need to harness the player’s desire to do something, whether it’s seek a goal or explore; but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have a mousetrap plot, that springs shut on the player at the last minute. Just use a little artistic misdirection.

    So: while the static-fictional *techniques* of delivering rich, conflicted characters may not be suitable to IF, I don’t believe that means IF therefore can’t *deliver* conflicted, rich characters.

  11. Amy says:

    “Perhaps it’s telling that you dropped back to the older term “text adventure” there. I’m toying with the idea that I should stop trying to write “interactive fiction” and simply write “text adventure games.” That reframing device may be a fruitful way of making the problem go away.”

    The struggle that I’ve been having is that I decidedly do not want a ‘text adventure’, I want ‘interactive fiction’. I want to focus on characters, on narrative. Text adventures have trappings — the parser only one among them — that are not part of what I desire to create.

    I’m still juggling some possible approaches. I think there’s another way, I firmly believe there MUST be another way, but I cannot yet define it.

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