TADS 3.1 was released today. The new features are deep and powerful. If you’re not into writing text adventure games (also known as interactive fiction, or IF for short), the 3.1 release will be of no interest to you. Even if you are an IF author, you’re far more likely to be enamored of Inform 7. While Inform 7 is very popular, the user community for TADS 3, never large to begin with, is languishing. Nonetheless, TADS 3 is the authoring system for grown-ups.
Or at least that’s my usual thumbnail description. I’m compelled to admit that people like Aaron Reed, Erik Temple, and Andrew Plotkin are, in fact, grown-ups, and they all use and love Inform 7. So maybe I should be saying, “TADS 3 is an authoring system for grown-ups.” But that doesn’t have quite the same ring.
I’ve used Inform 7 too, but I don’t love it. It has always struck me as rather gawky and mystifying. TADS 3 is sometimes mystifying, too — but it’s mystifying in a much less mystifying way. Its syntax is always conceptually clear and concise. The syntax of Inform 7, a programming language that purports to be based on “natural language,” is sometimes a bit murky.
The 3.1 release adds two of the most attractive features of Inform 7 to TADS. Cross-fertilization of ideas is a good thing. Now if only we could get Mike to port Workbench to MacOS….
I wasn’t going to blather about the languages or their features, though. I was going to whine about the game I want to write — the game I’ve been working on, off and on but mostly off, for the past couple of years. I’m still kind of stuck. I know how I want the ending of the game to work, that part is okay, and better than okay. It’s going to be great fun! What I don’t understand is how the player is supposed to figure out what to do in order to get to the desired ending.
I’m not going to give any spoilers here (because, after all, I may sit down and finish the game, now that 3.1 is out, and then maybe you’ll want to play it), but here’s a quick synopsis. The game is a sequel to “Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina,” which was my first IF game (released in 1999). The setting, a large and somewhat creepy shopping mall called Stufftown, is the same, though because the new story is set ten years later, some of the old stores have been replaced by new ones.
Your quest in “Ballerina” was to acquire a doll from the toy store for your charming seven-year-old daughter Samantha. In the sequel, which is tentatively called “Everything but the Prom Dress,” Samantha is now 17. For reasons that are unabashedly far-fetched, she is in need of a prom dress, and quickly. You play, as before, the part of the harried parent, though this time around (unlike the first time) it’s clear that you’re the mom, not the dad. The puzzles are at least as strange and varied as in the first game. There will be more characters to interact with, though, and more detail.
I’ve worked out why it’s so darn difficult to get your hands on the prom dress. Not too much of a spoiler: A mannequin named Bianca comes to life, snatches it out of your hands, and runs off with it. Once that happens, your quest is to get the dress back from the maddening mannequin.
I’ve worked out the whole set of things you need to do in order to get it back. What perplexes me is how the player (or, for that matter, the harried parent) is to know that this particular set of exotic ingredients and manipulations is to be deployed. Will the player have to read the author’s mind? That’s not good. What’s worse, even if the player comes up with the right idea, it’s not plausible that the harried parent would know that the method would actually work. For all the harried parent knows, Bianca could respond to the player’s convoluted machinations scornfully and possessively, refusing to part with the dress under any circumstances. There seems to be no way for the harried parent to know that Bianca will, at the crucial moment when all of the puzzles have been solved, obligingly do the right thing and hand over the prom dress.
Sometimes collaborating with another author on a game can get you past a stuck point. But I pretty much have this whole game laid out. There’s not much for a collaborator to do. Drat!