Technologies — there are so many! How do you pick and choose what you’ll use?

Last week I finished writing an interactive fiction game called “The White Bull.” This game has been entered in the 2012 Spring Thing competition, which will be open for players/voters on April 6. I’m pleased with the way the game came together, and I hope players will be too. I used the TADS 3.1 development system, which is very sophisticated. Almost intimidatingly so.

It has to be said, though: What TADS produces is, at the end of the day, 1980s-style text adventures. Granted, it has all sorts of advanced features, but the way you encounter the story as a player is, you type commands at the command prompt, exactly the way you probably did when you were playing Zork or Adventure on your Commodore-64. The same is true of Inform 7, a far more popular development system than TADS.

This user interface is very good for certain things, but not so good for others. The author can implement complex actions that are not immediately obvious to the player — for instance, something like ‘put the gerbil in the microwave’. This could be an effective puzzle, assuming you don’t mind a little cruelty to small animals. The player has to conceive of the action and then try it.

A user interface that relies on clickable links can’t easily be used to implement this type of puzzle. If the menu of allowed actions for the gerbil includes ‘put in microwave’, then there’s no puzzle, it’s just obvious what the player needs to do. If the menu doesn’t include that action, then the action can’t be used in the story at all.

The archaic nature of the command-prompt interface is quite likely one of the things that relegates interactive fiction to the fringes (not to say the dustbin) as an entertainment medium. If your readers have to figure out how to read your story, you’ve failed the instant gratification test.

Now, I like fooling around with cool software fully as much as I like writing stories. Being able to combine the two activities can be, at its best, intensely gratifying. But being consigned to the dustbin of the entertainment industry does not fill me with joy. Maybe I’m spoiled, but I treasure the idea that if I put a lot of effort into a creative work, a few people here or there may download and enjoy it.

That’s why I was so pleased, tonight, to discover the Vorple extensions for Undum.

No, I haven’t lapsed into Hungarian or Urdu. I’m talking about software. Undum is a basic but very nice-looking system for displaying an interactive story in a web browser. It uses HTML 5 and Javascript, which are widely used, well suported technologies. A story written with Undum should play nicely in almost any browser, including Safari on the iPad, which is what I was searching for. This translates to millions of potential readers — and they won’t need to learn a new user interface in order to experience the story. Yet at the same time, it’s not just a static text. You get to do stuff, and the stuff you do makes a difference.

I’ve looked at Undum before. It’s attractive, but I’ve been having a little trouble wrapping my brains around how to write an interactive story that doesn’t conform to those 1980s-era text adventure conventions. How variable can a story truly be if you can’t pick up objects and carry them around? This is still an unanswered question, I think.

But Vorple, which I just discovered tonight, may extend Undum in directions that will make it more amenable to an interactive story (as opposed to an interactive story interface, which Undum sets up). Vorple makes it easier to include buttons, tooltips, video, and other goodies in your Undum story. Not that I’m planning to shoot any video. I like the buttons, though, and also the support for cookies and the new classes for Undum links.

What I’ve noticed, in playing text adventures in recent years, is that all too often the story gets the short end of the stick. This may be because the interactive fiction community, being out at the fringe, doesn’t attract a lot of talented fiction writers. Or it may have something to do with the nature of the medium, with that nasty old-fashioned command prompt. Or both. There are some talented authors working in the field — don’t get me wrong. But there are also a distressing number of authors who seem to think that a deserted space station is a delightful setting for an original story.

Undum and Vorple change the nature of the medium. Not to disrespect TADS in any way, but I think changing the nature of the medium may prove to be a good thing. And besides, I get to play with some cool new software toys. What’s not to like?


4 thoughts on “Undum & Vorple

    1. I’ll be very interested to see what you come up with, David. That said, I do have a preference for tools that I can actually lay my hands on today. Also, I have the impression (could be wrong) that you’re still committed to Inform 7 as the development system, and I’m just not comfortable with its syntax.

      1. What I’ve done with Inform 7/glulx is certainly possible with another platform. I’d wanted to get a Z and TADS engine to work the same way, but I don’t have the resources to make that happen. It would need a self contained engine as a library that follows the same interface as the FyreVM spec.

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