No matter how attractive a technology may look, if it doesn’t do what you need it to do, it’s a doorstop.
After looking at Undum for a couple of days, I’ve concluded that it’s a doorstop. [Edit: Probably not true.] This saddens me, because it looks very enticing. As I detailed in my previous post, Undum is a way of delivering interactive stories in a web browser. It’s visually beautiful, requires no special knowledge of the reader, and can deliver stories to users on any platform that supports a modern browser — iPad, Linux, an old PC running Windows XP, whatever.
But between the dream and the reality falls the shadow.
Web browsers are, very sensibly, designed in such a way that web pages can’t read files on your hard drive or write files to your hard drive. If such activities were allowed, the whole world of modern computing would collapse. Your personal computer would quickly become a hornet’s nest of malicious stuff. A web page can store a small piece of data (called a cookie) in a special folder, but only that page can read the cookie. Other restrictions quite likely apply.
As a result, Undum has no way to allow readers to store their progress through a story. Okay, technically it has one store point, which you can create using the Save button. The next time you load that Undum story, it will automatically fast-forward to the point where you saved the cookie. But you can’t save multiple store points within your story. [Edit: It turns out HTML 5 provides a facility called localStorage, which is plenty big enough to store lots of save points. Undum just hasn’t implemented a full save/restore feature, that’s all.]
This is a problem because Undum is designed specifically to produce interactive stories. In an interactive story, the reader gets to make choices. Shall I follow Barbara down to the beach, or shall I ignore Barbara and go back into the cabin? This choice may affect everything that happens throughout the rest of the story. Or it may not, but at the moment when you’re making the choice, you don’t know. Thus it is essential that you be able to save your position at the moment before you make the choice and return to it later if you decide you need to explore the other option.
An authoring system that can’t do this is utterly useless for presenting interactive stories of any complexity. And Undum can’t do it, because your web browser quite properly won’t let it. [Edit: This is not correct. The more I learn, the more I find that I don’t know.]
What’s needed, and needed desperately, is an IF authoring system that allows the author to put on a third hat. Not only will the author be a writer and a computer programmer, as at present, he or she will also be allowed to be a book designer. Typefaces, borders, background colors, width of sidebars — and the possibility of changing any of these elements dynamically in response to user input, which is precisely what Undum does — need to be placed under author control.
I tried to put this concept forward a couple of years ago in the IF authoring community, and got shot down. I would not dream for a moment of insulting the idea’s detractors by calling them old-school elitist whiners. We’ll just say that, surprisingly for people who are heavily involved in a creative activity, they seemed not to have a great deal of vision. Possibly the fact that I’ve spent most of my career in the publishing industry gives me a view of the aesthetics of page layout that is not widely shared by people who still think the Linux command line is a spiffy user interface. Or maybe the explanation lies elsewhere.
But let’s not get distracted by pop psychology. The main issue is this: It would be lovely to be able to write interactive stories that are engaging visually, require no arcane installation procedures, and present the reader with a modern click-or-tap user interface. Heck, there might even be a little money in it! Millions of people do read stories, you know. Yet as far as I’m aware, there is in 2012 no authoring system that can deliver the goods.
As much as I enjoy learning new software skills, I’m not really sure I want to devote a year of my life to becoming proficient as an iOS developer in order to bundle up interactive stories as iPad apps. But that may actually be my best option. Darn.