Dead Letter Office

Apparently nobody is very serious about wanting a solid, modern presentation for interactive fiction in web browsers. My recent blog posts on the subject, which I mentioned in the IF Forum, have met with a thunderous silence. As Adlai Stevenson once remarked, “I’m underwhelmed.”

I suspect that the main reason nobody is hot to tackle this issue and wrestle it to the ground is because nobody really gives much of a crap about interactive fiction in any form. I suspect that the observation I made the other day about Quest — that it’s caught in a negative feedback spiral because nobody who truly cares about producing high-quality work would mess with it — applies to the entire field, not just to Quest.

The 2011 IF Comp was won by a game called “Taco Fiction,” whose premise is that you’re a down-and-out, seriously broke guy. You can’t pay your rent or make your car payment, so you’ve decided that the solution to your problems is to mug a passing pedestrian and then rob an all-night taco joint at gunpoint. You haven’t actually loaded your revolver; you’re not quite that much of a desperado. In fact, trying to hold up a taco joint with an unloaded revolver is sort of doubly pathetic, isn’t it? But there we are. That was the most profoundly meaningful or best developed IF story of the year.

It’s pretty easy to see why any writer who wanted to produce serious fiction (and we’ll include humor in the “serious” category) would look at the results being achieved by those who are devoted to the medium of interactive text and think, “Nah, maybe I’ll try something else.” Negative spiral. Down the drain, glub glub.

And then we come to the question of what authoring system you might want to employ. I got curious about this today, so I did an informal tabulation. Not surprisingly, Inform (the 6 and 7 varieties, but these days mostly 7) is wildly more popular than TADS 3. In point of fact, Adrift is more popular than TADS 3, at least if a tabulation of the entries in the IF Comp is to be believed. And Adrift is not exactly a cutting-edge software tool.

In the past seven years, by my count 151 Inform games have been entered in the Comp. There have been 21 Adrift games and 9 TADS 3 games. As far as I can tell, there are only three active TADS 3 authors — C.E.J. Pacian, Eric Eve, and me. And Eric hasn’t released a game since 2009.

There are, to be sure, several people experimenting with T3 at any given time. But most of them seem never to actually finish their games. Given the complexity of T3, this is not truly surprising. But here’s the big picture:

One person (Mike Roberts) produces and maintains TADS 3, which is an amazingly sophisticated authoring system. Three people (Nikos Chantziaras, Ben Cressey, and I) provide informal tech support on the forum, the other two handling the tricky questions and I fielding the easy ones. But neither Nikos nor Ben has ever written a game, and except for one little experiment, Mike hasn’t written a game in 20 years. Nikos is, in addition, maintaining the TADS interpreter software. We have three active authors, one of whom (Eric) has also written massive amounts of T3 documentation. Half a dozen other authors have released one T3 game (or, in one case, two games) in the past seven years. And as far as I can see, that’s it.

Possibly I’ve missed an author or two. The IFDB doesn’t index by authoring system, so it’s possible that there’s somebody lurking in the woodwork who, though actively releasing games, hasn’t bothered to enter the IF Comp in seven years. But if you’re looking for a yardstick by which to measure the dearth of activity in IF, here it is.

If we assume, based on the statistics of Comp entries, that Inform is about 15 times as popular as TADS, and that the other authoring systems taken together are perhaps five times as popular, then the total population of those who are involved in the development of English-language interactive fiction, either as authors of finished games or as system developers and informal support providers, is between 120 (20 x 6) and 250 (20 x 12, plus a fudge factor).

Based on the number of topic threads and responses in the IntFiction forum, 15 may be too high as an estimate of the proportion of Inform authors to T3 authors; the forum activity would suggest that Inform is no more than seven or eight times as popular as TADS. But let’s be generous and say 15. The number who continue, year after year, to be active in interactive fiction is surely no higher than 150; if we include one-time authors, maybe there are 250 people, total.

This says nothing about the size of the fan base, which might be five or ten times as large … although here again, we’d have to decide whether to include one-time curiosity-seekers in the statistic, or only those who maintain an active interest over a period of years. And if the peak experience you’ll have this year as an IF fan is pretending to be a guy who is sticking up an all-night taco joint, what would be your incentive to maintain an active interest over a period of years?

If you feel, as I do, that the medium of interactive fiction is really very interesting in its own terms, and deserving of deeper exploration by creative people, this picture is rather depressing.

Footnote: Here’s a new data point. In this year’s Spring Thing competition, there were 19 voters. I’m sure it’s true that the IF Comp (held in the fall) attracts more voters, because more games are entered, so there are more goodies to try out. Even so … 19 voters, worldwide, is not an inspiring turnout.

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12 Responses to Dead Letter Office

  1. georgek says:

    Jim, I think your questions are critical to the vitality of IF as entertainment and as an art form, but in my opinion you’re relentlessly negative; this biases your conclusions and I suspect puts up a large barrier to anyone who wants to engage with you on the things you care about. You also seem to have little awareness of the things people are doing right now in IF, at least you don’t reference them in your last series of posts, so I think people write you off when you try to create a conversation about how IF can move forward.

    Anyway, I’m done bashing you for the evening, but I feel this needed to be said.

    • midiguru says:

      I daresay you’re right, George. I’m often disappointed by the human race, for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes I find something to be enthusiastic about, but the enthusiasm seldom lasts as long as I’d like. To put my comments about “Taco Fiction” in context, I often give up halfway through on novels that I try to read, because they’re not about anything I care to relate to. I tried to read Scott Turow’s “Personal Injuries” a few weeks ago, but all of the characters are either lawyers or FBI agents. That was bad enough, but the male lawyer was relentlessly priapic and the female FBI agent was a Lesbian. I could see that they were on a collision course, and no matter how it turned out, I was pretty sure it would be distasteful. So I never finished reading the book.

      I’m not sure (obviously) what things you’re referring to that people are doing, that I’m not aware of. I’m certainly aware of Quixe and Parchment, of Undum and Vorple, of the new features in TADS 3, of Erik Temple’s Glimmr extensions for I7, of Jon Ingold’s “Frankenstein,” of Alex Warren’s addition of Web publishing capabilities to Quest. Could you perhaps fill in the blanks for me? What all am I missing?

  2. georgek says:

    I’m certainly aware of Quixe and Parchment, of Undum and Vorple, of the new features in TADS 3, of Erik Temple’s Glimmr extensions for I7, of Jon Ingold’s “Frankenstein,” of Alex Warren’s addition of Web publishing capabilities to Quest.

    For example, you didn’t mention Jon Ingold’s Colder LIght at all. I just checked and you commented in the thread at Intfiction:

    I like the interface a lot. I think it provides enough flexibility for game-play, and it feels very natural. Nice work!</blockquote

    @ http://www.intfiction.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=22&t=4345&p=31394&hilit=jim+colder+light#p31392

    That game attempts to address much of the interface issues you're concerned with. Do you now see it as a dead end?

  3. Conrad Cook says:

    Jim, have you read The Currents In Space?

  4. Michael A. says:

    Nobody gives a crap about interactive fiction in any form? That doesn’t match at all what I’m seeing..

    Although most “modern” presentations of interactive fiction are focused on IOS (or IOS and Android), I am not sure I see a “lack of interest” in interactive fiction here; more the opposite. I think I’ve seen at least a handful of developers/publishers who have jumped unto the interfactive fiction bandwagon just in the last year, and I expect that the number of titles out there is going to grow significantly this year. I forget whom it was that called 2012 the “Year of the Gamebooks”, but I’d tend to agree with that assessment. Unless one wants to make an (IMO extremely narrow) definition that interactive fiction has to exist in a certain form.

    Firstly – few non-idealistic developers will have any interest in Web presentation. It’s almost impossible to convert into a model which earns the developer/author any revenue for their work. Compared to IOS or even Android, the return on investment is simply not worth talking about.

    Secondly – growth can only come with mass market appeal and accessibility. No amount of prettying up the looks is going to make a command prompt an accessible game mechanic, and I’d go so far as to say the same for drop-down/pop-up menus. I’m a big believer in story-telling within games, which is why I implemented an i-f adventure module in one of my games, but even in a game as difficult to get into as this (by mobile standards), I am certain that I’d lose more than half the players interests with that kind of mechanics. Most people who want to do puzzles play puzzle games. Most people who want to do word-matching/guessing games play Wordfeud or Words with Friends. Most people who play interactive fiction, play it to experience a story of their own making. Accessibility means that the games must facilitate that experience.

    This is why CYOA/gamebooks have taken off lately, because it is the format that (at least when done well) lets the players get to the story, rather than frustrate them. Based on observation – I’d say that there are lots of people who actively enjoy this kind of gaming; but like all forms of popular entertainment, it requires that the art-form meet the consumers, not the other way around.

    • midiguru says:

      Thanks for the comments, Michael. I’m very interested to know about what’s going on in the world of iPad and Android by way of IF. Because I own neither device, this is not an area I’m well-equipped to explore. Can you provide names of half a dozen titles, and tell us a bit about how they deliver interactive stories?

      As I’ve noted before, the idea that the player of an IF game “play[s] it to experience a story of their own making” is fairly silly. The story has been made, ahead of time, by the author. The player can do nothing whatever to affect that — not unless the game includes a programming interface! Radio buttons for choosing your character’s traits are NOT creating a story. As an author, I take offense at the idea that clicking radio buttons is an act of story authorship.

      • Michael A. says:

        I’m most familiar with Android, but in general anything that is on Android is almost guaranteed to also be on iPhone (unless its free/non-profit). You’ve already mentioned Choice of Games, which has a fairly large community – apart from their 5 or 6 own books, they’ve published more than a dozen stories by users of Choicescript. You know of Inkle too, of course. Tin Man Games has had great success with their Gamebook Adventure series (up to 10 or so books), and are also on on Android – these are of course traditional gamebooks. Fighting Fantasy has been on IOS for a while; bringing their books over pretty much wholesale – and there are many smaller publishers in the IOS and Android space who have put out standalone books and small series (I know of a handful on Android – without a doubt there are many more on IOS), mostly of the CYOA and/or Fighting Fantasy style variety. Japanese style visual novels are huge on Android, though the story component can be extremely thin in some of them. There are a couple of Z-Code interactive fiction interpreters (ZMPP, Hunky Punky among others) allowing you to play a lot of the free stories out there. Something like “The Forgotten Nightmare” (Android) by Chris Radford tries to avoid the typing aspect of these direct ports of the verb-based gameplay.

        It’s a fruitful area because the cost of entry is fairly low – users generally do not expect very fancy graphics and a basic CYOA framework can be put together pretty easily by someone with programming experience. My own game has a story engine that – I believe – is at least on par with Choicescript, and it was pretty much a week or two of work to get the first version working. A lot of it the material put out there isn’t particularly brilliant (or even necessarily good), but there is a market for this kind of entertainment, and developers/writers will move to fill it.

        I’m sorry if the idea that the reader/player creates their own story offends you, but we’ll just have to agree to disagree about that viewpoint. From my viewpoint as both a game designer and author, that is always the case, though – I’ve received enough feedback from players to know that their imagination interprets my words and takes them places that very frequently I never anticipated or expected. It’s part of what I feel makes the border of storytelling and gaming where IF sits so very fascinating.

  5. Ryan Veeder says:

    Hey there. I am the author of that game Taco Fiction. I wanted to let you know that I am pretty sure my game was not actually the most profoundly meaningful or the best developed IF story of 2011. Due to the way IFComp is judged, the most you can say about it is that, out of a pool of about 40 stories—not even all those released in 2011!—it was the one that a certain group of people liked better than certain others.

    I admit that it wasn’t my intention to create a meaningful or profound experience. (I actually like the story quite a bit, but I’m biased.) There were plenty of games released last year that had Taco Fiction beat on both metrics, though, including several runners-up from that competition. The Play, for example.

    • midiguru says:

      Please accept my apologies, Ryan. I thought the game was kind of fun (though I didn’t play the whole thing). I was just in a foul mood when I wrote this piece, and looking for an easy example of what I think is a general trend in traditional IF. There are far too many games that rely on easy and well-trodden story setups — the space station, the detective story, zombies, or whatever. Your concept was fresh enough, it just didn’t aspire to any heights.

      I’m kind of down on fiction at the moment, across the board, interactive or conventional doesn’t matter. I just have a lot of trouble finding stories that move me. But that may have as much to do with my taste as with the nature of the stories.

      • Conrad Cook says:

        Possibly trouble finding stories that move you is part and parcel of the reason you’re currently finding it difficult to write?

      • midiguru says:

        Not sure how you got the impression that I’m finding it difficult to write, Conrad. Writing is easy for me — always has been.

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