You Have Been Eaten by a Grue

Having entered my new text adventure game (“The Only Possible Prom Dress”) in this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp), I figured I really ought to check out some of the other 70 entries and rate them as a judge. Authors are allowed to do this; you just can’t rate your own game.

The majority of entries (around 50 of them, at a guess) are browser-based hypertext (branching) stories written in Twine, Texture, or something similar. I’ve never written a browser-based game, and I’m not sure why I would want to. It’s just not my thing. I write parser games. That being the case, I felt I ought to take a close look at a couple of dozen browser games in order to understand how I might rate them.

I’m not going to mention any games by name here, first because the judging is still in progress and I wouldn’t want it said that I was trying to influence the judges, and second because I don’t want to be too sharply critical of any of the authors, almost all of whom are younger and less experienced writers than I.

A couple of trends, however, are apparent and perhaps worth commenting on.

A broad swath of the entries are nightmare dystopian stories. Only two of the 25 I’ve looked at have actual zombies, but in my notes for a couple of others I commented that adding some zombies would actually have been an improvement.

A couple of stories are about escaping from (or failing to escape from) a bad impending marriage. Another story is about being depressed, sick, broke, and friendless. A story in which someone you love has died. A story in which you’re a social worker knocking on doors, but you’re accomplishing nothing — and that’s the whole story. A short story in which you’re having no luck talking to a real human in an automated telephone help line — and that’s the whole story. A Kafkaesque nightmare involving a nosebleed in a modern office setting. Something with hungry creatures pursuing you. A story where you’re being pursued through Scotland by people who evidently want to do you harm.

I find myself wondering why so many of the authors are attracted to grim, unpleasant topics. It’s not that I’ve never written a nightmarish, downbeat story. In my story collection (The House of Broken Dolls) two of the 15 stories are absolutely negative, with no glimmer of hope or joy. Certainly, bad things happen in most of the other stories — if nothing bad is happening, it’s not much of a story. But one wants to see a glimmer of hope. A lead character who somehow triumphs over the awful stuff.

Possibly the branching story lines of browser-based interactive fiction deepen the problem. A story may have several endings, some of them grim and others perhaps hopeful or even triumphant — but you have to find the happy ending by making choices along the way, choices whose outcome is seldom obvious. That is, you can’t tell whether you’re steering toward the happy ending. Often you can’t tell whether you’re steering the story at all. What appear to be separate choices may all lead to the same following scene. The only way to know for sure is to go through the story several more times, making alternative choices. But who wants to wade through a depressing story several times in the hope that something good will come of it? Not me.

Six or seven of the authors failed to put their name on the opening screen of their game. A few of them can’t even be bothered to rename their game file before uploading it; several of the game files are named “index.html.” This would seem to indicate a certain lack of professionalism. But after all, these people aren’t professionals. It would be a mistake to expect too much in the way of polish.

One of the questions I’m asking myself as I go along is, “Is this a story I would recommend to a friend as worth reading?” So far, I haven’t found a story like that. Four or five of them have points of definite interest, but none of them has me thinking, “Wow, this is really good!”

I wish I could tell you that interactive fiction is alive and well, but I’m afraid such an assessment would be overly optimistic. Maybe the computer delivery medium is just not attractive to good writers for technical reasons (though really it has a lot to offer). Or maybe it’s because an aspiring author can at least dream of greater visibility and hope to make a few bucks by uploading a conventional story to Amazon.

The one thing I will say about my new game is that it’s intended to be fun. There’s a vain and self-absorbed ghost in it, but no zombies. In retrospect, maybe I should have included zombies.

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