The Act in Interactive

Yesterday this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp) drew to a close. Seventy games were entered. My entry (“The Only Possible Prom Dress”) finished at #8. Privately I had been betting on #10, so I have nothing to complain about.

Anybody can be a judge in the competition, but of course the judges are drawn from the tiny online community made up of people who already have some interest in and knowledge of the medium of interactive fiction (IF). The only rules are, you have to rate at least five games for your votes to count, and you can’t rate games that you wrote or beta-tested.

I had started trying out the entries, with the intent of voting, but I quickly grew discouraged. I ended up not filing my ratings. Nor did I comment publicly on what I was encountering. I didn’t want to look like a grouch — and of course a few of the authors might be rating my game, so I didn’t want to be a victim of retribution.

In what follows, you need to bear in mind that I’m biased. Naturally I think my game was the best, but that’s not the bias I’m referring to. In no particular order, my two biases are as follows. First, I’ve written a lot of conventional fiction. I have a pretty clear idea, or at least some well developed opinions, about what makes for a good story, or doesn’t. Second, the games I’ve written (“Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina,” “Lydia’s Heart,” “April in Paris,” “A Flustered Duck,” “The White Bull,” “Mrs. Pepper’s Nasty Secret,” “Captivity,” and now “The Only Possible Prom Dress”) are parser-based. I like and understand parser-based games, but they’ve fallen somewhat out of favor.

Parser-based IF was, at one time, the totality of interactive fiction, but in recent years it has been overtaken in popularity by what’s known as choice-based IF. The difference, briefly, is that in a parser game the user/reader/player has to type commands in order to move the story forward. You don’t know what commands will work and what don’t, so you have to think. In a choice-based game all you have to do is click on links. A monkey could play a choice-based game. Quite possibly a human player would be more likely than a monkey to reach the story’s happy ending, if there is one, so we can’t say no thought is ever required. But in a choice-based game, if an option is not visible in the browser window as a clickable command, the option does not exist. In a parser game, you’re encouraged to try oddball commands. You have to engage with the scenario and try to imagine what may work.

Of the top ten finishers in the comp, only three were parser-based — numbers 5, 6, and 8. As it happened, none of the top three finishers was among the flock that I had tried during the judging period. So today I had a look at the top three. I felt that due to my poor opinion of the games I tried, I might be giving choice-based games short shrift. The big winners might be brilliant. And if I didn’t feel deep admiration for any of them, I felt it would be interesting to find out what the judges were thrilled by. To be crass about it, maybe next year I can do better if I know what’s rated as high-quality.

All three (“The Grown-Up Detective Agency,” “The Absence of Miriam Lane,” and “A Long Way to the Nearest Star”) are polished. Their user interfaces are attractive, and the prose is error-free. (A post-comp tester has found an embarrassing number of typos in my game, which will be fixed in the post-comp release.) But to my way of thinking, all three games are dull. In all three, I found myself poking around looking for some reason to be engaged with the story, or even some way to move the story forward. In none of the three did clicking on dozens of links lead to more than a tiny pinch of rising action.

I had rather assumed that one of the things judges would respond well to would be fresh scenarios. And indeed, there were detectable bits of freshness in “Grown-Up” and “Absence,” but neither of them swatted the ball out of the park. Grounded out to shortstop? Maybe that’s too negative. Let’s leave the metaphor aside and move on.

Briefly, “Grown-Up Detective Agency” is a private-eye story about a missing man. I have no idea what has happened to him, because I haven’t finished reading (and I may not bother). The science fiction angle is that the detective, a 21-year-old woman, is somehow accompanied by her 12-year-old time-traveling self. The time travel is the interesting element in the story, but not only does the author fail to explain it, the characters themselves don’t seem to be curious about how the girl has jumped forward by nine years. The dialog between these two versions of the same character is fun, and it’s written in the form of a movie script, so it’s snappy and believable — but meanwhile the story goes nowhere.

“Absence of Miriam Lane” is also a mystery with some sort of fantasy or science fiction element. Something seems to have gone wrong with the light. But the action consists of wandering around in a house looking at things — the piano, things tacked to the refrigerator, a gap on a bookshelf where a book has evidently been taken away — none of which provides even a meager clue about what has happened with the light. To add to the boredom, the things in the house are not described in detail. When the reader/player is interacting with objects, one would naturally hope that the objects would be described in loving detail. Alas. Here again, after poking around for half an hour and getting nowhere, I’m disinclined to go on. What would be the point?

“Long Way” is a hackneyed trope of IF: You’re the only living being on an abandoned spaceship. As in the first and second place winners, we’re plunged into a mystery of sorts. What has happened to the crew of the ship? The ship’s AI is available for conversation, and it seems to have something to hide, as it won’t let you into certain of the rooms. But after exploring the available rooms in a fairly exhaustive fashion, I have found no way to move the story forward. The doors to the crew’s quarters are locked, and I have no way to get into any of them. Adrift in deep space with terse descriptions of objects and no clear objective, other than to be polite to the AI on the off-chance that it has killed its own crew — but the implementation is smooth, and the conversations with the AI are rather interesting.

In sum, it seems to me that the judges tend to be impressed by the games’ presentation, not by the content. “Detective Agency” and “Absence” both make good use of graphics, and “Absence” has a very effective music track that I allowed to loop for 20 minutes before it started to annoy me.

What I suspect (I could be wrong) is that none of these authors has written much conventional fiction. They have, in each case, an idea for what could be developed into a good story, but they haven’t grasped the brutal mechanics of how to move the story forward. This is a difficult challenge in any kind of IF (and in conventional fiction, for that matter), but it helps if you give reader/players some fresh goodies on a fairly frequent basis so as to keep them engaged. Richly written text would be a good place to start.

It’s also possible, if we’re to judge by the effusive comments made in the forum by some of the judges, that many of the judges don’t read conventional fiction. The criteria with which they judge may not be fully informed.

Even with good text descriptions, clicking on link buttons is, inevitably, less engaging than typing commands. Also, the choice-based user interface generally pops up a new window of regrettably sparse text each time you click on a link. A parser game scrolls the text up off the screen, so you feel, if only obscurely, that you’re engaged in an ongoing process, not being spoon-fed disconnected bits.

But that’s the fashion. Maybe next year I’ll enter a choice-based game in the competition. Finding a good source of graphics might be tricky, though. For better or worse, I’m a writer.

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