The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)
Paradise describes itself in its comp blurb as a procedural interactive fiction and multiplayer novel. Neither of those are terms I would use to describe it: there’s not much you’d call plot progression. And when I hear “procedural interactive fiction” I usually assume that there’s going to be some text generation or some procedural narrative structuring or some AI-driven characters or something along those lines. What’s here, I’d be inclined more to call something like “a platform for collaborative textual landscapes”.
Paradise is hard for me to judge: it’s a platform for creating IF experiences; it allows multiple people to be logged in at the same time and to chat with one another, though I never saw anyone else when I was inside, and I’m not sure how much it really tries to facilitate multiplayer interactions; it’s very unclear which parts of the environment are by any specific person. I didn’t see any way to create a project with a delineated beginning, middle, and endpoint. Where Seltani is divided into realms, Paradise has lots of stuff connected to other stuff and stacked within other stuff and anything by anyone could be (as far as I could tell) pretty much anywhere.
So it’s kind of more like a big sprawly collaborative art project, maybe, than it is a story or game? I’m not sure. Of things I’ve previously covered on this blog, it probably bears the most affinity to these games of co-authorship.
The part of Paradise that I enjoyed most on my tour was a little room that I know was set up by another reviewer of this competition. Should I credit the submitter of Paradise for this, when what charmed me here was a joke written by someone else at a time after the game was submitted to the comp?
Likewise, am I supposed to be judging this primarily as a player? Or is part of the experience really supposed to be about authoring for this platform? Do I need to spend a couple hours acquainting myself with how to write for it, and judge it on that basis, which is a totally different basis than the one on which I generally judge comp games?
All that said, though, I’m glad to see stuff turn up in the Comp that’s not what I expected; and as a matter of fact I’m frequently exasperated when people use “I don’t know how to judge X” as a reason why X-type things should be categorically excluded from the competition. So I list all these thoughts I had not as a criticism of Paradise or a meta-criticism of its presence here, but as a way of laying out some of my own limitations in trying to address it.
Paradise looks pretty:
…and what it offers is a curious hybrid interface of command line and hyperlink, where clicking a link pastes a correctly formed command into your line buffer. You still have to press return in order to execute that. The command line is also where you type if you want to create anything new.
I say “command line” rather than “parser prompt” because there are only a few verbs at the command line that do things to the fictional-level world model (mostly ENTER and USE, LEAVE to pop up a level from where you are now, and WARP TO for getting places). Most of the things that you can type there are creation-level commands instead: create an object, rename an object, program an object with simple behavior. The programmed behavior can be about warping and spawning.
The world model, meanwhile, is about nesting one thing within another, and you can generally “enter” anything you want. When, e.g., one encounters a vegetarian cookbook lying on a table, an appropriate behavior is to enter said cookbook. It may have an interior description. But this immediately removes any illusion that your character is supposed to be an embodied physical entity in the world, and instead positions you as a sort of floating consciousness that can interpenetrate different orders of thing.
I can’t decide whether this is mind-warpingly cool or really frustrating. It definitely means that the world model is often very different from what it is trying to model: for instance, as far as I could tell, many rooms are modeled as nested within one another rather than being treated as objects of equivalent status. So if you want to make a hallway and indicate that one can go from there to a living room, the easiest way to construct that would be to make the living room an entity inside the hallway. And then if the player types LEAVE from the living room, they will automatically be returned to the hallway. This can work if you’re modeling a tree-branching map, but it’s less great if you’re trying to make one with more interconnection, and it just grates really hard on my brain as a way of representing these things. (I know, I know. I came up from parser IF. It’s my training.)
I didn’t figure out how you’d do many of the features of conventional space-modeling IF (portable objects, lockable areas, characters who wander around and say things, etc.). That’s not to say that the capacity doesn’t exist, just that I didn’t figure it out in the time I had available to explore. It’s also not completely obvious how one would do something more like hypertext: yeah, you could model each node of a story as an enterable object, and let the player dive down deeper and deeper into the hierarchy, but I also didn’t see how one would go about, say, setting variables on the player character that would record past choices. In any case, it seems really antithetical to the purpose of the tool, and none of the examples I saw were about that kind of thing.
So what kind of thing is this for? What it most immediately reminded me of is Nested, an artwork about drilling down through an outline of objects, starting with Universe and making your way down to quarks. Part of Nested‘s charm is the dizzying perspective on our insignificance in the universe and the enormous number of other entities and levels of being:
Not to mention the way it can be surprisingly educational, or at the very least remind you of things you’d forgotten:
Paradise isn’t about building an outline like that, but it is about traversing a hierarchy and making and destroying more things within that hierarchy. And it really does want you to create something: the first thing you have to do in order to interact is make yourself an avatar in which to travel.
So with all that in mind, I spent the last of my comp judging period building a little area as well. If you warp to 8020, you will see a yellow phone box, which is what I made with this time.
This is entertaining but also a bit frustrating. The system strips away all capitalization and a lot of the internal punctuation on any object descriptions you write. If you want to edit an object description, there are some semi-clumsy options that are not as convenient as just popping open a text box and editing it; this is intended, I think, to avoid too much modality, but it just made me feel as though I would be frustrated if I wanted to build anything with a lot of text. I did not, in the time available to me, figure out how to add in-line links within a description, though it looks as though Wade did discover that. The programming elements also felt fairly counter-intuitive to me, though, again, I had only a little time within comp-judging rules to explore all that.
At a slightly higher level, I would also have welcomed the ability to see a little tree view of the objects I was working on in that section and how developed they were. It was very easy to create a bunch of props for a location and then drill down into one of them and forget that its sister props hadn’t been described or edited yet.
So… hm. The area of Paradise where you start seems designed mostly to show how to create very basic things and teach interaction. That’s absolutely necessary. But I think the platform could use a hard-to-miss example area that shows off a best-in-show creation that demonstrates what Paradise can do best. Right now, it’s not quite presenting me with something that makes me say either “whoa, I need to play/read more things like this!!” or “I am inspired! I want to build something with this tool.” But I’d like to be saying those things.
At any rate, it’s interesting, and clearly the product of some refinement already, and I am super keen to see more multiplayer IF experiments.