Part of Adam’s discussion of Slouching riffs on what he says was my view at the time, that this was one of the first IF games to seriously address moral choice. He objects to that view because the player is very likely to explore all the possible endings, and therefore it’s unlikely that they’ll feel much weight in their decision, and also because he doesn’t consider the final question morally all that interesting.
It’s possible I did characterize Slouching that way at some point in a newsgroup discussion – I don’t now recall precisely. It’s not really quite what I would say now, though — and actually it’s not exactly what I say in my contemporary review.
I bring this up not to nitpick Adam’s generally excellent podcast, but because thinking about Slouching Towards Bedlam from the perspective of the current IF scene sent me off on something of a tangent of further thoughts.
So with apologies to Adam, here’s what I would say about it now: Slouching is an early, and still relatively rare, example of parser IF that makes diegetic outcomes depend on a complex set of world model machinations on the part of the player. First you have to figure out how the world model affects the story, and then you have to use that information to bring about the ending you want. You’re likely to luck into several endings you don’t want at the same time.
This is not a desperately hard puzzle, but it does work rather differently from most of the branching narrative endings that existed in IF up to that point, which often (as in Metamorphoses, or Masquerade, or Plundered Hearts) rely on a single endgame choice. Slouching‘s structure is instead is more like what we see in much more recent work like Midnight. Swordfight. or Map. I tried to do something a bit similar with Floatpoint, but that was definitely directly inspired by Slouching. Or, for that matter, you can find this in visual novels – Black Closet is very much the sort of game that requires significant learning before you can steer the story in the direction you want.
I would say that the amount and type of control over the story we have in Map is more satisfying than in Slouching – there are harder choices to make, and they involved characterized humans rather than abstract Lovecraftian evils. But Slouching was one of the first times I saw a parser IF game do this in a meaningful way.
In general, despite how much people talk about how parser IF has more agency than CYOA, in practice, most older parser IF has offered the player virtually no agency that affected plot beats; and diegetic agency is still much rarer in parser IF than in most choice based games, gamebooks, or dating sim-style visual novels. When I wrote Metamorphoses in 2000, having multiple endings was not novel exactly, but still enough of a surprise feature that it got quite a bit of discussion. Counterfeit Monkey also has multiple endings, but by the time it rolled around, multiple endings in parser IF had become far too common to be considered worthy of explicit note.
But that’s an all-linear-until-the-end structure. Parser IF that does even a modest amount of branch and bottleneck is still vanishingly rare. Yeah, you might get a choice of which rooms to traverse first or which puzzles to solve in which order, and maybe if you’re lucky there will be variant outcomes depending on how thoroughly you solved things – but a significant story variation in the midgame? Highly unusual. The reason that Sam Ashwell-style charts and narrative typologies have only made their way into mainstream IF community discussion in the last few years isn’t that parser IF plots are too complicated to chart that way. It’s because they’re usually too simple for anyone to bother.
Likewise, Adam questions the importance of a moral choice if the player is able to SAVE or UNDO and immediately experience some alternatives.
It’s true that some IF blocks off trivial replay partly in order to make those decisions more powerful: most of your choices in Fallen London you can’t undo, though occasionally there were ways to earn or buy a reset. And in Choice of Games pieces, you can’t back up, so if you want to look at another ending, you have to play through the whole thing again. Matter of the Great Red Dragon instructs you, more or less on your honor, to play only once. So there are various ways that people try to get around this.
It’s also true that “you can reset this moral choice and replay!” would have struck me as a pretty significant criticism back in 2003. I might then have said Slouching does a better job than most because, again, to execute a change in outcome, you have to replay a lot of the game to get there, rather than just restoring a state near the endgame. But of course I did play to all five endings at the time, and I would consider playing to all the endings to be the appropriate way to play Slouching.
Over the last dozen years, though, I’ve become less committed to the idea that a moral choice in a game can work only if the player is forced to commit to the outcome of that choice. In Map, it wasn’t having to stick with a moral decision that made it work for me, but the complexity and ambiguity of the choice and the number of factors I had to weigh in assembling an outcome. In Floatpoint, I tried to set things up so that the very act of trying to bring about a particular ending would mechanically force you to encounter more of the reasons why that choice might be a complicated one. (I don’t know how well that worked for people, but it was a consideration at the time.)
Or again, at the very end of Black Closet, I ran into a key choice and it was pretty obvious I would have to replay for hours if I wanted to get back to that choice again. That investment did make me care about the choice somewhat, but it was much more important that Black Closet sold me the choice narratively: here was an opportunity to express a final reflection about who my character was as a person. As it happens, in the event, I knew absolutely which of those three things my particular character would be likely to do: not an agonizing decision, but a solid one instead.
In other words, you can make a game with interesting interactive morality without necessarily pinning the player to a chair. In fact, often the games that have occasioned the most thought for me are not the ones that forced me to experience just one ending. I think I wouldn’t now say that Slouching is a morally amazing piece of work – I feel pretty confident about the right course of action and I don’t think there’s a strong counterargument to be made – but I would say that it showed some of the tools for that kind of work. That was pretty important at the time. And Slouching is still fun, and still doing something comparatively uncommon.
Anyway, there’s a lot else in the Radio K podcast than just the remarks that sent me on this tangent. Adam and Jess Haskins also go on a riff about the value of editors for interactive fiction, and I totally agree with that; in fact I’ve got most of a blog post written on the topic. Adam also talks about the challenges of writing good IF for beginners, IF prose writing, and various other goodies.