Mailbag: IF Candidates for Porting

What IF story would be best for someone with limited time and resources to re-create as a 3D and even VR game? It would have to be under some license such as a Creative Commons license, where derivatives are allowed and preferably a license that allows commercial derivatives.

Before I answer this, I feel I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t ask why you want to attempt this, and whether you’re sure you’ve thought it through.

Text adventures are good at evocative sense of place (and other events) on a budget; at allowing a huge palette of verbs; at geographical exploration and large game spaces; at (if desired) long play times, sometimes extending over months; at capturing a character’s interiority and viewpoint; at creating a very complicated world state that can offer persistent consequences for the player.

VR is good at intense, 10-20 minute experiences. VR works tend towards limited and simple controls, and require intense asset work for every setting. On many (especially budget) VR systems, they induce the least nausea if the protagonist doesn’t move around that much. Meanwhile, IF levels of world state in VR are a pain, because either that state isn’t visible (in which case, how does the player know?) or it is (in which case, you have to make variations on your assets in order to represent those state changes). Cut scenes and branching narrative outcomes, also cheap(ish) in text, may be very expensive in VR in that they may require animations or additional assets.

Not only that, but any game with a complex parser-based experience is going to be untenable: no one wants to type in VR; you could hook up voice-recognition but it’s likely to multiply the parser errors that are already irritating on the screen ordinarily. There are lots of great one-room IF games, from Rematch to Aisle, that rely heavily on the inventiveness of the player’s input. These would also be a poor match for VR in most instances.

Some similar things are true of 3D games in general, though less so. In a text adventure, you can write a randomized “[The character] is [one of]whistling a jaunty tune[or]staring out the window[or]playing solitaire[at random]” sentence, and you’ve just accomplished something that would take days of idle animation work in 3D.

So that raises the question of what you’re hoping to get by adapting a text game to a very much non-text medium, and whether it wouldn’t make more sense to come up with a new story suited to the affordances of your target medium. The best piece of advice I can offer here is just “don’t do this.” VR is really, really very much its own beast and even 3D console gameplay doesn’t always map at all well to that space.

But, okay. Let’s say that for some reason you don’t want to take the easier route and write a story customized to the storytelling possibilities of VR. What would be the least-awful IF game to port to VR, given minimal development resources?

I’d look for:

  • one room games. There’s a whole genre of these, and having unity of setting will cut your expenses and possibility of player movement issues
  • that rely heavily on examine or a very restricted set of other verbs. Reducing the space of possible interactions will make the game more compatible with a VR user interface; plugging a game that relies on EXAMINE into VR will mean you can use the headset’s gaze-tracking to select items to interact with. Alternatively, you could use voice recognition to drive commands, but we’re going for maximum simplicity here
  • with minimal state. This gets rid of a huge number of one-room puzzle games, because the whole point is to make an intricate puzzle box
  • without other characters present in the room. This isn’t because of VR per se, but characters add a lot of scope to any project. Doing a good job of NPCs is already hard in IF, and then in VR you are likely to want animation, voiceover, lip-syncing, etc. Doable for a professional studio (and in fact a very interesting direction for pro-level VR work) but a challenge for a hobby project working from free IP

I can think of a few games that do come close. Dinner Bell is a surreal single-room piece which leans heavily on searching for things — but most of the fun lies in the writing, which would be lost in translation. Dual Transform is a notionally single-room game with objects that turn into each other — and it’s about virtuality, which is kind of meta. Lime Ergot relies on EXAMINE almost entirely to shift the player’s focus to new things, which sounds promising, except I fear that the telescoping perspective would be nauseating in VR.

Fire Tower is not single-room at all but does rely a lot on setting and examination, and it would make a beautiful environment, if challenging to model.

Exhibition and Ribbons both focus on exploring a space full of items from the perspective of multiple participants, something that might be done with gaze-tracking, voiceover, and a way to swap which perspective you’re currently taking.

Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box is single-room, almost single-object, and has the player USE lots of different parts of the titular item, so the verb structure is simple. This is probably non-jokingly the most achievable item on this list, if you were able to persuade the author and if you have the modeling chops to do a good job of the box’s more esoteric behavior. If you were using room-scale VR, you could let the player walk around the box to find new interaction targets; otherwise, perhaps allow the player some way of rotating the box while seated.

But none of those meets your licensing requirements, and I suspect many of the relevant authors would not be keen to part with their IP, especially if the idea was for someone else to profit off their free work. That doesn’t mean it’s totally impossible that you could find an author willing to team up with you, but you’d probably want to approach it cautiously and demonstrate your skill and commitment to the project.

Meanwhile, here’s what I know of that is already licensed to allow ports:

  • Sierra’s Mystery House is officially in the public domain, but it has both NPCs and a bunch of rooms, together with a somewhat old-school puzzle design
  • Many people have reworked Colossal Cave/Adventure in different ways over the years, but again you’re looking at massive geographical scope here
  • My game Bronze has a pretty open-ended CC-BY license that does modification and redistribution as long as the responsible parties are mentioned (and in fact I know there was someone who started on a visual novel project version, though I haven’t heard that it got very far). However, Bronze contains dozens of rooms, an (admittedly not very interactive) NPC, and a whole bunch of flashbacks, as well as object manipulation puzzles including wearing items and carefully placing objects
  • IFDB also lists a small number of games with some form of CC license, though it looks like most of these are No Derivatives or else Share Alike: the former would forbid porting entirely and the latter might interfere with the commercial intent expressed earlier
  • IFDB lists a number of other works as public domain, though it doesn’t always document where that license is announced, so I’d be inclined to verify the status of anything you chose before getting started

Looking through the public domain list for possibilities that I know conform even slightly to the earlier list of requirements, I see

  • Cook-Off! by S. Miracle, a one-room casual cooking game where you put ingredients together to make new foods

…and that’s pretty much it, though I confess I haven’t played many of these, and it’s possible Charlie the Spiffy’s Quest for the Magic Muffin series holds the answer.

So, realistically, my advice is, in this order:

  • Do not adapt a text adventure for VR. Create a new VR concept. Consider what it is you like about text adventures and figure out how to capture that aspect in a way that is VR-suitable
  • If you can’t create a concept and you want a bit of IF-like-ness, find a collaborator from the IF community who is willing to write a new concept for VR
  • If you really must adapt an existing text thing, pick a good single-room candidate and figure out a way to pitch this idea to the author that will be convincing and not irritating; you may want to get to know some IF authors first socially and feel out the options, and be prepared for a lot of no, because many authors will not wish to allow this — that’s especially true for games with a strong existing fanbase
  • If you want to adapt an existing text thing and you don’t want to have to network/develop credibility with authors first, poke through the public domain stuff and hope you find something that’s a decent fit that I missed, or go for an entry in the Surreal Cooking genre
  • If none of that suits — and I’m sorry I’m suggesting this, but thoroughness compels me — adapt A Day for Fresh Sushi. (Full source is in the Inform manual, and I believe I have said somewhere that Inform examples are can be freely reused, which puts this somewhere in the CC/public domain area; so I probably no longer have the right to stop you.)

    To be clear, this means making a game about looking for objects in a studio apartment while a sarcastic talking fish comments on everything you do, and it would be based on a speed-IF I wrote in 2 hours in 2001. There is an NPC, but an NPC you don’t talk to directly and which, since it is a goldfish, will not be held to the usual expectations for animation and lip-sync.

    You could have the fish respond to the things the player selects with gaze tracking. Please note that this is not a good idea.

  • If you do that, the voiceover performance of the fish is crucial.

A final resource: here are devlog materials from Orange River Studios, who (with permission) attempted to convert the classic Vespers. The last update was in 2014, so I suspect this project may have been suspended. It certainly looks as though it was a substantial amount of work.

7 thoughts on “Mailbag: IF Candidates for Porting

  1. Not only that… porting IF games to 3D “with limited time and resources” it is not practical or maybe not possible, because of that. To build the same level of quality of the prose of an IF game you need A LOT of resources.

    Anyway, I would like to see So Far by Andrew Plotkin as a 3D game. But again, some of the “levels” of it are practically impossible to translate to 3D. But try it, go for the first chapter before the “intro”.

    • Yeah, that’s the first thing that jumped out at me from this request, to be honest. If you’re short on time and resources, 3D game development seems like an odd direction to go.

  2. Vespers, an awesome text adventure that I use to teach my University of Piraeus students about morality. A 3D implementation has already been attempted and seemingly given up midstream.

  3. So basically, the exact opposite of anything by Andy Phillips.
    I would have definitely enjoyed seeing 3-D version of inside woman.

  4. I think A Mind Forever Voyaging would make a great VR game, maybe with the PC as a human protagonist watching simulations rather than an AI. Then you can have the parser interface for the terminal commands and put the headset on for the “simulation” segments.

    Of course, the original AMFV was a product of its time, with fears of a political lurch to the right that could do irreversible damage within a few decades, so it might have to be adapted for today’s, oh wait no carry on

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