I get a fair amount of email from people who are working at commercial game studios or other for-profit industrial contexts who want to chat about interactive narrative — the tooling, the markets, where to hire authors, what they should think about if they’re setting up a particular project, editorial standards and practices, et al. This used to be a fine opportunity to reply with “Thanks for thinking of me; here’s my day rate.”
Now I have a full-time job at Spirit AI, so I’m not seeking new consulting opportunities and I don’t really have time to take on loads of these conversations for free. I do occasionally fit one in, and lately I’ve started asking companies, in lieu of paying me directly, to give money to the IF Technology Foundation to support the IF community — because the expertise I have, the people I might recommend, and the tools that exist in this ecosystem would not exist without huge amounts of donated community labor over the past two or three decades. And I’d like to strengthen that connection in their minds.
I want this for a variety of reasons. But here’s the argument to people who represent commercial entities: this is about sustaining an ecosystem that feeds you.
The IF community (or, really, the constellation of related IF communities) trains new authors who go into games writing with polished interactive pieces in their portfolios. It develops theoretical foundations for talking about narrative structures, procedural systems, text generation, and types of choice. It builds tools that are used for free to prototype, research, or even finish and release commercial work. It tries out lots of experimental concepts, functioning as an experimental laboratory for interactive narrative.
All of that helps related industries grow, have a pipeline of established workers, and discover interesting new creative angles in a low-risk way. (I’m absolutely speaking from experience here. Spirit — working in the conversational and narrative AI space — has hired multiple people from the IF community. Andrew Plotkin and Aaron Reed both work on my team. We benefit daily from their decades of hands-on experience making authoring tools and dealing with natural language interactions of various kinds. We also include interactive fiction authors in our tool testing.)
The IF community also needs resources. And the commercial success of interactive narrative cuts in several directions — quite a few people who used to do IF as a hobby (including me) now do interactive narrative for games as a job. That’s good for us individually, and I think it’s good for the industry, but at the same time, it removes some of that energy from the hobbyist community.
So. Suppose you want to help sustain and grow amateur and not-professional-yet interactive fiction. What might that contribution be? There are lots of possibilities, but here are some possible starting points.
Support the tools that you’re using to build your creative works.
There are a lot of commercial enterprises using freeware tools from the interactive fiction community either to prototype or to create substrates of published games. I completely understand that if you’re offered a free tool, there’s no legal obligation on you to do anything other than use it — but if the tool becomes an important part of your business, consider that the maintenance and updates are being done by other people, and they’re more likely to thrive with some support.
Twine. Twine has been used as the basis of multiple commercial games, some of which made hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was used to prototype the beginning of Firewatch; it is under the surface in Lifeline; I have seen it used as a prototyping tool for many branching story systems. It’s lightweight, cheaper than something like Articy:Draft, and easy for freelancers to access. Not only that, but a lot of people starting out in games writing build their first portfolio pieces in Twine. Meanwhile, Twine’s active development could be faster and healthier with a bigger infusion of cash. And look, it has a Patreon.
ink. ink is the tool used for 80 Days and inkle’s other projects, and it is now openly available with a convenient Unity integration. It, too, has a Patreon — and Patreon subscribers receive regular mailings with tips and guidance about how to use ink most effectively.
Support the communities that create theory and craft understanding around interactive narrative.
The Colossal Fund has just opened for the year. This collects funds to give out prizes in the yearly IF Comp — hundreds of dollars to the top placing authors.
The IF Archive. Most areas of video game and interactive narrative research struggle to maintain contact with their past — I am constantly fielding email, for instance, from would-be players of Blood & Laurels, a game made unplayable within a couple of years by iOS updates we couldn’t afford to write around. But the IF Archive provides long-term archiving for thousands and thousands of interactive fiction games, as well as secondary materials such as source code, webzines, and tools. The IF Technology Foundation currently looks after the IF Archive, and donations there help to support its ongoing preservation. (Their full list of programs is available on their site; donating to the Colossal Fund also contributes a percentage to IFTF expenses generally.)
Accessibility is another big issue for the IF Community. For decades, text-based interactive fiction was accessible for gamers with visual impairments in a way that most other genres were not. In recent times, that has become less true — more and more commercial or fancy browser-based IF means games that pay their creators more, but are less likely to be playable by those without good eyesight. Establishing standards and improving commonly used tools is a way to try to address this concern. And in this case, too, the IFTF is leading initiatives and can receive funding in order to promote accessibility goals.
Editing and publishing of new stories is Sub-Q magazine’s mission. Each month they publish new interactive fiction, craft posts, and creator interviews. There are several support methods available, but Patreon may be the most accessible. Sub-Q provides an important mechanism for editing and distributing short IF that doesn’t necessarily fit into the brand profile of a Choice of Games, Choices, Episodes, or Lifeline. (One of my favorite recent Sub-Q pieces was Katherine Morayati’s Human Errors — high quality work with no other obvious venue to appear in.)
Writing the history of IF is another valuable project, and here you can find some extremely good work being written by Digital Antiquarian. On this blog, you’ll find meticulous, well-researched material on the history of narrative games and related topics through the 70s and 80s (and now into the 90s). Digital Antiquarian’s Patreon allows supporters to support each new post, and pays for Jimmy Maher to visit archives and museums in the course of his research.
And this is a comparatively niche area, but David Welbourn writes some of the best text adventure walkthroughs around, and curates them online. His work makes lots of hard-to-finish games playable for the average mortal with limited time — another key resource in keeping the history of the form alive. Here’s his Patreon.
Support events that provide learning and networking to new creators.
Here is where something other than straight-up cash can be useful, and where you have the opportunity to build out a network.
IF Meetups often need venues or other similar kinds of support — the London IF Meetup, for instance, has benefitted hugely from having a venue provided this year by London South Bank University. If you have office space or meeting rooms that you can loan on a weekend or evening, and there’s a local IF event, they might be grateful for a free location. Alternatively, they might welcome a sponsor for Meetup snacks or special events.
Twice a month I put up a post of links and calendar events sharing the latest of what is going on in the IF community.
Support individual creators and critics.
Quite a few IF authors have Patreons or similar methods to support their individual work, allowing them to produce stories that might never see the light of day via conventional publication, and to experiment with the boundaries of the discipline. Here are just a few of my favorites (and apologies to others I may have left out — this is not meant to be exhaustive):
Porpentine. One of the great writing skills in the discipline. She engages less and less with the conventional IF community, but she’s continued to write – and if you support her on Patreon you can hear the latest about her work and new releases.
Ryan Veeder. Creates parser IF that’s easy to play, but often surprisingly quirky and subtle under the hood. For his supporters, he also releases source code and other goodies. And he’s recently donated a lot of time to community development by coleading (with Jenny Polodna) the ambitious Cragne Manor project, a parser IF game with tens of contributors. (If you don’t know what this is, stay tuned: you’ll likely hear more about this in due course.) His Patreon.