So, Do We Need This Parser Thing Anyway?

…or: What does it mean to be writing interactive fiction?

When asked about outreach prospects for IF at PAX East, I said this:

We have a two-part accessibility problem.

One part is the interpreter: people don’t want to download separate files and don’t want to have to figure out file formats. That structure is unattractive and increasingly out of step with the way casual players play games — and especially with the way that they’re persuaded to try new work. We (as a community) are working on that by developing better browser-based interpreters and making it easier for people to publish material to websites. It’s not true that there’s been no Java Glulx terp at all, but it required its own downloading and does not offer the option of creating an attractive game display within a browser window. Just the last couple of months have seen major strides on this front, with both Quixe and ZMPP reaching the point where they can play Glulx games in a browser window. Zifmia is a project to present games from a server interpreter, while FyreVM is an experiment in letting authors customize their output with channel IO. For TADS 2 there is Jetty, and Mike Roberts is actively working on changes to TADS 3 that would make it possible to do web service of those games. So we’re making a lot of progress here.

The other problem is the parser. When you look at novice reactions to IF — found in responses to IF games posted on indie gaming sites, or in student reactions to playing IF for the first time — the initial reaction is often enraged frustration with the parser. The first few (or few dozen) moves of a new player’s interaction with the game often consists of many many failed attempts that do not move the game forward in any way.

This is alien to most gamers these days. These days, even fairly difficult console games usually guarantee that at the beginning of the experience it’s just about impossible for the player to do something wrong or to fail meaningfully. Interaction options are introduced gradually. By contrast, most IF games are not designed with any kind of tutorial mode or game-opening section, instead offering (at best) a lengthy menu of instructions. There are exceptions (Dreamhold, Blue Lacuna). My own recent games have included an optional tutorial mode (which I think of like training wheels) that give turn-by-turn contextual advice to the player based on what’s currently happening.

It’s not clear to me how well those games have worked in attracting novices and making them comfortable with IF, however. (I just don’t know: I’d love to hear about it if, e.g., there were a bunch of Blue Lacuna players who got acclimatized to IF through that approach.)

Fundamentally, however, we’ve got a bigger problem, which is that the command prompt is a lie. It tells the player “type something, and I’ll understand you.” Which it won’t.

Continue reading “So, Do We Need This Parser Thing Anyway?”

More post-PAX

Some more accounts of IF conversations at PAX East, covering a wide range of things that came up in discussions and panels:

Paul O’Brian
Sam Kabo Ashwell
Iain Merrick
Sarah Morayati
Andrew Plotkin

The question of outreach was especially dominant — how do we get IF to more people, how do we make it easier to pick up and play, and can we earn money from it?

That last point doesn’t feel as pressing to me as the others. I’d like to see a wider audience; I’m not sure that selling is hugely important. I care most about some other forms of IF evangelism. I gave my pocket manifesto more than once at the convention, but here it is again, for those who weren’t there:

IF has a lot to teach about interactive storytelling, and we should be sharing the discoveries of the last 10 or 15 years with mainstream gaming and interactive literature communities. I was much struck — and a little depressed — at GDC to find that many writers talking about their work for commercial games still very much framed the discourse around what storytelling options are not possible in videogame format.

There seemed to be less focus on what can be done with interaction that is unique and effective: the value of player-controlled pacing to manage exposition; the interesting effects to be gotten from the player/protagonist distinction; the pleasure (for the player) of being essentially an improv actor with a set character; the rhetorical capacity of a rule-based system, as explored by Ian Bogost but applied by him mostly to political and advertising games; the narrative possibilities of short games intended to be replayed (as opposed to the lightly-branching long games the commercial sector typically creates).

The good news there is that there’s an active thirst in the commercial game industry for what IF has to offer. My experience at GDC was that a surprising number of developers had heard of us; a lead at one company even told me that they really want to recruit experienced IF authors and would be interested in interviewing anyone I could recommend. (If you want to know more about that one, email me.) The packed and overflowing IF panel at PAX may be another kind of indicator.

I don’t mean this to sound defeatist, and I think there are a lot of ways we could make classic text-based IF more accessible to new players, and that we’d draw in a lot of folks that way. On the other hand, I don’t expect that IF as such will ever be mainstream in the sense that movies are.

On the other hand: I do think we have a potential role to play in the bigger arena of developing interactive storytelling as a field, and the cultural impact of that will be huge.

Transmission from the front

PAX East is awesome, though with the frustration that rooms are too small and things fill up before everyone gets in who wants to. I was sorry to miss the Wil Wheaton keynote, which was reputed to be cool.

I was also sorry (though kinda surprised!) that there were a bunch of folk standing in line who got turned away from the IF storytelling panel. I’m assured that the panel was recorded and will be made available in the future, though; and there are some notes online courtesy of Jenni Polodna.

In other news, if you’re at PAX East and would like to chat with IF people, you should come on up to the IF suite. (Open Saturday from noon to midnight or thereabout.)

That’s in the Hilton, room 2305. (Leave the Hynes in the direction of the food-courty stuff, go through the Sheraton, cross the street to the Hilton. No, I don’t know the compass directions. You don’t need a PAX badge to get in.)

Latest PAX East Stuff

Due entirely to the efforts of people who are not me, PAX East has even more IF content than expected.

— The Get Lamp screening will be accompanied by a panel featuring Andrew Plotkin, Brian Moriarty and Steve Meretzky.
— The recently-announced PAX schedule also includes a session of ACTION CASTLE, an RPG where the GM plays a human IF parser.
— The IF hospitality suite will host a panel on IF outreach to the indie and casual gaming communities featuring Jason McIntosh and Andrew Plotkin with Chris Dahlen (who has written up some IF for the Onion AV Club) and John Bardinelli (regular contributor to Jay Is Games coverage of IF)
— There will also be an unofficial panel on adaptive difficulty strategies, featuring Jim Munroe and Aaron Reed talking with Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games. Gilbert’s work includes a number of excellent graphical adventures, including Emerald City Confidential.

I’m especially pleased about the latter two events: it’s cool to revisit IF’s roots, but we want to look forward as well as back. Thanks to everyone who’s worked on putting this together.

PAX East update

Panel acceptances for PAX East are coming out now, and there will definitely be IF content:

Congratulations, your PAX East panel submission of “Storytelling in the
world of interactive fiction” has been accepted. We tentatively have
you scheduled for Friday, March 26th from 5:30pm – 6:30pm in our Wyvern

We have the following title and description for your panel:

Storytelling in the world of interactive fiction

Text adventures have been quietly experimenting with narrative gaming
for thirty years. Five authors from the amateur interactive fiction
community discuss the design ideas in their games — reordered
storylines, unreliable narrators, deeply responsive NPCs — and how they
apply to other kinds of games. (Rob Wheeler (mod.), Robb Sherwin, Aaron
Reed, Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin)

Get Lamp is going to be screened later that same Friday evening — 9:30 PM, it looks like..

More on Boston PAX

As zarf notes over here, we’ve submitted some panel suggestions to PAX East (and other people are welcome to do more). That’s Boston, March 26-28, 2010. Definitely planning to be there, besides me: J. Robinson Wheeler, Robb Sherwin, Aaron Reed, Andrew Plotkin, Mark Musante, Jeremy Freese, Juhana Leinonen, Jonathan Blask, Sam Kabo Ashwell, Jacqueline Lott Ashwell, Dave Cornelson, John Cater, David Welbourn, Iain Merrick, Jesse McGrew, Christopher Armstrong, Nick Montfort (part of the weekend); possibly Stephen Granade, Mike Rubin, and Jim Munroe; Jason Scott, almost certainly premiering Get Lamp.