“Interactive fiction” from the publishing side

Recently I’ve run into a few references to “interactive fiction” where the term doesn’t mean any kind of game, but something more choose-your-own-adventure-like. In the 80s we had Infocom appropriating the word “fiction” in order to lend an impression of literary depth and respectability to its brand; now we have book publishers borrowing interactivity in order to make their publications seem more appealing, particularly to young people. I’m interested in this, but not terribly heartened by the samples I’ve run into recently.

One example is this series of choose your own adventure books aimed at helping “tween” girls make Christian decisions. I assume the author has the best intentions for this project, but — leaving aside the actual content of the decisions — I get the strong impression that the reader is presented with choices each of which has only one rather blatant “right” solution:

In the Scenarios series, each main character is faced with many choices and moral dilemmas. Eventually, they find that their choices have led them into a situation that requires them to make a very difficult and potentially life-altering moral decision. When the story has fully unfolded, and the main character arrives at that moment of truth, the reader makes the big decision for her and then turns to the corresponding section in the book where the resulting circumstances unfold. This places the responsibility for those decisions squarely on the reader’s shoulders, in hopes that she will learn from her personal experience as she lives it through the eyes of the book’s character. She will learn the importance of good decisions as well as the truth about forgiveness and grace. Even when poor choices are made, the redemptive power of Christ is evident as forgiveness is sought, offered and received.

When I was in sixth grade we had a drug awareness program in school that included similar exercises, in which we were asked to pick whether we would Give In To Peer Pressure or Just Say No. Not so much roleplaying, which I can somewhat understand; just picking what was the Right Answer. I’m not sure what this was meant to accomplish other than to make sure the students knew what the teacher wanted to hear.

Though I’m very interested in interactive choice in general, I find this particular use of choice (“you get to choose, but if you choose the Morally Wrong Answer, you get preached at!”) aesthetically repellent and also ineffective as propaganda. This is not a story; it’s a quiz. I have no problem with that in the context of, say, safety training: I once had a job that involved potential exposure to chemical toxins and radioactive substances, and I had no problem being trained with multiple-choice questions about what to do when I dropped a beaker of liquid, or the role-playing scene where I needed to dispose of something safely. But there wasn’t any moral judgment involved there, just a procedure I needed to learn to follow.

I suspect the Christian Morality Storyquiz does the reader a disservice by pretending that life is simpler than it actually is. Unless the reader has some ability to share the protagonist’s temptation, it’s easy to piously do the right thing on her behalf — and for that experience to be nothing like preparation for real world situations. (Not to mention that sometimes you can do what you absolutely believe is the right thing and still hurt someone’s feelings thereby and face unhappy consequences.) So it all sounds a bit plastic. And most kids old enough to fit the “tween” category are old enough to smell the artificiality a mile off.

The second example comes in the form of a press release emailed to me:

Writers of interactive fiction for the 21st Century wanted

mifiction calls for entries from established and aspiring authors to create modern day interactive fiction –

UK, October 13, 2009: mifiction, an innovative online publisher based in the UK, is looking to reinvigorate interactive fiction using the latest in modern technology, and your writing skills.

In an effort to encourage authors and to find a host of exciting and imaginative stories, mifiction is hosting a writing competition which is open to anyone with an interest in interactive fiction and a passion for writing.

About the competition:
Aimed at writers who are enthusiastic about teen fiction, mifiction is encouraging authors over the age of 16 to submit entries from almost any genre…

It turns out that what they’re looking for is choose your own adventure stories that can be delivered in snippets of 150 words, the better to display on a mobile phone.

This is a fairly restrictive form, I feel, and I’m not encouraged by the fact that the very first snippet of their example “interactive fiction” contains the text “You can sees it now…”.

But what bothers me about it even more is the recommended implementation structure. To avoid uncontrollable amounts of content, the guidelines suggest that story branches should reconnect to the main storyline. However, the system does not track variables and has no preserved state other than the fact of which text we’re currently looking at. So player’s past choices are forgotten and disregarded as soon as the story rejoins, which means in practical terms that none of one’s early choices will matter. (Unless — one could argue this — viewing one branch rather than another significantly affects the interpretation of later material. But that’s a bit meta.) In any case, what they’re implementing could be implemented equally well as a series of very simple HTML pages, with none of the complexities to be found in more sophisticated literary hypertext software.

That said, first prize in this competition is 300 UKP (about $490 at present exchange rates), for what I suspect is substantially less work than entering the IF Comp once. So hey, perhaps someone will find it’s worth trying to wrangle an interesting interactive experience out of this extremely bare-bones format.

Speaking of contests

“Citizens for Global Solutions” (about which, I confess, I knew essentially nothing until today) has posted a contest for interactive fiction dealing with global concerns and their solutions. (That includes human rights issues, global warming, nuclear proliferation, etc.) Their definition of interactive fiction is a bit different from mine, but it sounds as though text-based IF would count among the things they’re looking for.

There are cash prizes ($2000 first place, $1000 second place, $500 third place, plus a people’s choice award). Submissions are due November 17th.

Minotaur in a China Shop

Played a few rounds of Minotaur in a China Shop, which is sort of a time management game — only not really. In the time-honored fashion of the Diner Dash games, you’re waiting on customers who want items from your shop (in this case, fancy china pieces) and who get more impatient the longer you take. Only (in distinction with Diner Dash) you have to physically maneuver your way around the stalls and stands, using clumsy controls that make it pretty much inevitable that you’ll knock a few things over on the way. Which makes perfect sense considering that you’re half bull.

Fortunately, your condition is recognized by a sympathetic society, and you have Rage Insurance: should you become too angry (as manifested by breaking a lot of stuff all at once), your insurance will pay out for everything you break. You can make a lot more money in a given turn by smashing your plates deliberately and giving up on the tedious and fiddly task of customer service. Leveling up options primarily enhance your rage capacity, as you can buy new maneuvers with which to destroy china, and more expensive china to destroy. So you end up with a game where the fun gameplay all comes from being antisocial, defying the expectations and desires of the nitwits who come into your shop with little heart-meters floating over their heads. While I play time-management games from time to time, I occasionally develop a certain resentment for the message that customer service people should faithfully put up with even the most absurd and demanding customers.

I’m not sure I share Play This Thing’s characterization of the game as an explanation of the financial mess we’re now in, but from an educational point of view it does concisely demonstrate the whole concept of moral hazard.

It’s not really fun enough (in my opinion) to be worth more than about three rounds of play. But as a comment on a social situation — and, simultaneously, a joke on a whole genre of casual game — it makes its point.

Unpersuasive Games

Budget Hero is a game in which the player gets to select a series of policies on spending in the US: taxation policies, social security management, defense, health and human services, housing, education, research, and the ever-popular miscellaneous. In structure, it reminded me a bit of Red Redemption’s Climate Challenge game (where you similarly play cards to affect European policy and budgeting), but Budget Hero is more streamlined and playable.

That said, I had some issues with it.

Continue reading “Unpersuasive Games”