Inform 7 for the Fiction Author

Jeff Nyman recently raised the idea of having a guide to Inform 7 specifically written for an experienced fiction author without background in IF, and I posted a brainstormed outline for such a project. The formatting was pretty ugly on Usenet, though, and I had a few ideas for revisions, so here is another, longer and better-laid-out version of the same thing, with more links to relevant games and articles.

This still isn’t nearly into the shape I would use if I were actually going to write this book — and I don’t have time to do any such thing right now anyway; I have a bunch of things to do for Inform 7,, and the long-neglected theory book before I could take up a project of this magnitude. (And I’d like to have a little time to work on a WIP of my own — IF support work has pretty much wiped out my time for that kind of thing lately.) But possibly people will find the brainstorming interesting, even if it isn’t worked up into a complete document.

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Data Visualization and the State of the Union

While I’m on the topic of games and IF with educational or persuasive value, I should mention (though I’m not sure how to place it relative to everything else) the State of the Union explorer. It allows the reader/player/experiencer to explore statistical information about the State of the Union addresses, discovering which words gain and lose prominence in political consciousness, and comparing any two specific years in overlay.

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Educational and Editorial Games

Lately I’ve played a few rounds of Electrocity, a simulation game by a New Zealand power company in which the player gets to manage the power supply for a young city. It’s designed to be played by school kids, so the interface is deliberately a bit simpler than for most sim games, but otherwise it basically works in a familiar way: you have various resources, and you can build things (mines, gas wells, airports, hydro-electric plants) and clean them up. At the end of the game, you’re scored on how well you did at building a large population, a clean environment, and a steady power supply.

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On Stephen Bond on Player Freedom

Stephen Bond recently (very recently, I think) posted an essay on player freedom, essentially arguing that IF shouldn’t be about offering the player moral choice, and that not forcing the player to make a specific choice is a kind of artistic abdication, giving up the opportunity (or the responsibility) to Say Something.

Now I’m about to disagree with him, at some length.

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New Media, not IF

I wish I were more interested in forms of new media other than interactive fiction. There are all sorts of experiments going on in digital art and poetry, but often they leave me cold; I sense that the interactivity of the form has become an excuse for the author to avoid not only meaning but even the constraints of craft. Quite frequently I emerge from an encounter with a digital artwork feeling that I have gleaned no more than I would have if the author had given me a box of words, individually printed on scraps of paper. Some themes and possible intentions emerge, but the responsibility for arranging them in an interesting pattern falls too heavily to me, and the work has too little structure to be aesthetically appealing.

Compared with some of these experiments, IF is downright conservative and constrained.

I felt this way — confused and a bit alienated — about three of the four current pieces in the New River Journal. But I do quite like the concept of the Poetry Cube, which rearranges the order of lines of a poem, presenting them as though they were arranged in a three-dimensional grid. I’m not sure that most of the entries here actually make good use of the medium, but the idea that the lines should be readable in multiple orders is a formalism which at least allows the possibility of craft.

Still: this kind of work applies interactivity to text in a way that is quite alien to most interactive fiction. The most successful pieces of digital poetry I have encountered are the ones that permit the reader to explore thematic strands in the text; the interactive aspect involves co-authorship or (better) interpretation. The poetry cube goes further, inviting the user to create his own text under the constraint that it should be interesting when algorithmically shuffled and rotated; it is not a work of art or poetry in itself so much as it is a form. But this is a little atypical in my (limited) experience.

Thematic interactivity seems largely incompatible with the kind of interactivity we usually see in IF, where the reader/player takes the role of a character and controls actions (perhaps making important choices within the plot) but does not have the power to change or select the thematic content. The closest we get are the works (“Exhibition”, “Common Ground”) that offer the player multiple avatars with different concerns and perceptions.

I can’t decide whether I think there is room in IF for more thematic interactivity. Most of the explicit controls I can think of — like allowing the player to change genres, or tell the game to produce more melancholy text — seem rather lame, breaking the player’s immersion in the game or requiring too much work on the part of the author. Nor are they fine-grained enough to get at what is actually interesting here: the numerous and subtle connections between concepts, which we can choose to recognize or ignore. Is the homeless man who appears in scene 3 really angelic, and does that lend a new significance to the winged statue in scene 10? One might answer yes or no; but how does one make this interactive? Allow the player to express (within the game) which he thinks is the case? And then extrapolate, from this, results for the remainder of the text?

Put like this, it seems impossible: a domain for interactive poetry rather than for interactive narrative.

Theory of Fun For Game Design

Just added a review of Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun For Game Design to the site, plus some related thoughts about flOw, Super Columbine Massacre, etc., which will no doubt all seem much less topical in a couple of months. Still, there it is.

(Edited to add: Koster’s blog contains a recent thread of discussion about games and art, including links to some other reviews that are a little less IF-centric.)