The age of accessible platforms coupled with a hunger for deeper stories have set the stage for interactive fiction games to flourish, but longtime IF writer and game industry veteran Jon Ingold believes the tools to create storytelling games have to be accessible, too.
That's why he and his colleagues at Cambridge, UK's Inkle Studios -- a software company founded by game devs -- have created Inklewriter, a new tool for making interactive stories: It's free, and designed for anyone to use.
"I spent a long time in the full on parser-based hobbyist niche, and a lot of that was spent doing experiments trying to make things more 'accessible,'" Ingold tells Gamasutra. "You know, less puzzle-y and more story-y, and then trying to do things to make the parser clever."
Interactive text games have long depended on the parser interface, which relies on players typing simple commands that the game can understand. But the more complex games in the genre get, the more likely it is that players, especially those unaccustomed to text adventures, might be frustrated in their attempts to get the game to understand what they're trying to do. It's a challenge for designers, too, who might find themselves limited by the steep challenge of creating affordances for every option a player might want to execute.
Ingold believes it's the steep barrier to entry posed by the parser interface that has kept text games confined to their niche status. A year and a half ago, he showed one of his games to a colleague he describes as "really keen" to explore the genre, and the colleague couldn't get into it.
"That was when we started thinking, 'okay, this isn't about the content -- it's about the interface,'" he says.
In his view text games indeed can be a growth area for a game industry looking for new ways to leverage a tablet-generation audience interested in experiences that offer deep experiences with simple inputs.
"The thrill for me is making something that comes alive," he says. "And puzzles can do that -- the best puzzles are ones where you get stuck, walk away, solve it at the bus-stop or in the shop or whatever, and you know it's going to work, and go home, and try it, and it does."
Interactive stories where the player is in charge of keeping the narrative moving can offer that same rewarding feeling, says Ingold. "But the minute you type something wrong or can't work out how to phrase it, it's pretty quickly shattered."
Writing for interactive fiction requires many of the same skills and interests as static fiction -- "depth of meaning, a bit of subtext to chew over (most games don't seem to do subtext at all), wit and resonance," Ingold opines. "But then for the interactive side, I think a lot of it is about risk. Games run on risk versus reward, and in a story context that risk can be really interestingly-framed."
When done correctly, an interactive story can offer players the same sense of risk versus reward as any other type of game, where players are offered complex, meaningful decisions the results of which they can anticipate later, hoping they calculated in a desirable way.
That's what the team aimed for with Frankenstein, a new mobile app written by Dave Morris that offers an alternate take on Mary Shelley's classic tale of a doctor creating nightmarish new life. It's already gotten positive reception from the likes of Kirkus Reviews and the Financial Times.
"What we finally did with the Frankenstein app was go full-circle back to something that puts choices in front of you, but with the idea we give you no undo, no stats, so everything is risk."
"It's a pretty extreme take, though, and we're looking at playing with that a little in the next thing we make," Ingold adds. He says the team also hopes to develop stories that offer avenues for exploration beyond narrative advancement. Ultimately, though, the goal is simple: "We don't really want the player thinking 'how do I do...' as opposed to, 'what should I do?'"
The biggest difference between this approach to interactive story and the "choose your own adventure" books so many loved as children is that "CYOA books can't remember much, and can't re-flow the text. Our engine has a lot of power geared toward altering the text within paragraphs depending on what you've done and seen, so while it's not auto-generating any prose, it's certainly customizing right down to the level of the individual words. When that works, you get this seamless flow that's a little bit like the writer is there inside the app, like some kind of goblin making the story up on the fly."
That can be an extremely appealing feeling for game designers, and it's also an approach that should allow interactive stories to be accessible to more players who might not even know how much they'd enjoy it. That's where the Inklewriter tool comes in.
"The first thing when making any game is always tools... that get out of the way, and that aren't too tinkerable, otherwise people spend a lot of time making code extensions and not much time making actual content. It's hard to think about systems and story at the same time."
In the hopes of encouraging loads of people to experiment with Inklewriter, the studio has just announced its Future Voices Competition, where the ten best stories made with the tool will be published worldwide as part of an anthology -- with a $250 first prize at stake, too.
"We're hoping we'll get a few great stories out of Inklewriter, and that'll get other writers inspired enough, or annoyed enough, to come along and try to one up them and do better. Then if people start talking about what they're writing, then I think we could see some really good stuff," Ingold says.
"One day I would like to come back to the parser thing and really fix it, somehow," he adds. "I'd love to make a version that was playable on a tablet or a phone, without typing, and without presenting the user with huge menus of verbs, but that somehow captured that same freedom...but I'm not sure how popular it would be - might just annoy the purists and confuse the more casual players!"
For now, his dream is just to see people having fun making easy-to-read interactive stories through Inklewriter -- already he's seen someone make a birthday adventure as a present for a friend, and someone else developed a story about George Osborne's appearance at the Levinson enquiry in the UK. "We've also been seeing it used by schools for doing creative writing with kids, and that's really nice, too."
Its facility for easily managing narrative branches may lend Inklewriter to good use by other kinds of game developers doing story plotting ahead of development. "That's the kind of thing I want it to be -- a sort of 'WordPad for interactive fiction," Ingold says. "Simple, but useful."