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Roundtable: The Interactive Fiction Renaissance

March 14, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Indie powerhouse Anna Anthropy's recently published book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, is something of a manifesto for game creation as individual self-expression, and the accessibility and flexibility of choice-based text-game creation tool Twine makes her a big fan.

Since she started encouraging friends and allies in the indie community to try making Twine games, a vibrant homebrew community has sprung up -- notably, there's a passionate and powerful vein of expression focused on the experiences of people who might not have felt welcome or outspoken in the game community thus far.

LA: You've become a big advocate for Twine because of its accessibility. How do tools like that help you in your mission to help motivate new voices in game development?

Anna Anthropy: Twine works for three big reasons: It's free, it's not programming, and finished stories are webpages you can plunk onto the internet. That solves the three big historical barriers to nonprofessionals who want to get involved in game-making: the cost, the skill barrier, and distribution. All of these are huge deterrents.

In our society it's middle-class men who are given the most opportunities in tech fields -- who can afford to go to college, who aren't weeded out by a famously sexist culture -- and ultimately those are the people who end up best-equipped to deal with the barriers to game-making in the traditional way.

LA: What does it mean that there's now a community for individually voiced outsider art?

AA: It means amazing art all the time. This morning I played a game about wandering a surreal psychosexual dream world while taking a nap next to a hot older man on an airplane. There's a game like this every week. Last week it was someone's interactive memorial for his brother who had just died, and a game about someone's experience as a bisexual woman being shamed by an online lesbian community. It's hard for even me to keep up with. I've thought about retiring my blog; the video game community I've always wanted is blossoming around me, and it looks so different from the mainstream. Here's a face of video games whose architects are women and queer people, speaking in a thousand voices.

LA: How have you seen the audience and opportunity for interactive text evolve in recent years?

AA: A few years ago "interactive fiction" was an insular group of (highly literate) nerds sitting around and making games about each other. That interactive fiction scene was very inward-looking: It was all about parser-based stories -- you type what you want to do, the game responds -- which meant that huge barriers to accessibility still existed, both for creators (making a game for a parser is programming) and for players (the language that the game understands is hidden, and has to be learned, presumably from other players).

Interactive fiction now, with hypertext at its center, is outward-looking and outward-expanding. Hypertext is immediately accessible to people who haven't spent the time to learn the vocabulary of the games status quo.

LA: Do you think increasing interest in making text games (presuming you agree such a thing exists!) reflects more audience appetite for storytelling and more sophisticated themes?

AA: Hypertext retains the purposeful, deliberate ambiguity that makes text games a place suited toward exploring themes like social interaction, identity, sex, feelings -- all the stuff mainstream games seem so poorly equipped to tell us about. Twine's explosion was a sure sign that people have been wanting to find ways to interrogate these themes through games, but they weren't able to find a means.

LA: What do text games do that other games can't, and what do you think traditional developers should learn from the current IF community?

AA: How about: Don't be such fucking cowards. While mainstream games like Spec Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami are tiptoeing up to the idea that maybe violence is something we should be worrying about while continuing to let the player inhabit the role of an armed dude acting out fantasies of violence, Twine games are talking about identity, alienation, abuse, sexuality, dysphoria, sexual assault, depression, self-discovery, loss, and D/s dynamics in the cyber-future. Look at these games and be ashamed of how small you've allowed your world to become.

LA: Who are some IF makers you are excited about these days?

AA: porpentine ~ merritt kopas ~ maddox pratt ~ kim moss ~ j chastain ~ madamluna ~ lydia neon ~ kitty horrorshow ~ christine love ~ jonas kyratzes

Failbetter Games is founded on a legacy of passion for interactive stories; the studio is best known for its massive choice-driven online role-playing story Fallen London, but it also plays host to the StoryNexus platform, a browser-based story-game creation tool that even enables writers to monetize their work and build community around it. CEO Alexis Kennedy has long been attracted to the junction of game design and writing.

LA: Why do you think there seems to be so much new interest in making and playing text games, and how does the mobile and tablet space contribute?

Alexis Kennedy: Technologically, there have been attempts in the past to extend literature -- hypertext, interactive fiction -- but the gap between the page and the screen was just too wide for mass adoption.

Now readers are accustomed to text on a screen, thanks to mobile devices and e-readers, and to the degree of interactivity that comes with it. Even if you're just reading a Kindle book, you can share or search for phrases from right there in the interface, and that comes to seem natural. So it's easier to extend or colonize the borders of fiction.

Culturally, it's the mainstreaming of geek. The success of big fantasy and SF franchises, and the tsunami of casual gaming, means that acceptance of game-like activities is filtering out through the demographics.

LA: The accessibility of creation tools like StoryNexus helps democratize the craft of interactive fiction. What challenges need to be overcome in the tools space to keep reaching more people?

AK: The big barriers are "how the hell do I get started?" and "what in the name of God have I done?" Choose Your Own Adventure-esque branching path narrative is great for the first, but deadly for the second: It's easy to get started, but it's also very easy to write yourself into a thousand-branch hole. Programming languages (e.g., ChoiceScript or Inform) are the opposite -- a big initial learning curve, but a saner experience once you get started. Tools like StoryNexus find a safe route between the two.

A secondary issue -- but one that's important as the space grows commercially -- is distribution. You need some sort of mediating technology to read an interactive story. The web is good for this, but finding a way to earn revenue from interactive writing can be hard, compared to the well-established channels for content publishing elsewhere. StoryNexus is trying to bridge this gap, too.

LA: It seems the text space these days is geared largely at moving away from the parser -- and the accessibility barriers associated with it -- and toward interactive reading and choice-based interfaces. What opportunities might this present for designers and game developers?

AK: The traditional text-game approach is a question-and-answer dialogue -- "OK, what do you do now?" -- and largely a synchronous one. We haven't seen much of what happens with asynchronous and out-of-band gaming. On the StoryNexus front, this could mean characters who occasionally email you and ask for a response, or a virtual life where you experience weekly events, or a serialized story. Above all, it means digestible games that can be consumed in small chunks -- that occupy the same niche as web comics, perhaps. In turn, this means wider audiences and more room for experimentation.

LA: It seems you've focused for some time on the social experience around interactive storytelling. Who do you see as the audience for gaming in this way, and what does the community element add to what a lot of people view as a solitary pursuit?

AK: The immediate act of reading is a solitary one, but the context of reading is a shared one, especially when we're reading about imagined worlds. Doyle, Tolkien, Pratchett, Rowling -- all of these attracted passionate fans who wanted to revel in the shared world together, solving the mysteries, arguing over the characters, or just being in the space. That's what community gives a text game -- other people to energize and validate your own experience.

LA: Why is it a good time for people to develop or renew an interest in text games?

AK: The technological and cultural changes I mentioned above have led to an upsurge in text games -- particularly in creative toolsets, which in turn means the range of titles is expanding beyond SF, fantasy, and horror. It's the indie-gaming revolution in miniature.

But in some ways, literature is more like gaming than most other creative forms. Through an accident of technology, games have a strong family resemblance to film, but film is a much more passive medium than literature. The plot in a book doesn't advance until you turn the page. Books and games are both demanding, participatory forms.

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