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Roundtable: The Interactive Fiction Renaissance

March 14, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

The work of renowned IF pioneer Emily Short has tended to focus on plausible interaction with artificial characters; her company, Little Text People, was acquired in recent years by Linden Lab in part because of her leading work in the field of social simulation.

LA: What does the IF space have to teach other developers?

Emily Short: A vocabulary of interactive narrative. Authors in this space have spent a lot of time, experimentation, and virtual ink on the topic of what player participation does to a story.

We have a lot of examples, and a lot of conversations about, games that convey their meaning through mechanics; environmental storytelling, and stories that are partly about how the reader chooses to discover them; complicity, ethically challenging choices, expressive choices, choices that turn out to be meaningless in retrospect, choices that don't change the events of the story but revolutionize the way you understand that story. Being steeped in all those techniques is a great craft advantage, whether you're writing something text-based or not.

This is not to say that there's no sophisticated thinking about narrative in triple-A games -- of course there is. But IF has been a very productive venue for experimentation. I recommend the Failbetter blog and the Inkle studio blog, as well as the IF Theory Reader, as sources.

LA: Have you seen the opportunity and audience for interactive text evolving in recent years?

ES: Absolutely. We're seeing traditional publishers becoming interested in interactive ePubs and interactive narrative that goes beyond just adding some footnotes or multimedia features to a traditional text, transmedia projects that incorporate several different kinds of production and might include an interactive text component, and Twine and other text games produced by indie communities who never considered themselves part of the "interactive fiction" community.

Several things have happened: One, the barrier to entry of writing some kind of interactive story is as low as it's ever been, and it's easier than ever to make those stories available to readers. It sounds ridiculous now, but 10 years ago we used to have despairing conversations about how we'd never reach a bigger audience because it was economically infeasible to put interactive fiction in a box at a store.

Two, IF has benefited a bit from the rising visibility of indie games in general, which means we have more contact with adjacent but not identical genres and it's easier to get people who might not be longtime text-adventure devotees to play text work. And that also makes a difference to what IF authors think of writing, not for technological reasons but for cultural ones.

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

ES: Communication about what tools already exist, and better development into spaces that are genuinely unexplored, instead of recreating the same old thing. I regularly get email and messages from people saying something like "Oh, hey, I'm making a CYOA tool. Wouldn't it be great to be able to write your own choice-based games?" and I feel a little bit guilty writing back with a list of all the tools that I know are already in that space. (And I'm sure I don't know every single thing in the field.)

Polish and style. A creative tool is this incredibly intimate thing. It becomes an extension of the creator, almost an extra limb. As important as any technical capacity is how much the tool appeals to the user, how naturally it fits. Not every interactive narrative tool is going to appeal to every user, which is a strong reason to have a rich ecology of tools. But a lot of creators are put off by form-factor issues that the tool creators might not have considered at all.

Community. Any kind of sophisticated tool needs a support community, people to give advice to novices and help them over the hills.

Good examples. Any new interactive storytelling platform or tool badly needs at least one cool, compelling work to help new users understand what that platform is capable of. Launch without that, and it's a lot harder for people to understand why they should care or what the affordances of the tool will be.

Publicity. Some of these tools are marketed as game-creation tools exclusively, even though they'd be interesting to people who don't think of themselves as traditional gamers at all, much less traditional game designers. There are lots and lots of applications for interactive narrative -- educational, literary, journalistic, or nonfictional -- and continued growth requires that we reach across cultural divides.

LA: Do you think other companies will start consulting or looking to hire text and conversation game writers?

ES: That's already happening. I get asked on a fairly regular basis for referrals to people with interactive text experience.

LA: What are your thoughts on the current state of the IF community?

ES: The biggest point is that there is no longer "an" IF community. In the early 2000s, that phrase mostly referred to the set of folks writing and playing parser-based text adventures and talking about them on Usenet. Now there are a lot more folks involved, and they're not all talking through the same venues. There are Twine authors and ChoiceScript authors who are coming from a different background and social community than a lot of the Inform and TADS, Hugo, ADRIFT, or Quest authors.

Another point is that IF doesn't all look the same any more. I used to hear a lot of complaints about how IF in, say, 2008 looked the same as it did in 1982 -- blocky text in a little console window -- and that conveyed all kinds of negative things about production quality. No matter how much narrative sophistication or improved programming there might be under the hood, that little window of blocky text was suggesting to potential players that they were still looking at Zork.

Now, though, we're seeing IF that looks like Guilded Youth, like Living Will, like howling dogs, like maybe make some change, or Ex Nihilo, inkle's Frankenstein novel, or StoryNexus's Zero Summer. Some of those are beautiful, some are provocatively frenetic or disturbing, but they're not identical.

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

ES: There's so much good material out there to read and play right now -- short, long, fun, serious, retro, or entirely modern, in just about any genre and for any computing device you might own.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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