No Time To Play

Gamebooks, interactive fiction and hypertext

by on Jun.24, 2011, under Case study, Miscellaneous

Gamebooks were developed roughly in parallel with text adventures, and became fairly popular during the 1980es and 1990es; I remember reading quite a few of them before getting my first computer. (I would have continued, but lost access to my source.)

One would have expected the genre to migrate naturally to computers and especially the Web. But when I got on the Internet, there was little to be found apart from whimsical, quickly abandoned addventures and the high-brow experimental stuff typically promoted by the Electronic Literature Organization. And then there was the modern interactive fiction community, which I discovered around 2004. But the IF community had little love lost for the genre.

Now, that may seem like an odd claim when there are things like Andrew Plotkin’s famous The Space Under the Window or the LOTECH Comp, which ran (in the small) for four years. More recently, acclaimed titles such as Whom The Telling Changed and Blue Lacuna added keyword-based navigation on top of the usual parser, while Walker & Silhouette and Starborn did away with traditional commands entirely. But generally, CYOA works (choose your own adventure, after the famous book series), tend to be frowned upon. And frankly, I find the usual reasons why unconvincing.

See, the general consensus appears to be that the appeal of interactive fiction comes at least partly from a sense of exploration. You don’t know what’s there until you look, and you don’t know what’s possible until you try. But that can also be a problem: when you can try absolutely anything, what do you try? What is valid? What is relevant? A skilled author will gently steer the player in the right direction, but that’s tricky at best, as one person’s obvious is another’s “I would never have thought of that”. And the genre conventions — which greatly help a skilled player — are baffling to newcomers.

Worse, to dismiss games where all the options are laid out explicitly is to dismiss the vast majority of games in existence, beginning with chess. Knowing your options doesn’t mean you know what will happen further down the road… or even that the road is clear at all. Machinery-based puzzles, anyone?

As an aside, menu-based conversation systems are similarly despised, even though the ask/tell system boils down to the same thing… except you have to guess at the available options. And we all know how well that goes most of the time.

I’ve also been told that it’s not really interactive fiction unless it has a fully developed world model, regardless of user interface. But consider an example: say at one point in a keyword-driven game you find a jacket. You can type “jacket” to examine and take it… then you never get another chance to refer to it again. Does it still matter if it’s fully modeled? Might as well be just a binary flag.

Where does hypertext come into the picture? Well, think about it. What difference is there between choosing a numbered option from a menu and typing one of a few highlighted keywords? It’s a purely cosmetic distinction. And you know what else is equivalent? Following a link on a web page. It’s no surprise, then, that people have tried creating gamebook-like stories on the Web, using wikis at first. But wikis, just like normal Web pages, are stateless. For a while, I even pondered augmenting a wiki engine with a scripting language, to allow for dynamic pages. Then I hit upon the right idea. Which led me to discover not one, not two, but three competing systems, all in active development. (And the IFWiki lists even more.) There is interest in this sub-genre. So why the generally negative attitude?

My guess is, beginning authors may be tempted to go for a CYOA piece instead of a parser-driven text adventure on the idea that it’s easier. And because the former are relatively uncommon, a rush job will be all the more noticeable. Also, with little in the way of mechanics to distract the player’s attention, the writing has to carry the burden, even more so than in regular IF.

But there are subtler issues. Simply deciding what choices to offer the player can be difficult, and you can’t just require the same kind of low-level manipulation — in CYOA you need a higher level of abstraction. I seem to remember one game where you had to solve a complex puzzle with some scales and weights… using only numbered options. Suffice to say, I gave up quickly. Then again, the converse is just as possible: I still think Andrea Rezzonico’s Hello Sword should have been menu-driven, the way it restricted your actions at every turn.

To conclude, player interaction in IF is far from a solved problem. Emily Short’s rant about the parser still echoes a year later. But the same Emily Short will tell you that it’s not IF unless it’s text in, text out. Perhaps, as Jimmy Maher points out, What we need is something with the ease of use of CYOA and the flexibility of the parser. Trouble is, it would take some serious experimenting to find that something, and as far as I can tell the community rewards conformance instead, in ways as subtle as having a “Best Use of Medium” category in the XYZZY Awards and none for innovation. (EDIT: turns out, now there is one. Thanks, Emily!) But maybe I’m reading too much into that. After all, this spring there has been such a thing as the IF Demo Fair.

In the mean time, IF is moving to the browser, browsers are increasingly mobile, and modern mobile devices tend to have touchscreens. Which aren’t exactly good for extended typing. 2 + 2 = 4? It remains to be seen.

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Gamebooks, interactive fiction and hypertext by Felix Pleșoianu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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5 Comments for this entry

  • Emily Short

    I believe what I actually said, if you’re referring to a recent ifMUD conversation about this, is that it’s not *what I mean when I say IF* unless it’s text-in, text-out. In other words, nothing to the effect that CYOA sucks or whatever, but that I tend to use the term “interactive fiction” to identify one particular medium with a parser and a world model.

    FWIW, I just recently submitted an article in which I argue that changes in the IF community have us moving towards a broader view of what interactive fiction might be.

    in ways as subtle as having a “Best Use of Medium” category in the XYZZY Awards and none for innovation

    Not true. For years Best Use of Medium was often awarded for innovation, and last year was split out into separate implementation and innovation categories:

    http://ifdb.tads.org/viewcomp?id=fllbmrlzgj09cbfk

    • Felix
      Felix Pleșoianu

      Thanks for the clarification, I was quoting from memory. Also, I must have missed your article. As for my remark about the Awards, goes to show how powerful mental inertia is.

      • Emily Short

        Re. the article, it’s not published yet; I mentioned this to point out that from my point of view, the shift of community attention is not merely happening; it is significant enough to warrant a whole write-up.

        Graphics in text adventures suck… until Future Boy comes along. Combat in text adventure sucks… until King of Shreds and Patches does it right.

        Mrmm bibble. Maybe? (I think I’d pick Gun Mute as exemplifying the kind of combat I enjoy in interactive fiction, rather than King of Shreds and Patches, but YMMV.)

        The fact is that it’s really a considerable skill to pick apart a failed experiment or unpolished demo and say “here’s what I think it was trying to do; here’s what I think worked and what didn’t; here’s what we can conclude about these techniques for the future.” It takes a lot of game design savvy to do that. (Which is one reason why pro game designers and AI guys will often say you shouldn’t show an unpolished demo to non-designer execs: they won’t understand what it means and will take away an overall negative impression from the experience, even if you’ve produced something that is two skilled artists, a UI
        designer and a QA team away from being pure canned Awesome.)

        The other thing is that the IF community is not a monolithic entity but actually includes players who play and writers who write for a lot of different reasons, and the only thing that ties them together is an interest in a specific historical form.

        Which, perhaps surprisingly, means that the community presents an overall *appearance* of being very formally conservative even though it has a lot of individual members who are very interested in branching out in various directions. There are lots of people interested in procedural stories, in IF semi-roguelikes, in IF with graphics, in CYOAs, in browser games, in tablet and mobile games, in multiplayer IF. The demo fair, the questions on the intfiction forum, and the kinds of feature requests we receive for Inform 7 are evidence of all of that.

        But the XYZZY awards and to an even greater extent the IF Comp and Spring Thing tend to reward games that everyone liked at least somewhat. So if you have a formal experiment that a third of the people thought was really cool and interesting and then the rest thought wasn’t really up their alley, it’s not going to place well. It’s not because the other two thirds are luddites or nay-sayers *in general*; they just might be looking for something else. Like, it would take a pretty awesome randomized-combat roguelike RPG IF for me to get enthused about it, because while that might be technically inventive, it addresses none of the things I like about conventional IF: story, puzzles, atmosphere, character, and thematic depth are likely to take a back burner to combat combinatorics, and I just don’t really care that much about that, in comparison.

        So what really gets everyone on board with a new concept tends to be, yeah, a breakout game that everyone agrees is so awesome that it challenges preconceptions and brings along even the part of the community that was mostly looking for something else. It’s not a conspiracy, though.

        *

        I do still think that CYOA is inherently a different medium with different possibilities from parsed IF. The thing about CYOA and your chess analogy is that chess *does* have the functional equivalent of a world model. It has a consistent rule set that allows the player to reason into the future about the results of the actions he takes. So you can know all the affordances available to you — move this knight HERE or THERE, move that bishop THAT WAY, etc. — but the challenge of chess is not just about recognizing those options but about anticipating the options that will open up in the future as the result of present actions.

        A CYOA with no world model or consistent rules doesn’t offer this to the player. All it offers is a set of choices that can be made now. But how do I know what they’ll do? And even if I’m right about what they’ll do, how can I guess what effect they’ll have in the future?

        Sometimes a good CYOA author will effectively include some implicit rules, whether or not they’re procedurally enforced. But many don’t, and that means that the player’s sense of long-term agency and ability to plan an action is significantly reduced.

  • Felix
    Felix Pleșoianu

    Speaking of clarifications: this article ended up sounding like it’s about menus versus parsers. The issue goes deeper than that, but I didn’t want to spread myself thin. Graphics in text adventures suck… until Future Boy comes along. Combat in text adventure sucks… until King of Shreds and Patches does it right. I’ll admit that we applaud successful experiments, but we’re way too harsh with failed ones, though they are just as important. And if an experimental work falls flat on its face, it may not even be because of the experiment, but general poor quality. But guess which cause is normally blamed.

  • matt w

    “menu-based conversation systems are similarly despised, even though the ask/tell system boils down to the same thing… except you have to guess at the available options.”

    Is this true? I think Photopia’s conversation system was praised at the time, Best of Three’s system is menu-driven (though I guess it wasn’t as well received as many of Emily’s other games), and IIRC Alabaster, which was very well received, comes pretty close to having a menu-based system.

    Very nice to see your blog, and I agree that CYOA is interesting; one of the ideas buried in my things-to-do queue is for one.

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