1893 – Bringing a real setting to life in Interactive Fiction

October 31st, 2012 Comments Off

Interactive Fiction allows a player to explore their setting like no other medium. In static fiction, the author can move his protagonist quickly from location to location, perhaps polishing off in a simple paragraph details about the main character’s morning – waking up, getting out of bed, going downstairs, grabbing his hat and coat, etc. Writing the same sequence in interactive fiction requires far greater attention to detail. In static fiction the author creates a linear narrative that the reader must follow, while in interactive fiction the author only suggests a direction for the player, then lets the player decide how to get there. After the author provides motivation for the character to get out of bed, it is up to the player to decide when and how he does so. And along the way, questions arise: What does the bed look like? The sheets? What’s under the bed? In the dresser? Can I take a shower? Change clothes? And so on. Each question is answered through careful coding by the author, each answer requiring more thought about the specifics of the setting.

The traditional player character of Interactive Fiction, the nameless, faceless *You*, serves to focus attention away from character toward setting, in effect transforming the setting into the protagonist of the story. When thinking back on something like the Zork series (Infocom), one usually thinks about the setting – the Great Underground Empire, not about the adventurer who explores it.

Building a game based on a fictional setting is difficult enough, and requires at least twice the consideration put into writing setting for static fiction. Creating a game based on a real life setting is doubly onerous – not only must you be detailed, you must also be accurate. The amount of research that needs to be done to get the details right, or at least right enough, is daunting. It is for this reason that very few works of interactive fiction written so far are based on real life settings, even though the very first adventure game, “Adventure” (Will Crowther and John Woods, 1977) started out conceptually as a model of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

I knew what I wanted to accomplish when I began writing 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery, but had no idea how to achieve it. I wanted to recreate the Columbian Exposition of 1893, an important historical place and time for the city of Chicago, to build a virtual model that could be entered, explored, and lived in. I wanted the setting to be fixed in reality enough to work as an educational model, but also be flexible enough to allow for an entertaining game. It took me four years of working on the project to bring it to a state that satisfied my goals. Along the way, I learned quite a bit about what not to do, and a little about what seemed to work best. I’d like to share some of what I learned here, about what kind of setting to choose, a good approach to research, and finally, coding the game itself.

Choosing a setting

Chances are you’ve already got a setting in mind for your game. If not, here are a couple things you should think about when making that choice:

Choose a setting that interests you…

Don’t pick a setting just because you think it would make a real nifty game. Pick it because you have a genuine interest in that particular place. Ask yourself a simple question: Would you want to research this setting even if you weren’t writing IF? Use IF as an excuse to do research you’ve always wanted to do but never had the time, not as the sole reason you are doing the research at all. Otherwise, there is a strong possibility you will lose interest in the project before it is finished, or take too many shortcuts and leave the setting hollow and unconvincing to players who really are interested.

…but not just you.

You may in fact find your dorm room to be an incredibly fascinating place, but chances are you are alone in that outlook. Your college campus is probably similarly uninteresting to the vast majority of potential players, so too is the quiet suburban town you grew up in. Historic sites are good, as are major cities, small islands, or tourist destinations. You can choose something well known, like the Tower of London, and your game appeals to thousands of potential players who have already been there. Or choose something obscure, like the Isle of the Coconut Monk in southern Vietnam, to pique the curiosity of your players and leave them curious to see the real place for themselves, one day.

Yes, but when?

Your setting is a place, defined not only spatially but also in time. When does your adventure take place? Perhaps you want to set your adventure at the Pyramids of Giza. But when? Will the player character be a slave, building the pyramids for his masters in ancient Egypt? A modern-day tourist? Or perhaps your story takes place during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, your player character a French soldier who discovers a secret entrance. Or, like “Lost New York” (Neil deMause, 1996), you may add a time travel device to show how your setting changes over time. Whatever you chose, keep in mind the amount of research you will have to do to make your setting come alive.

When I first began writing 1893, I conceived of an elaborate framing device: the protagonist was a modern-day Chicagoan, who is caught in some kind of mystic temporal vortex emanating from the present-day Japanese Garden on the Wooded Island of Jackson Park, to appear back in the Japanese pavilion of the 1893 Fair, where the game would begin. I coded quite a lot of this introduction, including Lake Shore Drive, the exterior of the Museum of Science and Industry, and the present-day Wooded Island, complete with a mysterious stranger who…

Well, it doesn’t matter. I spent several weeks on this angle, then threw it all away. I finally realized that the eyes that would look on the 1893 Fair from a modern perspective needn’t be the player-character’s eyes — the players themselves would bring that outlook to the game with them. All that I had to do was create the world of the Fair, and the modern-day interpretations could take care of themselves. (I did receive some criticism about this approach, incidentally, from players who felt I should have been more explicit in how the player should feel on seeing certain aspects of the past, such as race relations or woman’s rights. But I’m quite happy letting people think for themselves and draw their own conclusions.)

Doing the Research

Once you have decided on a setting, its time to delve more deeply into that setting than you have before. Ideally, you should already have read something, watched an interesting program about the place, or even visited it before, and know a bit about it. Now it’s time to dig deeper.

Become an armchair tourist.

If you’ve chosen as your setting a place that still holds interest to tourists, there is no better place to start your research than in the travel section of your local bookstore. Travel guides often contain detailed maps that can help get you started creating your game map. These maps make an excellent starting point because they often are already simplified from what exists in the real world, with many small side streets omitted, saving you from doing some of the paring down yourself. Travel guides such as Lonely Planet Guides also contain a great deal of background information about the place you are going to write about, and often references to further material.

Visit your local Library.

Pull all the books the library has about your setting, get yourself a table, and start skimming. Check out the ones that appear to be the most worthwhile in terms of information and especially detail. Photographs are extremely useful to learn the details of the setting you are bringing to life. If you are recreating an historical setting, no older than 100 years or so, seek out some printed material about the setting that was published at the time. Larger research libraries should have extensive newspaper archives. You never know what you might find! While doing research in the Chicago Public Library, I came across a complete collection of English language newspapers published in 1930′s Shanghai! If you are recreating an historical setting, make sure you spend time researching the time period in general along with the setting in particular, to gain valuable information about the food, clothing, and habits of the people living then.

Visit the Site.

Nothing is more important than being there. If at all possible, you must go to the site. If you’ve been there before you decided to write interactive fiction, you probably need to go again. Don’t go until you know everything you can about the place from your readings. Too many times I’ve gone somewhere, looked around, and left, and later found out about something particularly interesting that was there, but that I walked right past without noticing because I didn’t realize its importance.

Being at the site is the best way to pick up a lot of incidental details that otherwise you would never know anything about. Walk around. Take pictures or video of everything you see. If you don’t have a map, start making one. Take note of the weather, how the air feels, smells. Listen carefully, what are the sounds that you hear? Touch everything you can. Find a few obscure details and make note of them.

I’ll never forget the day I visited Aya Sophia in Istanbul. I felt like I had been there before, because before traveling to Turkey, I played the graphic adventure “Byzantine: the Betrayal” (Discovery Channel Multimedia, 1997). I was shocked and pleased by how faithfully the game replicated the real mosque/cathedral, right down to the tower of scaffolding which helped support its dome. I knew, without asking a tour guide, that there were stairs to the balcony, and I knew exactly where they were. I knew, on leaving the church, if you stopped, turned around, and looked up, you would see some beautiful mosaic work. Graffiti on a balcony railing, which I supposed was the invention of the game, turned out to really exist. But most impressive of all was the fact that I even recognized the singing of the songbirds outside the Church – they were included in the ambient noise of the game. The sound of songbirds, the graffiti, the scaffolding – none of this would have been part of the game had the developers not actually physically gone to the site and explored it themselves.

Talk to people.

It turns out that no matter what setting you turn your interest toward, someone else has done the same. And they have been doing their own research for years before you even got started. Dropping by the local historical society will turn up plenty of these folks, with more interesting anecdotes than you could find in years of researching on your own. Some places conduct tours of famous sites, when you visit, join a tour, and chat up the tour guide afterwards. One day, late in developing 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery, I met a gentleman who had been conducting bird watching walks on the site of the grounds for the past thirty years. He could tell me which of the birds we were seeing were likely to have been on the site at that time, and which were introduced later (and by whom!). He could even point out the trees that were there at the time, and still alive today. Don’t be afraid to visit experts, chances are they will be delighted that you are writing a computer game about their favorite place, you may even find you’ve got a whole new group of players eager to try it out when you’ve finished.

Do too much research, but know your limit.

In general, when you have finished doing your research, chances are you’ll find that you only use about 1/10th of the information you’ve collected – and that strikes me as just about right. If you try to cram everything you’ve learned into your game, your narrative will quickly become buried in a sea of irrelevant information. The details you have learned but did not include are still valuable – they help you know what not to put in your game, to avoid anachronisms in an historical setting. Little leftover bits can wind up in character conversations, perhaps as asides, or in object descriptions, giving your game world a seemingly effortless depth. That said, you’ve still got to know when to call it quits when studying. Keep in mind you aren’t writing your Master’s thesis, you’re writing a game. I knew I had gone too far when I was sitting in the archives of the Chicago Historical Society and I called up a box of personal correspondence from the Director-General of the Columbian Exposition. As fascinating as it was, it bore absolutely no relevance to the game world, so I quickly put it back, and spent the rest of the day at the 57th street beach instead.

Building your world

There are many different recommended approaches to coding. The aspects I will touch on here refer exclusively to building a model of a real-life setting in your game, the setting as protagonist.

Simplify.

No matter how exact you want your model to be, it will still have to be vastly simplified from reality. Consider that just one exhibit hall at the 1893 World’s Fair, the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, housed thousands of exhibits, on its main floor and gallery, in a space larger than five football fields. In the game, I chose 16 representative exhibits in 23 locations – and even that made for a very large area for players to explore. In “Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels (Bob Bates, Infocom, 1987), you can walk from Trafalgar Square to Whitehall in a single move. And why not? While spending time on the road in-between would be more realistic, it would also be a lot more boring.

It’s never too early to start.

The only way to really understand what you need to find out about your setting is to start coding it. Modern IF tools make it very easy to create a room and play-test it immediately. Build the entryway to the Palace at Versailles, or the approach to Angkor Wat. As your write the location’s description, you will begin to know exactly what kind of additional research you will need to do. Questions will arise that need answering – what catches the eye at the entrance? How big is that chandelier? Just what the heck is a ‘Gobelin’ tapestry, anyway? Writing rooms helps to bring gaps in your knowledge of a place more sharply into focus. As your setting solidifies, don’t be surprised if your original ideas about the narrative flow of your game begin to change. New possibilities will present themselves, growing organically out of your setting. Don’t believe anyone who says you have to map everything out before you start. There is even suggestive evidence that great writers and poets like Shakespeare would create as he wrote, making it up as he went along, though keeping to a general outline/goal/story as he went.

Make things up.

Once you’ve done all that research, and you are happily coding away, you’ve earned yourself the right to make up stuff. If you’ve got a solid grasp on your setting, you can use your imagination to fill in the gaps plausibly, and most players won’t notice the difference. After all, this is a work of interactive fiction, not interactive non-fiction. Since some players might want to use your game partially as an educational tool about the setting it takes place in, be careful not to change the big stuff. Anything that might be particularly confusing for a player (Is it real or not?) could be mentioned in the game’s HELP file.

Final thoughts

Surrounded by the material comforts of the modern world, those of us with an interest in the places and people of the past struggle to connect with them. We can learn about them through books and television, but that’s usually not enough. Some may collect artifacts from a place or event long gone, handle these objects of another age and contemplate what they meant to people at the time. Others may pack their suitcases and travel, to stand in the footsteps of history, to physically inhabit the spaces and places that were important in the past. All of these activities, different as they are, share a common purpose, to reach out to the past and in turn better understand ourselves. As a player, I find nothing as exciting as when I am given the opportunity to explore in detail such a setting, and to role-play just for a moment that I am there, and I have an important purpose, a job to do, that I am not simply a spectator or tourist, that I am, for a short while, a part of that place in a way I had only been before in my dreams.

The Infinitive of Go

October 26th, 2012 Comments Off

A sci-fi novel from 1980 from John Brunner, who wrote a hundred or so novels, none of which I’ve ever read. And I call myself a sci-fi fan. Picked it up at a used book sale, for no other reason than the cover art and the title were delightful. The actual story, less so, but at 152 pages it was hardly a serious investment in time and was enjoyable enough. The plot concerns parallel universes, where you leave one and appear in the other and all your friends are wearing leather and sporting sinister looking mustaches and eye patches. But thankfully not quite so silly as all that, as Brunner does actually try to grapple with the infinite universes concept and how to go from one to another (which is I guess the pun of the title, which I didn’t understand until I finished reading, and even now I’m not too sure).

A detailed explanation of the plot is available on the book’s Wikipedia page, for the curious. But I found the best part of the book was actually not its story, but rather small poems that started each chapter. The poems had almost nothing to do with the chapters themselves, but were delightful in their own right. Here are some of my favorites (named by their chapter headers):

TWO

suppose you wanted
to talk to the stars
and you succeeded
but it turned out
the stars themselves
are not on speaking terms

TEN

here is what you’ll need
they said when he set out
passport guidebook foreign money
but the passport held no visa
the guidebook had blank pages
and the money turned out to be forged

THIRTEEN

suppose you dreamed
of being in an unknown country
its language incomprehensible
its writing indecipherable
without recollection of going there
and waking found it was for instance Korea

TWENTY

you thought you were making
a pretty good impression
you felt you were liked
by the people you worked with
but one day abruptly
they said we’re letting you go

The story alone didn’t convince me to read more Brunner, but those poems, and how they related (or didn’t) with the chapters they began? Brilliant, sign me up for more.

At Last, the Ideal Servant

September 15th, 2010 Comments Off

The Ideal Servant

From The Book of Popular Science:

For many years electrical engineers have employed switches and other devices requiring small currents of electricity, to put into operation, through the use of relays and solenoids, controlling apparatus at a distance. This is known as “remote control.” The Televox is a method of attaining the same results, using sound waves as an auxiliary means. The control can be effected over any telephone line, and any telephone will serve as a transmitting station, but instead of speaking into the instrument three small whistles are provided for signalling the message. At the other end of the line there is a telephone receiver containing some special features. When it is connected in the usual manner with a transmitting station, the Televox mechanism is automatically put into action by electro-magnetic means. The receiving mechanism of the Televox contains three steel reeds that are tuned to vibrate at definite frequencies corresponding to the notes of the three transmitting whistles. These reeds carry contact points so that when vibrated they will complete electric circuits and thus put in operation certain electro-magnetic devices which may be used for doing such things as opening or closing switches, actuating magnetic solenoids — which, in turn, can be used for a wide range of work.

If one wished to use the Televox he would ask for its number as for any other telephone call. When the connection was made the buzzer of the receiving station would announce the fact. He would then blow the whistle corresponding to the work he wanted done. The reed attuned to his whistle would vibrate, thus putting into action the proper mechanism. The power needed must, of course, be furnished at the receiving end, the Televox simply connecting up the currents to enable it to do its work. Mechanisms are now available for reading meters, reading the temperature of transformers, ascertaining the height of water in reservoirs; and many other uses will undoubtedly be found for this clever invention. The picture of the Televox, with its inventor whistling into a small pitch pipe (thus making any telephone a dispatching end), will be seen above. The grotesque pasteboard figure was added for a special occasion.

Slap That Fish! — Interactive Fiction as Contemporary Art

February 15th, 2008 Comments Off

I have the good fortune to be able to travel to several of the great cities of the world on a regular basis as part of my job. And when I do, I always make it a point to visit the local museums and art galleries. I find art to be inspiring, and I do some of my most creative thinking while wandering around on the creaky wooden floors, looking at works made by artists past and present whose intent is not always transparent. I have come to believe that a work of art is not simply the sum of its creator’s vision, the “authorial intent”, but rather only made complete through audience engagement and interaction. The audience of a work interprets its authorial intent through the lens of their own experience. This lens may distort, it may enhance, it may obscure. I’m sure this is discussed at great length and more clarity by art critics, this is simply an explanation of my own feeling when encountering and interpreting art. So how does this relate to writing Interactive Fiction?

When I approach writing Interactive Fiction, I am inspired by art in two ways: First, by the product itself, the artwork as I interpret it. The Journey of the King and The Ebb and Flow of the Tide, for example, were based on works by Lord Dunsany, but also inspired by Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau. Secondly, I am inspired by the experience: how art creates an interactive space in which the viewer may interrogate a work and explore its meaning(s).

I have only recently turned my attention to Contemporary Art galleries, which have started to make more sense to me, now that I have spent so much time looking at historical works. Some recent, excellent shows I have seen include Antony Gormley at the Hayward Gallery, and the Olafur Eliasson show at SFMOMA. Both had sort of an Interactive Fiction turned “real” feel, in that you wandered around the exhibits into different “environments”, exploring the art at the most basic level through examining your surroundings and movement. The Gormley featured an incredible cloud chamber in which you could see nothing but white until other patrons approached, their ghostly visages appearing just inches from your face. And Eliasson featured an interesting room with purposefully-creaking floorboards that vibrated a pool of water, creating ripples on a projected screen in front of you, based on your movements.

You are probably not going to believe this if you have played it, but more than anything, Slap That Fish! is my first work inspired by contemporary art.

Contemporary art is, I find, very difficult to see through our experiential lens. Far more often then not, works do not move me, inspire me, or otherwise cause me even to pause. The art can be difficult to understand, and sometimes even when I do understand, I fail to see the point. There is a sense sometimes that Contemporary Artists may be making fun of us, somehow, laughing that we think their work is art. Marcel Duchamp’s FOUNTAIN (a urinal) is the classic example. And this is a dangerous position to be in. People do not like to think that they are being made fun of in some way, even when they are not. So dismissal becomes the safe route out of the contemporary art experience.

Galleries fret about this a lot, from what I can tell. So they try to intercede in the relationship between authorial intent and audience interpretation by providing some kind of pamphlet, an artist’s statement, a critical commentary, that does the heavy lifting for you. In short, galleries try to minimize your involvement in art and maximize the artist’s. So when you walk into a room full of wooden beams of varying heights, you can read in your program that they represent men, women, and children, of all ages, races, and walks of life, even though quite frankly you see no such thing. Generally speaking, I really hate this calculated hijacking of my interactive involvement in the work. Game-wise, it’s like someone just handed me a walkthrough that I didn’t really want.

I have come to understand I am very much in the minority in this dislike, however. For most patrons, in fact, the opposite is true. My friends who have worked in galleries and curated shows have all told me how patrons request interpretive help if it isn’t readily available, and lean on it heavily throughout their gallery experience. In general, people do not prefer to interpret art, they prefer to understand the “correct” interpretation. And also in general, artists prefer that audiences understand their art as close to its pure authorial intent as possible, so it’s sort of a win-win situation. And while I think the more static nature of some mediums might lend itself to this approach, I find it undesirable in Interactive Fiction. Part of the interaction between the author and the player should be interpretive for the work to resonate at all.

Writing IF as contemporary art is in contrast to the standard approach to Interactive Fiction, which is the telling an interactive story. In this approach, you follow all the basic tenants of writing: a strong hook at the beginning, a narrative, a compelling protagonist, etc. etc.

So getting back to SLAP THAT FISH, as I fear I must: I declined, in the competition version, to provide a declaration of authorial intent. This leads players to interpret the game through their own lens, while interacting with the work. As with most of my games, this works best only if the player interacts with the work as a whole. As with contemporary art, the interpretive burden is sometimes entirely unwelcome. This means some people will understand authorial intent, some will supplement that intent with their own vision, some will worry they are being made fun of in some way, and some will dismiss the work. All of these responses are entirely fair and honest responses to the game, and none should be discounted.

SLAP THAT FISH is designed to be a game that is only understood through interaction. The more you interact with the game, the more you learn. In game mechanics, that means the plot is revealed, your character’s motivation is revealed, the play mechanics are suggested. In this way, the game attempts to duplicate the experiential exploration of contemporary art. At no time does the game properly explain how it should be approached or played.

My focus when writing was on the player experience, not on the actual in-game player character experience. This was not the first time. My previous game, Ecdysis, was also focused on the player experience, and in that case based on the idea of complicity. The entire game was built around the idea of leading the player to identify with the player character through very simple actions, fulfilling the player character’s basic needs, until, in a series of incremental steps, the player becomes complicit in a heinous crime (Sort of the IF version of, “If so-and-so tells you to jump off a cliff, would you?”).

In SLAP THAT FISH, complicity plays only a part in the beginning. At the beginning, there is an emotional disconnect with the player-character. You are typing in his (always violent) actions, without a clear understanding of motivation. In fact, it seems plausible that the protagonist is deranged. The violence is occassionally quite mean, the deaths, perhaps overly celebratory. In this way I hoped to create an emotional unease within the player. This unease builds in two ways: first, through the meaningless violence, which may make the player somewhat uncomfortable; second, through repetition, until the player becomes uneasy that there is nothing much else to the game. Then, through continued interactivity, I hoped to change this unease into acceptance, understanding, and at last, perhaps, triumph. But nothing is clear unless you continue, and it is not until near the end that the full game world reveals itself.

This approach to game design is not ideal. Many of the best games take a more cinematic approach to design, including most importantly opening with an exciting “hook” to attract the player. Contemporary Art tends to be less compromising than, say, TV, and is less concerned with attracting the largest possible audience. This allows for greater expression of authorial intent (in that the author is not constrained by calculations of audience approval), but certainly narrows the amount of viewers willing to shoulder part of the interpretive burden. Perhaps, the less an author thinks about his or her audience, the less of an audience there is likely to be.

I should add one critical point to this essay: none of this is to say that SLAP THAT FISH is to be taken seriously. It is a completely absurd game. It is simply to say that these themes, these exhibits, these concepts, were among the ones that came out to the foreground of my thoughts as I put the game together.

An Interactive Exhibition of Unspeakable Things

October 26th, 2007 Comments Off

The American writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) is without doubt one of the most important science fiction authors of the 20th century. Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book is a compilation of his ideas, wherein the reader encounters nameless abominations, giant underwater cities, ancient artifacts awakening forbidden memories, and dreams fading into reality. These and other fragmentary concepts are listed in a notebook that Lovecraft planned to revisit when developing later works of fiction. He never did — but now, following an invitation from Maison d’Ailleurs to commemorate the 70fh anniversary of Lovecraft’s death in an exhibition, and a competition organized by Illuminated Lantern Publishing, sixteen game designers from all over the world take up the challenge, and have developed interactive fictions based on the entries in the book.

The works will appear in the exhibit, opening on Saturday, October 27, 2007, through April of 2008. Gamers and Lovecraft fans unable to make the journey to the Maison d’Ailleurs can also access the works directly using the links below.

Both the online and the physical exhibit feature interactive fictions imagined by Jon Ingold (Dead Cities), Peter Nepstad (Ecdysis), David Whyld (The Cellar), Eric Forgeot, Hugo Labrande, JB, Samuel Verschelde and Jean-Luc Pontico (Lieux Communs), and Ruben Nieto, Juan Saldalgo, Santiago Eximeno, Javier Carrascosa and Pablo Martinez Merino (El Museo de las Consciencias). In addition, graphical works are also featured in the online exhibit, by Roger Tober and Nige Copeland (Handyman Wanted), and Thomas Busse (Beyond the Threshold).

The Journey of the King — Text as Treasure

May 28th, 2007 Comments Off

I recently wrote and released The Journey of the King, free for download from the IF archive, adapted from the writings of Lord Dunsany. Reception to the game has been mixed, with most notices centered around the style of writing, and its abundance. While it at first seems odd that someone might not like too much text in a text adventure, after a moments reconsideration there are in fact very good reasons for this sort of complaint. When writing “Interactive Fiction”, it’s all a matter of finding the right dividing line between the “Interactive” part and the “Fiction” part. And without a doubt, there is a lot of the latter in Journey of the King.

Journey of the King contains large chunks of text at certain points in the game. It’s probably worthwhile to talk about what that usually means. Works of IF usually use large chunks of non-interactive text in three different ways: cut-scenes, payoffs, and info-dumps.

A “cut scene” with a large amount of text is typically employed when the actions required by the player for this particular section of the game would not add to the level of enjoyment substantially, perhaps a part of the game that requires the player to go to the airport, board a plane, fly to another location, disembark, and find their hotel might be better described in a paragraph or two of text rather than actually played — it’s not central to the story, would take a tremendous effort to code, and isn’t very interesting to the player. This is a very intuitive use of text and similar shortcuts are employed in movies, for example; just an establishing shot of a landing plane is enough to convey the entire process.

Cut scenes can be mishandled, too; usually by forcing the player to perform many uninteresting steps, and then, just when the game is about to get interesting, put in a non-interactive cut scene instead that forces the player to become a passive observer. To use the same example above, imagine a game where you do play getting to the airport and boarding a plane, only to find the scene in which a mysterious stranger appears, makes cryptic statements, then jumps out of the window to be told in a cut scene and you as the player are not allowed to intervene in the proceedings.

The mishandling of cut scenes can be so annoying that it gives having cut scenes at all a bad reputation.

A “payoff” with a lot of text can sometimes be deeply satisfying: after performing a lot of actions, solving a lot of difficult puzzles, there is nothing worse than having a game simply and abruptly end. The payoff text provides the emotional payoff for the entire work. This is standard game writing practice with text-based and graphics-based games of all kinds. The big, cinematic, finish is a must in graphic-based games. These endings can be short, but it is satisfying as a player to get some sort of payoff for finishing your game. The end text is their reward. If a cut scene can be good or bad, a payoff is almost always a good addition to a game.

An “Info-dump”, on the other hand, is almost always bad. Lots of games start with page after page of background information, that make you tune out as if someone was droning on the other line of the phone. While reading is an integral part of playing Interactive Fiction, so is playing. And when you first start a game, you want to jump into it. Let the background information come out in the scenery, in the characters. Don’t dump all that information at the beginning. This is the hardest pitfall for a writer to avoid. Another place an info-dump can occur is in conversation.

***

Journey of the King is based on a short story by Lord Dunsany. The plot is simple: The King feels he is nearing death, and no longer enjoys making merry. He summons all the prophets of his Kingdom to him, and each in turn tell him what they believe happens after death. Each contradicts the other, and in the end, he makes a choice. The End. Now, there is nothing interactive at all in this story, but nevertheless I immediately seized on it as a story I would like to adapt. The one fundamental change I made to the story, the change that moves it from static fiction to interactive fiction, was to move the prophets out of the palace. Instead of simply sitting in the Throne Room and listening, the King must now go out into his Kingdom and seek out the prophets, wherever they may be. When he finds a prophet, he then must receive that prophet’s prophecy. The prophecies do not contain clues to anything in the game, they are simply stories. The prophecies are lifted exactly from the original short story, these are Lord Dunsany’s own words. The framing story, of the wandering King, are my own.

While this may seem like an unusal concept for a game, in many ways, I drew on the same model as the traditional text adventure: You must wander the landscape and discover treasures. I simply replaced the “clockwork egg” or whathaveyou with less tangible stories. It is, as the title of this column suggests, text as treasure. Lord Dunsany’s words, in the form of the prophet’s speeches, are treasures in the context of the game, and your job, as King, is to collect them. To underscore the concept of text as treasure, I awarded points for each prophecy collected, and modified the SCORE command to summarize each prophecy found. But no tangible objects are collected.

One of my beta testers suggested, after playing through, that each prophet should give you an object when you meet them, and at the end of the game, when you make your choice, you can put that object on an altar or something, which would then indicate whether you have chosen correctly or not. I thought this suggestion was excellent, and implementing it would have surely converted the game into a collect-and-score system much more familiar and friendly to the average player. It was, however, contrary to what I wanted to do with the game — Dunsany’s words are the real treasures here, and additional trinkets would only detract from that fact. The game is a story of the spirit, not of objects, about seeking the wise to help steer your way, but ultimately making your own choice. It’s about religion and rationality. I hoped to use just enough of the treasure collection system to make the game mechanics understandable, without fully moving out of the realm of ideas.

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The long text passages of Journey of the King, then, substitute for “payoff” — enjoyable bits of story that you receive for completing certain portions of the game, rather than “info-dumps” — large sections of text that you must read to understand the game world and what you are supposed to do. There are a couple reasons that long time IF players, upon encountering the passages, mistake one for the other.

First, there’s the matter of the text itself. Written by Lord Dunsany in a pseudo-Old Testament style, it is very difficult to parse. You can’t read his words quickly, you have to slow down, follow its cadence, rather than trying to impose your own. For some, Dunsany’s text will never be a treasure, but more of a chore. Well, let’s agree to disagree on that one, and move on!

Second, payoff text usually appears at the end of a game or after a difficult series of accomplishments. But in Journey of the King, long prophecies emerge right away. Trying to merge the idea of Dunsany’s story, in which the prophets assembled for the King, and my idea, in which the King seeks the prophets, the game opens with two of the prophets having heeded your call. Now, you may summon them and hear their prophecies, accumulating them and earning points without lifting a finger. So much text so early in a game immediately suggests to an experienced IF player that they are getting an info-dump. At that point, they try to dig through the prophecies, trying to figure out what they need to know to play the game. Dunsany’s writing makes this an impossible task. And so players give up at this point, muttering about “info-dumps” and moving on. Their point is well taken, in that I can see how the structure of the beginning of the game lends itself readily to this interpretation. Combined with the difficulty of Dunsay’s text, that’s a one-two punch many players can’t recover from.

But too often, the focus of text adventures is in using text as a tool — using simple phrases to interact with the game environment. But text also describes that environment, and the people in it, and everything that goes on there. In a land where text is used as a tool to explore a text landscape, why not text as treasure, too? Text that shimmers with creative energies as potent as the day it was first written, a hundred years ago. Now that’s something worth discovering.