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.


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.

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