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Shade, and the future of interactive fiction on the App Store
 Shade , and the future of interactive fiction on the App Store
February 12, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

February 12, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
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Andrew "Zarf" Plotkin's acclaimed Shade is an interactive fiction game that sticks with you like a distant fever dream, or a particularly poignant nightmare. The way it subverted the confines of traditional setting within interactive fiction through matter-of-fact surrealism made it revolutionary when it launched over 10 years ago. It has no "solution" in the sense one expects.

Just last week, a port of Shade arrived on the iOS App Store; Plotkin calls it his first "real attempt to show IF to a mass-paying audience." Who knows what the masses will make of it?

"I picked Shade because it's the one people talk about most," he tells me simply. He's already released The Dreamhold, intended to act as an IF tutorial, on the App Store for free.

While he's investing most of his efforts on Kickstarter-funded Hadean Lands, a full-scale interactive fiction effort slated for iOS, proffering something much smaller and more brief, like Shade (priced at $.99), is a way of further testing the waters of paid IF content and offering potential readership an entry point. The more recent Hoist Sail For The Heliopause and Home is set to follow, currently in Apple's queue for publishing consideration.

Reaching new audiences

"It's certainly true it's not a traditional game storyline, but that's part of its appeal," he says of Shade, which asks players to engage with a reality that starts falling away the more earnestly they try to anchor themselves therein.

"If there is actually an audience [on the App Store] outside of people who are gamers, then it will be people who are interested in interesting stories," he continues. "You could say 'everyone in the Angry Birds audience,' but I'm not going to be reaching out in that mode. Not nearly as many people are in the storytelling adventure fandom."

...Yet. The ebook and e-reader age presents writers of interactive fiction with increased opportunity to reach an unprecedentedly large audience of players interested in engaging with text on portable screens.

Shade adds something of an interface around its minimalist text experience, too: There's now a pad to sketch notes, while the protagonist's to-do -- a crucial spine for the gameplay -- benefits from being made visual, something the players can watch hauntingly evolve.

Feelies in the age of tablets

Usually interactive fiction games release with "feelies" -- visuals, sound files or supplementary information like maps, in a throwback to the Infocom age when object touchstones helped tie the text experience together (or acted as copy protection). Having something of an interface around IF on iOS helps create the idea of "things" similarly present.

For The Dreamhold, it made sense to include a map within the interface, to keep the interactive experience centered on text when past fans would have needed a deskside pen and paper to draw their own.

Of course, in a genre that thrives on descriptive text, letting players use their imagination and sometimes deliberately withholding information from them, imagery needs a very careful hand. "It's always a challenge thinking about what to put in," Plotkin says. "In this case I'm re-releasing games that already exist and I'm not recompiling them... so I have to be careful that anything I ad to that is changing the presentation. I'm being very conservative about what goes out through that channel."

Strip mining the App Store

Shade's premise: A person with a messy desk has decided to go on a trip to what sounds like a festive desert retreat, in the hopes of broadening his world and discovering something about himself. "The [App Store] gold rush was a couple of years ago; now it's the steady strip mining," Plotkin says. "I don't necessarily have a marketing plan, here.

"There must be some notion of a critical mass," he reasons. "Which is why I'm trying to do more than one app on the Store, and to be cross-pollinating with other kinds of story-based apps."

One way for people working in niche game forms to gain visibility on the Store is to cultivate community. For example, by reviewing, writing and sharing one another's work online, a genre forms and more new people are attracted to the community in general, versus the strategy of aggressively promoting original games.

"If there was a rising tide in, say, more famous novel authors paying attention to this stuff, and interacting with our community, and this sort of thing appearing on larger-scale reader discussion forums, that would indirectly and eventually change the landscape for selling the [IF] apps," Plotkin suggests.

A bigger question, and one not so easy to answer, concerns what adaptations would make interactive fiction best suited for a mobile device -- and for a wider audience. Accessible tools like Twine and Inklewriter have greatly contributed to a rise in grassroots interest in developing text games, but that these hinge on hyperlinks and choices versus the traditional parser input gives some traditionalists pause.

Parser forever!

Plotkin has a legacy of loyalty to the text parser, and says he considers Hadean Lands to be a traditional game without a focus on mobile-oriented adaptation, but admits that less typing in some games would help the genre leverage new platforms. "When I think about designing a game specifically for mobile, I have to think about, can I make games that are choice-based rather than parser-based?

"I've written a couple small examples of that, but I'm thinking about possibilities for a new one, because writing a small game is easier than writing a large game, and I would like to try more things [on the App Store] than just re-releasing my old IF," he says.

"Possibly people in the community might think of it as a 'design betrayal,' but it is good that there is this tension," he continues. "I would love to be the conservative old fogey and say, 'No! Parser forever!' But there are people interested in other kinds of games, and the kind of cross-pollination I talk about can't happen if each community maintains its boundaries and insists on keeping the walls up."

"I'll continue to grumble about the gap between parser-based IF and other kinds of IF, and indeed whether 'IF' as a label should be used for them. But if you hold my butt to the fire, I can't rule them out."

Shade is the kind of game experience you might ruin by trying to grasp it too closely, or to explicate it too literally. This makes it challenging to market or to distill to a punchy blurb, but that's its nature: "Absolutely intentional," says Plotkin. Is it a personal story? "I have no reason to answer."

"If I were interested in giving that answer, I would have put it in the game."


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Comments


Lex Allen
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I'd be curious to see how this goes. Some of my visual novel developer friends have had better sales on mobile, but not most of them.

Andrew Plotkin
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And, as heralded, Heliopause is now available too: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/hoist-sail-for-heliopause/id596503
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How are they going? They haven't made me rich. As I said, I want to try a few different possibilities for mobile interactive narrative -- you've already seen a couple of those. Now these IF games are in the mix. Hopefully it will all add up to something.


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