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A reprint from the March 2013 issue of Gamasutra's sister publication Game Developer magazine, this article explores the world of cutting-edge interactive fiction. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.
Text games have come a long way from Zork. Thanks to new tools, new authors, and ubiquitous mobile devices enabling new players, the interactive fiction genre is enjoying a revival of sorts.
Game Developer spoke with Inklewriter dev Jon Ingold, longtime author Andrew Plotkin, indie dev and advocate Anna Anthropy, Failbetter Games CEO Alexis Kennedy, and interactive-fiction pioneer Emily Short about how (and why) the IF scene is expanding.
Jon Ingold, longtime text-game author (Fail-Safe, All Roads), now spearheads interactive fiction innovations at Cambridge, UK-based Inkle. Notably, Inkle's new choice-oriented IF tool, Inklewriter, is one of the more prominent new tools designed for the kind of accessibility needed to democratize a once-niche art form.
Leigh Alexander: Why do you think there seems to be so much new interest in making and playing text games?
Jon Ingold: I think it's pretty unsurprising, given the amount of writing and reading we're all doing on the internet these days. That's why Inklewriter is pitched the way it is: clean, simple, Twitter-like for sharing, Tumblr-like for creation.
Inklewriter lends itself to making chatty, conversational pieces, and we've seen a lot of that -- people using interactivity not to make a game, but to play out an argument they might have otherwise been written up on a blog (like Emily Gera's recent thing on Kotaku comments).
I think people get puzzled by the difference between interactivity and games: Games are hard things to make, with fiddly rules and balancing, and most games you invent tend to fall apart because there's an easy way to win, or not enough choice. Inklewriter doesn't really support game-making, exactly: You can't make any rules. But it's uniquely good at exploring cause and effect -- which is to say, telling stories. And everybody loves stories.
LA: How does the mobile and tablet space contribute?
JI: I think the key thing is that mobiles and tablets mean we're all using computers more often, and more casually. Remember when it used to be rude to check your texts during a meal? Now it's normal to tweet, and not just amongst the computer-savvy crowd. Portable computing means we're all chilling out around technology a bit more, and trying things we maybe otherwise wouldn't have tried.
I saw a real example of this over the holiday season, when my mother sat down and read one of my interactive stories. She's never been able to before, because anything done on a computer is terrifying to her. But on an iPad, she felt totally safe. So there's tablet computing, expanding the size of the audience by one, at least.
LA: The accessibility of creation tools like Inklewriter helps democratize the craft of interactive fiction. What challenges does the tools space need to overcome to keep reaching more people?
JI: I think the biggest challenge with developing a tool is resisting the urge to get all baroque on its ass. There's always that extra niche feature that would be so cool if it were there -- but every feature you add to a tool changes the way the tool presents itself to new users, and changes a user's perception of what the tool is for. So add five cool niche features and your tool might start to look like it's for making fiddly, avant-garde things only. On the flip side, make it too simple and straightforward looking, and no one will imagine it's capable of anything more.
So as tool creators we have to keep returning to our users and saying, what are these people like? What do these people care about, and what don't they care about? What message do we want to send them about what they should be doing?
LA: In terms of Inklewriter's potential, what are some things you hope to see people start doing with it?
JI: The question floored me for a moment, and then I realized that we think about Inklewriter's potential more in terms of who the people are than what the people do. Interactive stories have been boxed in, forever really, by the constraints that the form puts on who can do the actual writing, but I think Inklewriter can change that, at least a little, and let completely untechnical people come in and write something excellent. For us, the goal is about getting writers with unusual, rich, and diverse perspectives to invite us into their worlds.
LA: Why is it a good time for people to develop or renew an interest in text games?
JI: When I started writing IF, a few hundred people on the internet cared: A few hundred would play your game, and would discuss the ideas of game, puzzle, and story design, and maybe 10 of those were clever -- or loud -- enough to set the prevailing wind.
Now, if you write a piece of IF, you can get thousands of readers. You can get all sorts of feedback and discussion. You can choose between five or six ways of writing stories, all with different affordances and paradigms, and have big arguments over which is best. You don't need to learn too much that's technical (except for writing, I suppose).
But more than that: There's an optimism and a curiosity around interactive text. When I wrote my first game, I'd try to explain the merits of interactive stories to people and heads would shake. Now, they turn.
Andrew "Zarf" Plotkin is among the most beloved and longest-serving authors in the IF community, creator of popular titles like Spider and Web and Shade, among numerous others, in addition to his many contributions to the community's tools and infrastructure. In 2010 he made headlines when he raised over $31,000 via Kickstarter for the creation of his next game, Hadean Lands, an impressive demonstration of the strength of the IF community and of the gratitude for his work.
LA: You've been making acclaimed text games for as long as I can remember, but from where I sit there's an explosion of interest in making and playing them that seems new. What factors do you think create this resurgence?
Andrew Plotkin: We have a big recent interest in "indie games" and "art games" -- which can each mean several things, but text games and narrative-focused games play well under either banner.
Within that, or maybe next to it, we have a lot of designers trying small experimental games. Text is great for solo work; it's great for rapid production of tiny games. If you're working in a well-understood interface model, there is probably an off-the-shelf tool for you -- as you note -- so you can skip building a framework and go straight into your content. That's very attractive, and game designers are realizing it.
We have a gigantic wave of nostalgia for anything 15 or 20 years old. (Seriously, the last three iOS games I installed were Karateka, Riven, and Lost Treasures of Infocom. Okay, three of the last four, anyhow.)
Also, there's just momentum in tools and communities. If a bunch of people start trying a particular kind of game, it gets attention, and more people start both playing and creating in that genre. This has been building in slow motion in the IF world for several years -- Inform 7 was a big boost -- but it applies equally, and I think more rapidly, in other kinds of choice-based and text-based games.
LA: You were able to fund Hadean Lands via Kickstarter, are a believer in open-source tools, and will launch on iPhone; meanwhile crowdfunding, openness, and mobile opportunities are some of the most relevant trends to indie game creation in general right now. What should other creators of interactive text learn from you?
AP: Oh, geez. I don't know if I can answer that. None of those trends are simple answers, and I don't know if I've found the right path through any of them.
LA: Was your fundraising lightning in a bottle, or do you see a wider commercial opportunity for creators of interactive text on mobile?
AP: My Kickstarter project was definitely a thing of its moment -- in relation to Kickstarter's history and mine. It got attention for being notably successful, but the stakes for "notably successful Kickstarter" have moved way, way up. And I deliberately offered a wider range of work than just "IF on mobile."
Really, Kickstarter successes don't signpost commercial opportunities -- commercial successes do that. It's the new games and the interest in new games which should be drawing everybody's attention.
LA: There are an increasing number of uniquely accessible tools arriving to help new developers make choice-oriented or hypertext-style games. This brings more creators to the medium, but also seems to suggest a shift away from the traditional text parser and its associated strengths and challenges. What are your thoughts on that?
AP: My thoughts are ambivalent, as you might expect!
On the one hand, people tend to lump the games together. More interest in any of these forms is more interest in all of them, and that's good for me.
But on the other hand, people tend to lump the games together -- and parser IF does have its own strengths! You can do a lot of things with a menu system, but you can't graft it onto a game like Zork -- or Shade, or Spider and Web -- and expect it to play out the same way. You need to design your game to fit the model. So I have to worry about whether players are going to wind up just not very interested in the games I want to make.
The sensible answer is "Make the games first, then decide." I realize this. But I indulge in a little worry anyhow.
LA: Would you agree that IF is less "niche" than it was 10, even five years ago? How has the community changed?
AP: IF is still "niche," but niche-ness is much less niche these days! Niche is practically mainstream. Or at least, people are much more willing to poke their noses in.