Wednesday, November 3, 2010

IF/Inform 7 Blog

While learning about and dealing with electronic poetry, I often had the thought that nothing about electronic literature could be more complex, detailed or difficult. Then I was introduced to interactive fiction and realized just how wrong I was. There is much more to learn and know about IF than there is about e-poetry. The vocabulary, for instance, is not only larger but is more necessary for the understanding of the subject. In any introductory material to IF, it is important to define key words for a novice of IF in order for him or her to more easily and more completely form and idea and image of what it all is and what it all means. Fredrik Ramsberg, in “A Beginner’s Guide to Interactive Fiction,” lays out some of these definitions in order for the reader to reach a more comprehensive understanding of the world of interactive fiction. Most of what he introduces is common vernacular for those familiar with the IF field. He explains input (what the interactor says/commands), output (the responses and information the interactor receives), puzzles (situations the interactor has to figure out in order to progress in the IF) and the varying degrees of puzzle-based IF and puzzle-less IF. Along with these common IF terms, Ramsberg also introduces a concept very familiar in IF with a term that is not as proverbial – stuckness. Ramsberg invents this word as a way to describe a frustrating aspect of IF that every interactor experiences at some point. He warns newcomers that they will get stuck when dealing with interactive fictions, but assures them that it is simply an inherent part of the IF process and entreats them not to be discouraged when they inevitably feel like they have reached a dead end and cannot progress.
Another helpful source for new IF users is Nick Montfort’s “Twisty Little Passages.” In his first chapter, “The Pleasure of the Text Adventure,” Montfort explains many important IF terms necessary for a fuller understanding of interactive fiction. These include terms such as player-character (a character directly commanded by the interactor), prologue (the description of the IF world given before there is any opportunity for a command), cycle (one input and all the output that follows until the next input), and many other critical IF terms. One source that is interesting not just in the technical sense of interactive fiction is “Interactive Fiction as Literature” by May Ann Buckles. She argues that interactive fiction is literature, that it has literary value like any other “regular” piece of fiction. Interactive fictions hold similarities with many genres of literature, such as mystery, adventure novels, fantasy/sci-fi, and chivalric romances. She believes that IF is just as creative, entertaining and valuable as “normal” literature and supports her opinion through the examination and explanation of these similarities. It is easy to see the validity in Buckles’ assertion when interacting with a piece such as “Galatea” by Emily Short. In this particular IF, the focus is less on puzzle and more on interaction with the non-player character, Galatea. There are many options for player-character speech, and each option leads to a different response from Galatea. The IF is basically an expansion and interpretation of the Galatea myth, and so there is a variety of ways for the story to progress, unfold and end. In each of my multiple interactions with “Galatea,” I experienced a different ending or outcome. One time she simply refused to continue speaking with me, another time I was ordered to leave her presence. My favorite ending, however, was when Galatea was killed.

I did not enjoy this because I wanted Galatea to die, but because it was an interesting and unique ending that proved to me that there are multiple ways to interpret and experience the interactive fiction, which is an aspect I have always enjoyed and valued in “regular” fiction as well. In this interactive fiction, the end or destination is not for treasure or distinct closure as in many IFs, but for insight and connection to Galatea. In this way, “Galatea” is overtly trying to be, and succeeding in being, expressly literary, which supports the earlier mentioned argument of Mary Ann Buckles that interactive fiction is literature.
While simply learning and interacting with interactive fiction is complex and difficult enough, it is even more frustrating and complicated to write it. There are so many different processes and aspects that go into creating a piece of interactive fiction that I found it very easy to get lost and overwhelmed with it all. First I had to come up with a basic idea for the IF as a starting or jumping off point. Since it was nearing Halloween, I decided to go for a good old fashioned murder mystery. Following the concept is the creation of the IF world through a drawn out map. This map is important because otherwise it would be very easy to get confused about what goes where and how to get to it, since interactive fiction uses compass directions (north, south, east, west) in order for the player-character to move around the IF world. Once this map is completed, it is time to move on to the nitty-gritty – using specific software to write the IF and bring it to fruition. This is when the process really starts to become really frustrating.
The software that I used, Inform 7, is really very advanced in most ways – there are so many things a writer of IF can do to create a fascinating, complex, believable interactive story. The frustration comes with the specificities and limitations of the software. There is a precise way needed to write things in order for the software to understand what it is the writer wants done – particular codes that must be inputted for relatively simple outcomes. For example, when you want to have a non-player character interact with the player-character through speech, this is the input you have to enter: “Talking to is an action applying to one visible thing. Understand ‘talk to [someone]’ or ‘converse with [someone]’ as talking to. Check talking to: say ‘[The noun] doesn’t reply.’” Then you would have to type: “Instead of talking to (someone): say ‘[one of] “(what you want the character to say).” [or] “(what you want the character to say).” [stopping]’.” When the command is processed through the software, it ends up looking much different, as the technical jargon obviously does not show up in the execution of the final product. So an input like this:
Instead of talking to Rachael:
say "[one of] 'Hey Rach, how are you?' [paragraph break] She moves closer so you can hear her better and says, 'I'm good! I'm so glad you came, I know you were considering staying home tonight.' [or] 'Yeah, I decided I'd rather not be home alone on Halloween,' you say, flattered that she's happy you're here. [paragraph break] 'It's a good thing you did,' she says, 'I heard they're doing something really crazy tonight.' You wonder what she means. [or] 'How crazy?' [paragraph break] She shrugs, saying, 'I'm not sure, I just heard that the fright is going to be over the top this year, extremely scary.' [paragraph break] You become uneasy, and hope the surprise isn't too frightening. Suddenly, a scream breaks out, high-pitched and bone-chilling. Silence descends upon the room, leaving only the sounds of music from the speakers. Heads turn toward the library and warily people start filing through its doorway. [stopping]".
that I included in my own interactive fiction ends up being seen by the interactor like this:

So although the process is tedious and at times annoying, the outcome is satisfying, knowing that you successfully created an important and interesting aspect of a piece of interactive fiction.
Although I enjoyed writing my own interactive fiction, I must admit that doing so is not as satisfying to me as writing a “regular” piece of fiction. For me, the process of writing fiction is already complicated and difficult enough without adding the extra frustrations that go along with the software needed to create an interactive fiction. I immensely enjoy writing, and while I did enjoy creating my very own IF, I personally feel a greater sense of satisfaction in writing a typical piece of fiction. The reason for this most likely ties into the sheer frustration I felt in creating my IF, for even though I have definitely been frustrated while writing “normal” fiction, it was much more difficult for me to write an IF simply because of the boundaries of the software and my own limited control over the story. I say limited control because even though I am creating it, it is not solely mine: the interactor of the piece will always have at least some small part in shaping the story and how it unfolds for them. While I believe that this is generally a positive thing that makes for a rich experience for the interactor, I admit that I am selfish and territorial when it comes to my writing, and that is simply a personal perspective. However, even though I freely admit that I more fully enjoy writing “regular” fictions as opposed to interactive ones, I do believe that creating an interactive fiction is a rewarding and valuable experience, especially for those vested in exploring and furthering English literature and the study of it in all its facets.

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