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Magic Words: Interactive Fiction in the 21st Century

by Andrew Vestal and Nich Maragos. Illustrations by Erin Mehlos.

INTERVIEW: Andrew Plotkin

Andrew Plotkin is author of some of the most unique IF there is, like Spider and Web or Shade. In addition to his widely acclaimed IF work, he hosts reviews of a wide selection of adventure games, both graphical and text-based, at his own site.

1UP: You keep up with the graphical adventure scene as much as you do the IF one, with adventure game reviews on your home page. What do you think IF can still do that console or PC games can't?

Andrew Plotkin: I shouldn't make any claim to be "keeping up" with either text IF or graphical IF. I'm shamefully far behind the times. I didn't have time (or energy) to even touch most recent annual IFComp, never mind the longer notable games that have appeared in the last couple of years.

The obvious thing text IF can do is get written by one person typing on a keyboard for a few months, or a year. Console games require a team and corporate-level funding almost by definition. The corporate approach can produce entertaining games; it can even produce innovative brilliant games; but (as with the Hollywood movie system) the odds are against it.

We're starting to see a few amateur-written graphical adventures (like Dark Fall and Rhem), but they still seem to take three or four years to finish. It's hard to explore your personal approach to game design when the first one eats four years of your life and leaves you dead of exhaustion. (Not that that can't happen with text games, but it doesn't have to!)

Looking at purely technical issues... text IF can do all the good things that prose can do: imagery of unlimited scope and flexibility, without a special-effects budget or a CGI team.

That isn't merely a budget savings. A text-game author has tremendous freedom to add details, improve responses, and build out alternate actions. Imagine adding a line of description to a text game ("Hey, that pipe is hot!") to help set a scene and improve the setting of a puzzle. It takes two minutes, half of which is testing. Adding an analogous response to a graphical game is much harder. Animate the player burning himself? Record a line of dialogue? Add heat ripples to the scene? Any way you try it, it's real work.

Not having to worry about this is more than a quantitative difference. It grows in the game-design process to become a whole different approach.

Andrew Plotkin 1UP: On a related note, have you heard anything about Silent Hill 4? It's a horror adventure where you play a guy trapped in his apartment room ...

Plotkin: I haven't heard anything except the title -- "Silent Hill 4: The Room" -- and that gave me the creeps all by itself. I'm a huge fan of the Silent Hill series. (And of the team. Let me look them up... writer Hiroyuki Owaku, art director Masahiro Ito, sound director Akira Yamaoka. More personal recognition, that's what the game industry needs. Guess why I say so.)

Were you angling for me to compare their game concept with Shade? The Silent Hill games have always used the trope of physical reality crumbling imperceptibly into dream-logic and nightmare surreality.

Of course my game was a very small thing -- tight focus all the way through, with only hints of breaking out of the boundaries of the room. A Silent Hill game is much larger, so it'll really have to be a different approach entirely to the "one-room game" idea. I imagine they'll have the original, physical setting be tight -- claustrophobic -- and then expand out in the psychological dimensions, to a broad nightmare world. Maybe very abstract, as Shade's surreal aspect was; or maybe they'll contrast realistic (but still imaginary) memory-worlds with more hallucinatory settings. A lot of ways they could go. I look forward to finding out.

1UP: Like the Silent Hill series, many of your titles have a claustrophobic or horrific feel to them. Do you think it's easier to achieve this feeling of dread using prose instead of graphics? In what ways can an IF game disorient the player that a graphical game can't?

Plotkin: Of course the difference between prose and visual imagery is very personal, subjective matter...

...oh, who am I kidding. Graphics are really powerful. Maybe I'm just a movie wimp, but any halfway-competent director can get me covering my eyes and wincing. Very few prose passages have clung to my brain as tenaciously.

(Examples? There's a passage in Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen -- fans of Hunter, in Darkness will recognize my homage to it. And Gene Wolfe had a device called the Revolutionary, in The Shadow of the Torturer ... never mind.)

Prose can describe what's in someone's head. That's what it can do.

1UP: A focus in your work seems to be environment modeling and shifting, such as the room in Shade, or the before/after of Change in the Weather. How tricky is this to implement from a coding perspective?

Plotkin: Oh, it's straightforward. Just tedious; you have to write room descriptions over and over. Weather actually had five or six stages of light and weather, and I had to write each variation for each location. But the coding was a simple "case 1, case 2, case 3..."

Shade had the same gimmicks; it also required swapping some objects in and out. That takes some organization, but again, the coding is nothing special.

(I put a lot more work into the different parts of the Shade apartment: the structure that lets you type "open fridge" when you're standing in the bathroom, and prints all the intermediate bits about walking into the kitchen. That took cleverness. Mutating the fridge, that's easy.)

Detail work in IF is all persistence and writing, not coding. The little text changes, the attention to first-time vs. already-familiar descriptions.

Keep in mind that I'm a programmer. For me, writing is the hard part. What am I taking for granted? I guess there's a trick to writing code that keeps the game world consistent, and doesn't fall apart the first time the player does something unexpected or wrong or out-of-order. That isn't tricky code; it's the Hacker's Mind, the eye for a consistent model with maintainable guarantees and restrictions. It comes with practice, like everything else.

1UP: You're very concerned with the "integrity" of your game worlds; of making sure that nothing the player does (or tries to do) breaks the mimesis of the title. Do you think it's harder to maintain this illusion of cohesion in IF than in a graphical game?

Plotkin: Harder in some ways, easier in others. Like I said, a text game can provide many more little details and customized responses. That helps a lot.

On the other hand, with a text parser, it's easier for the player to trip up and get lost -- the "guess the verb" problem. That's when the illusion really breaks down: the player knows what he wants to do, but can't do it.

This isn't an unsolvable problem; I think I do pretty well at avoiding it. The game should stay near the common IF commands. When it branches out into unusual commands, it has to provide guidance, and informative responses for nearly-correct tries. It takes some forethought; it's just part of creating a quality game.

(Of course there are exactly analogous problems in graphical adventures. The "hunt the pixel" problem, where the player is clicking everywhere and nothing is responding to him. The player knows he wants to manipulate something, but the game won't let him do it. It's just as frustrating, although it doesn't throw the player out of the game world in quite the same way.)

1UP: A lot of your games require the player to die, or at the very least make mistakes, in order to proceed. Do you find that this goes counter to some players' instincts to try to do things "right?" Is it your intention to try to make them play unconventionally?

Plotkin: There are a couple of ways to interpret that question.

In my earlier games, Weather and So Far, I was still adhering to the Infocom tradition: a game should take many run-throughs to finish; you will almost certainly have to back up and retry earlier parts of the game in a different way. (It is possible to finish those games on your first attempt, but you'd have to be incredibly lucky.)

The IF community quickly picked up the idea of "unlosable games". (I think from Myst and other graphical adventures -- it had developed there because replaying parts of a graphical game is generally much more tedious than replaying parts of a text game. At least if you're a fast typer.)

I messed around with the idea in Spider and Web, of course, but it boils down to a traditional game at the end. It was my later IFComp entries (Hunter and Shade) where I decided to avoid all dead ends, or at least totally unannounced dead ends. That stemmed mostly from the nature of IFComp. With thirty games to play and two hours for each, players are not very willing to replay scenes. Weather was a questionable entry even for the first IFComp; if I'd tried to enter it recently, it would have been savaged.

Now, if you mean the idea of having the player experience death or failure or error as part of the intended storyline...

An IF work of any depth has to play with different levels of goals and motivation: the initial impetus, the hidden background that the player discovers, the separation of the player's agenda from the agendas others have for him. Any interesting story has those levels. I like to play them off against each other: the triumph that turns out to be a mistake, the success snatched out of disaster. Common elements of storytelling, really.

Undermining the audience's expectations is always worthwhile.

1UP: With multiple deaths and restarts, it's possible that the player might have information from previous playthroughs that, realistically, the game character could not. Is requiring this sort of "foreknowledge" unfair? Does a divide in player-knowledge and player-character-knowledge break the integrity of the game world?

Plotkin: Demonstrates how subjective "fairness" is, doesn't it? In the old Infocom games, it was simply assumed that you would need to try and fail and start over, again and again. That was fair because it was how the genre worked. It wasn't realistic -- but every genre has conventions of realism. (Real life has no soundtrack, nor convenient fade-outs for the boring parts. Pity.)

Now, even back then, it seemed a little odd to require specific foreknowledge. If the only way to discover a four-digit combination was to see it, die, restore, and try again, then players would become uncomfortable. That was too blatant a violation of the storyline. But almost any lesser foreknowledge -- anything that could be explained as common sense, packrattery, good luck, or overweening paranoia -- was fine. Adventurers are supposed to pick up every tool (just in case!) and turn the right way on instinct. Not in a maze, or through a one-way door... not at the climactic irrevocable moment... but in the common case.

These days, with more unlosable games and more kinds of storylines, the conventions have shifted. The old heroic tropes are not taken for granted; players want a little more consistency, a little more explanation. That's fine too. I don't think we've lost anything. People know an old-school game when they see one.

1UP: The genesis of IF may lie in the mind of a single author, but could it be argued that the circular aspect of feedback and revision make a work of IF's authorship more expansive than that of a single team working in isolation towards a finished product?

Plotkin: No development team works in isolation. An amateur game can have more revision after the initial release, which probably means more chance of feedback from the actual audience, but then the commercial project has a much higher budget for beta-testing.

Mind you, the commercial game industry seems to be intent on rivalling hobbyists for the number of games that are patched or revised after release. Most people don't see that a a good thing.

1UP: Do you ever worry about being too experimental in a game, to the point where people won't really get it?

Plotkin: No.

1UP: What would you say some of the most experimental works of IF available are? If a player comes to IF because she wants to try something completely new and unavailable in another medium, what games would you recommend she play, and why?

Plotkin: I'm going to take an incomplete on this one, because (as I said) I'm behind the times on current IF.

I hope Spider and Web still counts as experimental. Rameses. The Gostak, although that's more of a gimmick. I hear Slouching Towards Bedlam is good.

1UP: Recently, you extended the original Infocom-style game format to allow authors to include graphics and sound. What do you feel these elements add to a piece of IF? How would you use these elements to enhance your own work?

Plotkin: Correction: Infocom's format already had sound (Lurking Horror, Sherlock) and graphics (Zork Zero, Journey, etc). I was originally trying to extend that into a more general, powerful, and consistent programming facility. I actually wound up going off in a different direction -- creating a more general GUI facility for all IF formats -- at least, the ones which are capable of making use of it. It's still a work in progress, mind you.

What people do with these facilities is their problem, not mine. Heh. Thus far we've mostly seen text IF with added illustrations and background music. This works fine; same as illustrations in a book can work to enhance the story.

But comics have shown how text and art can be fully integrated into a new form of narrative. Maybe text IF and graphics can be blended in the same way. I don't think we've seen a truly integrated text-and-graphics game. Of course I might have missed it.

I am not much of a visual artist, so I don't think I'll go in that direction. (The thought of creating a fully 3D world is tempting, but I'd have to learn a lot. And that would be a purely graphical adventure, not a text game.)

I am interested in using some of the other corners of my GUI system. I built in the capability to open several text windows at once -- not just the "status line" and "story window" that Infocom used. That has possibilities. Multiple simultaneous narratives?

1UP: What prose authors have influenced you and your work? In what ways?

Plotkin: Oh, where's my list...

C. J. Cherryh, because she can pack so much emotion and nuance into a few terse words. Her prose looks awkward, even stilted, until you realize how perfectly controlled it is -- perfect focus, her characters' viewpoints looking outwards and revealing inward. Oh my.

Patricia McKillip can fill a page with enough beauty and strangeness that you think you've finished a chapter. Then she does it again on the next page. Guy Kay isn't so bad at it either.

John M. Ford can make words do anything. He can write poetry I can read, which is saying something.

If I've learned anything, it's to never give the reader one word that he's expecting. If he can see the end of every sentence coming when he begins it, he'll stop paying attention.

1UP: What piece of your own IF would you most recommend for newcomers to the field? What work of others?

Plotkin: My work? Tricky... I've always written, at least a little, for the audience of people who are familiar with the field. (I can't undermine your expectations unless you have some.)

A Change in the Weather has the fewest preconceptions -- traditional, as I said -- but it's also the most frustrating and difficult. I guess I'd recommend Hunter, in Darkness as a straightforward story; Shade if you are into surreality and ambiguity.

Other people's works? I bet my list matches everyone else's: Anchorhead, Photopia, Worlds Apart, Winter Wonderland, Sunset over Savannah, Rameses.

1UP: As a player, you dabble in both IF and traditional videogames. IF is sometimes seen as archaic, starting as it did nearly 30 years ago. What elements of design do you think IF should borrow from modern videogames? What can IF do now that it couldn't do 30 years ago. More importantly, what should it do?

Plotkin: Sell through 100,000 copies for a moderately successful title?

Ok, ok... I find it hard to think of commercial game elements which fit in with IF. Console and action games have gotten extremely good at being what they are, but they're not primarily adventure games. The IF elements are the same as they've always been: exploration, storyline, background information, exploration of abilities, revelation of unexpected choice.

I'd say videogames have gone farther with NPCs. You see many games in which secondary characters come along for the adventure (or for part of it) -- helping out, taking direction from the protagonist. Some text games have done this too, of course, but I'd like to see more of it.

I'd also like to see more sustained and episodic IF. Sequelitis is a cliche in the commercial game world, but there are some really nice examples of a storyline, or a world with many storylines, developed over several games. Most text games these days are standalones.

1UP: At the same time, modern IF has some of the most original and cutting-edge design available in gaming. The ease of development allows great experimentation in form and content. What IF conceits would you like to see make their way into modern videogames?

I'd like to see a truly IF-like range of action. Lots of choices of actions to perform, only some of which are relevant in any situation, but any of which might be relevant. I get very tired of the smashy-smashy games, where the only action is "clobber that", and the only response is a pretty shower of shrapnel...

Of course, the very responsive world is hard to develop in a graphical game. I'd like it, but I realize it's difficult.

I'd like to see games drawn from the full spectrum of fantasy and science fiction. Commercial games are severely typecast. Big-guns SF, vampires, dystopian-cyber SF, elfy-empire fantasy, anime cliches. Where's the Megan Lindholm, Diane Duane, Lois Bujold, Jasper Fforde? Who's doing the off-beat stuff?

I know; those are high standards for text IF as well; every gamemarket needs more truly original writers. Easy to ask for. One imagines that it's worth making the effort.

This article copyright © 2004, Andrew Vestal and Nich Maragos. Illustrations copyright © 2004, Erin Mehlos. This article originally published at Reprinted with permission.

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