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PC Gamer UK Interview: Emily Short

Richard Cobbett [R.C.]: What do you get out of writing IF?

Emily Short [E.S.]: It's a creative outlet, and one with both technical and artistic aspects. By day I'm an academic, in a humanities discipline, which means that I don't otherwise get a lot of cause to do programming; I'm also supposed to refrain from writing fiction in my academic papers. IF gives me an excuse to do both those things. And the community of players and fellow-authors is great -- they're enthusiastic and well-informed, and they tend to be articulate about what they like and don't like and why.

R.C.: What do you hope to achieve with the IF Theory book that is currently in production?

E.S.: Several things. It's a chance to bring encourage people to write about the craft of IF in an organized way; there are scattered articles around the web and so on, and there are manuals about how to code IF, but there aren't (yet) any systematic pieces about the problems of design. As the medium matures, we find more and more techniques to solve certain kinds of problems -- how to enhance the simulated environment, how to portray other characters realistically, how to design an engaging puzzle. This provides a place for people to explain the tools of the trade as they currently exist and perhaps to indicate some directions for more exploration.

The book also takes a (somewhat briefer) look at the place of IF as a medium, by presenting new articles on the history of IF development and on how IF fits in with academic theory on computer-based literature and new media.

R.C.: Why do you think that interactive fiction has been able to continue growing and evolving, producing such works as Spider and Web, Galatea and the like even as the rest of the gaming industry bemoans the lack of innovation in its titles?

E.S.: There's an easy answer here, namely that we don't have to worry about marketing. The downside of amateur game writing is that you don't get paid, but the upside is that you can write whatever comes into your mind to write; there's no one peering over your shoulder saying, "No, that won't sell -- our research tells us that most gamers want to play something in one of these three genres, and you have to have this kind of interface and that kind of puzzle."

There's also another, subtler answer. The IF community is fairly closeknit, with a core of active, productive members who work together on projects, talk about things, play and critique each other's games. I can't really speak to what it's like to be a commercial game designer, but I can say that my work has been greatly improved by the exchange of ideas within that community. People in the IF community are very thoughtful critics, and many of them are interested in discussing the ways in which the medium can be pushed to do new and interesting things. So there's an atmosphere in which experimentation is valued: even if you don't come up with something smashingly popular and well-loved, people will be receptive to exploration of new ideas. The worst thing that can happen to a game in this world is for it not to be talked about. If you write a game that people love, great; if you write one that they don't love, but still discuss, that's a kind of success too.

R.C.: Much of the IF world is split between Interactive Fiction's narrative and conventional Text Adventuring's puzzles. Which of the two sides, if either, would you say is the most important?

E.S.: It really depends on what you're trying to do: I've seen really entertaining games that turned on their puzzles, and other excellent pieces that were pretty much all narrative. The success of a given piece tends to depend largely on whether the author has some clear vision of what he wants his piece to be like and how he wants the player to experience it, I think.

R.C.: Summed up in a sentence -- why should a non-initiated reader care about IF? (playing, as opposed to writing)

E.S.: IF can be extremely involving, both emotionally and intellectually: the challenge of trying to solve the puzzles is addictive, and the impact of the narrative is heightened by the fact that you're participating in it.

Those of us who discuss IF a lot refer to this phenomenon as the effect of complicity: a story that would affect you only slightly if you were reading it on the printed page comes to have a much stronger and more personal power if your own actions have somehow contributed to bringing it about. (That's a second sentence, but you can cut it if you like.)

R.C.: Part of the [magazine] feature talks about the creation of IF games, with a very quick tutorial. What would be the most important piece of advice that you would give to an aspiring IF author?

E.S.: Listen to your beta-testers. Find people to play your game, read their transcripts carefully, and PAY ATTENTION to everything they do. They're not just there to find bugs; they also find the places where your game is confusing, or badly clued, or where the pacing doesn't work. A lot of the time responding to beta-tester feedback just consists of adding one-line descriptions to things or customizing trivial responses to actions, but that kind of polish makes all the difference in the world to the players of your games. It makes your game world feel solid and dependable and real, and not like a stage set made of plywood.

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An extract from this interview was printed in PC Gamer UK, issue 118 (Jan 2003). Reprinted with permission.

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