Brass Lantern
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Writers and Adventures

by Stephen Granade

Writers of traditional prose have always been associated with text adventures, especially at Infocom. Mike Berlyn, one of the early Infocom Implementors, wrote science fiction novels before he designed such adventure classics as Infidel and Suspended. Douglas Adams co-wrote an adventure based on his "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" books and helped create the game Bureaucracy. After Activision bought Infocom, they released the Westwood Studios game Circuit's Edge, a graphics-and-text adventure by George Alec Effinger and based on his Budayeen books.

Even in these days of amateur-written text adventures, authors still design adventures. But why should writers want to create adventures? They require that you learn a computer language; they make little or no money for the creators. In short, why do it since it's so hard?

"What you're really asking is: why write?" says Neil deMause. "I write interactive fiction because I completely suck at writing traditional fiction, and yet I wanted to have an outlet for my imagination." Neil is an established non-fiction journalist and editor, and co-authored "Field of Schemes". He has also created several adventures, including Lost New York and The Frenetic Five vs Sturm und Drang.

Eric Mayer has co-written a number of mystery novels with his wife. He entered his first adventure, The HeBGB Horror!, in the 1999 IF competition; since then, he's written several other games. For him, it's a question of working on what interests him. "IF is worth writing because it's an entirely different thing than regular fiction. It isn't just fiction complicated by the fact that you need to write it in code."

"I work on whatever idea I'm most interested in at the time," agrees Adam Cadre, "and oftentimes that's IF." Adam's first novel, "Ready, Okay!", was published by HarperCollins in 2000. His adventures include Photopia and Varicella. "If I want the person on the other end of the story to absorb the material and then go off and reflect on it for a while, it'll end up in a book. If, on the other hand, I want the reaction to be, 'Yow! Okay, what'm I going to do now?', it's got to be interactive fiction."

There are similarities between traditional writing and writing interactive fiction, beyond the obvious fact that both use words to convey information. Many of the techniques of traditional writing can be used in IF. Games have used foreshadowing; simile and metaphor work just as well in IF as in traditional fiction. Of late there have been adventures which have tried some of the more unusual fictional techniques, such as the unreliable narrator, or telling a story through vignettes and flashbacks.

There are also differences. The IF author cannot tell a straight-forward story without having players feel as if they are being railroaded through the game. They also lack the control over pacing that writers have traditionally enjoyed. Readers of a newspaper or a novel can stop reading at any point, but they cannot make the story or information flow any faster or slower. The player of a work of IF can linger in one area for a long time, then move as quickly as possible through the next.

Given this dichotomy, it's unsurprising that some authors focus on the similarities and other on the differences. For example, Eric has found that writing IF is akin to writing mysteries. "I have found that the problem of embedding in the text clues to what the player is supposed to be up to, how puzzles might be solved, what verbs might be useful, isn't much different than embedding clues about who committed the crime in a murder mystery."

For Adam, however, the two are notably different. "Writing a novel is like walking across the country: I've got my map in front of me, know where to change freeways... I don't necessarily know exactly how the road will twist and turn along the way, but at least I know which cities I'll be passing through next. Interactive fiction, on the other hand, is more a process of accretion: add an object, then figure out everything that might be done to that object, and how it might affect other objects... building a storyspace room by room, rather than setting forth a series of events moment by moment."

Designing a text adventure may require that you write prose, but it also requires a skill that most traditional writers don't need: the ability to program. Many posts on the Usenet newsgroup are from newcomers (and occasionally old-timers like me) who need help with programming. It's this aspect of writing text adventures which most often scares people away, especially those who have a more artistic bent.

Programming can be learned, however, even if you don't have a natural aptitude for it. Neil has learned how to program, but that doesn't mean he has to like it. "I suppose I enjoy it sometimes, but mostly it's just an annoyance I have to get through in order to write a game."

Eric, too, has difficulties with this aspect of interactive fiction. "Although I enjoy the programming aspect of IF as a challenging puzzle, after spending some time simply writing out plain English sentences the idea of having to wrestle with programming to express myself is daunting."

Creating interactive fiction is not for every writer. You have to enjoy the blend of prose and puzzles that makes up text adventures. You must have some skill at writing and programming. But creating interactive fiction can help your writing, and not necessarily in obvious ways. Neil found it made him much better at setting a scene. "In journalism, I often need to do a quick one-paragraph description of a place, and that just happens to be exactly what one does when writing room descriptions."

Writing a text adventure has made Eric more conscious of details. "In IF readers expect truly concrete descriptions. If you mention an object, the IF reader expects to be able to pick it up or at least examine it closely. So as an IF author you probably don't want to throw in too much empty scenery, and I think that is a good rule of thumb for traditional writing -- make sure you describe only what is in some way important to the story and describe it well enough so the reader can really see it."

There is another benefit to writing text adventures. It makes you part of a close-knit community which will give you honest critiques of your writing and feedback to help you improve. "I've always loved Infocom games and the like," Neil says, "and thought it would be just the coolest thing to be able to make one of those for my friends to play. And so it has been -- and the fact that they've also been played by thousands of strangers, plus dozens of new friends, is just icing on the cake."

If you're a writer who enjoys playing adventure games, there's a good chance you'd enjoy writing interactive fiction. Creating IF is a skill that can be learned by anyone who is willing to invest the time and energy. While there are few financial rewards, there are other, more intangible ones to be had.

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