Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Next Generation Hybrid: Interactive Fiction

Interactive Fiction is a new type of storytelling that virtually combines the characteristics of both a story and a game. In this new type of literature the reader is no longer restricted to simply reading the text, but can participate in the actions and decisions of the main character. In A Beginner’s Guide to Playing Interactive Fiction Ramsberg explains, “You usually take on the role of the main character in the story. The game tells you what happens to the character, and you tell the game how the character should act”. In many of these stories there is a puzzle for the main character (controlled by the reader) to solve, but this is not always the case. Some pieces of IF rely on a captivating plot to secure the reader’s interest in the story so that the reader will continue to “play”.

When a reader opens a piece of interactive fiction and prepares to play they are usually greeted with an introduction or prologue. This introduction explains the background of the story, who the main character is, and (sometimes) the objective of the main character within the story. The parser, which essentially acts as the “mind” of the game and processes all input from the reader, allows for the reader to hit “Enter” once they have finished reading and the game begins. In an IF such as Whom the Telling Changed the reader is given several options before they are presented with the prologue. The parser asks the reader if they would like to receive instructions and also asks the reader to pick a preferred way to view the text that would be especially important (for example: bold, italics, underlined, etc.). Once the reader has done this, however, the prologue begins. A photograph from the prologue of this IF is provided.

Because the reader is no longer just a reader when it comes to interactive fiction, there are some things that need to be learned before it is possible to successfully work with an IF piece. Although not all interactive fiction is the same there are still some things that are fairly consistent throughout. Interactive fiction always has a player character, which is typically the main character and is controlled by the reader. The reader makes decisions as the player character that helps to develop the plot. IF also has non-player characters which the player character can encounter during the game. These non-player characters are programmed into the game and can usually be interacted with, although the variety of things that they can do or say is limited to their development by the author. In the IF Whom the Telling Changed the player character can interact with Saiph, Sihan, Isi, and Nabu who are non-player characters. The player character can touch and speak to these characters.

In IF the reader is granted the responsibility of making decisions for the player character, which means that the reader must not only choose who talk to but must also choose where to go and what to do once they arrive. In many interactive fiction pieces the setting is based on compass directions. For example, the parser might say something along the lines of, “The bathroom is west of the bedroom”. This means that if the reader wishes to move from the bedroom into the bathroom the reader must type in a command along the lines of, “Go West”. Commands like, “Go to bathroom” or “Leave bedroom” might not be recognizable by the parser. In this case the parser will produce a message to the reader in brackets, which indicates that what the parser is saying is not part of the story. The parser’s message might look something like this, [I do not recognize this verb]. Ramsberg suggests, “When interacting with IF games always try to express yourself as simply as possible. If you have tried several ways of expressing yourself and the game refuses to understand what you want to do, you are most probably on the wrong track…” When, as a player, you do arrive in the location of your choice you may have an opportunity to command the player character to perform other actions that interact with the room and the objects in it. If the description of a room states that there is a bottle and a key on a table you may be able to tell the game to interact with the key by typing, “Take Key”, “Touch Key”, or “Examine Key”.

Because the genre is a hybrid, a combination of a game and a story, sometimes the pieces differ greatly in style. The work Whom The Telling Changed is an IF piece that is more like a story. In this piece the reader can make different decisions but the plot and outcome generally stay the same. In a piece like Galatea the reader is granted more freedom and there are a large number of possible outcomes that all differ from each other greatly. Despite this drastic difference in style, the genre combines the best of both words. The reader comes away from the story feeling more satisfied, more personally rewarded, because the fact that they can control the player character makes them feel more like it is their own story. When playing Galatea for the first time I felt extremely satisfied that Galatea liked me at the end of the story. I realized that I had invested myself personally into the piece of interactive fiction because the freedom it granted me to make choices made the work mine, for as long as I played it anyway.

As a novice interactive fiction author I really enjoyed myself. I have always been extremely interested in writing, especially fiction, and I felt that using Inform 7 was a fun way to expand my horizons in a field that I already liked. I am also very interested in puzzles and, to me Inform 7 was a gigantic puzzle. Instead of writing a story that was straightforward and leaving it up to the reader to interpret, I felt like I was responsible for interpreting the reader and the reader’s actions. It was like having to tackle my story from a different angle. One thing is for sure, I definitely underestimated how hard it is to simultaneously write a story and learn how to program it at the same time.

As an IF author I had to write my story from an author’s perspective and also from a reader’s perspective. As a “reader” I had to anticipate the things my reader would be compelled to do, the places they would like to go, and the things that they would be interested in exploring. Once I thought of all these possibilities I had to try to make the IF world as interesting as possible. I wanted the reader to be satisfied with the conversations they could have and the choice they could make. As an “author” I had to decide how to subtly coax my reader into going where I wanted them to go by giving them clues or making certain locations seem intriguing. In a text only story the reader must go wherever the author leads them, so not every part of the story has to be as interesting as the next. However in an IF the reader can choose to either do something or not, so the author needs to make them want to do it and choose to do it themselves.

Sometimes the technology of Inform 7 made me feel limited as an author, which was frustrating. My original story was about a scientist who was going on a dive expedition to locate a rare species of fish. While diving, the player character could either locate the rare fish or stumble upon an artifact (perhaps a shipwreck or a treasure, I hadn’t decided yet) depending on the choices that they made within the story. I loved my idea, but once I started writing with Inform I felt forced to abandon part of my story. Giving the reader a second option proved to be too complicated, because I am not an experienced IF author. Now the player character can only locate and capture the rare fish – there is no option for the play character to make a second discovery.

Using Inform 7 helped me to expand my writing because it inspired me to write about something different than I would normally choose to. My style of writing has always focused on people and relationships through dialogue, but my IF story is an adventure. I could not focus on dialogue in my interactive fiction like I would in a textual story, because it would not move the plot along. Writing my story in the IF style made me think about action and plot in a physical sense, which I do not do often. The result of this is that my interactive fiction is filled with visual descriptions, clues, and actions. There is dialogue, but not nearly as much as there would have been had I written the story as text only.

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