Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Whole New World

    We are all familiar with traditional types of literature: poetry, novels and short stories. I have introduced electronic poetry, or e-poetry, in my previous post.  Just as e-poetry is the electronic and interactive landscape of poetry, so too is “interactive fiction”, or IF, the interactive and completely computer based landscape of short or fictional stories.  Although they are related, interactive fiction and traditional short stories have some fundamental distinctions. First of all, interactive fiction is born in and of computer technology.  This is to say that copying and pasting the “text” from the IF onto a word document would not be IF, nor would it serve the purposes for which it was intended.
    Mary Ann Buckles points out in her article Interactive Fiction as Literature that IF shares some qualities with mystery, science fiction, and fantasy literature.   As she says in her introduction, “these types of popular literature are based on rules, games, and the creation of fantasy worlds. They all emphasize a step-by-step, action-consequence type of thinking and imagination” (Buckles).  The puzzle like nature of these types of writing is also present (and fundamental to) interactive fiction at its core.  Another common quality between traditional literature and IF is the fact that the author or creator must create a fantasy world that is intriguing enough to grab the reader’s (or player’s, in the case of IF) interest and persuade them to take an active mental position on the story.
    The very distinctive and compelling aspect of interactive fiction is the fact that it requires the player to be a part of the story.  The player is in fact the main character of every IF.  The IF acts as a game in that presents its player with an initial situation, like a description of the setting, possibly some characters involved, and a particular problem or hurdle to overcome (although what the puzzle is is not always readily apparent, sometimes finding this out is part of the puzzle). Usually there are hints in the initial description at the beginning of the IF that can help lead you to a new scenario, inching you towards solving a problem.  The player types commands into the box, hoping to find out more about a certain situation, or to move on to new rooms.
    For example, Emily Short’s IF entitled Galatea opens with a description of an art gallery in which there is a marble statue of a woman, Galatea.  This statue is not a normal statue, the initial description acts as though she has human qualities, and in fact she seems to be upset.  The description says her hands are balled up in fists.  This is the hint that should let you know that something is upsetting her, and we want to find out what it is.  Although this isn’t as easy as it sounds because IF is a computer program and cannot understand everything that we tell it. 
    It is very confusing at first, but with time you begin to understand what words or phrases the program can use to continue the story.  The program will also give you helpful instructions when you are not typing in understandable phrases, like “[To talk to someone, try TELL <person> ABOUT <topic> or ASK <person> ABOUT <topic>.]”. This was a response of the IF to my statement “talk to Galatea”.  So when I followed with the language the program could understand, she actually talked to me! To illustrate this I’ve included a screen shot of this particular (beginners) predicament- see below.

    As you continue into Galatea’s world, writing and re-writing your sentences in a way that gives you the response you were looking for.  The first time I “played” Galatea I made her even more angry by talking about myself (by accident).  So, this time I tried to ask about her and what her thought were on art, etc.- see below.  Then when this was unsuccessful I touched her on the shoulder.  The program recognized this as me comforting her.  After comforting her I was able to more easily ask about her thoughts, calming her down further.
What is really interesting about IF, in my opinion, is that all of these choices you make and how you decide to move through the story with your commands (like comforting Galatea rather than enraging her) changes the course of the story, and possibly even the outcome of the IF.  This immense intricacy of interactive fiction is what makes it so interesting to play, but at the same time it is the reason why it is so SO difficult to write.
    In attempting to construct my own interactive fiction I almost had a panic attack.  It is extremely frustrating to actually write an IF because it is almost computer programming. This is not my forte, nor do I enjoy it whatsoever.  Trying to be creative and writing an intriguing or interesting story for your future players is made doubly difficult when you do not enjoy the process of constructing the story in the IF program (in this case, Inform 7).  Making your own IF involves a grueling process of creating a language with which Inform 7 can recognize your player’s commands and what response they should cultivate from your story.
    Not only is the handbook for Inform 7 about a gazillion pages long, but to someone completely new to creating IF it is practically gibberish.  Although I read the necessary pages before beginning my IF, it was only when I actually started to play with the Inform program that the gibberish began to make some sense.  Just as you start with an initial description of setting and situation as a player, you also start with this as the creator.  The player’s surroundings and what details you decide to give them set the tone for the whole game and indicate the path with which they can move through your world.
    In order to create your own IF you have to teach Inform 7 to understand what is in your story and how the player can “use” it, and it is not simple!  You literally have to build the world from the ground up, even to the extent that you must tell Inform that objects in the story are things, and that this is distinct from the setting.  The key difference in this situation is that “things” can be used or picked up by the player while parts of the “setting” are unusable and unmovable.  The ways in which you must tell the program these things is incredibly specific and infuriating.  Not only do you have to describe the setting and plot of your particular IF to the Inform 7 program as if it was an alien to our world, but you also have to dictate the way in which the player can interact with it and what outcomes will result from their decisions.  This includes telling the computer to understand certain words you would assume the player might use to talk about a thing-see below.

    My IF story starts with the player waking up in a dark, abandoned looking basement.  They are tied up to a pole and cannot remember how they got there.  While looking around they see a compass, a ray of sunlight with an unidentified source, and then realize that there are two other people (still unconscious) tied up next to them.  In this case the compass is a “thing” that the player can break and use the glass to cut their restraints.  The problem here was that I had to make the computer understand what “break” meant, and further that the player can use the broken compass to cut themselves free from restraint- and also make Inform understand what “restraint” meant, as it was not a specific part of my initial description.  As you can see, this process is tiresome and at times self-defeating in that it does not feel like a creative work of art anymore, but rather an annoying obligation.  Also, the game like nature of IF made me feel quite restricted to a puzzle based story.  I had crazy, wild ideas for short stories when I was in the planning stage, but through my experience with Inform 7 my story had more and more limitations.
    Although I could go on and on about why IF is not my preferred method of self expression, I certainly do have a new found respect for people who struggle through creating one and actually end up with a cohesive and enjoyable piece of work.  I personally prefer sculpture and painting, but after attempting to construct my own piece of interactive fiction I realize how much effort writers of IF must put into their story, which is really much more than a story.  Creating interactive fiction is computer programming, creative writing, and puzzle-building while not actually being any one of these things at any one time per se.  What I am trying to communicate, which is almost impossible without experience with IF, is that building your own interactive story is essentially creating your own world for other people to enjoy.

No comments:

Post a Comment