Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My Experiences with Interactive Fiction

Interactive Fiction is the most difficult and annoying yet thought-provoking and interesting concept in literature I've ever encountered. Dennis Jerz provides the best and most basic definition of it. He says it "is computer-mediated narrative, resembling a fine-grained 'Choose Your Own Adventure' story, in which the reader helps to determine the outcome of the story" (What is IF?, Jerz). Its design is a combination of a game and a short story, featuring characteristics of each. It's similar to a game because you have to interact with the software in order to progress. There are obstacles the reader has to get past by solving puzzles to proceed. There is always a clear goal that must be achieved in order to finish. The reader becomes the character in the story just like you would if you were playing a video game and had to play through the player's perspective. It's also like a short story, though, because the descriptions are very detailed so the reader can imagine what's going on. There are settings in which the character moves and interacts. There are other non-player characters with which the reader can converse. Sometimes there's even character development, although it's usually gradual and limited. Although it's hard to wrap your mind around, the combination of these elements allow for IF to be considered literature.

Similar to the way many new forms of media began, people are often skeptical about the value or scholarship of interactive fiction. The film industry is such a wildly acclaimed part of our culture but it didn't start out that way. The first films certainly wowed people but no one thought it was actually worthwhile. Interactive fiction has the same potential to follow that same course. I think people are afraid of change and they don't think other things could be better than the ones they already use and love like mysteries, adventures, and fantasy novels. If they stopped to consider how much IF really offers then they might surprise themselves and enjoy it because it's not really all that different than those genres. Mary Ann Buckles wrote an article that explains just that. She points out that IF resembles mystery novels because both have puzzles that need to be solved and you have to pay attention for the subtle clues that will point you in the right direction. Buckles describes it as a competition with the author to figure out the ending. She compares IF to adventure novels like Treasure Island because they both require the reader to go on some sort of quest to get to the treasure, whether it be literal or not. And if anyone has read and loved the fantasy novels Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, then they have to love IF because it creates an imaginary world with its own set of rules by which the player now has to abide. I was even a skeptic of the scholarship of IF until I read Buckles' argument and realized that interactive fiction is even better than the novels because it's like reading Harry Potter and getting to be Harry Potter. Who would pass up the opportunity to play a character from their favorite book?

IF Works:

Of all the IFs we attempted, the only one I was actually able to finish was "Whom the Telling Changed". The unique way that it was designed is the reason why I was able to finish it. It offered hints by putting certain words in bold or in capital letters so I was able to figure out what I should ask about. One thing I noticed most about this IF was that in order to progress, the verb I used most was "listen" which I thought might tie in with the theme of the IF. I think the theme was about how you can't really talk or form an opinion about something that you have no experience with because throughout the IF, the character had to listen to the storyteller and he also had to listen to his enemy in order to make a decision. Only once he made a decision did the storyteller die and he became the storyteller himself meaning that he was now the wise one who would guide the people.

What I liked best about this IF was the fact that the choices you made when solving the puzzles would influence what was going to happen. I chose to take the medicine bag so I became the healer and opposed the war that my enemy (whom I also chose to be the enemy) was proposing against the newcomers. I could have chosen the knife which would have made me the warrior and I would have supported the war. I was also able to choose who the storyteller was based on who I chose to hand the teller's circlet to. All the puzzles led to different pathways for the game to proceed and "how and when you solve these puzzles may affect how the plot unfolds and even the outcome of the game" (A Beginner's Guide, Ramsberg).

Because the clues were pretty much handed to me and I didn't have to do much thinking, it would be classified as one of the games that "don't have puzzles, but rely on the story itself being good enough to keep the player's interest" (Beginner's Guide, Step 2). And keep the player's interest it did. "Whom the Telling Changed" had a story within the story so there was not only a plot being developed in the game, there was great character development within the story as well. Another thing that made this take on the feeling of literature was that the story was based around the Epic of Gilgamesh so although the world in which the IF took place was fictional, there were pieces of real literature embedded within it. This part of the story elements helped the game elements because the characters were meant to use the story to decide what decision should be made about the potential war. Although I believe that this game should be considered more for beginning users of IF because it was very basic and elementary, I do believe it had a lot to offer in all respects of interactive fiction.

Writing IF:

Writing interactive fiction is one of the most difficult things I've attempted when it comes to creative writing. It was an interesting process because I was trying to create a piece of work that forced the user to figure out what was supposed to happen. It was like writing my own story but having to keep in mind the fact that the user is in charge of what happens. I had to learn how to be creative in the way that I dropped hints because I wanted the user to get the full effect without giving away the whole plot or without basically telling them "The door is locked. If only you had a key..." I enjoyed creating the hints and describing the rooms or the people in the room. I enjoyed the writing process itself more than I enjoyed trying to figure out how to do something in Inform7. That was the most difficult thing for me.

There were only a few problems that I ran into while writing my IF but I was frustrated by a couple things. The fact that there so many fine details that go into writing IF was irritating. There was a time when I wanted to add a thing to a room which already had other things in it and the order that I put them in mattered because I had a description for one of the things but not the others. I wanted to describe a "syllabus" but the description I wrote ended up describing a "backpack" which made no sense at all. I figured out that I would have to write a whole new paragraph just for each description just to save myself some sanity. There was another time when I wanted to add a direction for a room into a description and I kept getting an error message when I would run it which confused me because the sentence had worked before I added any new details. I thought it was because of the way I worded the sentence that confused Inform7 so for a few minutes I tried different ways to rearrange the sentence so that Inform7 would understand it and I finally realized that I had accidentally deleted a period when I added new details which caused Inform7 to completely ignore it as a sentence. I also wanted the user to be able to try out different verbs instead of just "examine", "open", or "talk to" but every time I tried to create a new verb I ran into problems and I finally just gave up.

The biggest thing that's easier to be expressed in IF rather than in a written story is the degree to which a user becomes involved in the story. When the user is required to find a way out of Rome to escape being hanged, it's much easier to get involved in the IF and interact with it. Similar to digital poetry, readers of written poetry are simply reading it and they have no need to look any deeper than the text but when reading digital poetry, there are so many additional factors that will aid the reader's interpretation and how they read the poem. When someone reads a story, the most they can get involved is by relating to a character or rooting for the character. When someone uses IF, they become the character which thus gives them more incentive to get to the ending. Writing the IF that gets the user involved though is easier said than done. Being a novice, I wanted to give the character as many options as they needed to figure out what to do but I just didn't know how to write it in IF. It was like learning a new language and trying to talk to someone who speaks it fluently and the only way your message will be conveyed is if they hear it exactly as it's supposed to be otherwise they can't respond to you. Although I felt limited by what I knew, I struggled because there were so many things that I could add to my IF to make it a better game but I just couldn't choose which ones to add. When I did choose which ones to add, I had no idea where in the source code I was supposed to write them. Given more time, I would be able to learn more rules and I could eventually create a work that would be worthy of playing.

I think if I had to choose between writing the same story as an IF or with pen and paper, I would probably choose the pen and paper. My main reason is because I wouldn't have to deal with technicalities of Inform7 and writing is much easier than learning the details of a new computer program. Also, I like that the user of IF gets to figure out the puzzles to find out what to do next but I found that I was much better at describing the situation than designing a situation. I struggled trying to set up a situation where the user would figure out what to do next. When we had people test out our IFs, I realized that the hints that I thought were very clear were not clear at all. There were several pieces of scenery, things, and dialogue that were helpful for figuring things out that the tester didn't pick up on. If they had examined the things/scenery or picked up on the things that people said then they would have revealed clues about where to go and what to do once there. I thought I did a good job at describing the situations that I managed to design though. However, it didn't really work because I think I ended up believing the tester was a mind-reader and would understand where I was taking them. I also went into great detail about certain characters which is much more prevalent in writing a story than IF. IF was more about the goal rather than the character development and I prefer the character development. If I had the opportunity to write this with pen and paper, it would be very obvious what was happening, who was there, and what the character should or should not do. I would prefer to be able to lay it all out there instead of making poor attempts to guide someone.

I thought that writing my own IF would make it easier to decide if I like it or not but it actually made me somewhat indifferent to it altogether. Being the user of IF was very frustrating because I had a hard time figuring out the puzzles especially with "All Roads." I experienced "stuckness" often and that would make me dislike IF very much just because I could never figure out what to do next. The only IF I was ok with reading was "Whom the Telling Changed" and that was only because all of the clues were highlighted so I knew what I should be asking. "Galatea" was just as difficult as "All Roads" because no matter how many times I tried, I kept irritating Galatea so she would stop talking to me and I was never able to reach an ending. Being the writer of IF was not any better of an experience. I thought I was being obvious enough so the user would figure things out but I learned through the testing that I wasn't and I also ran out of things for the user to do. My IF was about a student who did poorly on a paper so his goal is to figure out what he can do to bring his grade up and how he must do it. Once I got to the part where I wanted the user to study or to read notes, I ran into a problem of having time pass in the IF world and coming up with material for the character to be studying. It would definitely require many months of learning about Inform7 and developing situations where that would all be possible. I did not enjoy running out of ideas or being stuck so I'm not crazy about either side of IF.

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