Thursday, November 4, 2010

Interactive Fiction: an Adventure

Playing with Interactive Fiction is one of the most fun experiences I have had with literature in a while. This may be because it is so vastly different than a story on paper, but that is one of the main reasons individuals appreciate Electronic Literature in general: it goes far beyond the page and straight into your mind. As Mary Ann Buckles tells us throughout her article “Interactive Fiction as Literature,” it encompasses mystery, adventure, science fiction, and romance (not in the love sense, but in the medieval times sense) novels. For myself, I think the most captivating of these genres is adventure because it adds an element of thrill, meaning the thrill of exploring something novel and exciting. For me, Interactive Fiction is much like an adventure novel. In a way, the forest, which characters may explore in a traditional novel, is the Inform7 program. Players must figure out the inner workings of the software program, like which specific input will give them the desired response. In order to illustrate how Interactive Fiction is like an adventure novel, we will be using Emily Short’s Galatea as an example.

            Galatea is a relatively short game, running as few as ten minutes, but as long as about 45 depending on how in-depth you want to go. Throughout the game, the player must converse with Galatea, inquiring about her creator and her own ideas and experiences about the world. For example, after reading the placard telling about Galatea as a statue, the player might consider asking about the artist, Pygmalion:

In order to get a response from Galatea, one must type “ask about Pygmalion” or “a artist.” The nice thing about Interactive Fiction is that within one question, the reader can get information about a character that might take reading chapters and chapters of a book to find out. Although we never directly meet Pygmalion in this IF game (called “other person”), just by asking about him we can understand a lot about him and his relationship with Galatea: we find out that he regretted creating Galatea once she awoke, had nightmares, and drank often. This especially applies to the non-player character (NPC) Galatea. By empathizing with her, being patient, and gaining her trust, she reveals more personal information. It was particularly difficult to get her to confess her love for her artist, but by being patient and listening to what she has to say (by typing “z”), the player will be able to hear her story:

Unfortunately, in this particular cycle of the game, I was unable to continue asking questions because finding out about Galatea’s love for Pygmalion was the ultimate goal of the game.

It is interesting that finding out about Galatea’s love for her creator elicited the most direct ending to this piece of Interactive Fiction. Most of my other experiences with Galatea always ended in a very similar way: she seemed to become disinterested in the conversation, particularly after being asked too often about the same topic:

I found that carrying out a conversation with Galatea was often extremely difficult, particularly if I wanted to find out more about a topic. According to Fredrik Ramsberg in the article “A Beginner’s Guide to Playing Interactive Fiction,” he gives the reader a list of verbs that are common to IF games, particularly ones that apply to conversation, such as “Tell [blank] about” or “ask [blank] about” (Ramsberg, “A Beginner’s Guide to Playing Interactive Fiction). However, in my experience with Galatea, the “telling” action did not work well when I used it:

When used, I would often get a message that said “you don’t have much to say about that” or “you’d rather hear what she has to said about it.” However, I found out that the “think about” action is much more effective. Instead of only receiving the “you don’t have much to say about that” output, the conversation would continue and the player-character would actually participate in the conversation instead of jumping from topic to topic with each input:

Unfortunately it took me about three plays to notice that there must have been some other way to interact with Galatea that included my player-character actually conversing with her, so I had to look up other users’ experiences with the game. While I was looking this up, I came across a page by Emily Short called “Cheats and Walkthroughs” that gave me a command that would show conversation statistics. By using this command, a top bar would appear and tell the player what mood Galatea was in, what the current and next conversations are, the amount of sympathy she was feeling for you, as well as if there is any tension. This was certainly one element that I really appreciated. It acted as a guiding tool for what I might ask about next or what I should avoid. For example, her mood became “scary” the more we spoke about the Gods, and “happy” the more we spoke about Pygmalion and his travels. It was interesting to see how the mood element played into the conversation and how sympathetic she became. This particular element of the story truly made me understand Galatea’s experiences. You can tell just by the variability of her mood that her story is going to be rocky but beautiful at the same time. Even though some players claim that her she is too touchy as a NPC, I disagree. Her mood variability adds an element of adventure and suspense, especially if you do not want to upset her. Clearly it must have been extremely difficult to create such a real character, from my own experience creating Interactive Fiction I found it most difficult to create characters that acted more like a real person than most NPCs.

It was truly an adventure playing Galatea, both getting to know her and understanding how to manipulate the conversation so that it was maintained over time. Writing my own IF was even more of an adventure, though. The original idea I had for my Interactive Fiction was based around a first date between two friends who have had intense feelings for one another for quite some time. The player took the role of the male taking out his friend, Penny. The player starts off on the street and has the choice of picking one of three flowers next to a bench; later in the story the player can choose whether or not he/she would like to give Penny one of the flowers. I had so much fun with the idea of playing out the endless possibilities of the date. I felt like I was creating this whole new world in which anything could happen; I felt like I was the author of some awesome adventure. In this way, I think that IF allows the author more room for creativity because you can play with the many different ways in which a conversation or event can play out in a world entirely of your own creation.

The endless amount of creativity also was extremely frustrating. When I started to make the Cinema, I realized how difficult it was going to be to tell the program that the cinema was only available after the player went to the Bistro. Once I believed I finally figured out how to do this by creating an un-lockable door, I was so relieved:

However, when my classmate tested out my IF in class, this rule did not work at all. There were many little plot points that I could not figure out how to integrate into the program so that they worked for play. For example, I wanted the host, Marten, to be able to go to the dining table, and for Penny and the player to be able to follow, but that proved to be an extremely difficult task, which was entirely frustrating:

One aspect of my IF piece I was very happy to have been able to program was taking and giving flowers to Penny. I was able to successfully program Inform7 to say different things according to which flower the player choose to take and give to Penny. Unfortunately, I was not able to locate a screenshot of this part of my creative process.

Simply the prospect of endless possibilities sets Interactive Fiction apart from traditional literature. Unfortunately, I think that the inexperienced players of IF do not know how many paths they can take as a user. When I played my very first IF, All Roads, I thought it was pointless and too overtly like a puzzle. I did not feel like I was free to make any decision that I wanted because I knew it was only going to come to the same conclusion. However, with Galatea and Whom the Telling Changed, I found that I had much more leeway as a player because I could manipulate the story as I saw fit, just as I did with Galatea. This plays into the creative possibilities as a creator of IF as well. Now that I have had some experience with writing IF, I know some of the basics of programming Inform7 and therefore understand how to manipulate the storyline. Simply knowing all of the conversation topics and ways to interact within the IF world really impacted game play. When I first played Galatea I was frustrated by her coldness during conversation and thought that she was a very simple character, which was not very impressive. However, when I started writing, I realized that there were more possibilities to the conversation and understood what to use as input and how to empathize with Galatea as a piece of art.

All in all, I had a great experience with Interactive Fiction, but readers must understand that certain pieces may be less fun to interact with than others; some IF games are more obviously a puzzle, like All Roads, while some games have characters that are puzzles themselves, like Galatea. Being patient and knowing that IF as a whole is an adventure in and of itself will certainly enhance your experience with it.

Happy Gaming,
Alicia Mangiafico

Works Cited

Buckles, Mary Ann. “Interactive Fiction as Literature.” October 13 2010.             <> 

Ingold, Jon. All Roads. <>

Jerz, Dennis G. “What is Interactive Fiction” Dennis G. Jerz. October 6, 2010.

Ramsberg, Fredrik "A Beginner's Guide to Playing Interactive Fiction." October 6,
            2010. <>

Reed, Aaron A. Whom the Telling Changed.
Short, E. “Cheats and Walkthroughs” 2000. November 1 2010.

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