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This week, I played a game that was a book. Or read a book that was a game.

It was weird.

Interactive fiction, or IF, is a text input/output program where the computer prints text in response to a limited set of commands. The program describes a scene, and you decide what you want the protagonist (you) to do within it. It’s something along the lines of:

“You wake up disoriented and alone. You see a spacecraft that has crashed in the field behind you.

>EXAMINE SPACECRAFT

There’s an open hatch with a ladder going into the spacecraft, but there’s smoke coming out of the hatch.

>CLIMB LADDER”

Honestly, IF is for nerds. The first IF program, “Adventure,” was written by Will Crowther, a Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) fan and self-proclaimed mega-geek, who designed a story where readers explore a cave and speak DnD-style to the game master (aka “dungeon master”). Add puzzles and more fantasy elements, and you’ve got the hit computer game of 1976.  Which only worked on computers the size of small refrigerators, but hey.

IF was popular for about 5 years in the late 70’s/early  80’s, but was quickly outclassed by a new generation of video games. Today’s MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, like Warcraft) and social games, with their fancy graphics and multi-player interactivity, relegate IF to a distant, DOS past. And yet, it’s still played and written today by people in tiny, über-devoted communities online.

Why? I can’t really tell you. I’m new to the genre. I’ve always loved sci-fi, fantasy, and YA, but this IF stuff was a little before my time, rather ugly-looking, and a too deep into geekdom even for me. But recently I decided to take a look. I read the rules, I learned all the verbs you could use, and downloaded some weird IF-reader software. And then I ‘played’ a book.

And it was really, REALLY cool.

I got to control the story as it was happening. I got to solve riddles. I got to kill people—with words. Sticks and stones my butt. And then the story talked back to me, responded to my actions, sort of like a technologified Tom Riddle’s diary (yes, it’s that addicting).

Seriously, you have to try this.

Unlike Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, my choices in IF aren’t immediately obvious—I have to discover them for myself. IF writers create a backstory, the overall shape of a character, deep-level plot arcs, but I’m the one that has to choose my next action out of a list of possible verbs (like WALK, EXAMINE, WEAR, SMELL). All I see is a block of text followed by “>”, prompting me to take that next step, and an impenetrable blank space below it where my future will appear. And once I take an action, there’s no going back.

But IF is more than just coolly “tech-vintage.” I think it’s where storytelling is going.

The New York Times recently published an article about Choose-Your-Own-Adventure for iPad and iPhone (renamed “U-Ventures” – $3.99 on iTunes), created by one of the CYOA series’ original authors. Actually, they seem to be something of a hybrid CYOA + IF programs: “Instead of flipping back and forth in a printed book, reading a U-Venture requires remembering a secret password and making choices by tapping a screen.” They also integrate video gaming functions; when you make a wrong choice, you can “prompt the image on the screen to fade to black, buzz or shake violently, accompanied by sound effects and music.”

This is the first step towards something that could be totally awesome. What if there was a CYOA/IF book complete with finger riddles, videos, hyperlinked clues, etc.? We all squeeed over Alice in Wonderland on the iPad. Can you imagine what would happen if we could choose whether or not Alice goes down that rabbit hole? Or if someone didn’t just trick out a normal book, but instead understood, like IF writers, that user input has to “make sense” in the structure and plot of the story?

While book sales stagnate and game sales stay steady, maybe it’s time to take a look around us and see what’s possible. Investigate what the Japanese are doing that gives Visual Novels (another close relative of IF) a whopping 70% of the video game market. Or what companies in the US like Nintendo are doing for the DS with games like Fighting Fantasy, a text-based adventure game.

According to video gaming guru Ben Yahtzee Croshaw, “the hypothetical ultimate model of gaming is total immersion.” A virtual world (a “story,” in the broadest sense of the word) that makes the player feel like he is living/acting in reality. Isn’t it funny that after thirty-five years of video gaming, after all the remarkable (but ultimately superficial?) improvements in graphics and animation, we’ve finally come back around to detailed, user-input storytelling, where IF began?

Is it the future yet? Count me in.

-Lindsay

2 thoughts on “">"

  1. Lindsey – One of the early successful graphical text adventure games (with static graphics that were in color and considered really top notch in its day) was written by none other than Michael Crichton. It was called ‘Amazon’ and was highly addicting. I’m dating myself by saying I played it on my Commodore 64. So there was a time when actual writers were tapped to make video games!

  2. It’s a pleasure reading your writing there. My blog will be in the same niche as yours, now I have someone to look up to.I hope I can be successful, I’ll let you know when I’m featured in NY Times 😉 I know it takes time – I’ve got too much of it anyway 😉

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