The Interactive Fiction I grew up on (starting with the Scott Adams text adventures that I got in cassette form for my TI 99/4A computer) was all text based. No graphics at all; just two-word phrases that eventually turned into more sophisticated Infocom game sentences, but still words only. In fact, one of my favorite computer game ads was the Infocom print ad that said something to the effect of “We stick our graphics where the sun don’t shine,” and then there was a picture of the human brain. Pretty clever, and you can see it here.
One of the characteristics that makes Inform 7 so appealing as an IF development environment is that it allows a person to rapidly put together an IF game in the form of those old Infocom games: a pretty robost parser that allowed for sentence input. However, Inform 7 has made a number of improvements to the output it produces, compared to the earlier Infocom games. One of those improvements is the ability to integrate graphic images into the Inform code for display when someone plays the game.
I’ve decided to take advantage of this feature during development of the Historical Williamsburg Living Narrative. I’ll be using the photographs I have taken of Williamsburg, and I’ll have the photographs changed into a more comic-like illustration. Below is a sample of the Capitol Building already having gone through the image processing.
As you can see, the photograph has been altered to appear as more of an illustration. I’ll do this for all of the photographs to be used in the game. Please share your thoughts: do you like this approach to Interactive Fiction? Or does IF need to be more “old school”?
It’s been a while since the last update, but we’ve been making progress on the the interface and parser coding for the “custom” front end. Additionally, we’ve come to the conclusion that a two-pronged approach is what we will be taking for the two main version releases.
Version 1: This is the first piece that will come out, which is purely a navigation-exploration framework for colonial Williamsburg during the setting we’ve selected. This version will be developed in Inform 7, and it will be available to anyone free of charge. All that will be needed is the proper interpreter to run the program file.
Version 2: This is the full game experience with the story placed on top of the location and time setting. Here is where we go off the beaten path with our custom IF interface, and we’ll be using a development environment called LiveCode by RunRev for the development. LiveCode was chosen specifically for its ability to handle text.
Currently we are developing the map within the Inform 7 environment, and we are also working on the custom LiveCode parser. While progress has been fairly slow, it has been significant, and the level of detail of the colonial Williamsburg environment should be quite satisfying when played.
As always, we appreciate the support and encouragement we’ve been receiving. Stay tuned!
It’s true that Interactive Fiction is somewhat of an acquired taste. There is a level of engagement that is not overly intuitive to many people–learning how to communicate with the IF game parser can be a challenge, and it can take some practice getting your precise meaning across to the program so that it responds in a meaningful way.
But once a person has mastered three basic skills (how to move through the environment, how to manipulate objects within the environment, and how to interact with characters in the environment), the playability of the games really open up, and the player can start to have a lot of fun. Well-written IF games not only deal with actions that the player should make, but they also deal with actions that might make absolutely no sense from the standpoint of the situational logic within the game–yet are quite entertaining to the player nonetheless. (Seasoned IF players love to try different actions and commands just to see how the game will respond, even if those actions or commands do nothing to advance the actual game story.)
Below is a website that provides links to several IF games that you can play online. I recommend that you give them a try, especially if you’ve never played before. The IF experience is quite unlike the modern graphic computer games. If you enjoy reading, solving mental puzzles, and feeling like you have control over a game’s narrative experience, Interactive Fiction may just be your cup of tea.
One of the great joys of playing Interactive Fiction games is in the discovery and exploration of the physical space or actual play environment of the game. Years ago when I played the Colossal Cave Adventure for the first time (on the Data General Eclipse computer at the office after hours), I delighted in drawing maps for all the locations and paths that were available. When I got to the maze area, where room exits looped back into the same room, the value of the mapping process became very clear. Those skills were well utilized as I grew into the Scott Adams adventure games, and later the collection of games from Infocom. Sketching out the location boxes with their associated path connections became second nature as a necessary Interactive Fiction player skill. (I am often surprised when I teach Interactive Fiction to college game design students, how few of them already know or readily develop the map-making skill set.)
Developing maps for IF is a slightly different process, though, that requires more than drawing boxes with interconnecting lines. There is the idea of location scale and relative size in IF games, and the developer needs to make some important decisions before committing to computer code. Locations are not all uniform in size (when we imagine our settings), and logical layout is not the same as physical layout. When dealing with fictional settings, there is some latitude for interpretation (though the good designers have a very clear picture of their environment before starting to code). However, there is no room for creative interpretation when attempting to recreate historical settings with absolute fidelity to the historical reality.
That’s our situation with the Historical Williamsburg Living Narrative. A large part of the questions could be framed around geographic granularity: as we build the maps, what is the smallest unit of measurement we should be using? (A square yard seems reasonable, actually.) There will be the typical Interactive Fiction flex in the maps; for example, walking down one side of a street may result in more “stops” along the way than walking up the other side. That would have much to do with the buildings or other pathways located on each side. But the point is, we need to make consideration of the space or area that needs to be “reserved” for game locations in which action may (or may not) take place.
I’m making my sketches now, and that will be one of the first pieces of the game that will be ready for review (we may even put that up on Playfic for people to try out). Do you have any suggestions regarding map making? Is that something you enjoy doing? If you’d like to contribute in some way on this (or any other) piece of the project, please drop me a line.
And don’t forget to check out the Historical Williamsburg Living Narrative Kickstarter project.
We’ve come across the PlayFic website, and it looks to be a very good tool for building Interactive Fiction through Inform 7 to place on the web. We’ve already built a few test programs, and the implementation works quite well. While we haven’t decided whether or not we’ll place “in progress” versions (perhaps the navigation component) of the Historical Williamsburg Living Narrative online through PlayFic, we definitely will be implementing a version of the program there.
Are you skilled in Inform 7? Would you be interested in developing parts of the Historical Williamsburg Living Narrative? We are looking for Interactive Fiction developers with experience in Inform 7, especially in the area of NPC dialog. Contact us for more information if you are interested!
The Historical Williamsburg Living Narrative is also seeking backers through Kickstarter. We are off to a very good start. Click here if you would like to learn more about backing the project.
The screen shot above is from the Infocom game Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (based on the series of books by Douglas Adams). I was a big fan of the Infocom games “back in the day,” and having also read the Hitchhiker’s series, I especially enjoyed this one; at least after I figure out how to put the Babel fish into my ear. Infocom was a company that specialized in what they termed “Interactive Fiction,” that is, text adventure environments written in sophisticated prose format. (Infocom was the company that produced the Zork series of games.) There are a number of reasons that Interactive Fiction is an ideal game format for the Historical Williamsburg Living Narrative project, which I’ll cover in later posts, but now I’ll just briefly cover a little of my own history with the format.
My first encounter with text adventure games (before they were called Interactive Fiction) was back in the fall of 1980 when I got a job with a communications engineering company. The company ran a Data General Eclipse minicomputer, and one of the programs on it was the original Colossal Cave Adventure program written back in the late 1970s. Several of us in the office would stay quite late to sit in the terminal room and explore the virtual world, asking each other for help when the puzzles were particularly challenging. We all spent a fair amount of time typing one- or two-word commands at the cursor hoping we were on track to unravel the puzzles sprinkled throughout the game. Soon after that, I purchased a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A computer, and I was delighted to find a whole series of adventure games by Scott Adams.
It was late in 1981 when I acquired my first IBM PC that I also got my first game for it: Deadline by Infocom. Infocom has developed a natural language parser was also able to “understand” short sentence input rather than simply two-word phrases. It was then that my taste for text adventures, that is, Interactive Fiction grew to the point where I began to write my own. The language available to me on my PC was BASIC, and I wrote thousands of lines of procedural code to build my games. Over the years I’ve used BASIC, Pascal, C, C++, Lingo, Java, and even LISP to build my games, and I’ve continued to experiment with my own parser systems and Interactive Fiction scenarios.
Several years ago, I discovered the Inform software (currently Inform 7) development system. Inform is an environment specifically design to author Interactive Fiction. The language of Inform is set up to support the conventions of Interactive Fiction, which makes it easier to program these types of game. For example, if I wanted to set up a space where there was a Kitchen and a Dining Room, with the Kitchen to the north, I would enter into the Inform 7 engine simply:
> Kitchen is a room.
> Dining Room is a room.
> Dining Room is south of the Kitchen.
At that point, when I run the program I find myself starting out in the Kitchen location. If I then type “s” (for south) at the prompt, I see that I have moved into the Dining Room–and I can type “n” to move back to the Kitchen. Of course, the Inform 7 programming environment supports much more than moving around virtual locations, but the exciting thing is that it takes care of the programming underpinnings while the author/programmer can focus on the logic of the game itself. That is very appealing. One can relatively easily create objects to be manipulated, characters with which to interact, and so on.
The simplicity of the Inform 7 development environment is one of the reasons I’m excited about using it to develop the Historical Williamsburg Living Narrative. I’ll be able to develop and implement my “map” of Williamsburg fairly quickly, and building in the location descriptions and character interactions will be a lot easier than it was when I used more general programming environments. That means I’ll be able to spend much more time in building narrative depth into the game play, and that’s ultimately what makes the Interactive Fiction format so engaging, even though it’s only text on screen. Sometimes graphics gets in the way of imagination; Interactive Fiction is the perfect way to drop the reader into the action of the story and really bring the words to life.