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Narrative Variation in Interactive Fiction

December 25, 2016 2 comments

I was introduced to the Colossal Cave Adventure game in 1980 when I got my first “real” job at an engineering company. The game was one of the installed pieces of software on the company’s Data General Eclipse mini computer. Soon after I started working there (spending countless after hours¬†with coworkers exploring twisty passages), I purchased a TI 99/4A home computer, and I discovered Scott Adams’ series of text adventure games. Of course, I played them as quickly as I could get my hands on them. When I got my first IBM PC, I also got my first Infocom game (Deadline), which introduced me to a more sophisticated parser – to go with the greater computing power – and the idea that Interactive Fiction was more than simply text-based puzzles to be solved. The narrative was an integral part of the game experience, so the way in which things were described was just as important as the rooms that could be explored or the objects that could be examined. As the Infocom games came to tell more complex stories (anyone remember A Mind Forever Voyaging?), the narrative gulf between the new games and Colossal Cave became quite evident.

colossal

Working on the Historical Williamsburg Living Narrative, I am keenly aware of the need to provide narrative variation throughout the game, and it is especially important for continuity in the player’s actions. For example, when coming to a particular location for the first time, it makes sense to describe the experience:

“You approach the castle with a sense of awe at the scope. The walls tower over you as you slowly approach¬†the massive iron gates. The construction effort for the outer walls alone must have taken years!”

While the above text might make sense upon first reading, seeing the same text over and over would greatly diminish the sense of reality and continuity in the game environment. Fortunately, Inform 7 provides built-in coding constructs to handle these situations.

The simplest situation to deal with is in visiting the same location multiple times. Inform 7 allows the application of conditionals that track the player’s location history:

[if unvisited]Write initial description here.[end if]
[if visited]Write subsequent description here.[end if]

While this takes care of a majority of situations, there are times when you may want to alter a location description based on whether or not the player has already visited a diffent location in the game. Let’s look at a situation based on a section of the actual game map.

capitol-descriptions

For this illustration, we will focus on what is happening in the Capitol building desriptions. The Capitol is one of the main structures in Williamsburg, and it has appeal to the player character as part of the storyline. Accordingly, there should be some sort of acknowledgment of this in the description when the player encounters the Capitol. Using the [if visited] and [if unvisited] constructs apply only to the actual game locations, and this can be problematic in situations where there are more than one entry pont.

Notice that there are two entry points for the Capitol: the “Capitol Entrance” and the “Capitol Rear Entrance.” When the player first reaches either one of these locations, there should be a sense of excitement at seeing the Capitol. However, both locations need to “know” if the player has been to the other location, otherwise both the descriptions will portray that first-time sense of excitement, and that will be very narratively inconsistent.

Typically, the Inform 7 code might look like this:

The Capitol Entrance is a room.
“[if visited]This is the Capitol Entrance. You have been here before.[end if]
[if unvisited]You have never been to the Capitol before! Amazing![end if]

The problem with this approach is that the player could have already come to the Capitol from the Capitol Rear Entrance (and indeed even walked right through to the Capitol Entrance), which would make this description sound quite out-of-touch! Fortunately, Inform 7 gives you the ability to filter location descriptions based on what other locations have been visited or not visited. Something like this would be a start:

The Capitol Entrance is a room.
“[if visited]This is the Capitol Entrance. You have been here before.[end if]
[if the Capitol Entrance was not visited and the Capitol Rear Entrance was not visited]You have never been to the Capitol before! Amazing![end if]
[if unvisited]You have never come to the Capitol from this entrance.[end if]

There are three possible states represented above:

  1. The player has been to the Capitol before, and it was through this entrance. Therefore, there should be no initial reaction to entering the Capitol itself, or to encountering this particular location.
  2. The player has never been to the Capitol through this or the other entrance. All the “surprise” should be expressed here.
  3. The player has never been to this location, but the player has entered the Capitol through the other entrance. There should be the first-time reaction to this entrance but not to the Capitol itself.

You can begin to see the potential complexities in building a consistent narrative when dealing with a fairly complex game structure. There are many locations with multiple entry points, and the same process will need to be considered when encountering people or even objects for the first versus subsequent times. There are any number of ways to keep track of the narrative flow, and my primary tools are maps and spreadsheets. This, however, just scratches the surface of considerations for the location descriptions. Think about how descriptions may change depending on what other non-player characters have been there first, the time of day, or even the weather.

Clearly, we need to build a game timeline and make use of the appropriate variables as we move forward.

Note: As I write this entry, my family and I are in Colonial Williamsburg. (Yes, I am doing game material research while I’m here…) We will be enjoying Christmas dinner in Christiana Campbell’s Tavern (on the far east side of the map). So from my family to you and yours, may you have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!