Feature Aaron Reed

Kay: When you encounter someone who’s never heard of interactive fiction, how do you explain it to them? 0

Aaron Reed: It depends a lot on their age. For people that are 30 or younger, I can usually say it’s like a video game, but more textual (or something like that), whereas most people my age or younger are familiar with “choose your own adventure” books and I can use that as a starting point. For older people, I usually have to back up and say it’s like reading a book, but with the computer’s ability to let you influence the story. There’s definitely a generational shift between people who are comfortable with that concept and people who didn’t grow up with it, so they don’t have the same framework to deal with the idea.

K: I’ve tried to explain it to people my age (early twenties), too – I tend to start with the “choose your own adventure” comparison and some people are still confused as to how interactive fiction is different. 0

AR: An analogy that I sometimes use is that a “choose your own adventure” is a forking paths structure where you have a choice to go this way or that way. The stuff I do is more like a braided rope where for whatever choices you make, there’s one main story that you always get, but the game remembers the choices that you make and those come back later on to make the story more personal to your own experience.

K: How and when did you learn about interactive fiction and what made you start writing it? 0

AR: I’m right on the edge of being too young to actually have experienced it when it was really new and being first commercially sold. When I was about 6 or 7, my family got their first computer and my uncle bought me a floppy disk that had some classic (this is like mid-80s, right – classic!) computer games and one of them was “Adventure,” which was like the first interactive fiction – I totally fell in love with it. I already liked to read a lot and I also liked playing around on the computer and that was the perfect combination of both of those things. So, I played some as a kid and then I forgot about it for a long time. Around 2002, I rediscovered that there was a whole community of people on the Internet who were writing new games in that medium and doing other IF-related stuff, so I caught up on what people were doing in the fan community. I think the first IF that I wrote was in 2003. It was mainly a spare time/hobby thing, but then people started getting really interested in the stuff I was doing. That’s the main focus of what I’m doing in this graduate program is writing that kind of stuff, so it’s kind of become a more central thing for me in the last few years.

K: So you’ve read a lot of science fiction stuff; are any of those authors your influences? What do you draw from when you create your stories? 0

AR: Yeah, I’ve always been a big science fiction fan and a lot of those authors have influenced my writing style and the sorts of ideas I’m interested in – people like Samuel R. Delaney and Octavia Butler. It’s kind of tricky to straddle the divider between good science fiction and serious literary quality, but authors who can do that tend to be my favorites. When I was younger, I read Heinlein, Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.

K: How many of the IF stories out there are sci-fi and fantasy? Do you think IF is a good medium for those stories? Better than traditional stories? About the same? 0

AR: It’s interesting – there’s a lot of fantasy IF, but not a lot of good science fiction IF and I’m not sure why. Fantasy obviously plays into exploration and that kind of stuff. That’s a really good question – I don’t know why you see less sci-fi IF. I mean, there is sci-fi IF, but most of the stuff that’s sci-fi related is more like another genre. There’s one IF, Slouching Towards Bedlam, that’s kind of like steampunk Victorian London, so it’s not really what you think of when you think of sci-fi. Emily Short has a sci-fi IF called Floatpoint, but it’s very social sci-fi – it’s all centered on the society of this alien world that you’re on and it’s sort of conversation-based, so it’s not really the quintessential science fiction story that you think of. Someday I would love to write a sci-fi IF, but I haven’t done it yet, so maybe other authors are in that same situation. Theoretically, I think the ability to project yourself into that world and explore it and all that stuff plays well to that sort of genre. There’s been some horror IF that’s pretty good, but it’s kind of tricky to maintain the sort of pacing required for horror when you constantly have to stop and then the player has to give a command to type. People have done it, but it’s trickier.

K: Which horror IF are you thinking of? 0

AR: The most famous one is probably Anchorhead which was kind of a Lovecraftian game from the mid-90s, pretty early in the IF movement. There’s also one called Blue Chairs that I really like that’s set in the present day. You’re a college student at a party and I think right as the game starts, you’ve just taken some weird mystery drug that someone at the party gave you. Then you start having this breakdown and you start seeing things and it’s really disturbing. That one’s really great at creating a scary atmosphere.

K: What’s your creation process like when you write these stories? You’ve got some work published in the Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine. How does writing interactive fiction differ from writing traditional stories? 0

AR: The interesting thing about interactive fiction is that it feels much more like writing normal fiction than writing something that involves more heavy duty programming. I wrote Blue Lacuna in Inform 7 which has a natural language syntax. It’s a lot easier for me to keep my brain in the constructed English sentences mode with the more natural language. When I do the coding parts, it’s not this total paradigm shift to different kind of brain function. As far as the story, it’s seems like whether I’m writing regular fiction or interactive fiction, I have to write very iteratively. I’ll write a draft and then I’ll have to just rewrite it over and over and over again. That makes it difficult with interactive fiction because you’re not just writing the text, you’re thinking about how the person’s going to use it, and so it’s more complicated and takes a lot longer if it’s interactive. I remember in an Isaac Asimov biography, he has a story about how he didn’t own a typewriter so he would go to the library and type up his stories on a typewriter and write them directly. He would just go to the library and spend a couple of hours on a typewriter and type out his whole story, first draft, and send it in.

Then a fire drill happened and Kay had to shut off Skype and run outside, thus the last part of the previous thought is missing. 🙂

K: It seems like you guys have a pretty small community – when you’re working on your stories, do you ever talk to each other while you’re in the creation process? Is there a workshop sort of element at all? 0

AR: We really should do something like that; there isn’t enough stuff like that going on. I think it’s partially because if you look at the intersection between writers and computer programmers, you get a lot of people who spend a lot of time in their basements and not in the sunlight, so it tends to be people who are fairly insular and not in the habit of collaborating or communicating. Most IF authors just tend go off and write a game for a year and then say, “Look! I made this thing!” There’s that whole thing with writers too about you don’t want to show others your work until it’s finished, so that could be part of it too. I think it would be great if there was a lot more swapping of stuff. I like the idea of having a group of beta testers who are the testers from when you start writing it, so from day one you could ask questions like, “what if a player could do this or this?” and they could say whether or not that would work. The interaction is a critical component to the process, so to only have people start interacting with it when it’s almost finished is not ideal.

K: How long did Blue Lacuna take you in its entirety? 0

AR: A long time. I had the idea in 2005 while I was working on Whom the Telling Changed, my previous IF. It was something in the back of my mind that I played with a little bit. I actually started it sometime around then and then I had a hard drive crash and lost it all. I didn’t have the heart to go back and do everything again, so I kind of gave up on it for awhile. About a year after that, I reconceptualized it and came up with a slightly different approach and started working on it again. I didn’t really have any idea that it was going to turn out to be such a big project, but as I kept working on it, I kept having to flesh things out more and more. That was partially a natural process, but it was also partially because one of the things I really wanted to do with Blue Lacuna was make the choices that people make meaningful. For a long time, I envisioned the opening sequence before you answer the Call as exposition where you would learn how wayfaring worked. Then you would leave Rume, go to Lacuna and go on with the rest of the story. Some of the first testers who played that complained because they weren’t able to make the choice to stay with Rume. The choice is offered, but then you can’t follow through with it. So I had to iterate that until I got to a point where you could make that choice and still eventually end up in Lacuna, but if you make that choice, it has consequences for the rest of the game. If you choose that path, things happen later on in the game that happen differently than they would have if you had made another choice. Thinking through the ramifications of letting people make actual choices kept expanding the amount of writing required. I kept thinking that I was about three months from being finished with it, but it took about three years.

null

K: I found the video of the time lapse of you working on IF. Do you set aside time to write every day or do you write whenever? How do you balance all of that since IF is so time-consuming? 0

AR: A lot of the Blue Lacuna writing took almost all of my spare time – so with my weekends, I would just spend all day working on it. Since that project’s gotten finished, I’ve been back on a more sane schedule. I’ve never had a good work ethic about writing every day just as an exercise; I have to get on some project that I get obsessed by and then I’ll write every day. I guess my writing is sporadic; when I have something that I want to write, I will write it.

K: In the beginning of Blue Lacuna, you’re able to pick your character’s gender and sexuality and I think that’s a good way to bring in your audience. How do you think about your audience differently when you’re writing interactive fiction? 0

AR: There’s a couple of ways you can approach something like that. In the earliest interactive fiction, the character you were playing wasn’t really defined; it was just assumed that you were you or some generic person. More recently, there’s been a movement to define the player character much more precisely and give the “you” character a name, a history, a gender, an age and all those sorts of things. This is great for characterization, but what I’m more interested in is merging those two. I think part of the power of an interactive story is, more so than a regular story, projecting yourself into the role of the character. In the stuff that I’ve done, my characters have certain traits – like in Blue Lacuna, you’re a wayfarer – but I really try to leave things like gender and age open as much as I can. In Blue Lacuna, you can explicitly set some of those because I think it helps you connect more with the story if you can feel like “yeah, what if I was doing this?” or “what if someone like me was doing this?” I think that’s a strength of the medium, not necessarily a limitation of the second person voice. However, there are a lot of opinions on that.

K: What I liked most about Blue Lacuna was the description and the setting. I liked being able to explore all of the different aspects of the world. How do you balance setting and description with moving forward with the story and the puzzles and everything else? 0

AR: In writing for interactive fiction, that’s another thing that’s different from writing normal fiction. There’s a lot of descriptive writing because you have to paint a clear enough picture in the mind of the player that they understand what actions they can take. You have to describe things in a lot more specific detail than a novelist. If you’re reading a book, it doesn’t matter where the door is, but in IF, that can be important. Finding the balance between keeping the narrative flow and all of the other descriptive stuff can be tricky. In some ways, Blue Lacuna is like a giant homage to the adventure games I loved as a kid. A very strong component to all those games is exploration and the feeling that you’re losing yourself in this fictional place. I spent a lot of time on that in Blue Lacuna, probably more than I would have for another IF where I wasn’t setting out to bring that sort of effect to the fore. That’s why the descriptions on the island change based on the time of day it is. That ended up making it a lot more work to write all that stuff, but it felt really important to me. I really wanted the island to have some sort of real feeling behind it. Normally in IF, each room has one description and after you visit it the first time, you always get that same description when you come back to it. To me, it stops feeling like I’m exploring and it feels more like the computer is just spitting out a piece of text at me. I had this idea with Blue Lacuna that every time you went back to somewhere, the description would be a little different so that it kept feeling like you were exploring, even for the places you’d been before. I don’t know if all the extra work to create that effect was really worth it in the end, but it was an interesting experiment.

K: How do the puzzles come together in the story? 0

AR: In the case of Blue Lacuna, the puzzles actually all came first. In that initial stage, while I was still working on Whom the Telling Changed (which had a lot of these complicated dialogue trees and stuff – mentally taxing work), I had started doodling this map of an island and thinking about puzzles that you could put on it as an escape from the harder thing I was actually doing. I thought it would be nice if I was just working on a basic adventure game. A lot of those things like the door, the symbols on it and a lot of that stuff came way before the story. I was imagining this island with Myst-style puzzles and the characters and the story evolved out of that. That’s not usually what I would do. I’m actually anti-puzzle in some ways. I’m actually more interested in the puzzleless IF that’s happened in the last 10 years, but because Blue Lacuna was more of an adventure game, I thought that it was my one chance to make an adventure game with puzzles. The whole relationship between puzzles and story is really hard to get right; I think you can make a solid case that you don’t need puzzles anymore for IF. They serve as a pacing device because they slow the player down long enough to appreciate everything else, but in some ways I think they’re a remnant of an earlier era. The next IF project I do probably won’t have puzzles at all or would have much more natural puzzles.

K: Are there parts of Blue Lacuna that you could miss and the story would still continue? For example, what if you didn’t make a certain choice? 0

AR: To a certain extent. The story will come to a halt for certain puzzles unless you get past them. There are a couple of different paths that you can be pursuing. For example, there’s things you can do with Progue, like push him or talk to him in a certain way that will pull the game forward to a state where you have skipped a puzzle that you might have been stuck on. There’s not enough of those mechanisms; I think if I were to go back and redesign it, it would be a better game if it were set up such that there was never a puzzle that you absolutely had to solve. The biggest difficulty with this sort of narrative is if someone can’t figure out a puzzle, and some of the puzzles in there are way too hard. Then they can’t go on with the story, and that sucks for everyone.

K: If a player misses a puzzle or if the story does that jump forward that you talked about, is it a different experience? Do you think they get the same thing out of it in the end? 0

AR: Ideally, they won’t notice at all that something unique has happened – it doesn’t always live up to that idea. One of the goals that I had was to make it so that you could get to an ending of Blue Lacuna and not have to worry or care whether it was the best ending or even whether it was anything other than the only ending. Most games have multiple endings and there’s often one “best” ending and if you end up with any of the other ones, it’s like “oh, well, now I have to go back and get the better ending.” I really wanted Blue Lacuna to feel like when you go through the story and get to the end, you’ll be satisfied. If you wanted to go back and try to find other pathways or alternatives, that’s fine, but it’s not required for the experience.

K: So it’s not really a win/lose situation – all of the endings are on an equal level? 0

AR: Right. Because that was a goal, I think that it really improved the quality of the story. When I would go to plan things out in my head, I would have a favorite ending or a favorite way a scene would play out. Then I’d think about how I’d have to make this other version too and a lot of the time, it would turn out that in the process of making the thing that I had originally envisioned as the less ideal version, I would sometimes actually come to like that one better. I think that’s why a lot of times in games, you get crappy writing or uninteresting alternatives; writers have in their head that one version is better than the alternatives. If you actually try to treat both of those alternatives as “the story” and if you take that seriously and put the time into it, then you can learn so much about the story. Writing IF has been great for my regular writing by being constantly forced to think about “what if this happened?” For writing dialogues with all of the alternatives, you really have to think through a situation in a more 3-dimensional way. Recently, when I’ve gone back to write prose fiction, it seems almost easier because it’s kind of a relief to only have to tell one version.

K: You talked some about how Blue Lacuna has mechanisms to make it easier for a player if they’re stuck – now I’m wondering if there were places where I was stuck and the game helped me out. How does that work? 0

AR: With the benefit of hindsight, I didn’t really take that stuff nearly far enough. There’s a terrible thing, and I hate that I was doing it with Blue Lacuna too – but there’s this terrible thing for authors where you feel like you don’t want to make your puzzles too easy and you don’t want to make it so people can skip your puzzles. In your head, you’re thinking “well what about all that hard work I put into making that puzzle?” It’s a terrible thing. I know authors, myself included, who need people to just come over and smack you upside the head and say, “No! Let people skip the damn puzzles!” because I definitely could have done more stuff with Lacuna. I should have taken story mode a lot farther because what story mode basically does is it just removes components from certain puzzles such that they’re a little easier. That’s one of the things that I wish I had done a little better. I think that there are a lot of people who selected story mode because they didn’t want to solve puzzles and I kept the puzzles in there.

K: A big theme in Blue Lacuna is the art versus love theme – did you start with that idea? Was it central to the story to begin with or did it evolve as you wrote? 0

AR: That core concept came fairly early on. That was the first thing that kind of took it past being an adventure game clone into something that was trying to be a story that was about something, not just exploring an island. It came out of when I came up with the notion of wayfaring; originally, that just started off as a clone of the Myst games where you linked to different worlds through books. I wanted to make something that wasn’t just a copy of that and so I came up with the idea of “what if it’s forever and what if you can never go back?” and thinking through the repercussions of that, the seriousness of the choice that it would be to decide whether you were going to wayfare or not. That also came from the idea that I wanted the player to have to make choices right from the very beginning of the game. Conceiving of a way that, even without setting up background information, the player could make a significant choice right from one of the first moves of the game was where that came from. A lot of things changed about that, but that central idea stayed. It was something that was on my mind a lot while I was writing.

K: Blue Lacuna is an adventure story, but it seems to almost have that mythical/fantasy feel to it too. If you could put it into a genre besides adventure, where would it fit? 0

AR: I mean, kind of fantasy – it’s hard to say because there’s more “science-y” explanations for a lot of the fantasy things, especially towards the end. A lot of it too, in terms of overall story arc, is centered around Progue and his whole thing about losing his wife and his daughters and the stuff that he goes through. I think it does have a really strong general literary aspect to it too. Other than just adventure, I didn’t set out to write in a particular genre; the story steals from a lot of different things.

K: When you’re writing all of your endings, how do you know where to end? How do you know when a work of interactive fiction is finished? Is there some sort of moment where you know “okay, everything is done” or is it something different for you? 0

AR: With film, there’s the saying that a film is never done, it’s only abandoned. I think in any sort of interactive medium, that problem is more compounded because not only are you questioning “is this done?” in the sense of “is there nothing broken and is the writing at a decent quality?” but there’s also the sense of “are there are more ways to interact I could have? Should there be more conversation responses? Should there be more responses to different commands? Are there other ways to solve this puzzle that I haven’t thought of yet?” It’s really easy, and I kind of did this for awhile, to just keep building and building on what you have. The way that Blue Lacuna actually got finished was I had to sit down because it evolved through a lot of different portions and all that stuff kept evolving. Eventually I got to a point where I was like, “okay, I have to finish this before I die” so I had to sit down and make out this very concrete plan of “okay, this is how it works, this is how it begins, these are the ways it can end, these are the things that can happen in the middle” and I just had to fit all that in and not let that expand anymore. I mostly got to that point. The temptation to keep building and changing is always there. In a novel, you can always say something like “well it’s 800 pages now, maybe that’s a good place to stop,” whereas IF can continue to become broader. The story might not get any longer, but you can always add more “icing.”

K: I read your interview for SPAG and one of the things I thought more about was the “show, don’t tell” rule for film and fiction. For IF, you said it’s “do, don’t show, never tell” – do you think a lot of IF authors do that or is that something that still needs improvement? 0

Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games Interview

AR: That was just a phrase that I made up. I think all the good IF authors do that regardless of whether people consciously thought about writing IF that way; I think that’s something that just naturally evolves. For me, that’s something that the more IF I write, the more it becomes clear that a vital component of participating in a fiction is not just seeing events of the story or hearing about it, but actually participating in it and performing the actions that make the story happen. I probably talked about this in that interview, but for the dreams of Blue Lacuna, originally you were just watching them like flashbacks. At a certain point, I thought, “wow, this would be much more powerful if you actually became the people in those flashbacks and did the things that they had done.” I think that kind of stuff always makes IF stronger because again, you get that personal connection where you’re complicit in the story. Photopia was an early IF that I think does that really well; it’s this story from all these different perspectives and you become all of the people in that story for short periods of time. At the end of it, your understanding of what happened is much greater because you were all those people for brief moments.

K: Publishing IF is obviously different from publishing traditional stuff – I know a lot of your stuff is published on your website. I also looked at blueful, which was like the pre-Blue Lacuna. Did you find that that was effective to draw attention to Blue Lacuna before you put it out? How do you go about trying to gain a new audience for IF that wouldn’t necessarily have heard of it? 0

AR: It’s tricky. blueful was actually really successful – it took off a lot bigger than I thought it was going to, to the point that I was spending most of my day ciphering postcards to people and looking at my bank account as I kept buying more and more stamps. But that was great – it definitely drew a lot of people in. It was a really last-minute thing; at the time, I thought it was kind of funny that I’d spent three years working on this IF project and that I conceived and executed blueful in three weeks and it was getting all this traffic and everything. It was really great in hindsight because in some ways, it is an interactive story as well – the method of interaction is really kind of simple, but it gets people into not only the world of the story, but also into the notion that this is a text-based story that they have to take an action to get the next part up. It was a gateway into the more complicated interface of an actual interactive fiction game, so that worked out really well. Okay, so the publishing thing – I initially thought I was going to sell Blue Lacuna as either a boxed game that you can buy in the store, or as a downloadable sale but by the time I finished it, I really just needed some time off from it and I didn’t have the energy to go through that whole process. I think it actually worked out for the best because so many more people encountered it and played with it than would have if I’d charged money for it. I think that was worth more than the small amount of money that I would have made on it. But it’s definitely a consideration. When I was working on it for three years, my grandparents kept asking me “how’re you going to sell it?” – they couldn’t understand why I would spend a lot of time on something if I couldn’t charge people money for it. I really think that’s the way things are moving. I have gotten things out of Blue Lacuna that are more valuable than money in the sense that I think finishing it was a big reason that I was able to get into graduate school. I’ve gotten grants and stuff to do other projects based on the success of that and contacts I’ve made based on people who’ve heard about it. There is a company, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, called TextFyre that’s the first company that’s trying to sell IF since the ‘80s. I don’t know if they’re doing well, but they actually have two or three IF things that you can buy that are targeting the young adult audience, like junior-high age kids. It’s been considered since about 1988 that IF is not marketable and no one will pay for it, but if those guys succeed, maybe IF can succeed in markets other than the video game world.

K: Are there other ways besides selling IF and entering contests that allow you to make money with IF? 0

AR: It’s hard. The depressing thing I’m discovering is that you can’t really make money as a regular writer either. In terms of value for a career in IF – Emily Short, who’s written a bunch of IF, has recently parlayed that into a job as a game designer for a game company, so the fact that releasing her IF has gotten her this reputation as an amazing storyteller has allowed her to turn it into a career move. I’ve gone into academia. It’s interesting – theoretically, there’s no reason that if people are willing to pay $25 for a hardcover book that they shouldn’t be willing to pay $25 for an IF that is of equal quality. The average quality of the medium probably isn’t at the level of hardcover books yet. There’s nothing that means it couldn’t be commercialized. I think IF has a much broader potential audience than most computer games because of the age range. At some point in the IF newsgroup, someone posted a poll of “how old are you?” and the breakdown was totally even across all of the poll options, like 18-30, 30-40, and 65+. You definitely wouldn’t see that if you posted the same question on any other sort of game forum where it would probably be very male and very 18-35. It has a potentially broad demographic reach because it tends to be less about action, so the stories can be more mature and complicated.

K: What if you could play IF on your nook or your Kindle? How awesome would that be? 0

AR: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that a lot too because in some ways, IF’s biggest problem is that you have to play it sitting at your computer looking at your monitor, so things like the Kindle and the e-book readers are really a perfect platform. Amazon just recently released an SDK so that people can develop apps for the Kindle. I’m hoping that as the e-book reader market matures, it’ll become easier to do stuff like that because I think that an e-reader with a keyboard would be perfect for IF. That’s probably a great market where people can browse and come across IF – something like, “oh, what’s this? Blue Lacuna, $5.99 – sure, I’ll buy that.” Then they could download it and start playing right away, so I think there’s a lot of potential there.

K: What about presenting IF in public readings and conferences? Can you talk a little bit more about the different barriers and limitations you’ve found in trying to present it to people in a setting where they’re not necessarily all interacting with it at the same time? 0

AR: That’s tricky – I’ve only done one public IF reading so far, although I’m going to be doing another one in June at the Electronic Literature Conference. Something that Nick Montfort, the author of Twisty Little Passages, said to me because he’d done that more often is to have someone be playing the game during the reading. They read what they’re typing in and then I read the response. We did that in my reading for Whom the Telling Changed a couple of years ago and as an author, it was kind of terrifying because you’re just hoping the person who’s playing doesn’t find a bug or something. It’s scary, but I think that’s a good way to do it because it’s a true representation of the experience. Just reading an excerpt doesn’t get across that it is actually a conversation between the player and the author. For the one I’m doing for the ELO conference, I actually have this idea to try to take that a step further. What I want to do is have someone play the game sitting in front of me while I read the responses, but then I also want to project bits of the source code of the game behind me. As the person’s playing the game, I’ll actually bring up the source code, the logic behind how the thing I’m creating got onto the player’s screen. That will place me as the author between the player in front of me and the source code behind me. This will be even more terrifying, when the source code gets shown too, not just the output – the idea being that normally a fiction author is controlling the exact words that the reader is seeing and with interactive fiction, it has to be much more flexible. You have to have different bits of sentences that come together correctly and you have to account for situations the player might type that you didn’t necessarily think they would type. I think that allowing the audience to see behind the curtain is really important for something like this because there is more than just the surface that you get from the output on the screen.

K: Since interactive fiction blurs the lines between fiction and gaming, what do you see as its status in the academic world? What are some of the most important things it would have to offer to an academic setting? 0

AR: Right, well I’ve obviously been thinking a lot about that recently. Only very recently has interactive fiction gained its foothold in the academic world. In 2003, Nick Montfort published Twisty Little Passages, which was the first book of academic study of IF as a medium and I think that kind of opened a lot of opportunities for people to be studying IF. You see more and more people in the last five years writing papers on it and studying it in an academic context. This November, I went to the DAC (Digital Arts Conference) in LA and there were three talks that had “interactive fiction” in the title. It was also mentioned in a bunch of other talks which was really surprising to me – I didn’t know that it was going to have that much of a presence. I’m working synergistically to get more of an audience and next weekend, I’m going to be in Boston at the Penny Arcade Expo gaming event on a panel talking about IF. As far as I know, this is the first time there’s been an interactive fiction panel at a major game conference. I think it’s building a bit of momentum, which is kind of neat for a medium that’s like thirty years old that was basically written off for dead twenty years ago. I think more and more people are taking it seriously as an interesting mode of expression that hasn’t been fully explored yet.

K: How many grad schools around the country have the new media/digital arts master’s programs? 0

AR: More and more every year. I graduated as a film major in 2004 and at that time there weren’t really any grad programs that I found that were doing the kind of stuff I wanted to do. I found out about this program through a blog post actually, just totally randomly – I really did not think that I was going to go to grad school. There’s two key faculty here who are extremely big into interactive storytelling and are both fans of IF: Noah Wardrip-Fruin (who’s written a lot of texts and related stuff) and also Michael Mateas (who did Façade, which was an early, groundbreaking interactive story a couple years ago). The fact that they were both here and the blog post about how they were specifically looking for people who wanted to work with the interactive storytelling side of things got me excited about applying. It really sounds like they’re trying to build that as a key part of the program here.

K: What about some of the conventions of IF? How are they holding up nowadays? 0

AR: I think a lot of the conventions of IF are really showing their age. The whole command system is kind of dated – you know, it originates with the ‘70s teletype era stuff. When I showed Whom the Telling Changed at the Slamdance Games Festival in 2006, I got to watch a bunch of people who had no idea what interactive fiction or even necessarily computer games were come up to it and try to do something with it. What was immediately obvious in that format was that for most people, it was just too confusing or the interface was too frustrating for people to discover what was interesting. That really started making me think, “okay, what can be done to change this?” It’s like if you’re writing a book, they tell you that you have one paragraph to grab peoples’ attention before they’ll move on to the next book on the shelf. In interactive fiction, usually in that first paragraph, a person’s experience is something like, “I don’t understand” or whatever and interface frustration is tied into peoples’ initial encounter with it. That’s something that I hope I can continue working on here at UC Santa Cruz: coming up with new ways that you can take that sort of literary-based game experience and make it so that anyone can just sit down and right away start figuring out how it works and how to use it. I think the keywords in Lacuna are a step in that direction, but I think there are more steps that can be taken too.

K: What do you see as the future of interactive fiction? It’s older, but now it’s gaining momentum – do you see that continuing? 0

AR: I certainly hope it continues because I think it’s a very unique storytelling medium that hasn’t been exhausted yet in terms of its potential. I think one thing that it has going for it is that, unlike almost every other computer-based storytelling medium, it’s completely divorced from its technology at this point. You’re starting to see the mainstream games industry get to this spot too, but for years, it was always like everything was constantly being discarded because something with better graphics or whatever else was coming out. If you look at the Super Nintendo as a storytelling medium, game designers only had six or seven years to figure out what that medium could do and what it couldn’t do before it got thrown away for the next new thing. Additionally, it took a much larger team and a much larger investment that made it really hard to do experimental things. The fact is that interactive fiction has had thirty years to develop with the same set of basic rules and limitations; I think that means you’re seeing a lot of really cool, interesting experimental stuff in IF that is much harder to do in mainstream games. Those two things, the fact that IF is totally divorced from the technological arms race and the fact that sole authors can make experimental, interesting stuff with it are both good signs for IF continuing to survive. This year, a lot of awesome stuff is happening – the stuff at PAX and Jason Scott’s Get Lamp documentary (pretty sweet, I think). There’s also an indie gaming site called JS Games that just did a contest for IF with something like a $4,000 prize for the winner. It’s starting to get not just the 100 people in the interactive fiction newsgroup paying attention to it, but a slightly broader audience. For example, college classes are now looking at IF. I can see it starting to gain a little more attraction.

K: You talked some about the conventions of IF before. Are those evolving at all or are they staying the same? How are IF stories developing? 0

AR: I would say that most of the people writing IF are fairly traditionalist in the sense that they’re reasonably happy writing games for the people who play IF already, who understand the existing conventions. They don’t think there’s any problem with them. The number of people who are actually trying to reach out to a wider audience and evolve the state of IF is much smaller. One thing that’s frustrating for me is that I’m not that great of a technical programmer – I can do Inform 7 stuff just fine, but I couldn’t write an interpreter that plays an IF game, for example. Some of the stuff that I think needs to happen to keep advancing the medium is a series of low-level improvements to the IF infrastructure to give authors a better set of presentation tools. Most of the IF people who can do that stuff aren’t interested in pursuing that. One of the things that I might end up doing as a project here would be an interpreter for IF that lets you jump around in the story in the same way you could in a book or a DVD by basically saving your game and scene at every move, but then also playing ahead in the background along one of the possible story paths. If you get stuck at a puzzle, you could peek ahead a couple of moves and keep going that way or you could easily flip back and try something different. That sort of random access ability to a story would really move IF forward from the command-line, teletype model that it’s at right now. You’d have to find someone who is both capable of doing that and is interested. The right sort of combination of people hasn’t yet come to the forefront, but things are slowly advancing. The next major release of Inform 7 is going to have an option that lets you just click a button to release a game to a playable website so you can upload it and then someone can play it in their browser, which is a great step for ease of access so that people don’t have to download separate programs to play IF. It’s a very slow-moving community, but things are advancing a little bit.

K: You can easily ruin a book for yourself by reading the last page – do you think that the ability to jump around in an IF story with an interpreter like that would hurt the story in any way? It seems like you discover as you go along, so what would happen if you could know information from later in the game while playing an earlier section? How might that change IF? 0

AR: I think that ties back into the whole puzzle thing again and whether puzzles are a good thing for storytelling or not. When I was conceiving this idea about people jumping around more, the example I came up with in my head is this: what if most people never saw past the first 20 minutes of The Godfather because they couldn’t figure out how to change to the second reel – that if there was a technical stumbling block there, would it have gained a reputation as being a masterpiece of film? For the vast majority of IF (even famous IF), people have not gotten to the endings because of these puzzles that prevent people from getting further along in the story. I’m kind of torn because one solution is getting rid of puzzles and another solution is coming up with devices that allow people to skip puzzles. Puzzle traditionalists will tell you that if people skip puzzles, then all of the challenge will be gone and they’ll just fly through games and get to the end of your story and not spend any time with it. I don’t really think that’s a problem, but it’s like in a video game if you were to take out all the fights – would people still have fun playing the game? I think it was Graham Nelson who called IF a “crossword at war with a narrative.” You have that thing in crossword puzzles and in IF puzzles that if you solve it on your own, you feel really smart, but if you can’t solve the puzzle, you feel like an idiot. The problem is that most people, me included, spend more time not solving puzzles than solving puzzles, so most of the time you’re just sitting there going, “I can’t figure this out,” and that’s a really frustrating experience.

K: Is there anything else that people tend to ask you about Blue Lacuna that I haven’t asked yet? 0

AR:  I’ve never been asked to write a sequel which makes me very happy. Otherwise, I can’t think of much else. My biggest fear in writing it was that no one would find it, maybe 20 people on the IF newsgroup would play it and say “that was cool,” but then it would just kind of be a bust. That was a very plausible future for Blue Lacuna, so it makes me very happy that it’s gotten a lot of traction and a lot of people have discovered it and had fun with it, which is what I meant for it.

K: So Sand-dancer is the new IF you’re working on – how’s that going? 0

AR: Yeah, so that’s actually related to the book I’m writing on Inform 7 right now, a kind of introductory Inform 7 book. What I’m doing with that is building a whole example game, so as you go through the book, you build this entire game. One of the things I really wanted to do was have the example game be interesting, not just a crappy throwaway thing. Sand-dancer is actually going to be the example game for that. It’s about an 18-year-old kid in New Mexico who crashes his car on the way home from work one night and wakes up in the desert and has this series of increasingly bizarre, magical realism encounters while he’s confronting all of these difficulties in his life. It’s contemporary with a lot of mystical elements in it – Sand-dancer is this spirit animal in the form of a giant lizard, so it should be a lot of fun.

null

K: Do you know when your book will be coming out? 0

AR: It will hopefully be coming out late summer, probably August or September.