Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. -- Gene Fowler

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Interactive Fiction: where the reader is the star of the show!

Most of my audience should recall the days when games like Zork and Hitchhiker's Guide were all the rage. It was a time of big hair and cell phones that could choke a goat. It was also a time of white text on a black screen and the mystery of how to get beyond the screen door, which demanded you carry both 'tea' and 'no tea' at the same time. In the days before truly graphical games, there was the Interactive Fiction game.

This week I've been tinkering around with a couple different systems for creating interactive fiction. First I tried TADS, the Text Adventure Development System. TADS looks like programming, with standard things like declarations of types and commands, and of course lots of parentheses, semi-colons, and curly brackets. TADS was at once new and familiar: I've played with tools like these before. In the eighties I had a copy of the Computer Novel Construction Set, which allowed you to, predictably, create 'computer novels', or interactive fiction.
The CNCS used a primitive DOS-based interface rather than forcing the user to type in code. I once designed an incomplete (and probably very bad) Ghostbusters story using this program. Unfortunately, not only is the disk on which it's stored long missing (and probably corroded by the mold which plagued my basement for many years), I made the error of assigning a password to the game's source code, so that no one but me could get in and edit it. Then, as you might guess, I forgot the password. The story had something to do with the mystery of why you always seem to get only one sock out of the washer when you wash a pair. Which reminds me: I have laundry to do today.

Last night I was steered toward another interactive fiction-writing tool: Inform. Where TADS looks like code, Inform uses natural language. Each seems to have its good and bad points, but I've just begun working with them so I can't judge just yet.

Writing an interactive fiction story is rather different from writing a traditional story, though there are elements that overlap: character, plot, conflict. You define the setting, decide on a goal for the player character, and then set about throwing obstacles (and methods for overcoming those obstacles) into their path. That's how I'm going about it, anyhow. Seeing as how it's been ... nearly twenty-five years since my last (and first!) attempt at creating interactive fiction, I'm pretty much coming into this cold, barring my experience as a player of IF games. It ought to be interesting. Now if only I could get the Computer Novel Construction Set to run thoroughly in Wine... aahhh, nostalgia.

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