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October 2010

Emily Short: Writing IF


Emily Short is one of the driving forces behind modern Interactive Fiction (IF) creating many ground-breaking games and several dozen(!) Inform 7 extensions. There is no doubt in my mind that she played a role second only to Graham Nelson in establishing Inform 7 an accessible and powerful tool for thousands of IF authors. Not surprisingly, Short has a wonderful web site with a treasure trove of insightful articles on creating and playing IF.  

Here's an excerpt from "Idea to Implementation" where she discusses different approaches to writing IF and gives some recommendations on the good, the bad and the ugly of just firing up Inform7 and programming free-form.

Implement first! Design later!: You open up your IF tool of choice and you just go. Implement a room or two, some stuff to go in it, maybe a character. Write whatever comes into your head, then seek out the connections that come out of it.

In my experience, it’s really hard to finish this kind of game. I’ve started lots this way, especially when I was new to IF writing, and that was all useful experience because it familiarized me with my tools and was a kind of play. But sooner or later you hit a wall where you realize that your doodlings aren’t going anywhere and you have no particular end in mind; or you do, but there’s not a coherent plot, the backstory doesn’t work consistently, the pacing is off...

Fully design on paper, then implement: You sit down in a coffee shop with a notebook and you write down everything you need to know for your game. Maps and puzzle diagrams, if it’s that kind of game; plot plan and lists of scenes, if it’s that kind of game. Character bibles, historical timelines, setting research, if it’s that kind of game. (It may be all of these at once.) Then you code, checking things off on your plan as you go until they’re all done.

This is pretty much how I did Savoir-Faire. The setting came out of some freeform brainstorming sessions with Inform, and I did prototype the magic system first; but then I sat down and made a list of puzzles, arranged them into a big chart, and implemented the chart. This was hugely satisfying as a process because it produced a sense of forward movement. I knew I was making progress and I had a pretty good idea of when I was going to be done. I tweaked the design as I worked, a little — there were a few puzzles I decided were too arbitrary and threw out, and in response to tester feedback I extended the early game to contain some easier puzzles because it was generally thought to be too hard to get into.

There's much more to the article than these two approaches; in fact she describes other approaches that may be a better fit for many would-be IF authors.  There are useful links to other articles on IF development.  There are also longer articles on geographic layout of games, creating conversations and more.  Many of Short's games are available with source code on IFDB and on the Inform 7 web site.

First Interactive Fiction created in 1936


One of the things that's always impressed me with the works of Infocom was their lavish attention to the "out of game" experience.  That is the extra printed materials or props that were part of the packaging.  In the case of the murder mystery Deadline, these included documentary evidence such as photos of the body, transcribed interviews, a police report, fingerprints, a lab report, even suspicious looking pills.  Over the years, Infocom built a huge part of its reputation on these extra materials, known inside the business as "Feelies."

But one of the things I didn't know until I watched the Infocom documentary included with the Get Lamp DVD was that this idea of creating a non-linear user-driven mystery built around documentary evidence was originally created by an English writer named Dennis Wheatley back in 1936!  Wheatley and his partner JG Links created four different murder mystery dossiers that went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in the late '30s.  They were re-issued almost 50 years later and can still be found occasionally on Amazon and eBay.

Get Lamp director Jason Scott wrote about it in his blog and included photos of some of the materials.

And what else I found out was that nearly everyone I talked to who had something to do with Infocom’s feelies had owned or knew of this interesting property, Murder Off Miami, which had originally been published in… 1936.

1936! Of course, that’s not the edition that everyone owned at the time of the dawn of Infocom… they owned the 1979 re-issue, which did its best to recreate the original work. This was, in fact, an edition I owned myself, because my dad got it for his kids and we did our best to honestly solve the mystery within.

The “book” was basically a bound folio, with what seemed to be a massive sheaf of papers inside, including photos, maps, telegrams and even pieces of evidence like hair. You were basically being given the “case file” of a sensational murder case, and as you browsed through the writings and clues, you were to come to the conclusion of who committed the murder and why, and at the end you would open a sealed portion of the book to see if your answer was correct.

It’s very well done. Here’s some shots of the inside:



There's a more detailed example of some of the items in "Murder off Miami" at Propnomicon.  

Infocom co-founder Dave Lebling acknowledged the influence of Dennis Wheatley's works on Deadline in a 1987 interview:

Well the first packaging of Zork was just the disk and the manual, very prosaic, and the first one that had really exciting packaging was Deadline, the first murder mystery we did. We had seen some things by Dennis Wheatley, I don't know what sort of books you'd call them, but they had clues, transcripts, all kinds of fun stuff in them, and I think it was Marc Blank seeing those things that motivated him to write Deadline and so we got the idea that it would be fun to have interesting stuff in our packaging too. It was such a success, and partly for that reason as well as being a good game, that the next time we did a game we thought, well, we can put some other keen stuff in it, and so we've just made a habit of it.

I've managed to pick up a set of Wheatley reprints from the 70's and 80's as well as a couple of original from the 1930s and will post details and photos in the future.  If you're interested in these books, you can find them on Amazon, Alibris and eBay on occasion. However, keep in mind that it is only the 1930's originals (Hutchinson) and the softcover "quarto" reprints from 1978-1982 (Webb & Bower, Rutledge or Mayflower) that have the physical evidence with telegrams, a patch of a bloodstained curtain, cigarette butts, tickets, bobby pins, match sticks, etc.  The hardcover reprints from 1986-1988 (Webb & Bower or Magnolia) include photos of these items.  While they are still impressive, they don't quite have the same emotional impact.  So if it's cheap (under $10) has no dustjacket and doesn't specify the binding, it's most likely a hardcover reprint.

If anyone has an original Wheatley dossier from the 1930s in good condition or that they'd like to donate please let me know. 

Hardcase Crime - Retro Pulp!

This post strays a little bit from the usual Interactive Fiction fare but those who like old-school pulp novels will definitely want to investigate Hardcase Crime. They have published more than 50 paperback crime novels in the classic hardboiled noir style. They're complete with original pulp covers in retro 70s style.  The series includes classic reprints by some of the genre's most famous authors like Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ed McBain, Roger Zelazny, Stephen King.  There are also new original books by Charles Ardai and Max Philips and others.

Some of you might recognize the names Charles Ardai and Max Philips. They're the founders of Hardcase Crime and previously founded the Juno Internet Service Provider (ISP) back in the 1990s.  

But wait, wasn't Charles Ardai the guy who wrote about Interactive Fiction at Computer Gaming WorldElectronic Games and Computer Entertainment back in the mid-80's?  Yep.  I knew there was an IF connection!

Anyways, check out the books. They're a hoot.

TextFyre Mobile Platform

David Cornelson of TextFyre (publisher of Shadow in the Cathedral, Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter) and longtime IF author has embarked on an ambitious plan to create a new virtual machine, FyreVM.  This new VM will run Glulx (e.g. Inform7) games on a dozen different devices including all the standbys (Windows, Mac, Linux, Web) and  also new mobile platforms such as Android, WinPhone 7, Kindle, iPhone, iPad, Blackberry.  The goal of FireVM is to take advantage of specific user interface capabilities on each platform, whether it's the touch screen of the iPad or the 5 way button on the Kindle.

To help with this project, TextFyre has started  a fundraising effort on Kickstarter with a goal of raising $5,000.  To make it interesting, Cornelson is offering several incentives for sponsors:

  •  $10  -- A copy of Shadow of the Cathedral game and poster
  •  $20  -- A copy of all TextFyre's current products
  •  $50  -- A copy of all TextFyre's current products plus two in the works
  • $100  -- Your IF game will be commercially published by TextFyre
  • $500  -- A Kindle loaded with TextFyre games and a t-shirt
  • $1000 --An iPad or Android tablet with TextFyre games and a t-shirt

The Kickstarter funding ends Saturday October 16. I hope you'll join me, Brian Moriarty, Dennis Jerz, Aaron Reed, Andrew Plotkin and others  in making a donation.  Personally, I don't know whether IF can be a commercially viable medium, but it's great to encourage the development of tools and platforms.  Note also that Cornelson is publishing TextFyre under an open source license.

I've sent some questions about what it means to publish a game with TextFyre and I'll update this post as I learn more.

New Book on Inform 7


Interactive Fiction author Aaron Reed has just published a comprehensive 400 page book aptly titled "Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7."  For those who have been looking for a more gentle guide to creating IF than the standard reference manuals, this book will be a welcome resource. The list price is $40 though it sells on Amazon for $ around 26.  But even at full price, it's a good deal and well worth the money.

Reed starts out with an introduction to the Inform 7 IDE and then leads into the development of a full-blown story. You begin by constructing rooms, linking them together, adding objects, properties, relations, then rules and actions. He also focuses the reader on understanding how the game will be played, dealing with synonyms, disambiguation and parser errors.  At every stage you have a playable game, though it may be quite simple.  Later on, Reed introduces conditional logic and non-player characters. Finally, Reed covers topics that will improve the overall playability including testing & debugging, scoring etc.  

Reed is no stranger to the IF community having written what may well be the largest game ever "Blue Lacuna" a full novel-sized story that was several years in the making. Reed has also published a new game "Sand-Dancer" (including source code) which is used as the basis of examples in his book.  You can play the game online or download it from IFDB.

I'm not quite a hundred pages into it, and so far the book is excellent.  Reed makes a point of introducing topics on a "need to know basis" so you can apply what you're learning as you go.  I'll follow up with a more detailed review in the coming weeks. 

If you're heading to Amazon you might also want to pick up Nick Montfort's scholarly tome Twisty Little Passages that describes the history and evolution of IF as a medium.

Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 is now available in electronic format for the Kindle Edition and other eBook reader devices.  On Amazon, the Kindle edition is $23.75, slightly less than the printed version and with instant delivery. 

And here's a link to a more detailed review by Andrew Plotkin at Gameshelf.