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December 2010

November 2010

Programming in Inform7


Lately, I've been carving out some time evening and weekends to do some programming in Inform7, a language and Integrated Development Environment (IDE) that is designed specifically for the creation of Interactive Fiction.  Inform compiles down to Z-Machine byte-code, so games written with Inform are portable to any system which has a Z-Machine interpreter including Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad, Android, Linux, Unix and probably just about every system known to man.  

The Inform IDE is pretty cool.  It's got color syntax highlighting so you can easily distinguish between Inform keywords, text strings, comments etc.  It also makes it easy to run the game from within the IDE or separately compile it into a standalone file that can be run on any platform.  In the screenshot above, the source code is in the left hand pane and the running game is on the right.  You can click on the image to make it larger.

All of the documentation for Inform is accessible within the IDE which is great, but I still long for a standalone reference manual on the language and libraries.  And it would be nice to be able to easily view multiple windows or multiple views into the source code.  The Inform IDE is available for Mac, Windows and Linux.

If you're at all interested in creating Interactive Fiction, it's a very nice environment for trying your hand at things. And it's fun and slightly addictive to be programming again!  In another post, I'll show some sample code.  If you want to dive into Inform, I highly recommend Aaron Reed's book Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7.

Interviews with Infocommies


The original interactive fiction authors at Infocom were heroes; they combined creative puzzles with compelling prose and great packaging.  Over the years, I've ready many good interviews with the Infocom implementors.  I've gathered up as many useful links as I could find from online sources as well as some old print magazines from back in the deay.  Here are a couple of short excerpts as well as links to the full interviews.

Steve Meretsky

What do you think had made Infocom initially so successful as a game developer and publisher before its demise under Activision in 1989?

For its time, Infocom had very impressive technology: the multi-word parser was a huge improvement over the two-word parser that was state-of-the-art in those days, as well as the compression techniques that allowed Infocom to store an astounding amount of game play on a floppy disk which, in those days, held only about 80K of data! Also, Infocom as a company had a near-obsession with quality, which showed through in everything from package design to the scarcity of "bugs".

Dave Lebling

Among all people you have collaborated with, who gained your highest respect? Why?

I mostly collaborated with people inside Infocom. I always found Marc Blank to have a game-sense or puzzle-sense most like mine, and we collaborated easily on several games, most notably Enchanter. I think I was most in awe of Steve Meretzky, whose reservoir of ideas never seems to run dry, and who has always been a meticulous and dedicated craftsman about his work, and cares deeply about every aspect of it. All this while denying that he is a programmer.

Bob Bates 

What is your philosophy in designing puzzles for adventure games? In other words, what makes a great puzzle and what makes a poor one?

I've written extensively about this, and to answer the question completely would take much more time than is available in an interview. The basics, though, are that a puzzle must be fair, it should be natural to its environment, the information needed to solve it should be available in the game, and when the player finally learns the answer, if he didn't figure it out for himself, he should slap himself on the forehead and say, "Of course!!!" rather than wanting to shoot the designer.

Dave Lebling

Had elaborate packaging been one of Infocom's ideas from the start?

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.

Click through to the links below to Adventure Classic Gaming to read the full interviews.

And more interviews at XYZZY News:

And some highlights of random interviews, from the Infocom Homepage:

Johnny Dollar - The Missing Missile Matter

Johnny dollar

I've been listening to an old time radio (OTR) show from the 40's and 50's these days called "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar."  This was one of the longest running detective radio shows on the CBS Network.  There are over 700 of the original recordings available today in the public domain at, OTR.Net and elsewhere.  Since the show ran for 12 years, there were changes in the cast and format during that time.  In my view, the best episodes were those starring Bob Bailey.  And the best of those were 5 part dramas that ran consecutive week nights.

For those who are curious about "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar," here's a sample of one of the shorter Bob Bailey episodes called "The Missing Missile Matter."  Click on the link below 

Johnny Dollar - Missing Missile Matter

IF Design Document

Shadow cathedral

I happened to run across a great document by David Cornelson of TextFyre called "Writing for the Interactive Fiction Medium."  The first 10 pages covers a lot of the basics of how to think about the creation of rooms, objects and interactions.  But what's was really eye-opening for me was the next part which was a high-level design document describing TextFyre's game The Shadow in the Cathedral.  

Although it covers only the opening scene of the game, Cornelson provided a much clearer illustration of how to think about and plan IF better than just about anything else I've read.  The style of the design document is a pseudo code that is even higher level than Inform7; so it is very readable and yet also close enough to the implementation language as to still be useful.  Cornelson wonderfully describes the scene, objects, commands, characters and events that kick of the story. The design document illustrates the power and the challenges of programming IF while reinforcing the importance of the story.  I found it very inspiring.

You can download the document here: Cornelson - IF Writing Guide

Jeff Nyman's Inform7 Tutorials

As I've been searching around for additional resources on learning Inform7 I ran across a reference to Jeff Nyman's "Well Versed Informer" tutorials.  Unfortunately, the links were broken, as sometimes happens.  With a bit of sleuthing, I tracked down Jeff and he emailed me the tutorials.  For others who are searching for the materials, I've put links below to the PDFs. 

Andrew Plotkin's New Game on Kickstarter


Despite the failure of TextFyre to get over the $5,000 hump on their Kickstarter project a few weeks ago, Andrew Plotkin (better known as Zarf in IF circles) has gone ahead with an even more ambitious project to raise $8,000 by December 6 to fund the development of a new iPhone interactive fiction game and related underlying web and mobile technology.

The game is called Hadean Lands and will be released commercially for iPhone only for $5.  But sponsors will also be able to get a version for Windows, Mac, Linux  (It's written in Inform, after all)  as well as other cool swag. 

So how's the fundraiser working out?  Unbelievably well for Andrew and for IF fans.  Within 24 hours, Plotkin exceeded the goal coming in at over $10,000!   And now it's chugging along on its way to twice that.

Join me and 300 others to support this worthwhile project. Plotkin is one of the most prolific authors in the IF community creating more than a dozen award-winning games and essential technology like the Glulx compiler for Inform and several Mac IF interpreters.  So the more money raised here, the more time Plotkin will spend on IF projects.   

So why has Plotkin's fundraiser project done so well whenTextFyre's didn't?  I'll leave that discussion for another day...

Review: Photopia


Photopia is really more of a story than a game. It's interesting and it's compelling, but if you're looking for traditional IF gameplay, this might not be your cup of tea.  There are no puzzles and not even many choices to be made.  But when it all comes together, it works like a well-written short story.  And you're gonna have an emotional reaction that you might not have expected.  

Photopia definitely pushes the boundary of story-telling in a way that few could have predicted when Interactive Fiction was first introduced.  In fact, I would say Photopia is best viewed as an experimental work whose impact is found in later works of IF by Cadre and others.

"Photopia" was written by Adam Cadre using Inform 6. It took 1st Place in the 1998 IF Comp and ushered in a new style of creative story telling. You can download this game directly from IFDB and it's playable using any standard Z-Machine interpreter on Windows, iPhone, iPad etc.

This review was originally published at the IFDB.  Links below provide more information.