A reprint from the March 2013 issue of Gamasutra's sister publication Game Developer magazine, this article explores the world of cutting-edge interactive fiction. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.
Text games have come a long way from Zork. Thanks to new tools, new authors, and ubiquitous mobile devices enabling new players, the interactive fiction genre is enjoying a revival of sorts.
Game Developer spoke with Inklewriter dev Jon Ingold, longtime author Andrew Plotkin, indie dev and advocate Anna Anthropy, Failbetter Games CEO Alexis Kennedy, and interactive-fiction pioneer Emily Short about how (and why) the IF scene is expanding.
Jon Ingold, longtime text-game author (Fail-Safe, All Roads), now spearheads interactive fiction innovations at Cambridge, UK-based Inkle. Notably, Inkle's new choice-oriented IF tool, Inklewriter, is one of the more prominent new tools designed for the kind of accessibility needed to democratize a once-niche art form.
Leigh Alexander: Why do you think there seems to be so much new interest in making and playing text games?
Jon Ingold: I think it's pretty unsurprising, given the amount of writing and reading we're all doing on the internet these days. That's why Inklewriter is pitched the way it is: clean, simple, Twitter-like for sharing, Tumblr-like for creation.
Inklewriter lends itself to making chatty, conversational pieces, and we've seen a lot of that -- people using interactivity not to make a game, but to play out an argument they might have otherwise been written up on a blog (like Emily Gera's recent thing on Kotaku comments).
I think people get puzzled by the difference between interactivity and games: Games are hard things to make, with fiddly rules and balancing, and most games you invent tend to fall apart because there's an easy way to win, or not enough choice. Inklewriter doesn't really support game-making, exactly: You can't make any rules. But it's uniquely good at exploring cause and effect -- which is to say, telling stories. And everybody loves stories.
LA: How does the mobile and tablet space contribute?
JI: I think the key thing is that mobiles and tablets mean we're all using computers more often, and more casually. Remember when it used to be rude to check your texts during a meal? Now it's normal to tweet, and not just amongst the computer-savvy crowd. Portable computing means we're all chilling out around technology a bit more, and trying things we maybe otherwise wouldn't have tried.
I saw a real example of this over the holiday season, when my mother sat down and read one of my interactive stories. She's never been able to before, because anything done on a computer is terrifying to her. But on an iPad, she felt totally safe. So there's tablet computing, expanding the size of the audience by one, at least.
LA: The accessibility of creation tools like Inklewriter helps democratize the craft of interactive fiction. What challenges does the tools space need to overcome to keep reaching more people?
JI: I think the biggest challenge with developing a tool is resisting the urge to get all baroque on its ass. There's always that extra niche feature that would be so cool if it were there -- but every feature you add to a tool changes the way the tool presents itself to new users, and changes a user's perception of what the tool is for. So add five cool niche features and your tool might start to look like it's for making fiddly, avant-garde things only. On the flip side, make it too simple and straightforward looking, and no one will imagine it's capable of anything more.
So as tool creators we have to keep returning to our users and saying, what are these people like? What do these people care about, and what don't they care about? What message do we want to send them about what they should be doing?
LA: In terms of Inklewriter's potential, what are some things you hope to see people start doing with it?
JI: The question floored me for a moment, and then I realized that we think about Inklewriter's potential more in terms of who the people are than what the people do. Interactive stories have been boxed in, forever really, by the constraints that the form puts on who can do the actual writing, but I think Inklewriter can change that, at least a little, and let completely untechnical people come in and write something excellent. For us, the goal is about getting writers with unusual, rich, and diverse perspectives to invite us into their worlds.
LA: Why is it a good time for people to develop or renew an interest in text games?
JI: When I started writing IF, a few hundred people on the internet cared: A few hundred would play your game, and would discuss the ideas of game, puzzle, and story design, and maybe 10 of those were clever -- or loud -- enough to set the prevailing wind.
Now, if you write a piece of IF, you can get thousands of readers. You can get all sorts of feedback and discussion. You can choose between five or six ways of writing stories, all with different affordances and paradigms, and have big arguments over which is best. You don't need to learn too much that's technical (except for writing, I suppose).
But more than that: There's an optimism and a curiosity around interactive text. When I wrote my first game, I'd try to explain the merits of interactive stories to people and heads would shake. Now, they turn.
Andrew "Zarf" Plotkin is among the most beloved and longest-serving authors in the IF community, creator of popular titles like Spider and Web and Shade, among numerous others, in addition to his many contributions to the community's tools and infrastructure. In 2010 he made headlines when he raised over $31,000 via Kickstarter for the creation of his next game, Hadean Lands, an impressive demonstration of the strength of the IF community and of the gratitude for his work.
LA: You've been making acclaimed text games for as long as I can remember, but from where I sit there's an explosion of interest in making and playing them that seems new. What factors do you think create this resurgence?
Andrew Plotkin: We have a big recent interest in "indie games" and "art games" -- which can each mean several things, but text games and narrative-focused games play well under either banner.
Within that, or maybe next to it, we have a lot of designers trying small experimental games. Text is great for solo work; it's great for rapid production of tiny games. If you're working in a well-understood interface model, there is probably an off-the-shelf tool for you -- as you note -- so you can skip building a framework and go straight into your content. That's very attractive, and game designers are realizing it.
We have a gigantic wave of nostalgia for anything 15 or 20 years old. (Seriously, the last three iOS games I installed were Karateka, Riven, and Lost Treasures of Infocom. Okay, three of the last four, anyhow.)
Also, there's just momentum in tools and communities. If a bunch of people start trying a particular kind of game, it gets attention, and more people start both playing and creating in that genre. This has been building in slow motion in the IF world for several years -- Inform 7 was a big boost -- but it applies equally, and I think more rapidly, in other kinds of choice-based and text-based games.
LA: You were able to fund Hadean Lands via Kickstarter, are a believer in open-source tools, and will launch on iPhone; meanwhile crowdfunding, openness, and mobile opportunities are some of the most relevant trends to indie game creation in general right now. What should other creators of interactive text learn from you?
AP: Oh, geez. I don't know if I can answer that. None of those trends are simple answers, and I don't know if I've found the right path through any of them.
LA: Was your fundraising lightning in a bottle, or do you see a wider commercial opportunity for creators of interactive text on mobile?
AP: My Kickstarter project was definitely a thing of its moment -- in relation to Kickstarter's history and mine. It got attention for being notably successful, but the stakes for "notably successful Kickstarter" have moved way, way up. And I deliberately offered a wider range of work than just "IF on mobile."
Really, Kickstarter successes don't signpost commercial opportunities -- commercial successes do that. It's the new games and the interest in new games which should be drawing everybody's attention.
LA: There are an increasing number of uniquely accessible tools arriving to help new developers make choice-oriented or hypertext-style games. This brings more creators to the medium, but also seems to suggest a shift away from the traditional text parser and its associated strengths and challenges. What are your thoughts on that?
AP: My thoughts are ambivalent, as you might expect!
On the one hand, people tend to lump the games together. More interest in any of these forms is more interest in all of them, and that's good for me.
But on the other hand, people tend to lump the games together -- and parser IF does have its own strengths! You can do a lot of things with a menu system, but you can't graft it onto a game like Zork -- or Shade, or Spider and Web -- and expect it to play out the same way. You need to design your game to fit the model. So I have to worry about whether players are going to wind up just not very interested in the games I want to make.
The sensible answer is "Make the games first, then decide." I realize this. But I indulge in a little worry anyhow.
LA: Would you agree that IF is less "niche" than it was 10, even five years ago? How has the community changed?
AP: IF is still "niche," but niche-ness is much less niche these days! Niche is practically mainstream. Or at least, people are much more willing to poke their noses in.
Indie powerhouse Anna Anthropy's recently published book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, is something of a manifesto for game creation as individual self-expression, and the accessibility and flexibility of choice-based text-game creation tool Twine makes her a big fan.
Since she started encouraging friends and allies in the indie community to try making Twine games, a vibrant homebrew community has sprung up -- notably, there's a passionate and powerful vein of expression focused on the experiences of people who might not have felt welcome or outspoken in the game community thus far.
LA: You've become a big advocate for Twine because of its accessibility. How do tools like that help you in your mission to help motivate new voices in game development?
Anna Anthropy: Twine works for three big reasons: It's free, it's not programming, and finished stories are webpages you can plunk onto the internet. That solves the three big historical barriers to nonprofessionals who want to get involved in game-making: the cost, the skill barrier, and distribution. All of these are huge deterrents.
In our society it's middle-class men who are given the most opportunities in tech fields -- who can afford to go to college, who aren't weeded out by a famously sexist culture -- and ultimately those are the people who end up best-equipped to deal with the barriers to game-making in the traditional way.
LA: What does it mean that there's now a community for individually voiced outsider art?
AA: It means amazing art all the time. This morning I played a game about wandering a surreal psychosexual dream world while taking a nap next to a hot older man on an airplane. There's a game like this every week. Last week it was someone's interactive memorial for his brother who had just died, and a game about someone's experience as a bisexual woman being shamed by an online lesbian community. It's hard for even me to keep up with. I've thought about retiring my blog; the video game community I've always wanted is blossoming around me, and it looks so different from the mainstream. Here's a face of video games whose architects are women and queer people, speaking in a thousand voices.
LA: How have you seen the audience and opportunity for interactive text evolve in recent years?
AA: A few years ago "interactive fiction" was an insular group of (highly literate) nerds sitting around and making games about each other. That interactive fiction scene was very inward-looking: It was all about parser-based stories -- you type what you want to do, the game responds -- which meant that huge barriers to accessibility still existed, both for creators (making a game for a parser is programming) and for players (the language that the game understands is hidden, and has to be learned, presumably from other players).
Interactive fiction now, with hypertext at its center, is outward-looking and outward-expanding. Hypertext is immediately accessible to people who haven't spent the time to learn the vocabulary of the games status quo.
LA: Do you think increasing interest in making text games (presuming you agree such a thing exists!) reflects more audience appetite for storytelling and more sophisticated themes?
AA: Hypertext retains the purposeful, deliberate ambiguity that makes text games a place suited toward exploring themes like social interaction, identity, sex, feelings -- all the stuff mainstream games seem so poorly equipped to tell us about. Twine's explosion was a sure sign that people have been wanting to find ways to interrogate these themes through games, but they weren't able to find a means.
LA: What do text games do that other games can't, and what do you think traditional developers should learn from the current IF community?
AA: How about: Don't be such fucking cowards. While mainstream games like Spec Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami are tiptoeing up to the idea that maybe violence is something we should be worrying about while continuing to let the player inhabit the role of an armed dude acting out fantasies of violence, Twine games are talking about identity, alienation, abuse, sexuality, dysphoria, sexual assault, depression, self-discovery, loss, and D/s dynamics in the cyber-future. Look at these games and be ashamed of how small you've allowed your world to become.
LA: Who are some IF makers you are excited about these days?
Failbetter Games is founded on a legacy of passion for interactive stories; the studio is best known for its massive choice-driven online role-playing story Fallen London, but it also plays host to the StoryNexus platform, a browser-based story-game creation tool that even enables writers to monetize their work and build community around it. CEO Alexis Kennedy has long been attracted to the junction of game design and writing.
LA: Why do you think there seems to be so much new interest in making and playing text games, and how does the mobile and tablet space contribute?
Alexis Kennedy: Technologically, there have been attempts in the past to extend literature -- hypertext, interactive fiction -- but the gap between the page and the screen was just too wide for mass adoption.
Now readers are accustomed to text on a screen, thanks to mobile devices and e-readers, and to the degree of interactivity that comes with it. Even if you're just reading a Kindle book, you can share or search for phrases from right there in the interface, and that comes to seem natural. So it's easier to extend or colonize the borders of fiction.
Culturally, it's the mainstreaming of geek. The success of big fantasy and SF franchises, and the tsunami of casual gaming, means that acceptance of game-like activities is filtering out through the demographics.
LA: The accessibility of creation tools like StoryNexus helps democratize the craft of interactive fiction. What challenges need to be overcome in the tools space to keep reaching more people?
AK: The big barriers are "how the hell do I get started?" and "what in the name of God have I done?" Choose Your Own Adventure-esque branching path narrative is great for the first, but deadly for the second: It's easy to get started, but it's also very easy to write yourself into a thousand-branch hole. Programming languages (e.g., ChoiceScript or Inform) are the opposite -- a big initial learning curve, but a saner experience once you get started. Tools like StoryNexus find a safe route between the two.
A secondary issue -- but one that's important as the space grows commercially -- is distribution. You need some sort of mediating technology to read an interactive story. The web is good for this, but finding a way to earn revenue from interactive writing can be hard, compared to the well-established channels for content publishing elsewhere. StoryNexus is trying to bridge this gap, too.
LA: It seems the text space these days is geared largely at moving away from the parser -- and the accessibility barriers associated with it -- and toward interactive reading and choice-based interfaces. What opportunities might this present for designers and game developers?
AK: The traditional text-game approach is a question-and-answer dialogue -- "OK, what do you do now?" -- and largely a synchronous one. We haven't seen much of what happens with asynchronous and out-of-band gaming. On the StoryNexus front, this could mean characters who occasionally email you and ask for a response, or a virtual life where you experience weekly events, or a serialized story. Above all, it means digestible games that can be consumed in small chunks -- that occupy the same niche as web comics, perhaps. In turn, this means wider audiences and more room for experimentation.
LA: It seems you've focused for some time on the social experience around interactive storytelling. Who do you see as the audience for gaming in this way, and what does the community element add to what a lot of people view as a solitary pursuit?
AK: The immediate act of reading is a solitary one, but the context of reading is a shared one, especially when we're reading about imagined worlds. Doyle, Tolkien, Pratchett, Rowling -- all of these attracted passionate fans who wanted to revel in the shared world together, solving the mysteries, arguing over the characters, or just being in the space. That's what community gives a text game -- other people to energize and validate your own experience.
LA: Why is it a good time for people to develop or renew an interest in text games?
AK: The technological and cultural changes I mentioned above have led to an upsurge in text games -- particularly in creative toolsets, which in turn means the range of titles is expanding beyond SF, fantasy, and horror. It's the indie-gaming revolution in miniature.
But in some ways, literature is more like gaming than most other creative forms. Through an accident of technology, games have a strong family resemblance to film, but film is a much more passive medium than literature. The plot in a book doesn't advance until you turn the page. Books and games are both demanding, participatory forms.
The work of renowned IF pioneer Emily Short has tended to focus on plausible interaction with artificial characters; her company, Little Text People, was acquired in recent years by Linden Lab in part because of her leading work in the field of social simulation.
LA: What does the IF space have to teach other developers?
Emily Short: A vocabulary of interactive narrative. Authors in this space have spent a lot of time, experimentation, and virtual ink on the topic of what player participation does to a story.
We have a lot of examples, and a lot of conversations about, games that convey their meaning through mechanics; environmental storytelling, and stories that are partly about how the reader chooses to discover them; complicity, ethically challenging choices, expressive choices, choices that turn out to be meaningless in retrospect, choices that don't change the events of the story but revolutionize the way you understand that story. Being steeped in all those techniques is a great craft advantage, whether you're writing something text-based or not.
This is not to say that there's no sophisticated thinking about narrative in triple-A games -- of course there is. But IF has been a very productive venue for experimentation. I recommend the Failbetter blog and the Inkle studio blog, as well as the IF Theory Reader, as sources.
LA: Have you seen the opportunity and audience for interactive text evolving in recent years?
ES: Absolutely. We're seeing traditional publishers becoming interested in interactive ePubs and interactive narrative that goes beyond just adding some footnotes or multimedia features to a traditional text, transmedia projects that incorporate several different kinds of production and might include an interactive text component, and Twine and other text games produced by indie communities who never considered themselves part of the "interactive fiction" community.
Several things have happened: One, the barrier to entry of writing some kind of interactive story is as low as it's ever been, and it's easier than ever to make those stories available to readers. It sounds ridiculous now, but 10 years ago we used to have despairing conversations about how we'd never reach a bigger audience because it was economically infeasible to put interactive fiction in a box at a store.
Two, IF has benefited a bit from the rising visibility of indie games in general, which means we have more contact with adjacent but not identical genres and it's easier to get people who might not be longtime text-adventure devotees to play text work. And that also makes a difference to what IF authors think of writing, not for technological reasons but for cultural ones.
LA: The accessibility of new creation tools helps democratize the craft of interactive fiction. What challenges need to be overcome in the tools space to keep reaching more people?
ES: Communication about what tools already exist, and better development into spaces that are genuinely unexplored, instead of recreating the same old thing. I regularly get email and messages from people saying something like "Oh, hey, I'm making a CYOA tool. Wouldn't it be great to be able to write your own choice-based games?" and I feel a little bit guilty writing back with a list of all the tools that I know are already in that space. (And I'm sure I don't know every single thing in the field.)
Polish and style. A creative tool is this incredibly intimate thing. It becomes an extension of the creator, almost an extra limb. As important as any technical capacity is how much the tool appeals to the user, how naturally it fits. Not every interactive narrative tool is going to appeal to every user, which is a strong reason to have a rich ecology of tools. But a lot of creators are put off by form-factor issues that the tool creators might not have considered at all.
Community. Any kind of sophisticated tool needs a support community, people to give advice to novices and help them over the hills.
Good examples. Any new interactive storytelling platform or tool badly needs at least one cool, compelling work to help new users understand what that platform is capable of. Launch without that, and it's a lot harder for people to understand why they should care or what the affordances of the tool will be.
Publicity. Some of these tools are marketed as game-creation tools exclusively, even though they'd be interesting to people who don't think of themselves as traditional gamers at all, much less traditional game designers. There are lots and lots of applications for interactive narrative -- educational, literary, journalistic, or nonfictional -- and continued growth requires that we reach across cultural divides.
LA: Do you think other companies will start consulting or looking to hire text and conversation game writers?
ES: That's already happening. I get asked on a fairly regular basis for referrals to people with interactive text experience.
LA: What are your thoughts on the current state of the IF community?
ES: The biggest point is that there is no longer "an" IF community. In the early 2000s, that phrase mostly referred to the set of folks writing and playing parser-based text adventures and talking about them on Usenet. Now there are a lot more folks involved, and they're not all talking through the same venues. There are Twine authors and ChoiceScript authors who are coming from a different background and social community than a lot of the Inform and TADS, Hugo, ADRIFT, or Quest authors.
Another point is that IF doesn't all look the same any more. I used to hear a lot of complaints about how IF in, say, 2008 looked the same as it did in 1982 -- blocky text in a little console window -- and that conveyed all kinds of negative things about production quality. No matter how much narrative sophistication or improved programming there might be under the hood, that little window of blocky text was suggesting to potential players that they were still looking at Zork.
Now, though, we're seeing IF that looks like Guilded Youth, like Living Will, like howling dogs, like maybe make some change, or Ex Nihilo, inkle's Frankenstein novel, or StoryNexus's Zero Summer. Some of those are beautiful, some are provocatively frenetic or disturbing, but they're not identical.
LA: Why is it a good time for people to develop or renew an interest in text games?
ES: There's so much good material out there to read and play right now -- short, long, fun, serious, retro, or entirely modern, in just about any genre and for any computing device you might own.