Opinion: Blue Lacuna - Interactive Fiction's Narrative Breakthrough?

In her latest Gamasutra analysis, designer Emily Short looks at the story lessons from Blue Lacuna, a novel-length work of interactive fiction that offers the player a great deal of control over narrative outcomes.
[In her latest Gamasutra analysis, originally part of her 'Homer in Silicon' column at sister site GameSetWatch, designer Emily Short looks at Blue Lacuna, a novel-length work of interactive fiction that offers the player a great deal of control over narrative outcomes.] Aaron Reed's Blue Lacuna is a mammoth new work of interactive fiction, and one of the most ambitious ever written in the degree to which it allows the player to shape the narrative and define character interactions. The interactive fiction community has been interested for a long time in the development of stories that can be shaped significantly by the player, though what exactly that means varies, of course, from author to author. Two particular approaches to this problem have received a good deal of attention. Victor Gijsbers' Fate and The Baron and Aaron's previous work Whom the Telling Changed all explore the possibilities inherent in giving the player significant (often morally-driven) choices that control the outcome of play. These are all highly variable stories with many possible paths, but risk pursuing their philosophical aims so rigorously, or so much to the exclusion of personal details, that they lose the ability to affect the player emotionally. The IF genre of conversation games consists mostly of single-room, single-character interactions in which the player can reach a host of different relationships with the major non-player character. While these pieces tend as a rule to give more weight to the emotional development of the story, they sometimes risk other flaws -- shapelessness, a lack of clear player direction, or a lack of thematic consistency. Blue Lacuna is set apart from these earlier works by its length and by the fact that it combines both forms of player-responsiveness. It describes itself, justly, as an interactive novel, and it will take many hours of play to complete. Unlike most of its gaming kin, it does not put off its significant branch points until the last quarter of the game. There are choices to make from the very beginning, which means that early decisions will have later ramifications for the whole duration of play. Some of the choices are morally or philosophically freighted; some more reflect personal tastes. The length gives it a kind of cumulative gravity that is often absent from shorter games, even ones that explore important choices or emotional oppositions. Blue Lacuna's Parallels In Blue Lacuna, one of the essential questions is the tension between love and art, and the difficulty of serving both. In that respect it reminded me (and some other players) of Jason Rohrer's work, especially Passage. But where Passage explores an emotional conflict procedurally, with little narrative content, Blue Lacuna explores it with a narrative that reacts to player choices. There are also several characters to converse with, most significantly a character named Progue. The player's relationship to Progue is allowed to develop freely on several possible lines: it can be positive or negative, parental or romantic, dominated by one character or the other (or perhaps by neither). Conversation plays into the relationship; so do all sorts of other choices the player makes during the course of play. Moreover (a little like Facade) Blue Lacuna has available a host of small optional scenes that it will throw into the mix depending on the current situation which also guide your relationship to Progue in one direction or another. Some scenes are designed to drop a hint to a player who has been idle too long, or to provide a little narrative development; others (as far as I can tell) are present chiefly to expand on Progue's characterization or to encourage the player to define the relationship more clearly. My favorite such scene is a brief vignette in which Progue approaches the player character (otherwise busy on an adventure-game exploration of a Myst-like island) to present her with a sweater he's fashioned himself from the husks of a coconut-like fruit. The sweater is obviously going to be itchy and much too hot for the tropical climate. But Progue seems so fond of it, and it seems like such a gesture of affection, that I just couldn't bring myself to refuse: dutifully I donned the thing, though it immediately began to scratch, and thanked him for it. I didn't take it off again until he was out of sight. Possibly -- though I can't be sure -- that's why Progue liked me enough to start calling me affectionate nicknames in a later scene. From a gameplay perspective, the encounter alleviated an otherwise somewhat dry stretch of play where I wasn't making too much progress on my exploration and puzzle-solving. Flexibility And Narrative I don't feel I'm ruining anything by revealing this scene, which might well never occur in most playthroughs. One of the statistics that came up when I finished the game was that I had encountered only 17 of the 69 possible scenes one could experience with Progue, though it seemed to me that we'd had quite an extensive set of encounters by the end of the game. When you consider that each of these scenes can end in multiple ways and that most of them offer a host of conversational directions that cannot be taken up at once, it becomes clear that there is a great deal more to see here than one can possibly encounter in a single game. This is, I think, why the system works as well as it does: any kind of generative narrative is, I think, going to need absolutely heaps of content from which to choose, making it costly and time-consuming to produce. In IF this is a somewhat less horrifying proposition than it would be for other media, since one only (heh) needs to write the thousands of tiny sequences of dialogue, not animate and voice-record them. Despite the tremendous flexibility of content in its midgame, Blue Lacuna does not sacrifice its narrative arc. No matter your relationship to the other characters or the philosophical positions you may have expressed by the end of the game, certain significant choice points will occur. The resources you have to meet those choices, and the way you feel about them, will inevitably depend on how you played up to that point. The result is a structure that feels narratively cohesive and yet not excessively binding. Another thing that appeals to me about this production -- and here my geekishness exposes itself -- is that it was written openly for players who are interested in narrative construction. Once you've won, you get a cheat code that allows you to peek at how the mechanisms are working at any given moment. It would be a worthy object of study in its own right, but it's especially charming because it lends itself so frankly to investigation. There is also a short paper on Aaron's website discussing what he is attempting technically; some of it is about concerns specific to interactive fiction, in particular how to make the parser friendlier to new players, but quite a lot dwells on the details of the narrative structure and Progue's implementation. Why It Works There are in my opinion some flaws in pacing: I would have made the early middle game shorter and the late middle longer, among other things, and broken more cleanly with the traditions of the raw adventure game in favor of something more consistently plot-oriented I would also have put a little more personality into Rume, a character who appears at the beginning of the game and who ought to color the rest of it a little more, in my opinion. And occasionally I got bored and would have appreciated another scene from the drama manager sooner than one kicked in (though, to be fair, I was also a bit dense about solving a couple of the puzzles). Despite these quibbles, though, this is an entertaining game with an unusually developed story and characters. The narrative model is a strong one, and Progue a vital and memorable figure. And -- perhaps most strikingly considering many of the games I've considered here -- there is no separation between the way the player engages in narrative and the way he engages in gameplay. There are no cut scenes, no uninteractive passages, no portions where the characters are essentially "switched off" and indifferent to what the player does. Everything counts. Everything is part of the story. [Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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