July 6, 2012 7:30 AM | Konstantinos Dimopoulos / Gnome
Andrew Plotkin, Zarf if you prefer, has been one of the central figures in interactive fiction for over 10 years and, well, we love him for that and owe him hours of (freeware and a times open-source) quality entertainment. Here's what the game-designer, writer, programmer told IndieGames:
Would you mind introducing yourself to those gamers that aren't following the interactive fiction communtity?
I'm a guy who played the Infocom games as a kid. And the Scott Adams games. And the original mainframe _Adventure_, before that, when my father brought me into the office one day... it seems to have left an impression.
I messed around building simple BASIC adventure games as a teenager; in college, I thought about ways to design my own IF compiler. A few years later, I realized I didn't *have* to design one; other people had already done that. In 1995, inspired by the then-brand-new Interactive Fiction Competition, I tried building a small evocative game about being caught in a thunderstorm. It wound up a competition winner, and I went on from there.
I've written a whole stack of games at this point, and they're well-enough regarded to make me an IF Big Shot. For what that's worth. But I've spent as much time -- maybe more time -- working on IF tools and infrastructure. In the late 90s I started designing a 32-bit IF virtual machine, to replace Infocom's aging Z-machine engine. That's well-accepted at this point. I've also worked on several interpreter apps, I've contributed to the Inform compiler, and I help maintain the IF Archive site.
And would it be too difficult to ask you to explain what interactive fiction is all about?
It's all about the parser. Or: it's all about the suggestive, but not delimited, range of choices that a free-text prompt offers the educated player.
I should probably back up. Interactive fiction is a text-based videogame genre. It began in 1977 with the whimsical puzzle-game _Adventure_ (or _Colossal Cave_), by Will Crowther and Don Woods. It was the first *hit* videogame genre. _Adventure_ spawned immediate imitations at MIT and other universities; then, when the home-computer revolution took hold, a host of commercial releases from indies and nascent computer-gaming studios. The most famous -- in the US -- was Infocom's line of games, which held the highest standards of storytelling and technical polish.
A videogame genre is defined by interface, and the interface of IF is straightforward: you type simple text commands, and the game responds with text telling you what happened. It's very much rooted in the conversational interchanges of D&D and other role-playing games -- but where D&D (and most D&D-inspired videogames) focus on combat, IF works best for exploration, puzzle-solving, and engagement with narrative.
Does the text parser matter? I think it does. Games that produce text output, but with different command interfaces, are doing something different; they induce the player to approach the game in different ways. The IF parser draws the player *into* the game world in a distinct and powerful manner. You can't skim the text or skimp on imagining the situation, because the situation is your only guide to what to try next.
But is it text adventure or interactive fiction?
You know, I don't worry much about labels. Back in the early days, everyone used "adventure game" and "interactive fiction" equivalently. Sure, IF sounded more literary -- or pretentious -- but they were the same genre. It quickly became practical to distinguish "text adventure" from "graphical adventure", but the "IF" label stuck to the text games. (At least, until Infocom started branching out into graphics in the late 80s.)
At this point, "interactive fiction" has been adopted by a lot of game designers -- I think mostly for nostalgia value, and association with the old classics. You might say "parser-based IF" if you want to be specific.
Do you consider yourself a writer, a game designer or both?
Both. And a programmer, too, of course. But game designer first: the others are skills that support the work of game design.
You've created more than a few modern classics those past ten years. Any particular favourites? Something that made you feel particularly proud?
I'm very happy with _Spider and Web_. I'm sure I'm not the only person who could have come up with that idea for a game, but I came up with it first, and I think I did it right.
I'll also mention _Heliopause_, even though it's a recent game and doesn't have the track record of my earlier hits. _Heliopause_ was an attempt to break outside the usual IF scale of space and time, while still being brief, evocative, and accessible. I like the way it came out.
How do you design your games?
Out of a P.O. box in Schenectady? Hm.
Usually I start with the idea of an interaction, or a realization. This isn't a puzzle, but it might be the key moment of a puzzle -- or just something nifty that the player tries successfully.
Then I work outwards to puzzle situations, plot situations, and the story itself. Of course, this isn't a one-way track -- I jump back and forth and adjust all elements of the game as I go. But that's the rough progression.
You did try out your luck on Kickstarter with Hadean Lands and were hugely succesful. Did you expect that commercial interactive fiction games could be this popular?
Clearly not -- I set a goal of $8000 and got nearly four times that much. My estimates are obviously not very accurate...
It's hard to say whether it's *popular*. There are too many confusing factors. I have about 700 Kickstarter backers. That might represent 70,000 potential IF fans out there... or it may be *all* the potential sales. People contributed generously, but my pitch included a promise to spend more time on open-source IF infrastructure. That's not "commercial", but it was a big part of the project's draw, I think.
And how fares Hadean Lands? When should we expect it?
I'm not doing completion estimates yet. If I gave you an estimate, it would be wrong.
I'm making progress. As I write this, I'm about 10% of the way through the alchemical-ritual section of the code.
(As for the open-source work, I have now posted several UI improvements to my Glulx virtual machine spec, and a draft plan for the big CSS feature which people have been asking for. I've also written an IF framework for iOS. That will support Hadean Lands, but it's available today for any IF author who wants to release an iOS IF app. A couple of those are already on the App Store.)
Are you so far happy with the way Apple's devices handle text-adventures?
Apple's mobile devices are terrific for reading. They're not ideal for typing, but I don't think that wrecks IF. IF commands are typically short, and I've implemented some shortcuts (double-tapping on words, for example) that I hope make the process easier.
With the reception of the genre offerings that made it to the App Store?
Too early to tell. _The Dreamhold_ has gotten about 4000 downloads in the past month. That's a lot, but it *is* a free download and I'm sure a lot of people toss it out after one glance.
Jason McIntosh has released one of his games, _The Warbler's Nest_, for a dollar -- he's using the framework I mentioned earlier. I don't have his sales figures, but I don't think it's an overwhelming hit yet.
I suspect that as more games are released (with nice app interfaces and some marketing love), they'll develop a following in the mobile world. It will never be as popular as match-three or slice-the-vegetable games, but it doesn't have to be.
Where should a new interactive fiction player (or is that reader?) start?
I put together a games-for-newcomers page for our Boston IF meetup group: http://pr-if.org/play/
This has a variety of games (yes, including a couple of mine) in different styles, lengths, and difficulties. They're all playable in a web browser.
Any plans for the future?
All of them.