Presentation on Visualization and IF Part 1

Am I mad? Possibly. But, at one level these are just a bunch of “high-flown” questions that really only matter to artists and cynical bastards like me :D. At another level, these issues are critical to advancing the art (that’s right, art) of game design and making a game that Strongbad said were for “intellectual types” accessible to everyone. —Evan ReynoldsPresentation on Visualization and IF Part 1 (Color in a Lurid World)

A Nightmare in Paris, with its lean white text on a black background, evokes the interface of a command-line interface text-adventure game, though it is really a multiple-choice branched narrative, akin to the Choose Your Own Adventure series. I’m something of an IF purist, in that I don’t see hypertext literature as requiring the same level of intellectual effort that a command-line IF game requires, so I don’t personally feel the same sense of accomplishment when clicking through a hypertext story that I would feel if I suddenly got the idea to put the satchel in front of the panel to block the cleaning robot that’s running away with the fish I want to put in my ear.

Still, A Nightmare in Paris does a good job spoofing the sudden, unexplained death that lurks around so many corners in text-adventure games. I learned quickly that my fate intimately tied to my choices of such details as whether I order wine or rum, or whether I walk to the blackjack table or the roulette wheel. Still, the twists and turns kept me playing (and using the “go back” button) for some time. Can someone tell me the French translation of “meat for the tires”? I think that would have added a little verisimilitude. I particularly liked the time stamps at the top of each page. That’s very helpful, given the tempting presence of the “go back” button (which can lead to disorientation if overused).

I’m usually more disoriented in the space of an IF game, rather than in time. Maps can help the spatial disorientation, but the plot can also change in an IF game, depending on player actions. Still, the production of high-quality plot is labor intensive, so IF designers are motivated to show the player all they’ve got. Some of the more recent works of interactive fiction, by authors such as Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin, and Adam Cadre, are far more successful at integrating the rules of the genre with the fiction that motivates the PC, but they take different approaches in terms of creating optional or alternate branches that don’t simply end with PC death or the bland “You can’t do that” or the slightly friendlier but still frustrating, “You decide you don’t want to do that after all.”

Still, IF has always been a niche medium. Reynolds points out that in 1985, top IF titles sold about 100,000 titles a month, while the most recent Harry Potter book has sold 2M copies. When you consider that the home computer market was much smaller in 1985 than it is now, that 100,000 titles a month represented a pretty healthy chunk. A few years ago a student project at MIT looked closely at the economic history of Infocom (which marketed Zork and its sequels, as well as other games in different genres such as SF and detective.) And the Harry Potter books didn’t start selling big until the Time-Warner conglomerate bought the movie rights and began hyping the franchise. According to Jyotsna Kapur, “The conglomerate’s magazines including Time, Entertainment Weekly, and People carried articles on the movie and on Rowling. Rowling’s personal story, a single mom struggling on welfare when she wrote the book, is exactly the kind of rags to riches stories so favored by capitalism. Time magazine, including its children’s section, carried articles on Harry Potter, including a cover story titled “Wild about Harry” way back in September 20, 1999, shortly after the book was optioned.”

While Strongbad does poke fun at old skool games, including text adventures, it’s true that IF was marketed as an intellectual alternative to moving bleepy blocky blobs around on your TV set. (The term “interactive fiction” was, I believe, coined by Infocom’s marketing division.)

I’ve got to post this now and run some errands, but there’s a part 2 that I’ll respond to later…