Exposition in Interactive Fiction

This document introduces the concept of exposition in interactive fiction, and offers three versions of the same brief interactive fiction text, so that you may experience interactive exposition for yourself.

  1. Introduction
  2. The Function of the Prologue in IF
  3. Narrative is the Act of Telling
  4. Sample IF Games
  5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Since students in my "Writing Electronic Texts" class have the option of choosing IF authorship for a term project, I have watched closely as storytellers who are new to programming, and programmers who are new to storytelling, approach the task of writing IF for the first time.  After serving as a judge on the IF Prologue Competition, and reflecting upon some of the post-competition debate on rec.arts.int-fiction, I felt that I learned a few things about interactive fiction in general, and the importance of interactive exposition in particular.

While several academic articles have analyzed the structure of "Deadline," nearly all the authors write for an audience that is new to IF, and hence focus on comparing IF to prose narrative, hypertext, oral storytelling, and/or drama.  I face a similar problem when I attempt to describe my interest in IF to my senior English department colleagues, most of whom probably find a transcript of an IF session to be confusing, repetitive, and aesthetically unrewarding.  

2. The Function of the Prologue in Interactive Fiction

So far the best structural analysis of IF is Graham Nelson's commentary (in the Inform Designer's Manual; I'll add more on this topic once I know the pagination of the revised 4th edition) on the tripartite nature of IF.  Nelson observes that, following the model of "Colossal Cave Adventure," most IF involves a prologue, a middle game, and an endgame.  This collection of documents focuses on the prologue as an expository overture to the main story -- not simply the opening screen of text, but rather the interactive environment surrounding the PC's starting position, which teaches the player the rules of the larger game world. 

In announcing the IF Prologue Competition, David Myers defined the prologue as the opening screen of static text (what Nelson termed the "overture").  Myers offered a sample prologue -- a treatment of Conrad's Heart of Darkness -- that may have, directly or indirectly, affected the tone of the submissions.  For example, Myers's sample prologue stops when it displays the banner title; but a real transcript from an IF game would goes on to describe the PC's starting position, and list the objects that are present.  As one of the judges, I found it difficult to enter into the game world of those competition entries that did not describe the PC's starting position.

On a more general level, Myers's choice of a sample prologue drawn from traditional literary prose may have drawn entries from authors whose creative tastes prefer narrative to interaction.  For whatever reason, many of the prologue submissions -- including several of the very good ones -- seemed to shovel too much exposition in the opening paragraphs, sketching in broad, sweeping strokes, a plot arc or a PC motivation that simply cannot fit in the opening screen of text.  (See some of the discussion on rec.arts.int-fiction regarding how much detail is appropriate for an IF prologue.)

Adam Cadre shared his concerns about the whole concept of the PrologueComp, as a vehicle by which non-programmers can propose story ideas that they themselves may be unable to produce, thus potentially stealing the thunder from future, fully implemented, IF works:

I have a number of works in various stages of progress, and most of them have at least one element to which I'm hoping people will react by saying, "Cool! Never seen *this* in an IF game before!" ... wouldn't you the player rather that the actual *games* produced by the IF community have as much of that "whoa, cool" effect as possible? ("Re: PrologueComp results")

Most IF players probably want a clear sense of purpose when they start out, but few IF authors want to give away their best gimmicks right away; they would rather wait until the player has had time to adjust to the role-playing requirements of the simulated world.  The prologue is a good place for the author to teach the player the rules of the game world, generally by blocking access to major plot events until the player has solved a few initial puzzles (such as getting through the silvery door in "Metamorphoses," or figuring out what to do with the puzzle piece in "Jigsaw").  

3. Narrative Is the Act of Telling

The voice of the narrator in ordinary prose is static, like the text on this page.  A prose narrator's job is to tell what happens (although beginning writers are often asked to show as well).

The 'voice' of the IF narrator is more complex, less theorized, and much harder to pin down.  While the IF narrator certainly tells, it must also (as Crowther and Woods put it) represent the player's senses and body, as the player attempts to interact with the textual world.

Putting long stretches of narrative prose into the mouth of the IF narrator will not turn a great puzzle-fest into even a passable story. IF without narrative has its value (c.f. Marnie Parker's Iffy Art Gallery). But even a short stretch of gratuitous narration can be too long, if it leads either the player or the author to lose sight of the interactive potential in an IF setting.  

The IF player is supposed to live the story -- or, more realistically, at least least discover those actions which the author considers necessary for the plot to advance.  

4. Sample Games

Crack of Noon v. 1

Consider the following brief transcript, from an imaginary IF work called "Crack of Noon."  It handles, rather efficiently, three important expository details -- goal, motivation, and character. But this static bit of text doesn't make a good IF prologue.

If there's one thing better than jamming all night long with old friends from your high school garage band, it's sleeping in all the next morning while they put on their suits and ties and march into work. You've nearly made it all the way to noon without having a single significant thought trouble your head, when suddenly it hits you -- you realize that you've been neglecting your promise to take care of Aunt Euphonia's precious cat, Walpurgisnacht.

But something tells you that saving your budding career as a house-sitter won't be quite that easy.  You can't bear the thought of ticking off your sweetest, oldest, and richest relative. So, you decide to get up, go next door, and check on the little furball.


Copyright (c) 2001 by Ima Key-Tapper
Release 1 / Serial number 010712 / Inform v6.21 Library 6/10 SD

Your Bedroom (on the bed)

The late morning light has that wonderfully sleepy Sunday morning feel -- which is pretty cruel, considering that today is Monday. The living room lies to the north.

You're in bed.


The above prologue comes right out and states, rather starkly, the goal (go check on the cat) and motive (keeping in Auntie's good graces). We do see some passable attempts at establishing character; references to the garage band, sleeping until noon, being a house-sitter, and not wishing to offend a rich relative all identify the PC as an amiable slacker. 

But so what?   Casual details like these are often found enriching ordinary prose narratives, but when they appear in the opening screen of an IF game, they take on a great deal of prominence.  Some players may expect to be able to interact with the garage band later, or may feel that the reference to suits and ties is a clue to a wardrobe-related puzzle.  To what extent do these details about the PC's character matter in a game about a cat? 

Consider, also, how the narrator announces that "you realize," "you can't bear," and "you decide."  The player doesn't get the chance to respond emotionally to the scene, and to decide upon a course of action accordingly.  And what's with the corny "something tells you"?  That's a narrative cop-out.  The mysterious "something" is obviously the author, trying to inject some tension with an awkward bit of foreshadowing.  Exposition that relies this heavily on narration -- on 'telling' -- is awkward in IF.  

While the author is always going to manipulate the player into making particular choices (you probably won't be allowed to set fire to your own house or stick a poker into your sidekick's eye), the author wants to encourage the player to make those choices that will advance the plot; that's entirely different from having the author use non-interactive prose to announce what decisions the author has made for the sake of getting the story rolling. 

The dry, mildly adversarial humor of the narrator in many Infocom games, the rich characters in Adam Cadre's "Varicella" or "Photopia," and the moody settings of Andrew Plotkin's "So Far" and "A Change in the Weather" are all methods of retaining the player's interest while the story unfolds... but in all cases, the story is either subordinate to, or a direct outgrowth of, these extra-interactive devices.  In these successful IF works, interacting with the voice of the narrator is, by itself, entertaining.

(Thanks to Andrew Plotkin for supplying the term "extra-interactive").

Crack of Noon, v. 2

Crack of Noon, version 2.0, attempts to use the IF medium more effectively.  Rather than filling the opening screen with a whole paragraph devoted to establishing the PC's character, I have created a few objects.  (If you see a black box below, click inside it and type commands to interact with a short sample game. See: "Instructions for playing interactive fiction.")

Download http://www.uwec.edu/jerzdg/orr/articles/IF/online/expo2.z5
You'll need a free Inform/Infocom interpreter for your computer.

(If you prefer, you may download the z-file for Crack of Noon v. 2.0.) 

The static introduction to Crack of Noon v. 2.0 is shorter, because I have tried to make better use of the IF medium.  This version is better, but it still needs work.

Version 2.0 dispenses with the random reference to the PC's high school garage band, and instead adds a nightstand.  If you examine the nightstand, open it, and manipulate the item you find inside, you will learn bits and pieces of the PC's backstory, including the PC's relationship with Aunt Euphonia.

The revision also dispenses with the awkward 'Something tells you...', and instead adds a subtitle -- "An interactive tumble over the wrong side of the bed," by which I intended to suggest a slice-of-life comedy featuring babelfish puzzles (named after an unusually annoying and complex puzzle in "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy") and perhaps some slapstick.

Although Version 2.0 does a much better job of giving the player something to do in order to uncover bits of the backstory, a much more serious problem remains -- the narrator simply announces "you realize," rather than giving you (the player) the chance to discover it on your own.

Even this improved prologue still relies upon traditional narrative techniques.  Remember that interactive fiction is supposed to involve the player in the creation of the story -- literally (by requiring the player to type commands that advance the story) or interpretatively (by asking the player to analyze seemingly unrelated objects, and to make connections between them).

Crack of Noon, v.3

Download http://www.uwec.edu/jerzdg/orr/articles/IF/online/expo3.z5.

(If you prefer, you may download the z-file for Crack of Noon v. 3.0.)

In "Crack of Noon v.3.0," the contents of the jacket pocket provide most of the exposition.  The sample game above has drawn polite criticism in two areas.  First, some IF players object to a game in which the PC appears to have amnesia; perhaps a very short prose introduction would have helped. Second, it's a bit of an IF cliché to provide notes for the PC to read, but the device is so useful that it is readily accepted when not overused. Andrew Plotkin observes that the "inept" use of exposition-laden props can be as annoying as the "inept" announcements of an omniscient narrator.

I have exactly the same exasperated reaction to an inept IF background gimmick (diary in pocket, to-do list on desk :) as I do to an inept interjection from the omniscient narrator. I don't see one as better, or even more IF-suited, than the other -- it's the "inept" part that one needs to fix. ("Re: [Announce] Exposition in IF -- draft in progress")

Let's see how well you can read the textual clues I have left in this tiny stub of a game.  Highlight the text between the brackets for clues.

  • What are the specific tasks that Aunt Euphonia asked you to accomplish?
    Highlight the space between the brackets for a clue:
    [Read the note, in the jacket pocket.]
  • What items does she mention leaving for you?  One is in the pocket... what happened to the other?
    [Did you go north into the living room yet?]
  • There are four identical objects in the living room. How many should there be? 
    [Read the sales receipt, in the bag in the living room.]
  • Given what we learn about the PC, how do you think the stakes may change once Walpurgisnacht the Cat enters the picture?
    [The player will probably be expected to protect the Rainbow Hectors from the cat... but human nature being what it is, many players will probably want to abuse Rainbow Hectors whenever they are bored. A good game would permit them to do so, but perhaps penalize them by making the PC get more neurotic as his supply of Hectors dwindles.]

5. Conclusion

There, now.  See how much fun interactive exposition can be?  Version 3.0 adds a new plot twist, revealing a new side of the PC's character -- one that wasn't even hinted at in the opening screen of text.

(Read the rec.arts.int-fiction discussion thread commenting on the first draft of "Exposition in Interactive Fiction.")

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