Chapter 11: The State of IF Today
Text IF succeeded commercially in the 1980s to the extent it did because it had commercial distribution and promotion, because other types of computer games were not significantly more impressive at first glance, and because the demographics of the computer-using public were tilted in favor of the literate. Today we have no distribution or promotion other than what we stick on the web for free; computer graphics are no
longer so crude as to lose a side-by-side wow-contest with a paragraph; and the demographics of the computer-using public are tilted in favor of those who think the second-person pronoun in English is "u".
But we have better games.
-- Adam Cadre (2002)
As the Adam Cadre quotation above perhaps begins to illustrate, the state of IF today is a classic example of the glass being half empty or half full. On the one hand, the genre has fallen from all commercial grace, and its overall popularity is a miniscule fraction of what it once was. Barely twenty years ago, at least one IF game sold one-million copies at price points of thirty dollars or more; today, the active community of IF players is reduced to a bare handful of thousands, despite the fact that its games’ creators now give their work away for free. On the other hand, though, those remnants of IF’s once prodigious fanbase who remain have largely shed the lure of retro-gaming nostalgia that has afflicted similar revivalist efforts in other genres and produced work of often amazing originality and quality. While there is plenty of detritus about, the top ten-percent or so of hobbyist IF of the past decade easily dwarfs that of the commercial era in terms of design, sophistication, and literary quality. That a relatively small group of amateurs has been capable of surpassing the work of well-funded companies not just once or twice but on a regular basis is remarkable. That they have taken IF in directions those companies never dreamed of is inspiring.
However one chooses to view this particular glass, though, plenty of questions of both a practical and an artistic nature swirl around IF today. Having spent so much time chronicling where IF has been, I would like to close this essay by looking briefly at where it currently is and where it might potentially go.
The NPC Problem
While the technical foundations laid down by the community over the last fifteen years are impressive, problem areas remain. In particular, character interaction has long been one of the thorniest problems in IF, one that no one has come close to satisfactorily solving. Simulating a world of objects with predictable behaviors presents little challenge for our modern tools. Simulating sentient beings, or even simply animals, with all of their unpredictability and independent agency, remains essentially impossible. The best we can hope to do is to fake it in a relatively believable way. This “non-player character (NPC) problem” accounts for the commonness, even in today’s forthrightly literary age of IF, of games which send the player out to explore an essentially deserted geography. Doing so plays to IF’s strengths, and avoids its greatest weakness. Still, characters and relationships are the essence of storytelling, and if IF is to make a claim to the throne of literature, it would seem that the problem must be dealt with rather than avoided. Artificial intelligence research is nowhere near sufficiently advanced to give us characters capable of making decisions and acting on their own, and even if it were contemporary IF development system are not currently oriented in this direction. Thus authors who wish to simulate another being in their games are largely left to code as many rules as possible for their characters’ behavior under different circumstances, and hope that as few as possible of the inner gears of their creations, as it were, show through. Some of the results have been remarkable, but, although Galatea perhaps came close at times, no IF character has yet been capable of fooling the player for very long.
If the NPC problem is the most difficult in IF development, the thorniest subset of same is the question of conversation. The idea of simulating a natural language conversation in a game whose parser cannot itself understand more than the tiniest subset of English is of course absurd, and yet a story where the player cannot talk to others is hardly a story at all. A number of compromises have thus been introduced.
The most traditional method, the one used by Infocom in virtually all of its games as well as the one found by default in Inform and TADS 2 games, is known as the ASK/TELL system. The player is expected to use the two mentioned verbs to discuss various subjects with characters she encounters. While this system imparts a feeling of freedom that could only be delivered by a parser-driven game, it has some problematic aspects. Namely, no matter how much effort its author puts into coding up appropriate subjects for discussion, the player is likely to try many topics that the author never anticipated, and the generic responses she receives in return to these queries play havoc with a game’s mimesis. Also, too many games using this system require their players to discuss a particular topic with a character to advance the story. The result can be a frustrating round of “guess the conversation topic” that is no more satisfying than playing “guess the verb.”
In an attempt to address these problems, authors have implemented other systems that are more restrictive but also (hopefully) less frustrating. The most common is the menu-based system, in which the player is presented with a simple menu of possible topics to choose from when she begins a conversation. While this removes most of the frustrations of the ASK/TELL system, and is certainly much easier on the author to code, it seems to some a sort of betrayal of the limitless possibility of the parser to suddenly dump the player into such a restrictive, unimaginative system. Also, all mystery, and all sense on the part of the player that she is engaging in real interaction, are removed. Virtually all players, when presented with a list of possible questions or statements, will methodically choose them one by one in an attempt to ring as much information as possible out of the person she is communicating with. The result may be less frustrating, but all of the sense of freedom and the thrill of discovery that make IF so special are removed. Other characters become little more than information vending machines.
Less commonly used, and even more restrictive, is the TALK TO system, in which the player is given no choice at all as to what she says to others. The player is restricted to using the verb construct talk to, whereupon the game will automatically have her say whatever the author deems appropriate to the current situation. This method is the easiest of all to implement, and does have the virtue of keeping the story moving, but is hardly satisfying to player who thought she was playing a game of interactive fiction.
New Technology: TADS 3 and Inform 7
As I write this, a complete revamping of TADS, known as TADS 3, is in the final stages of beta-testing, as always under the careful supervision of Michael Roberts. While TADS 3 has not yet reached its final, polished incarnation, it is quite usable and largely feature complete. All that remains to be done are the final rounds of bug-squashing and the writing up of a polished final manual. Beta versions of the system have been available for several years, and a handful of games, among them Roberts’ own Return to Ditch Day mentioned in the previous chapter, have already been written by brave souls willing to dive in and learn the ins and outs of the new system for themselves. TADS 3 is an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary project, concentrating as it does on cleaning up the language, making the library more accessible and more modifiable, and introducing the benefits of a more modern, object oriented programming paradigm. From the player’s perspective, perhaps the most obvious improvement in TADS 3 is its new system for interacting with other characters in the game, which is a sort of synthesis of the ASK/TELL and menu-driven systems.
When a conversation begins in TADS 3, the player is presented with a list of possible topics. However, she is not dropped into a menu, but can freely ASK and TELL about those topics from the conventional parser. This might seem like a minor variation at first, but the system actually offers a number of interesting features. First of all, there is no guarantee given to the player that the possible topics of conversation that the game lists are all that are available. Thus an author can provide the necessary topics to her player while still allowing those who wish to dig further to make discoveries for themselves. Also, and more significantly, the TADS 3 conversation system is much more complex in its inner workings than anything seen in a standard IF library before. TADS 3 conversations can be constructed as complicated threads in which mention of one topic will open up new avenues of discourse. A single topic can also be mentioned repeatedly by the player, with different responses as the conversation moves deeper and deeper into the topic’s depths. The end result is that TADS 3 conversations in the hands of a good author can be some of the most natural and lifelike yet seen in IF. The character interaction problem in IF may never be completely solved, but steps like the TADS 3 conversation model show that it is possible to improve on what currently exists.
Another exciting technological development is on the horizon as of this writing. Graham Nelson is about to release the latest iteration of his IF development language, Inform 7, and it does represent a revolutionary change, a new way of creating IF compared to everything that has come before. Inform 7 is not a conventional programming language, but neither is it an easy but limited point and click system ala Adrift. It rather uses natural language processing to allow its author to construct games using simple English sentences. Some typical Inform 7 “code” might look like this:
East of the Garden is the Gazebo. Above is the Treehouse. A billiards table is in the Gazebo. On in it a trophy cup. A starting pistol is in the cup.
A weight is a kind of value. 10kg specifies a weight. Everything has a weight. A thing usually has weight 1kg.
A container has a weight called breaking strain. The breaking strain of a container is usually 50kg. Definition: A container is bursting if the total weight in it is greater than its breaking strain.
A lead pig, a feather, a silver pig, and a paper bag are in a room called the Metallurgy Workshop. The bag is a container with breaking strain 2kg. The lead pig has weight 4kg. The feather has weight 0kg.
Inform 7 is worth getting excited over because has the potential to bring the rewards of IF authorship to hosts of non-technicians who have felt daunted by the programming-oriented systems that preceded it. In addition, those who have worked with it already claim that it makes things that were excruciatingly difficult under older systems into trivialities. Whether Inform 7 will live up to the potential it seems to possess at this writing is still very much an open question, but if it does it could represent the beginning of a whole new era of IF.
Spreading the Word
Just as Nelson has targeted those with no experience in programming with Inform 7, there has also been a fair amount of discussion on the newsgroups recently about possibilities for bringing the joys of playing IF to a wider audience. Some want to see IF returned to commercial viability, and certainly the relative recent successes of 1893: A World's Fair Mystery and Future Boy! give such people hope. Others are more ambivalent about IF's commercial prospects, at least for right now, but feel that there are many potential players out there who could and should be brought into the fold. For what it is worth, I count myself tentatively among the latter group. Proposals to accomplish this broadening of IF's acceptance range widely in scope and feasibility. Before adding my two cents to the debate, I want to talk briefly about what might be motivating the community to have these discussions in the first place.
It seems to me that there is a slight feeling of stagnation within the community. The excitement of the early nineties IF renaissance, which stemmed first from the idea of having new quality "text adventures" to play at all and was then largely fuelled by a sense of experimentation, of seeing just what this medium might be capable of once freed of the need to conform to traditional adventure game tropes, has somewhat run its course now. The community is not unhealthy by any means, but it no longer really seems to be growing. I think some of these subjective impressions of mine are borne out when taking a look at one of the community's most cherished institutions, the annual IF Competition.
The Competition peaked in 2000 and 2001 in terms of number of game entered. Each of these years sported more than fifty games. It has since shrunk to a relatively stable thirty-five or so entries each year. Now, this is hardly disastrous under any circumstances, and judging the overall health of the IF community by the number of entries in one competition is of course extreme folly. Further, a smaller Competition is in some ways a good thing, allowing judges as it does to have a reasonable expectation of playing all or most of the games during the Competition period. There is also something of a consensus that, while the number of entries are fewer, the general quality has increased somewhat in recent years, at least in the sense of there being fewer -- although, of course, still too many -- examples of bug-ridden dreck entered.
Still, perhaps my reader will allow me the assertion -- formed from IF Competition data, my admittedly subjective personal impressions, and data such as the size of the average SPAG magazine issue from year to year -- that in terms of numbers the IF community peaked around 2000 or 2001, and then shrunk slightly to its present level. Now, the present situation is not a bad one. Games, and often very good games, are still getting written, exciting new developments like TADS3 and Inform 7 are still appearing on occasion, and the community remains a more or less active and vibrant place to be. Indeed, I am repeatedly amazed at the generally elevated level of the discourse that goes on among its members. If IF is a small club, it is also a fascinating, vibrant, intelligent one. And yet I wonder at times what an infusion of fresh blood might accomplish for IF.
IF is by its very nature a niche pursuit. It is never going to rival, to pick a few random examples, NFL football, Eminen, or Grand Theft Auto for popularity. It does not necessarily follow, though, that the present community of perhaps a few thousand at best active players is the best it can hope for. Consider for a moment another quiet, cerebral hobby: crossword puzzles. At any airport on any busy travel day, one can find, tucked away here and here in various dark corners, individuals working crosswords. Yes, in this day of Gameboys and handheld DVD players, a certain tiny segment of the world prefers to entertain themselves with a pursuit that is if anything even more austere -- and certainly much more low-tech -- than IF. I would love to find a way to introduce some of those people -- as well as some proportion of the much more sizable population of book lovers, and maybe even some more pencil-and-paper RPG nerds -- to this hobby. These are of course niche pursuits in themselves, and yet the number of people engaged in each dwarfs IF by several orders of magnitude.
At this point, I want to note that my agenda here is not to bring hordes of crossword lovers on the IF scene. While I will gladly welcome anyone who is or might become interested in the medium's possibility, I would love to see a mixture of people, including a fair number with a background in literature and the humanities. In other words, storytellers. The crossword-playing "community,” assuming it can be defined as such at all, I choose only as a handy example.
My reader may be expecting me to propose a grand outreach program to these other intellectual (not to say nerdy) communities at this point. Some who are aware of recent events in the community may even be ready to protest that this has been tried on various occasions before. For instance, IF was given quite a nice write-up in Games Magazine, a journal for crossword-loving types, in 2004. That article did bring a few new faces into the newsgroups, but it hardly ignited a revolution. Why? I do not think it is due to our medium being inherently too difficult for readers of that magazine. Certainly I am a great lover of IF, and even (more due to dogged experience than any intellectual brilliance on my part) fairly good at solving the games, yet many of the logical conundrums to be found in the typical issue of Games leave me frankly baffled and thoroughly out of my depth. I think the failure of this article, and many others like it, to generate significant new community members has something to do with the community’s own failure to put its best foot forward. Put bluntly, we make it too hard to get into IF.
Consider what a prospective IFer who has read about the hobby in Games Magazine, The New York Times, or anywhere else is initially faced with. First of all, there are two major systems for writing games, TADS and Inform, each requiring their own interpreter download, plus several more less commonly used but no less viable alternatives. Once the newbie has figured out that she needs an interpreter, there is a good chance that she will end up attempting to navigate the IF Archive in search of said interpreter and possibly of games to play onit. The Archive's organization is arcane at best, the sort of thing that might make sense to a techie but that can seem a hopeless mess to someone just curious about trying out a new type of game. And the master Archive site is painfully slow.
There are of course solutions to these problems. Baf's Guide is a wonderful resource that eases the migraines that the unfiltered Archive is likely to induce in even experienced IFers. Yet Baf's Guide is not much help in getting started with an interpreter. There are a fair number of generously donated Archive mirrors that are generally much faster than their parent site. Yet the newbie probably does not know about these, and won't find out unless she takes the time to read the fine print on Baf's very carefully.
But surely anyone with the patience and intelligence to appreciate IF can overcome these comparatively minor hurdles? Of course they can, but I think this response to some extent misses a crucial point. A person who wanders into the realm of IF due to a mention in an article somewhere, or who stumbles across it during casual web surfing, is probably idly curious at best. If she is greeted with an experience that, as in the current model, manages to be simultaneously archaic in appearance and technologically daunting in practice, she will most likely just shrug her shoulders and move on to something else. She does not know how amazing and fascinating some of the community’s work really is, because she has no experience with it. It is up to the community to make it relatively easy for her to get that experience and hopefully come to that realization. For all its other successes, this is a task into which the community has put insufficient effort.
That may, however, finally be changing. Efforts are afoot to not only make IF more accessible, but to make it more modern and attractive in appearance. Along with all of the other innovations of Inform 7, for instance, a facility has now been added by which the author can easily include a “book cover” of sorts for her work, which is automatically displayed when the player begins the game. Thumbnail versions of this art could also be displayed in another application that has aroused considerable discussion in the community, even if it is a project still far from fruition: the creation of a sort of IF “I-Tunes” application that would allow the player to browse the Archive’s immense database of games, and to open any one of them on her computer with just a couple of clicks. A meta-data standard for IF is under discussion which could make this dream a reality by providing a standard format for storing basic information – copyright date, author name, brief description, etc. – about every game to facilitate easy searching and browsing. These projects have a long way to go, but the community seems increasingly committed to shedding the retro-gaming label once and for all and embracing the future. I believe a larger audience for IF is out there, and I believe an improved presentation for the genre as a whole is the best way to reach it.
Some see IF as suffering something of a directional crisis in the last few years. The wild experimentation with form that marked the late nineties has now largely subsided. One could argue that we have a pretty good sense of what the genre is capable of now, at least unless and until we see some quantum leap in artificial intelligence technology, or until something else occurs that shifts the paradigm of IF development. This is does not mean that the exciting phase of IF’s history is over, however. It may in fact be just beginning. Authors are now free to use the techniques that the experimentalists pioneered not as formal exercises but in the service of the stories they are attempting to tell. Some recent games, such as Jason Devlin’s Vespers and Chris Klimas’ Blue Chairs, have displayed just this ascendancy of substance over form that is the mark of a mature artform. There are many, many stories still to tell, and I believe that a substantial upswing in IF’s popularity could be just around the corner if the community stays the course with current efforts, even as increasing academic interest brings the genre a respectability it could never have dreamed of in the days of Infocom. Interactive narrative will be the literary form of the twenty-first century, and IF has every chance of continuing to be an important part of that movement for years to come.