IF 'spective, retro and per

Ok, here's the thing that bothers me:

Back in the old days ('95), people used to tell me that a text IF work couldn't possibly have the kind of plot and character development that a book did. Because text IF (in the Colossal Cave tradition) was fundamentally a game, it was basically a bunch of puzzles with some stuff stuck on top; interactivity meant puzzles. And puzzles were mechanical game which couldn't be used to tell a story. If you tried to put a story in, the puzzles would get in the way. The author might as well write a new Tetris variant and forget IF.

These days, people tell me that a text IF work (in the Colossal Cave tradition) can't possibly be interactive fiction, because the shallow if-then tree nature of the programming is a straitjacket. Without AI, the player can't have any real impact on the storyline, so the player is just following railroad tracks laid down by the author. (With perhaps a railroad switch at the end leading to a few author-defined multiple endings.) The author might as well write a book and forget IF.

You understand why this has been incredibly frustrating to me. Both ways, I reply "Look, I want to write games that do what a novel (or short story) do, but with player interaction. Can a book have a plot? Then so can IF. Can a book tell a story without feeling like a straitjacket? Then so can IF; the added interactivity can't make the player less involved." (Unless you do it wrong, of course.)

I like to think that I caused this viewpoint shift...

(I was originally going to call this post "Life's Like This: How I Created And Destroyed Modern IF." Fortunately for you-all, I couldn't keep the gag going for the entire length of the essay.)

...really, it's not a monolithic viewpoint shift. The first quoted view is what I remember of the position I was arguing against most vehemently in 1995; the second is the position I was arguing against most vehemently in the past year. (Most recently, in comp.sys.mac.games.adventure, although the thread died without going anywhere.) These are just the issues that are most important to me.

But I did write "A Change in the Weather" specifically to stick a fork in that first viewpoint; and then So Far. They must have worked, because of the number of people who said "Oh, that's the shape that fits what I want to do!" and did it. Ok, good.

The second viewpoint... is harder to argue with. Because it's not saying that what I want is impossible (as the first one did); it's saying that what I want doesn't go far enough. Which may be true. I guess these are the people that always found CC and Planetfall and Trinity to be restrictive and straitjacketed, and have always looked ahead to some art form that doesn't feel that way. Obviously, I have to say "go for it". But it's not what I want to do.

I just deleted a paragraph-long rant about the people who say "You're holding back the future of IF gaming." As you might expect, I ignore such people. (And yes, they really exist. See that thread on csmga.) The point is this: Colossal-Cave-style IF is now a pretty mature art form. It was essentially mature in 1990. Innovations since then have been:

(1) Techniques useful for particular games. (The consult-book verbs, for example.)

(2) Improvements in development systems. (Exponentially better from the author's point of view, but with no impact on what the author wants to do; the brilliance of Inform 6 is that it makes it so much easier for the author to make the game he was thinking of already.)

(3) Expanding the explored range of content. This, again, is what I think I can take some credit for. At least at first. Now the ball is rolling, and people will keep inventing new things to say for years, I hope. Just like novels.

It's (3) I'm interested in as a player, and ultimately as an author. So I have no patience at all with people who tell me that I have to move on to the next thing. A mature art form is not destroyed by the next art form to be born. People keep writing more books. They even keep writing more science fiction books, an art form even more conventional than the written word in general.

(I was at a Pittsburgh SF con yesterday, and prominent SF editor said "The three most influential SF writers are Heinlein, Samuel Delaney, and..." Ok, I forget the third; maybe it was Wolfe or Clarke. But in all three cases it was stuff written in the 60's or earlier. SF has got itself pretty well figured out these days. A genuinely new movement will be a new genre, not something that will change SF-as-it-exists.)

(And this does not mean that SF is dead!)

In the case of IF, it's pretty obvious that the Next Thing will be not be an incremental improvement of what we have now. All the current attempts, like the Erasmotron, are entirely new approaches. I sometimes hear "Ok, we could have CC-style IF with better NPCs," but I don't see it; if the NPCs are that much better, it changes all the assumptions. The program structure may still be like TADS/Inform, but the art form will be entirely new. I could be wrong about this, but I'll wait and see.

I'm out of words for now.

Updated September 7, 1998.

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