War, Pestilence, Famine, Death, and Twine

I originally wrote this post for StoryCade.

There’s something unusual about the announcement of this year’s XYZZY Awards finalists. For the first time since since Inform 7 was released in 2006, most of the XYZZY Awards finalists were not created with it. In fact, this is the first time in the entire seventeen-year history of the XYZZY Awards that the plurality of nominees were not created with some version of Inform.

Instead, Twine has taken that title — admittedly, by a narrow margin of ten finalists to seven. But for those inclined to fear the demise of the parser form, this is one more portent of doom. The most recent Interactive Fiction Competition, the other major yearly event in the IF community, had more web-based games entered into it than parser-based ones. I think Carl Muckenhoupt, who maintains the venerable Baf’s Guide to the Interactive Fiction Archive, describes the traditionalist position best. To excerpt:

Magnus Olsson, in a memorable 1997 raif post, compared the IF community to a jazz club, and these bossy newcomers to someone who goes to the club to tell everyone in the club that jazz is dead and they should all be using pre-programmed synthesizers instead. No matter how good his arguments are, they’re going to be ignored by the people who showed up because they like jazz.

There is no doubt that Twine and its kind represent a different paradigm of interactive fiction. But I think there’s more opportunity here for devotees of parser IF than there is ill omen. Easy for me to say, right? I created Twine. Of course I think this is a positive development. But I really do believe this, and I’ve got three arguments why.

1. It’s Safe To Rock The Boat Now

I think the growth of Twine and other parserless systems demonstrates a maturation of the interactive fiction community. When the IF community first coalesced online, we imitated our heroes: Infocom, Level 9, Magnetic Scrolls. Maybe even some weirdos still idolized Scott Adams. I think we did this out of a desire to preserve that which we loved and thought was quickly disappearing from the landscape of computer games. Recall that SPAG, the longest-running net IF publication, was once titled the Society for the Preservation of Adventure Games. It was only in 1997, after the IF Competition had run for two years, that G. Kevin Wilson felt it was safe to re-acronymize as the Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games.

An excerpt from his Whizzard’s Guide to Text Adventure Authorship, which he wrote in 1994, gives a good sense of what things were like back then:

FOUND: One battered old text parser. It seems to somehow portray the lost innocence and fun in video games. Appears to have been carelessly tossed aside in the rush to appease mouse-hungry users.

We believed that text-based games were a dying breed, and we were true believers awash in a sea of thoughtless, trivial games. Although there was some Amiga Persecution Complex involved, it was a perception not completely removed from reality. Games came in boxes you plucked from store shelves, not in ZIP files you downloaded from the internet, and the selection was accordingly narrower. Even graphical adventures were beginning to wane.

Of course, IF didn’t disappear the way we feared it would. People still write parser games — in fact, the tools to produce parser games have long since surpassed what was available during the commercial era — and people still play them. And now that we no longer feel this existential threat, we have the freedom to experiment.

We’ve been experimenting all along, of course. One of the very first things we tinkered with was what a score meant in the context of a story-game. We asked ourselves, if we take points away from players, is it still a game that they are playing? (I-0) What if we take away puzzles to be solved (In the End), or verbs to be entered (The Space Under the Window)? What if the game consists of only a conversation in a single room? (Galatea) We played with alternate perspectives (Muse: An Autumn Romance) and narrators (Rameses).

We have progressed to the point where we are brave enough to ask, if we take away the > prompt, is it still interactive fiction that we are playing?

Twine is just one way of asking this question. Inklewriter and ChoiceScript ask it in similar sorts of ways; StoryNexus, Versu, and Seltani come at different angles.

For some, the answer to this latest question may in fact be no. For some, the answer to questions much earlier than now may have been no. And that’s fine. The point is that questioning the bounds of a medium is a sign of its strength and vivacity, not its frailty.

2. A Short Digression Featuring Disguised Infographics That Hint at the Fate of All Monocultures

Imagine a world where all music was composed for three instruments:

2008_fake

You can compose quite a lot of music for just three instruments, of course. Each of these are versatile. But wouldn’t you prefer to listen to music from a world that looks more like this?

2013_fake

You anticipate my point, I’m sure. These aren’t completely fabricated pie charts. The percentages match the systems used to build the XYZZY Awards nominees for 2008, five years ago, and 2013. Check my work if you like.

2008
2013

If you were a composer, which world would you prefer to live in?

3. Many People Will Eventually Want an Apple in a Knapsack

Let’s say, though, that all you care about in this wide world of interactive narrative gaming are parser games. Do not bother me with these point-and-clicks, you say. I shall not trifle with the vagaries of visual novels. Do not even mention the word Storytron in my house! You love the piano and no other instrument. Even for strange people like yourself, I think the influx of Twine games is good news.

The reason why is that even I don’t believe that Twine is the best development system. I think that it’s good at what it was designed to be good at: hypertext. But I also think that if you stick with Twine long enough, you’ll eventually bump up against its limitations. Maybe someday, you’ll want to have the player put an apple inside a knapsack and then place that in a refrigerator the player can push around. Games have been created from stranger mechanics.

Twine doesn’t have a world model. It has variables and flags, but those are tough tools to work with if you are trying to build a simulated world that can be toyed with in any real way.

So eventually, after futzing helplessly around with $appleInKnapsack, $knapsackInFridge and not $knapsackOnTopOfFridge, and $fridgeDoorClosed, you might think to look for something better to realize your dream of objects containing objects containing objects. You might try Inform or TADS (or maybe even ADRIFT or Hugo, if you are well-read). You hopefully have heard of them in your short interactive fiction career. Ideally, you regard them as neighbors three doors down; you haven’t had a chance, or a really a reason to visit, but you wave to each other on the way to work. They’ve always seemed like friendly, good-natured people. Talking with them is a natural next step.

I really do believe that a decent number of people now making Twine games would also enjoy trying their hand at parser. I also think there are many people in the parser IF community who are trying very hard to be good neighbors. The folks who run the IF Archive and IFDB, for example, have been welcoming to Twine games. The Twine app never appeared on the IF Archive until very recently because I thought it wouldn’t have been wanted there — but I was wrong.

The Long View

This year may turn out to be a blip in the history of interactive fiction. Twine became popular for reasons I didn’t predict, and if it becomes unpopular, it will probably do so for similarly unfathomable reasons. I’m not worried so much about that. What I do really hope happens is that colors keep getting added to that pie chart. More isn’t always better– but here, I really do believe, it is.

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