Actually, good novelists – not just filmmakers – are very well versed in visuals. The trick is not to think in terms of cinematography. That’s different than a visual. Cinematography is a way of using visuals, yes. But text is a visual as well. And the image it builds in someone’s mind is a visual. Visual is not an either-or concept. I think applying visuals – or at least the thinking behind them – to the idea of prose and parser has a lot to say about effective textual IF. In fact, many novelists are often encouraged to think about scenes in their novels as if they had to film them. It’s a technique I’ve used quite a bit and it’s a very powerful one. I do think the same could be applied to textual IF.
As far as the terms I mentioned:
Change-motivation refers to, in part, having dialogue define character. As we all know, characters ideally change through a story. However, to do so, you need believable motivation. One way of indicating the change points, and thus the motivation, is via dialogue. This reveals character. Conversations with characters can reveal the personality of the character as well, by showing how they view the world around them. Conversational modes used by the protagonist – which may only be controlled by an indication of tone – can also reveal the protagonist. (This goes back to the whole debate about how conflated the player and the protagonist are in a game.) This is not just used in film, but also by novelists.
Beyond even change-motivation elements, dialgoue can convey individual traits of a character. That may be something like a stutter, an accent, or specific speech patterns that are regularly used by the characters. The way a character speaks can also reveal mood and emotion, which provides more impetus for motivation (why the character acts as they do). Again, this isn’t just in film but also in novels. The presentational mechanics, of course, are different but the thinking behind them is largely the same. I most certainly would think authors of textual IF could learn a lot from studying such elements and at least trying such techniques in their stories/games.
Locational anchors are used in novels, games, and film. They’re essentially a form of association. There are also situational anchors, which are a bit of a different thing. The latter case is where you associate an internal response of a character with some triggering event in the plot. That may be external or internal plot point. (In film, they’ll often use beats to indicate when a triggering event must occur.) The trick is then showing why this trigger led the character to act in a certain way. Dialogue can be part of the situational aspect since, as you mention, dialogue is a form of action. Locational anchors for their part utilize dialogue wherein you learn who someone is, where they are (relative to the surroundings), what they are doing, where they are going, and why the character is where they are. It may sound simple when put like that, but training yourself to “read” scenes that involve characters (whether in film, book, or game) will often tell you how effectively you feel you “understand” what’s going on around you (or, rather, the protagonist). This is even more important in textual IF where you often don’t have picture or moving image visuals to guide you. Your visual is often purely the text. (The most common criticism I’ve heard of characters in textual IF – and thus of any resulting dialogue – is that they just seem “put there” in order to be able to ask questions of them to force the story along a little bit.)
Narrative causality simply refers to how your dialogue conveys “why” and “what next” to the reader/viewer/player. It also leads to plot development because it focuses on consequences of actions taken during the plot that lead the plot to evolve in a certain way rather than another way. This term, incidentally, is often credited to Terry Pratchett but in fact the concept goes back to techniques of narrative coherence. The role of dialogue is not quite as central as many people sometimes assume. It’s often revealing for a class to go back to what they thought was a “dialogue-heavy” book or film and realize how much was done without actual dialogue of the extensive sort. Rather, dialogue was a prod and a goad to further action of a non-dialogue sort. That certainly seems to be relevant to textual IF, where there is a balance of different player interactions. (Specifically, for example, how much information a player has to “dig out” or “ferret out” of a NPC via a somewhat clumsy mechanism, versus how much the game interweaves dialogue without the player actually having to do much to make that dialogue take place.)
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that use of these techniques would magically make games or stories “better” in some sense. But I think it’s not too inaccurate to say that many of these techniques are not used at all by many textual IF authors. Beyond this community, I’ve found that people don’t respond very well to textual IF except as a novelty or one-off thing they might try for a bit. Retention becomes problematic and the return rate of players/readers is pretty bad. I’ve also found that when you distill the responses of why people don’t become as engaged with textual IF as they do with book, film or graphical IF, the reasons often come down to techniques of storytelling. That’s largely why I was curious to what extent people in the community found it more fun to create textual IF (for the thinking challenges, if not the authoring challenges) rather than play/read it.
I think dialogue is a good case in point. It seems that in some cases the thinking may go “I have to include NPCs otherwise my world is going to be pretty boring. But if I have NPCs, I have to have some dialogue. After all, what’s the point of having the NPC otherwise? So I guess I’ll have to somehow get the player to ‘talk’ with the NPCs and I guess I’ll have to choose between ASK/TELL or maybe a menu or something like that. And maybe to keep the unfruitful path level down, I can have ‘you can also ask about’ prompts to goad the player to ask about very specific things.” I would argue that with this kind of thinking, dialogue easily becomes no more than a mechanical element and, in fact, is not the action that you would find works so well in novel or film. It becomes “one more thing to do” rather than “an element to experience” or an integral part of guiding the story by revealing character intent and motivation and thus engaging the protagonist (and thus hopefully the player) in what’s actually going on and why it matters (beyond just “solving the game”).
Film, book, and graphical IF tend to provide an experience. I think textual IF can do that and I think has done that in some cases. (Babel and Slouching Towards Bedlam are two textual IF games that routinely score very high with outside groups that I work with.) But I think the fact that textual IF has little traction outside of one community is because while it can provide an experience, it often does not. My contention has been – and admittedly, it’s just a hypothesis – is that textual IF authors seem to be somewhat insulated from the wider world of storytelling techniques (via media like film, novel, and game). I could be very wrong, of course, but I’m judging this based upon the output I see, the responsiveness of people to that output, and the discussion of such techniques in general.
I’m not entirely sure at this point if this lack of cross-association with other techniques is because of one of the following:
- The techniques are simply not known about at all and thus not practiced.
- The techniques are known about, have been tried, but not felt to apply to textual IF.
- The techniques are known about, have not been tried, but are assumed not to apply to textual IF.
- The techniques are known about and felt could apply to textual IF, but it’s felt textual IF limits the ability to use the techniques.
Or perhaps there are other aspects that I’m not considering. As you can probably tell, I have the feeling that there are many who think “textual IF is its own unique thing, and thus other techniques from other media may not apply.” I don’t think textual IF is all that unique in that sense. I think it provides unique elements, yes. But so does film. So does novel. So does graphical IF. So when you say they “ran out of ideas and are falling back on what they know”, that’s actually not a bad thing. Falling back on what we know about good storytelling techniques is something I think could potentially benefit authors of textual IF.