IF's artistic credibilty?

Let me start by saying that my familiarity with IF is not incredibly deep. I have been reading off and on for the past 5 years but have yet to get very deep in the community. I have an opinion of the IF community but will choose to refrain from saying it. I will say that I deeply respect the authors who must have enormous talent and the guts to build such complex worlds while retaining all the rules of that world. Like an overly complex nondeterministic finite automaton, creating a game world, keeping track of the states of each object throughout the progression of the work, and how they interact is truly awe inspiring.

But to get to my real point here, I want to ask the community how it feels about interactive fiction as an art form and its goals. Like the ancient Greek sculptors or renaissance art movements, there were strict guidelines and a genuineness to recreate the world around us as close to perfection as possible. I feel this sort of realism has been become the standard and indeed most modern interpreted languages will lay out as many rules of the world before the author even writes a line of code. I understand the value of such a standardized world in order to help the “player” win the “game,” but what about impressionism, cubism, or surrealism (analogous to a non standard world)?

Of course it follows that to work in a non standard world, the “player” may be left questioning what to do to “win.” Indeed this is the challenge that I feel IF has not yet risen to. But what if this “interactive fiction” had no “player” or there was no “game” to “win?” Can one not get the same satisfaction reading Dante’s The Divine Comedy, as Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code?

My biggest questions to the community are as follows; “Does IF have artistic credibility?” and “Why can’t IF be more free form to allow more artistic freedom?”

This is by no means a complaint towards the community or the medium. I could write the most non conforming IF but would probably be interested in the community’s input to help decide whether to release it or not or whether I will get hate mail, or worse, a bad review (just joking)!

~John Barker

Surrealism is not entirely neglected in the modern IF world.

If I were you, I wouldn’t confuse the complexity of standard IF development tools with realism. World models are abstractions to begin with. (And, to be sure, they aren’t very realistic, except from particular narrow angles!)

I am not the kind of person who worries about artistic credibility. (Does IF have it? Sure. FPS games? Yes. Knitting? Also yes. That OK Go video that everybody’s reposting this week? Definitely. Are you going to learn anything by asking me that question? Probably not.)

“Why can’t IF be more free form to allow more artistic freedom?” That’s not a question.

The IF genre/medium abounds with games and stories that defy, subvert and twist conventions, or tread completely new ground. There are plenty of games that you can’t win (with or without scare quotes), or where winning is undesirable, or which have non-standard world models or forms of interaction. Zarf’s own The Space Under the Window springs to mind, as do Aisle and Shrapnel, but there are many more.

If anything, I think people are more likely to be positive towards non-standard works. There are any number of puzzle-centric text adventures set in caves at this point, and I think it’s people who want to contribute to that genre who need to properly set their expectations about what kind of reaction they will (or more likely, won’t) get.

Like anything, to some people it will, to others it won’t. But surely it’s the author’s confidence in their own expression that matters?

In what way do you feel an interactive medium that uses solely text is limiting? If you can express something in words, what is to stop you putting it in an IF?

I guess by artistic freedom you mean no world model, just a bunch of text thrown in at the player. No world model means shallow interaction: the player does little more than go to specific pages in a CYOA book or click links in a hypertext.

IF and no world model is not IF, it’s one of those two.

That said, I believe there’s plenty of room to use those standard world model tools to create very surreal worlds with unusual behavior.

It is not the fact that IF is solely text, it is the fact that the writing has the constraints in stating what the player wants to get as output. If a player examines a chair, it follows that there must be a description. Most IF’s might sound something like, “A large comfy chair.” And this same pattern of providing descriptions for rooms and objects begins to feel monotonous not only for the author but for the player. Because it is a game, and because the player has to observe his/her world, I have to provide it. I believe this is limiting as it serves the player and thus has little artistic quality.

I might suggest that instead of IF taking place in a game world with a player, an IF may take the form of a thought or something abstract with a different set of verbs to get through a looser prose that is not tied down to a realistic world. But as I asked before, would something radically different be accepted in the community?

So if I feel conforming to the standard world models created by the most popular languages does not give me as an author enough artistic freedom, I just have to come up with a different world model that is more friendly to creativity.

I guess you never heard of “unreliable narrator” before, huh? You should drop the dungeon crawlers and find more up-to-date and experimental games out there…

How about an IF haiku? I don’t know, this is supposed to be interactive fiction, not interactive poetry, sculpting or whatever.

Or you may just provide weird “instead of” rules to the world model.

I disagree. I think there’s a great potential for IF where the interactions are modelled in forms of interaction other than with physical objects in a simulated world. As John mention above, there are stories and games where being able to place one object on another would be completely unnecessary, and the focus is instead on expressing emotions or cutting through deception or manipulating motivations (someone attempted this one, I seem to recall).

Note that John’s point is not the technical mode of interaction (which is where I tend to think of CYOA and hypertext as differing), but its nature - that existing IF systems emphasise finding keys to unlock doors, rather than, say, figuring out how divorce a spouse amicably (unless this is somehow served by unlocking a door).

This is almost worthy of its own thread. I see IF/games/etc. as being about either a dialogue between the player and the author, or the player’s exploration of the author’s work. Ultimately, either way, authors have to serve themselves by serving the player. You certainly can’t ignore them.

Yes. In fact a great many people who have wondered about making the kinds of games I mentioned above would very much like to see someone demonstrate ways to go about it.


Also, for the record, I really dislike people implying that creators shouldn’t make stuff because it doesn’t fit into a particular category (especially when they define that category through a very literal interpretation of the category’s name). If people want to make cool stuff, does it really matter what kind of stuff it is?

I can sympathize with that. I think you’re talking about Varicella.

Possibly because IF is basically a stage play: the author provides the script, the player is the actor playing a character and scenery and objects are provided as plot devices.

A simulation like that is much cheaper than trying to figure out appropriate AI for the job of mediating those kind of decisions in the plot or the author multibranching the narrative madly trying to account for all player actions.

No. It’s just not IF and I wonder why would they go through pains learning a simulation authoring tool when all they want is hypertext and html is much simpler. But it’s their pain and if they dig it, then hey!, let them be happy. It’s just annoying when they begin to ask for the tool to get rid of the simulation aspect rather than use the proper tool for the job.

Nope. Delightful Wallpaper.

But I think the thing is they do want a simulation aspect. They (we, really, because I’d be interested, as would a lot of other people in IF) just want something other than a simulation of physical actions on physical objects. Rather, a simulation of a character acting in a story. Where there are still rules and states (unlike in CYOA and hypertext), but where the stories are more recognisably human. If that isn’t interactive fiction, I’m not sure what is.

I appreciate, as you say, that this seems a difficult task, but I think it’s really just waiting on enough determined people to really try experimenting with it. I certainly wouldn’t say that this is necessarily, for example, something that would have to wait for the development of weak AI or anything like that. Just a system that prioritises things other than physical actions and does so in an engaging and consistent fashion. (I still don’t understand what Curveship is doing, but it seems like a step in this direction.)

Thanks for the link. I’ve seen Nick’s paper about automatic narrative before, just didn’t know it was release into a system already (or really soon). However, its goal is automatic narration of events, not simulation of character behavior.

I used to think like that, but now tend to agree that such subtle aspects of behavior and character interaction should rely upon the author, not a simulation and AI. For the same reason why a musical composition is art and a musical dump from a software programmed to compose is not.

Yes, there is a world model in what you are describing; it just isn’t (necessarily) about the relations among physical objects. I’m not convinced, though, that we need a new system. I also don’t think there is any reason to expect–or even hope–that a new system will emerge, precisely because no one is ever able to say, with any specificity, what they’d actually like a new system, or a new kind of IF, to do. What would interactions look like?

If someone is truly interested in moving IF away from a physical world model to a metaphysical (in any of multiple senses) model, then I think the best place to start would be with a transcript of how we’d like to see the new game play. With a transcript in hand, we can begin to look at specifics, with the most important issue perhaps being–can we make something like this in Tads, Inform, Hugo, probably after stripping away most of the standard library? Or would a new system truly be necessary?


I personally feel Inform, Tads etc. are too restrictive, and as namekuseijin suggested, it would have to be adapted and substituted if I was to use them. I think if I was to make a more metaphysical game world, it would come in the form of Java or Ruby, a high level Object Oriented language. The purposes of the systems out there are to eliminate the need for an author to make his/her own world and to make adding to the world relatively painless.

I guess that depends on what you’re interested in doing. Unless you’re doing something that is very unlike IF (e.g., no complex parser), I tend to think that your ideas will be easier to produce using IF tools. But in the absence of specifics, it’s tough to say whether this could be done in Inform or Tads or whatever.

Be aware that if you do include an IF parser in your game and you write your game in Java, you’ll have to code the parser yourself, and that will take months of work. Chances are it will also fall short of existing parsers. And while the radicality of your game’s experimentation will not cause it to be rejected by the IF community, a substandard parser will turn people off.


But I’m not talking about subtle aspects. I’m talking about the broad structure. And in any case it’s usually up to the author to come up with the subtle aspects of physical interactions as well.

As an example of what I mean, one of the most useful functions I find in TADS is the afterAction methods that allow characters and locations to react to the player’s actions. For example it’s a way to allow the author to provide reactions for all the NPCs in the room when the player character strips naked or lets off a gun (or something else, less over-the-top). The TADS world model also includes a class of ropes that you can tie to stuff - that’s an example of physical modelling. But the afterAction stuff is about modelling on the level of narrative. Similarly, the actorStates in TADS allow characters to enter states of behaviour that determine their responses to dialogue, their afterAction methods, their room description.

This is the kind of world model I mean - I’m not talking about the simulation of characters, but rather a simulation or world model (as opposed to a CYOA or hypertext) where the emphasis is on something other than physical containment and manipulation. ‘Automatic narration of events’, if that’s what Curveship does, is a perfect example of the kind of thing I mean.

I just think there’s a real possibility for coming up with IF which has more narrative-oriented actions than “take” or “unlock” and more narrative-oriented objects than “lamp” and “door”. To take an example that’s already been done, the Ace Attorney games allow you to present evidence (which might consist of items or alibis or statements) to contradict testimony. That doesn’t mean you need an AI simulation of whether or not there is actually a contradiction there (although that would be nice). What I’m talking about is the nature of the interaction itself.

Pacian mentioned my Delightful Wallpaper, but that’s not a great example of “non-physical world” IF. The conceit there is that abstractions are instantiated as physical objects, and are subject to the familiar get/drop/put-in semantics. It’s almost a satire of the idea, in fact.

I’ve considered this subject – other levels of verb abstraction for an IF game – for years. I’ve never gotten it down to a finished game. (My plans for DW started out more radical, in fact, but evolved the way they did as the design came together. There’s even traces of the idea in Dreamhold, although you wouldn’t recognize them even if I pointed them out.)

Design thumbnails I’ve thrown around:

  • The comic operetta IF (think Gilbert and Sullivan). Actors move onto and off of the stage, and play out scenes. Your input is not to directly affect the actors, but to make statements about their relationships: “X fears Y”. “X loves Y”. “X is Y’s twin brother / son / father”.

  • The Darwinian IF. Populations of creatures appear and disappear, as the environment slowly changes. Your input consists of bolstering or thinning groups with particular characteristics, causing mutations, pushing groups into different niches (so that they have to adapt or die).

In both of these cases, you have a relatively small number of “verbs” and another relatively small number of “nouns”, but neither is the traditional IF set.

ektemple wrote: “can we make something like this in Tads, Inform, Hugo, probably after stripping away most of the standard library?”

Since the standard library of Inform is written in Inform, I’d say the answer is definitionally “yes”. But, okay, I’ve never done it.

However Tads is a high-level OO language; and Tads and Inform are as close to a custom IF (regardless of what the IF work is, modeling Conan the Barbarian or Portrait of a Lady) language as you’re ever going to get.

I go back and forth with this language question a lot (between Python and Inform; I don’t see much difference in this case between Python and Ruby, or Tads and Java really), and I don’t agree that an IF DSL’s purpose is solely to provide a world model and make it easy to extend it by adding new rooms or what have you. There main function IMO is to make writing the IF easier, which means the IF language’s developer has made decisions on how to marry prose and code in a way that reduces the friction of combining them. This goes beyond the question of the world model or even the parser, and it’s not a trivial issue as far as I’m concerned.

However I think the earlier poster brings up a good point, which is that conventional IF insistently requests that the author ‘fall in line’ so to speak. I remember Chris Klimas (of Blue Chairs – cited as both surreal and narratively strong by the way) saying in an interview that part of the reason he drifted away from IF work was that expectation that you had to describe everything. In static fiction no one calls up the author and requests a description of the toaster that’s casually mentioned as sitting on the counter. But an IF player would be put out if they examined it and saw ‘nothing special’. I do believe that this is not necessarily a good thing (though I’m as guilty as any tester of pestering the author that an item is undescribed), and new works that discarded these conventions would be a good thing.

Not quite what you mean, but: http://www.increpare.com/2009/11/theatrics/

(Although it is a great example of a game with non-physical interactions.)

Hi John, I’m Ron, and I’m newer than you are – a little over 2 years. I’m not a lurker though. I am confused as to your feelings. You say the interaction of I-F is “truly awe inspiring” but decry the tools that make that possible. You say you wish to make works whose endings aren’t a win/lose proposition, but most of the community has been bending that way for a while already. You say you feel restricted by the expectations this particular community would have of your work (“examine”, etc.), but then suggest full-blown programming languages would help you… do what? Save you the trouble of writing Instead of examining, say “Examine is not needed in this work.” over hand-coding your own idiosyncratic parser that no one is familiar with? And why would using a different tool behind-the-scenes change any audience’s assumptions anyway?

The I-F programming languages are programming languages like any other: none will have all the exact features you need. Pick one and go with it. It really matters less than you think.

Here’s how to construct a hypertext-like CYOA in Inform 7, without any of that unnecessary simulation-y stuff getting in the way:

"Firefly Feelings" by Ron Newcomb.

Act I is a scene.  Act I begins when the entire game begins.
When Act I begins: say "Once upon a time, you had to make a choice between [bold type]lightning bugs[roman type] and [bold type]fireflies[roman type]."
Act I ends with lightning when the player's command includes "lightning/bugs".
Act I ends with fire when the player's command includes "fire/firefly/fireflies/fireflys".

Act IIa is a scene. Act IIa begins when Act I ends with fire.
When Act IIa begins: say "Fireflies was always the better-sounding word..."

Act IIb is a scene. Act IIb begins when Act I ends with lightning. 
When Act IIb begins: say "Mother always called them 'lightning bugs' with a particular emphasis on the latter:  buuuugs."

And add similar paragraphs to the first until your keyboard wears out. I started the next two already. Of course you’ll likely want to remove the other trappings as well, such as the minimal bibliographic data, so: There is a room. Instead of looking, do nothing. Rule for printing the banner text: do nothing. Understand "[text]" as inputting. Inputting is an action applying to one topic. [And for this build of Inform 7 only: ] This is the fix rule: fix. To fix: (- Fix(); -). Include (- [Fix; players_command = 101; ]; -). The fix rule is listed before the start in the correct scenes rule in the startup rules.
And Inform has various TEST ME scripts you can write, plus the Skein and Transcript IDE features, all of which are optimized for I-F. Python’s isn’t. (Not to pick on Python specifically. It’s supposed to be generic.)

My bottom line is, even I-Fers are people, and you will always have to manage your audience’s assumptions regardless your audience and regardless the tool(s) you use. If you want to start from scratch, as it were, that’s awesome. But resetting your assumptions has nothing to do with resetting your tools’ sophistication to the stone age. Ignore what features don’t suit your artistic purpose. Deadline Enchanter certainly did.

Well I will throw out what I have been thinking the last few days and you tell me if you are still confused with what I want.

Suppose I was to make a work that instead of having rooms, you have states of minds. Instead of having objects, you have emotions. Interaction does not just mean doing something to something else. If you can think something, or feel something, that constitutes player input and interaction. Suppose you are trapped in a recurring nightmare and the obvious solution would be to wake up, except you can’t. A list of commands that may contribute a sense of interaction might include, “remember the dream,” “grow angry” or “bend time.” Any various input does not have to have a clear cut response like the player might expect.

If the player enters, “take red pill” the output might sound like, “Before the pills find themselves in your grasp, a little girl wanders by. Her devious smile triggers dark memories, beyond the scope of the nightmare which engulfs. A giggle and a skip sears into your consciousness as the red pill dissolves in mid air.” And so on, until a new topic of focus orients the player and prompts them for the next logical input. What could happen is to have a continuous feed of narrative and cues given to the player to explicitly get them to the next piece of dialog. I don’t deny that my ideas would certainly lack quality interaction.

I just feel as if, whether I write or play IF, that I just go through the motions of a tedious and conforming medium and I began to question the artistic freedom of the author. I also feel my general opinions on these things are broad. To get down to the narrow topic of concern, I want to know if I was to make something pretty radical, whether it would be well received. Some posts indicate an interest, while others are questioning why I would want to do it when there are standards already in place.

Now that you’ve gotten down to specifics, this is all very standard stuff, and you should not hesitate to use an IF programming language such as Inform or Tads. You can use rooms to represent states of mind, no problem. You still have objects and a world model (I don’t see how your example substitutes emotions for objects, I’m afraid.) Many interactions seem to proceed just as they would in standard IF. I’m not sure what you mean by “lack of clear cut response,” but I’m pretty sure this would just mean writing your actions and responses with a certain prose style.

What you’re referring to is a standard IF technique for pacing. You would just be using it as the major mechanic for moving the plot forward, rather than as one of a number of mechanics. Again, this will not be difficult to code in any major IF system.

No, no one has said that you should hew to any “standards already in place” in favor of experimentation. You didn’t explain what you were thinking, so people were forced to read into it, and some of them assumed you wanted to do something that wouldn’t be made easier by IF authoring tools. You have simply misunderstood the conversation if you read any of the replies here as suggesting that you shouldn’t try experimenting with IF.