New students at an old school

I’ve been thinking about the side discussion regarding “oldschool” versus “newschool” IF philosophies in the thread about static objects.

In that thread, Peter Pears cautioned against the emphasis of IF promotion being too “newschool,” I think. I’m sure he’s right that obsessing over the similarities between IF and static fiction – promoting it basically as fiction with the niche hook of interactivity – misses the bigger picture and could falsely characterize IF. I wrote an article for Yahoo Voices a few weeks back, and that is the way I characterized IF there. I don’t really think I was wrong to do so, because I was deliberately writing for that angle – for people who are primarily readers of static fiction but who might want to connect more deeply with their fiction in ways that IF might be able to provide. The more important issue is the old debate over whether IF works are games first, or stories first.

I’m thinking it shouldn’t matter whether or not we call it a story or a game. Playing games creates storytelling. Games may not be stories in and of themselves, but their rules define environments where stories are created during play. Chess is not a story, but an individual game of chess suggests elements of story about archetypical Western icons for warfare and nobility. Baseball is not a story, but the players of the opposing teams create a story when they play, and when that story is told through media (such as by the classic radio announcer), it acquires a narrative.

Photopia has been upheld as the standard for “newschool” IF, but Photopia feels very oldschool to me. I’m 22. I never lived through the command line age. When I first started playing IF, games modeled after Photopia were common. If anything, I think we’ve found more ways to include puzzles and interactivity. I doubt we’ve gone back to the true oldschool style, but I’m skeptical that we’re still in the linear, artistic story era.

Reviews of Photopia that I’ve read long after the original discussions remarked at the novelty of an interactive fiction work that was not really a “game” in any significant sense. I think it is no longer relevant to say that a “newschool” IF is not a game. I think we should be able to bridge the gap between story and game. I think the creation of the story by the process of playing the game is part of the essence of IF.

I think this has to do with an approach to IF outreach.

Sometimes you hear IFers say things like, “if only more people would try IF, they’d see how awesome it is.” Or, not just try it, but really give it a chance, because there is a certain learning curve that makes outreach more difficult.

If you hold that view, you ask yourself: how do you convince people to try IF? And you might say: “well, let’s start with people who like to read.” But if you talk to avid readers about IF, they’ll say things like “No thanks, I don’t like video games.” (Or even, “no thanks, I don’t like Zork.”)

“Oh, but the new IF is totally different! It’s really more like a book than like a video game, and it’s come a long way since Zork.” It’s a reasonably compelling pitch.

But those readers then want to see something that’s more like a book than a video game, and not at all like Zork. What they want is a book, with interactive components. Which is to say: the avid readers didn’t want traditional IF after all.

IF is like the Butthole Surfers. You either get it or you don’t.

I’ve always agreed with the elements (crossword, narrative) and absolutely disagreed with “at war,” and I think someone would need to agree with “at war” to even take the implied question seriously.

To me, IF is a narrative and a crossword in a passionate 69.

I think almost all IF, as long as it’s even remotely “traditional,” is equally a story. I think an oldschool puzzlefest is almost as much a story as Photopia or Blue Lacuna. Gameplay (which doesn’t necessarily have to include puzzles, but usually does and probably should for most IF) is both the basic tool and the basic material for the construction of the story.

All film productions use the same building materials and techniques to tell stories. I would compare an oldschool puzzlefest IF to a lighter-toned film, perhaps with unrealistic actions and deliberately cheesy special effects. A “newschool” artistic piece would be more like a realistic, gritty film. Both kinds of films are equally stories, I think, and so are both kinds of traditional IF.

That’s probably true, but we’ve never been able to draw a definite line between “books with interactive components” and the type of interactive fiction that involves gaming as the framing device of story. I don’t think all multiple-choice works swear off gaming as story device, for instance.

Again, probably true. Still, I think we can try to improve the accessibility of IF by describing it in organic terms, as a natural development of both storytelling and gaming.

What implied question?

But I agree! The crossword and the narrative shouldn’t be at war. Both are necessary, and I think they exist on different levels.

I think some people like to read, and some people like to play. Readers are probably going to be more into Choicescript or the wordier Twine games, making a choice after reading a significant chunk of story. Players want to interact more fully with a world. I don’t necessarily think “Reader” overlaps with “Player” 1:1 on the venn diagram.

I’m a reader and a player…but when I read, I like to pull out a book. I think it’s more of a media thing…for me reading is done in books (just can’t get into reading on a kindle or such device)…

However, when I play a game, I do appreciate a good story to go along, I do like to interact.

Yeah, I agree with that. Also, there are tons of different kinds of players of IF which is why it’s good there are a ton of different kinds of IF.

The legend always had it that Infocom conducted brisk trade selling their games in bookstores…

That’s actually true…I can recall as a young boy going into the local Little Professor bookstore at the mall and buying the latest Infocom games. I don’t recall them selling much other software.

At the time, Infocom were pushing the games almost as something that was good for you, like a book, as opposed to those other conspicuously silly videogames. So in the context of the then state of personal computing, the nature of computer literacy at the time and of people who used or had access to microcomputers, Infocom selling their games in a bookshop was a neat marketing move. And buyers were impressed with what a parser could already do, rather than viewing it as a weird hurdle, as someone used to asking Siri to order their pizza might do now. Hence the true anecdotes about some purchasers of Infocom games being so pleased that their new acquisition had understood something they’d typed that they didn’t explore beyond its first few rooms, or even play it, really.

  • Wade

Let me just butt in a sec to say that when I wrote that particular bit I was thinking very specifically of a certain type of game, and that game was not Photopia.

The new-school-ism which I talk about in that thread has more to do with exagerating the narrative and minimising or removing the crossword completely (Photopia gives us an easier crossword but it’s still a crossword). A tendency to think that it isn’t necessary to implement descriptions, or that more text is automatically better, or that there should be a deep thematic.

I’m especially biased against the deep thematics, because in my opinion most games that set out to explore them (“Grief” immediately comes to mind, with “In the End” close behind) are unable to use the medium to do so, and instead dole out chunks of text at certain inputs, make them dramatic and are done with it. In that example, “Condemned”, a rather flawed game, works much better because its author at least understood the medium he was using, and there is weight associated with the player’s actions.

Old-school is fine. Except for the mazes. And the hunger and thirst daemons. And the guess-the-verb. Similarly, new-school is fine. Except for the sketchy implementation. And the excess prose. And being led by the hand every bloody step of the bloody way with no consideration for your input.

It’s the game, not the trend. The trend just leads to more lower quality games behing churned out than higher quality, but that’s true with any trend.

So—checking my understanding—in the old-school-ism you’re talking about, the common problem is interactivity that interferes with the fiction, whereas, in the new-school-ism, the trouble is interactivity that simply doesn’t contribute to it?

“In the war, which side are you rooting for/which side are you on?” or its close cousin, the concept of “oldschool” versus “newschool.”

Exactly so. And when a design respects and celebrates both, they enhance one another, and they elevate the experience in tandem … not a war at all, but a partnership.

It’s one way of looking at it. I often don’t think about it that hard, though, because old-school and new-school is often a flavour. For instance: the ending of “Infidel” feels like a very newschool concept on a very oldschool game. I can’t define it further, because it’s simply what it tastes like. It’s the sort of thing I associate with newschool - it takes a known situation, in this case an ending, and it perverts it, twists it, and transforms the game into something else. For its fully oldschool counterpart see Cutthroaths! by the same author.

I wouldn’t even call it a problem. It’s the way people thought back then - these things sell, let’s churn them out, let’s have puzzles and mazes and problems galore because people want their money’s worth. But now we can do what the heck we want.

My only gripe is with extreme newschool and extreme oldschool, but you can say that about anything that comes after the word “extreme”.

What about extreme couponing?

made me remember this…

My theory is that interactivity is the primary method of narration in an interactive fiction, even an old text adventure. You could say that the interactivity interferes with the fiction in an “oldschool” style game, but I don’t think it often interferes directly with the story or the narrative. You could equally say that the comedy and the cheesy film techniques in a whimsical adventure movie interfere with the fiction, but the movie probably told exactly the kind of story with exactly the kind of narrative that it intended to tell.

I agree, again. The style of the average IF game probably did change, but surely “oldschool” versus “newschool” is a spectrum comprised of many elements and design choices, rather than a war or a dichotomous choice.

To be fair, I think Graham Nelson was referring to a real tension that does exist for the IF writer, just as a movie screenwriter might feel the tension between a need for gritty realism and a need for stylized action scenes. I doubt he intended his famous quote to imply that an individual IF game as a whole had to side with either narrative or crossword, or that there were necessarily two schools of IF design.

I certainly did not quote it with the meaning “two schools” in mind. I merely quoted it to illustrate how I felt about some new-school tendencies, that too much narrative was as bad as too much crossword. It’s also a tension for the player, because unless the player really loves crosswords or only plays IF for the prose (both are possible, but probably don’t reflect the majority of IFers) they’ll also be hoping for that balance. I’ve been disappointed with many a game that strayed too far off to one side while not delivering enough of the other.

For instance: you know the “flash IF” pieces such as “Don’t Go”? Those are very much new-school works, and I’m perfectly ok with them, enjoy them even, because interactivity plays a role. Even in one of them where interactivity is “read book” over and over again. It’s a part of the experience.

Whereas, for instance, “In The End” is just a linear, purple, depressing experience with the final move heavily underclued.

Agreed entirely.