Outsider's thoughts about IF

Am I an outsider to IF? I almost beat Colossal Caves Adventure when I was in junior high school. I have played a few games on and off since then. I made a game in 2019 and interacted some with this forum. I’ve listened to all but the latest episode of Clash of the Type-ins, plus I think a few episodes of Adam Cadre’s podcast. So I don’t know a lot of games, or community history context. This post may well be repeating things that have been said before (I didn’t check to make sure it didn’t). But I saw the Question over parser games thread in the digest email I still get and somehow got into reading it. These are my thoughts, which I put here rather than there so that I am not worried about going off-topic.

It struck me reading that thread that it was strange how normal it was for me to play Adventure when I was in junior high school. I didn’t know I was doing something that most people my age weren’t doing. At that age, I was teaching myself to write C (which apparently is a pain to write in, compared to more modern languages), and I was playing Adventure because it was one of the few games that came with Minix, which I was using to run a 286 laptop. The version that came with Minix did not offer a lot of instructions – no tutorial. But for some reason I don’t remember that being a problem. (I think if I tried to pick up IF at this age (36) with no experience, I would not have the patience to figure it out. I’m not sure a tutorial would make a big difference, because I’m capable of figuring things out if I’m motivated, but I guess marginally it would.)

I grew up without a TV in the house, with an unmet hunger for computer games (we had some, but not the fun ones like Warcraft II or StarCraft that my friends played; and nowhere near as fun as console games of the 1990s, that other friends had). (Not an unmet hunger for TV/movies that I can remember.) I read a lot and listened to the radio and music. As an artist now, I don’t stray far from writing, spoken word, and music.

My current interests now are mostly in philosophy and religion. Philosophy is very much about what is hard to picture, and religion is also somewhat hard to picture. Not just (in religion’s case) that there are things like beasts with seven heads and 10 horns or whatever other imagery, but that the Bible’s narratives are relatively “tell don’t show” by modern standards. (The Quran would be even harder to make into a movie.) Sometimes it’s the specifics of the language in the Bible that make it successful (in other words, the poetry of it). Religious texts I think are best memorized or meditated on, next best read or heard, next best depicted in static visuals, next best in realistic film depiction, in terms of getting what they’re trying to say. (I was raised religious but did not understand what I wrote in the previous sentence when I was a kid.)

I guess all those things are factors in why Adventure seemed like a normal thing to me.

With that background, I will consider the question, what is the comparative advantage of IF?

I ask the question of “comparative advantage” most times I consider experimenting with a different art form. What does the art form or medium naturally lend itself to? And I believe I asked that question when writing Ocean Beach, my entry into IF Comp 2019. I don’t remember exactly what I thought back then, but I can try to think again.

Computer games in general are more-or-less-uniquely-good-at (my rough definition of “comparative advantage”, although I think the economics meaning is useful to consider) causing the player to enter an imaginal world. The imaginal world is the world that we access with our imaginations. Acting in an imaginal world is being in an imaginal world, in a way that doesn’t happen as much passively.

IF in particular is good at keeping everything in the world of text. You get the advantage of poetry / writing style. Writing “the bronze door has a reverberating color” is different than somehow trying to depict that visually and even “the copper door is a tall rectangle” is different than a perfectly reasonable visual of a copper door that is a tall rectangle. It may be possible to make IF of something that is impossible or difficult to literally depict. For instance, a character could interact with some philosophical construct, which philosophers (or others like them) do or at least attempt to interact with with words, and which maybe an abstract visual could somewhat help with, but which would be difficult to depict with a movie or 3D realistic-world video game. (I think in many cases, you could depict a dense philosophy book in audiovisual narrative or gameplay but not as efficiently, and not in a form as easy to manipulate. Like if you used real, concrete objects as counters in arithmetic instead of numbers and plus/minus/divide/equals signs.)

Philosophy is text-based, puzzle-based, has high barriers to entry, and is a niche pursuit.

So if for some reason you want a person to really enter into philosophy itself, IF might be the right thing to use. (Not interactive fiction, but instead interactive philosophy, or a mixture of fiction and philosophy.) There may be advantages to communicating philosophy in that way rather than in static (imposing) texts, maybe some people would enjoy or learn from the process better that way.

Also if you want people to enter into the world of poetry, same thing.

One thing that narrative does well (and I would bet some IF already does well), is communicate the meaning of objects. In other words, in a movie, I have to infer what a character feels about something like the red flower petals smashed into the piece of paper on the table. Maybe the filmmaker wants me to figure that out and gives me the signals to guess correctly. But unfortunately for me, having not grown up watching much TV or movies (and by now having acquired a slow brain), those may be lost on me. But a novelist, poet, or IF maker can just tell me and save me the trouble. Telling people what things mean is inexpensive for a writer, but I’m guessing somewhat more expensive for audiovisual narrative or games. So if you want to convey specifically what something means, or convey a world where everything has explicit meanings attached, and have it be one that people can “live in”, IF may be the best way to do that.

One medium that connects the player to the imaginal world (also a niche medium these days) is theater. Theater is also largely a world of words (audio drama can purify theater to just being spoken words). Theater is warm and personal, but IF is cold and distant. (Off in the distance you hear a radio playing as your simplistic NPC aunt cleans the room…) I feel like IF is about being alone in an environment. (Like in Adventure.) If you want a (possibly fully-fledged) aunt character to interact with, theater is your medium, or maybe some kind of LARP scenario.

In what environment do I like solving puzzles? I like philosophy, and thinking of ways to make the “real world” better. I like playing freecell. I don’t like figuring out which kind of text-based knife to use to cut the text-based turkey. I can figure that out fine in a “real world” kitchen. In both cases, assume that I, the player/cook, know which kind of knife to use. There is still friction. I can’t think as well in a text-based environment, thinking outside the box. (As though I am not in a world that is fully implemented, where there is a continuous space for my mind to move around in. I guess with philosophy, somehow I do feel like I’m in a world that is fully implemented, and maybe it is a continuous space where I can think of whatever needed to solve the philosophical problem.) There is also a “thumb drive problem”. I can spend an hour doing sysadmin stuff with a moderate amount of frustration, and I will choose that far more easily than copying a few files onto a thumb drive and transferring it to another computer. Rationally, the sysadmin work is more painful and difficult, but appetitively, because it’s all on that nice computer screen, it feels right to just go ahead and do it. But the thumb drive is breaking some kind of fourth wall and feels far more aversive than it should rationally. If I had to verbalize all of my actions in the kitchen before they could be performed by me, that would add friction and make problem-solving more onerous. Normally I act in a state of flow, and I’m not used to commanding people to make things happen, I just do them. (I guess maybe with enough practice I could get more used to this.)

But, I have never had too much trouble with the basic cardinal directions / up / down type of commands in IF, nor with examining (thinking of all of look at/smell/touch/taste is maybe more than I like, but a basic “examine” seems to go down easily). While I think that moves in audiovisual games are generally better than these for depicting movement in a physical space, IF movement and examining commands are less of a burden than puzzles.

So, I would say from this that the comparative advantage of IF is allowing a person (player) to enter a text-based world, allowing for poetry/style, meaning, and the depiction of things that are hard to literally depict. Also, its comparative advantage is not for puzzle-solving (unfortunately that and I guess RPG combat are the main ways to put difficulty into an IF piece, or maybe other people like the “crossword puzzle meshed with simulated physical environment” thing more than I do – although long ago I did find that sort of thing a perfectly normal way to pass time), and it’s better for impersonal spaces rather than personal ones. Entering a text-based world, to mostly move around in it and examine things.

I think this is probably about what I was thinking when I designed Ocean Beach. It mostly sticks to my idea of the comparative advantages of IF given in the previous paragraph. It is the exploration of a vision, which has a symbolic connection to “lived life”. (I can’t say that I play a lot of games anymore (except Tetris and freecell…) but if anyone knows of other IF pieces that have similar design criteria, I would be interested to hear. The most similar one I can think of off the top of my head that I’ve played is Photopia, which I remember reading was particularly good at using the IF form.)

After thinking about the comparative advantage of IF, and going through some of the thought process above, how did my game turn out in the competition? I got 68th place out of 82. I don’t mind a place like that (it was an experiment, and there were other things going on back then), and I think it shows more that I’m not the kind of person IF makes games for, and I make games for a different kind of person than the IF community, than that I made a really bad game. If that’s the case, then perhaps in that there is an opportunity for the IF community, if it wants to expand, which is to make games for other cultures. Maybe ones that would like some of or all of the “comparative advantages” of IF and which are not too far from IF culture. (Maybe make IF pieces for They Might Be Giants fans, in addition to the TMBG games that already exist?) Commercial developers make games for an audience, and perhaps that thought process is not what artists want to engage in (rather making their art for themselves or something like that), but maybe a little of that mentality isn’t bad for art.

A final thought:

I mentioned theater and LARPing above. I found that listening to Clash of the Type-ins was a good way to experience games. The social aspect of the hosts and guest, the way it was they who solved the puzzles and not me, delivered in a spoken-word way, made it a better way for me to experience puzzle-based parser games than if I had played by myself.

Listening to their podcast, it eventually occurred to me that there could be something like “live action IF”. (Maybe this has been tried already?) Someone could call in to Clash of the Type-ins and then start describing their environment. Hosts and guests could think of commands for them to perform and the caller could describe the results. (“Walk into street” “I’m sorry, that would be dangerous”.)


// live action IF… ?

Very thoughtful post. I intend to bookmark this thread and consider it in more detail.

For live action IF, you might consider the IF MUD and the Club Floyd room. They interactively discuss IF games from time to time.


Just want to say that I appreciated this post. I don’t understand everything, but it seems to me that you have a fresh take on the comparative advantages of IF, and that interests me greatly. I will have to reread this and think more about it.