RECOMMENDATION REQUEST: The Future of Interactive Fiction

Yes, Bioshock was the spiritual successor to System Shock, and the enhanced CD version was probably the first game that allowed the player to listen to an audio log while walking around instead of just presenting an RPG-style text dump. Both System Shock and Ultima Underworld were initial attempts to bring deeper RPG elements, plot, and lore to action games in 3D (or 2.5D).

Wasn’t Event[0] a spaceship exploration game where there were terminals in-world where the player could communicate with the system AI via a parser?

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Yes. Part of the long-term trend of other game genres adopting IF tools, techniques, and idioms for specific purposes of their own.

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I think games like Dwarf Fortress, Rimworld, etc. present an untapped opportunity to flip the script on interactive fiction. Instead of experiencing variants of a story the author has imagined, players take an active role shaping the story through their choices. There is no set plot. It is the sheer depth of simulation and the types of choices presented to the player that lead to story generation.

Imagine if these kinds of simulations and world-building activities existed in parser-based, screen-reader-friendly “IF”. I think this could go far beyond just improving the genre. Rather it could bring entire other genres into the text world.

This would also be a win for accessibility, since many of these kinds of games are heavily visual (even dwarf fortress). https://www.reddit.com/r/dwarffortress/comments/smw6na/old_time_gamer_with_bad_eye_sight_suggestions_or/

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This is interesting! It’s hard to strike a good balance with text-only procgen. It usually requires a lot of labor to perform, and there are two ways I’ve seen it go a lot:

*The entire game is story-focused, with procgen used to make story. This is often great for about 10-15 minutes but then loses its focus over time (a great example is AI Dungeon, or even Narrative Device, which give you a feeling that everything is possible before you realize that ‘everything is possible’ isn’t that satisfying).
*The game is numbers/status focused. A lot of times such things could be better represented visually, so it’s kind of a drag to have to read the text instead of getting quick info.

Two games that I think found a great balance were ‘The Mary Jane of Tomorrow’ by Emily Short, a brief game about fine-tuning a robot that uses procgen to produce text that you can then ‘diagnose’ (like, ‘oops, too much French’). The other is Kerkerkruip, by Victor Gijsbers, which uses procgen RPG combat (basically roguelike) in a primarily-text format that works well.

I like your overall idea a lot.

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Yeah, I don’t think games like these would really write a story so much as tell you about things that happen. You would have some control over what those things are (combat orders, construction and the like.). The “narrator” wouldn’t really be able to comment on big picture things.

Well, maybe with a sufficiently trained AI… Hmmm…

This is definitely the bigger concern for games like these.

When you boil it down, the utility of the visual cues is that you can easily identify where to direct your attention among a vast selection of options. You are able to see an entire 2d space at one time, subconsciously discard information that is irrelevant (assuming the artists have done their job), and allow your attention to be grabbed by whatever needs doing. I’ve been trying to figure out some ways to address these.

Perceive 2d space at once

Haptic

  • braille or 2d pin boards
  • touch screen with haptics

Auditory

Discard irrelevant information

  • Game design should exclude things that are solely visual. Even if you simulate every patch of leaves that falls on the ground, it should take some effort to examine the ground that closely, unless the leaves are important to your story.
  • game design might abstract away certain ideas like strict spatial relationships (euclidean)
  • Summarization systems (heuristics, maybe AI-based?)

Draw attention to needs

  • game design might have alerts, auto-pause, etc. for user-configurable events. E.g. you might do “build wall” or “build wall then pause”
  • auditory cues
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And vice versa, I think. Something that has really struck me in this thread is “what are we talking about when we talk about interactive fiction?”

But more than that, if we were to think about these things in terms of, for example, “model view controller” there really isn’t any technical reason a text adventure with simple verbs couldn’t be presented in the DOOM engine, for example. Moving from one room to another is not technically any different than typing “go east.” Running over an object is “take object.” Running into a blue door while holding the blue key is, “use blue key on blue door.” I’m glossing over UI/UX considerations considerably here, but verbs could be thought of as “weapons” in the DOOM vernacular, for example. I think even a game like Witness with a cast of characters moving about could be visually portrayed by a graphical engine.

The mental exercise I’ve been toying with lately starts with Zork.
First, remove all redundant verbs and strip it to its essence. Tim Schafer reduced all verbs down to “use” in Broken age, for example.
Next, don’t show descriptive text to the player, swap that at runtime for a picture of the place or thing being described.
Next, replace movement by text parser with movement by gamepad.
Next, replace “use” with the “X” and replace “inventory” with the “Y” button on the gamepad (for example).
Next, rather than static images, replace the locations with full 3D locations where physically exiting a location equates to “go east” and such.
Now we have a full visual replacement for the text and a gamepad replacement for the text parser, but full Zork is still running behind the scenes (in this contrived example which doesn’t attempt to answer every UI/UX question for the sake of brevity).

At what point did the above game stop being “interactive fiction?”

What I’m getting at is that I think there is a lot of room for exploring the confluence of various forms of media, and IF can be a part of any media once it is freed from having its world model, parsing, and text presentation layers separated out and those abstractions made available in various programming languges and game engines. But then, is it still IF? :man_shrugging:

@mathbrush I think we’ll see more and more the idea of “assistive AI” being used, rather than just pure “let the AI generate whatever madness it wants.” Nvidia has some interesting painting tools that allow an artist to kind of block out the position and size and types of objects for a scene, which the AI uses to guide its image creation. I could easily see the same happening for text-based creative works, to fill in the gaps when a player just can’t resist examining every centimeter of a room.

I’ve kind of been toying with the idea of “what is the Unreal Engine 5 equivalent in interactive fiction?” Is it possible to give “infinite detail” using procedurally and AI generated details for all the numerous things a human simply doesn’t have the time to spend doing?

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Have you heard about this First Person File Manager? That’s what this made me think of. In that case it’s replacing the change directory command with walking into doors, eg.

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No, I hadn’t heard of that. Thank you, it’s quite neat to learn about. I appreciate someone taking the time to explore that possibility.

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Looks like I put in the wrong link; fixed.

Interesting! I’ve toyed with the same thought, although as a 2D game and not 3D. I’ve considered trying to reimplement Zork as a top-down game, similar to traditional roguelikes (which are turn-based dungeon crawlers). I actually think that would work surprisingly well as a game (non-IF as it might be).

This question (albeit reversed) is currently being discussed here: Opinions on Bitsy? Is it IF? - #17 by pbparjeter – I also linked to here from there.

Parser excels at text simulation due to allowing a model world with objects and rules affecting them. The simulation is theoretically only limited to what the author can create and how much data the game can manage. Older games like Oregon Trail and Lemonade Stand are essentially small-scale world and economic simulations with random elements and could be considered choice-narratives.

What can tend to get lost in larger parser simulation is authored plot and story. Not necessarily a bad thing as a good simulation will imply plot - like how in Dwarf Fortress a random affliction making an NPC more aggressive can suggest that the character has become the town hothead/drunkard with psychological problems based on the fact his house randomly burned down a year ago…that’s all inferred by the player based on random numbers and events and can totally work. Often the trick is allowing freedom between scripted plot or world events that are brought about based on the simulation.

Building that scale of simulation is a lot of work though. One of the reasons I transitioned from writing in parser to choice-narrative specifically was because parser games are so incredibly difficult to thoroughly test due to the world model and emergent gameplay that is provided. It’s similar to the difference between a linear shooter like Half Life and an open world game like Grand Theft Auto.

That’s not to say choice-narratives need to be completely linear. They require a bit more work to give the player more options than A, B, or C, but simulationist elements can be built in to offer more agency and “game” than a simple branching narrative.

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For one person, absolutely. But a world like Grand Theft Auto certainly isn’t built by a single person. And Dwarf Fortress has been going on for decades; today’s DF complexity is the result of countless development hours. Not to mention the money it took to build those systems. The time/money are luxuries that force most of us to scope our projects way down.

But if I look at the tools available to non-IF developers, with things like Direct3D, PhysX, free 3D models, free pixel art assets, sound effects libraries, and so forth, there is quite a lot to help a small team get a leg up.

I don’t think the IF community has quite such a deep bag of tricks to support developers. For example, over on ifarchive.org I see a total of 8 extensions for Inform7. In fact, the current nature of world modeling in IF kind of runs counter to the development of such plug-in-play tools. Every experience is a bespoke work that (necessarily) constrains the player’s actions to a curated set of options, so as not to break the rest of the game. If a “physics simulator” were added generically, then a player might accidentally set fire to a ticket stub that plays a pivotal role in implicating the murder suspect. And I’m not clear if authoring work can be easily shared amongst a team of implementors, for example if you wanted a few people to go off and make “side quests” that you plug into your main story later.

Then again, if such options were available, perhaps it would birth a new breed of IF experiences. A little bit of a chicken and egg problem there. But I think we have vastly untapped compute resources at our fingers that could potentially offer up deep, data-driven games were the tools to craft them available.

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There is no doubt that I’m an ol’ curmudgeon.

There is already a plethora of interactive video games… Just about all of them are some type of shooter.

The mental exercise I’ve been toying with lately starts with Zork.

Personally I think the IF definition breaks down somewhere around here regardless of the other points:

Next, rather than static images, replace the locations with full 3D locations where physically exiting a location equates to “go east” and such.

I think if you can only move within the rooms (ie. move the character freely) you don’t have IF, you have a graphic adventure. If you can only move between rooms it’s still IF, just illustrated IF.

The end result would probably look something like Myst or Kenji Eno’s D. I think both of those games have a fair claim to being closer to interactive fiction than they are to graphic adventures, especially if you throw out some of the audio, video, and animated elements and leave only still graphics.

This is probably a spectrum because you can give degrees of freedom of movement. You can also have the POV snap to objects (which I think is actually the case in D), rather than snapping to rooms.

There are quite a few more extensions than that. IFArchive isn’t as good for discovery. If you go into the Public Library in the IDE there are hundreds of extensions. Inform 7 is a mature platform that hasn’t been updated for years. And that’s not a big deal. There’s only so many different ways to make a specifically Infocom-style parser game and with Inform 7, Inform 6, and TADS and Dialog it’s possible. I7 is due for an update, and if it does, that’s cool, if it doesn’t, it’s still useable.

If you want to make a game completely out of words, there are proven ways to do so, and new ones being developed as we speak. Dialog is a new parser engine. Inform 7 is due for a planned upgrade. Ink is a really good tool that plugs into everything and does conversation programming really well. Twine shows no sign of stopping. Elm Story Engine is a specific one I’m following with interest.

Many of these are incorporating media a lot more, but encouraging it into a completely unrecognizable form (specifically that minimizes the importance of the words) for “the future” means that a developer might not be making IF. Which is cool! IF is a very specific niche of gaming that informs (no pun intended) writing and plotting for other types of games. Fiction in a text form is always going to be a form of reading and always going to be a form of gaming just like there are people for whom model railroading is fun and making the trains bigger and computerized and rideable isn’t necessarily the future for them either.

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A post was split to a new topic: Escape Room TV Shows (split from The Future of Interactive Fiction)

That kind of gets into the “PR problem” issue IMHO. I haven’t touched Inform 7 myself in years; the “english-like” syntax turned me right off. So I wasn’t aware the IDE functioned in that way. As someone just looking around, trying to get a feel of the IF landscape, it would not be so obvious that there is more support but only after one installs the Inform 7 IDE. I wasn’t aware of Elm Story Engine, so thank you for that.

I kind of liked that Escape Room movie. It was dumb, but a fun-kind-of-dumb.

@pbparjeter
Myst probably contains more “story” than Zork. And I don’t really see any reason why Myst couldn’t be done as a text adventure, and Zork in the Myst style (which I guess they were trying to do with Return to Zork and Zork Nemesis). It becomes a kind of “the novel” vs. “the film adaptation of the novel” difference. Both media types have their strengths, but at the end of the day both are interactive and both are telling the same work of fiction. It does feel, to me at least, like a very blurry line.

If pushing buttons as user input in a Twine game is considered “within the realm of IF” then that line blurs even more, IMHO, because then it seems to boil down to “is the world itself being presented to the player as text or not?” Which of course I enjoy a lot; I love to read! But it is also a little hard for me to draw any firm line in the sand that says, “People who don’t want to read all that text are excluded from the world of interactive fiction.” just because they preferred a movie over a book. But this is, perhaps, being overly pedantic about the meanings of the individual words “interactive” and “fiction.”

As we generally speak of IF here I believe many people equate IF with “text adventures” and the line seems to be “reading text is the primary form of communication.” A movie and a book can tell the same story and can both be “fiction” but each is a different experience - some people like movies but not books and vice-versa and never will the two be confused with each other. You can re-create Zork in 3D VR, but that has more in common with a movie experience than a book experience. If you remove the text from a text adventure game it’s an adventure game - which is necessarily several steps further away from IF (as we in our tiny niche consider it). And that’s not a bad thing.

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That is precisely the point I was trying to make in the last line I wrote,

"But this is, perhaps, being overly pedantic about the meanings of the individual words “interactive” and “fiction.”

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I read, like…some of this thread, not all of it, but from a quick skim it looks like nobody’s mentioned what I’m gonna just call, like, CYOA-y Stuff. Stuff like Choice of Games and high-quality Twine stuff.

To be honest I’m fairly convinced that, by mass, they’re easily the present of interactive fiction, it’s just that they’re pretty different than what we here are, well, here for. As an example, look at the numbers difference between Hadean Lands reviews on Steam and Wayhaven Chronicles - and Wayhaven Chronicles has two books AND a pretty cracking Patreon; if you look at the forum activity of the Choice of Games forums, they’re pretty lively. Obviously “does it sell” isn’t a perfect way to measure, like, popularity, but…it does seem like the CoG fanbase alone is significantly bigger than, like, us.

As a point of interest, I’ve seen the Vampire: The Masquerade games from Choice of Games referenced in totally unrelated gaming contexts, which is wild! Obviously, like, that’s the franchise doing all the heavy lifting there. Anyways, I think while commercial success doesn’t necessarily indicate quality or longevity it does seem like it indicates demand.

So, uh, hmm, it kinda comes off like I’m dropping in here and roasting y’all but that ain’t my intention, it’s just, there’s a ton of people playing IF that haven’t even been name checked and there’s no sign that they won’t be the dominant strain in the future.

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