The Future of IF

Point of order: every time you say “agency,” you have to point out what the hell you mean by that.

Replay value is a function, mainly, of two things: Content that might be missed by the player on a first playthrough (due to branching, alternate puzzle solutions, various responses to different actions the player might not immediately think to try); and content that might be recontextualised by subsequent playthroughs. But there’s nothing wrong with IF that is designed to be played once and put down forever, and every story has some inherent re-read value.

Video games in general have always appealed to me as a storytelling device in part because they approach the issue of free will, whether they mean to or not – and it’s a discussion I always enjoy having, being a bit of a determinist myself.

For example: the Telltale Games Walking Dead so frequently gives you a choice, but the outcome of that choice is out of your control. However, you still gain something for having made that choice; you learn something about yourself/the character and answer some big questions about Who You Are and what identity means in a universe where, by and large, you have no control. I find that super fascinating.

But, yes. Interactive fiction does some things that other media don’t deliver.

You gain something from discovering story bit-by-bit, out of narrative order. You gain something as a reader by filling in the gaps yourself, reading into the subtext; just delivering the story to you as a series of “clues,” if you want to call them that, invests you in the story more than if you were reading it straight through. It’s like the old epistolic novel tradition, but ratcheted up (which makes me think that an IF interpretation of Dracula could be fascinating, but that’s another topic).

You also have to pay more attention. Fast readers have to slow down for better comprehension so they know what to click. You end up more invested in the outcome, even if the clicking doesn’t do anything – and in almost all IF, the clicking does or at least appears to do more than just advance the story.

Consider, for example, the difference between watching a scary movie, and going through a haunted house. You don’t have any real agency in either case. You don’t do much of anything in a haunted house, really, aside from walk through it – maybe going through a maze here and there, but in general, you’re just moving from A to B. But the experience is totally different and, if not “better” precisely, more intense. A different quality of fear.

Yeah, you can dissect the word “agency” like a frog. Everyone means something different by it.

What I mean is that a game can have no more “agency,” whatever you mean by that, than a book, and it can still need to be a game in order to function properly. I consider my own games Tailypo and Open That Vein to have about as much “agency” as a book. But you can’t put their text onto paper and get the same experience. “Dynamic fiction” seems to be the term that’s being used to describe this concept, but like “agency” its definition is murky. Labeling stuff doesn’t interest me much.

Maybe a good comparison would be to song lyrics. You might be able to read them written down, but you’re meant to hear them being sung. The words in the lyrics are the same either way. The experience is not. And in fact, reading the lyrics on paper would be an incomplete experience.

As for replay value, to me that just means whether I want to play something again.

I dislike arguments over definitions that are coded arguments about communities/respectability/access to resources. However, sometimes having a label is a useful way to frame to a player what they’re about to experience – which can help your piece reach the people most likely to enjoy it. So I find some labels useful for that reason.

I can see that. I just don’t think like that personally. I mean, I don’t object to certain labels used for convenience (“this story is science fiction”), but splitting hairs over what “agency” means is where I start to lose interest. That’s because I don’t need it in games myself, whatever it is. Some games offer it, and that’s fine. Some games don’t, and that’s also fine. It only matters to me as far as it suits the story being told. It’s not something I expect for a game to provide.

I’m only talking here about my preferences, how I approach IF, what I look for in it. Of course this won’t align with everyone. I’m not sure if it even aligns with anyone else in this thread!

I find the discussions about categories of agency useful from a craft perspective. Being able to say “okay, this piece I’m writing is currently not providing much in the way of perceivable consequence” gives me a handle on what is going on design-wise. Maybe I’ll decide it’s a problem I should fix or maybe I won’t, but the more analytical tools I have for understanding what my own work is doing, the more rapidly I can identify and fix the ways it’s falling short.

(ETA: I realize that’s a completely different thing from labeling for player consumption. But I think of “it’s dynamic fiction!” as information for consumers, vs. “it has no perceivable consequences!” as a mid-design analytical tool.)

I think, from the perspective of design, it’s useful to discuss questions like “what is agency” precisely BECAUSE it allows you to better create the story you want to tell. Like, I mean, isn’t that basically the whole point of literary criticism? Figuring out how techniques work so you can use them to create the point you want to make?

So there’s value in discussing and categorizing things as a route to better understanding of mechanics, so you can better create whatever the thing is you want to create.

/irrelevant feedback
/slips back into lurk mode

I don’t think what your writing process is and what you want to see in the future of IF (or in the current IF landscape) have to be the same thing, although it makes sense that they’d be related. I tend to just feel my way around when I write any fiction. Maybe this also explains why I feel my way around when I play games.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to analyze agency if that’s going to help anyone as a writer. Everyone has their own process, of course! I’m just saying it’s not a high priority for me, more in the context of playing games than writing them, even though I am analytical about other issues.

I’ve been mulling over some things for a while to do with modelling a human being in IF, complete with emotions, motivations and the ability to hold a genuine conversation (with free form input from the player). I realise this is a ridiculously hard problem, but I’m taking a serious look at what would be involved. The results will appear in this blog.

I liked this quote from an article called The Future of AI in Games:

Since this thread is about the future of IF, I thought I’d ask: what do people think about these kinds of possibilities?

Well, I already said I wasn’t one for mutiple branches or ways through the story…

…so it’ll probably be no surprise if I prefer my NPCs to be implemented “just enough”. Make It Good and Varicella go way above and beyond what I’m comfortable with, to the point where I just can’t really play those games. Progue, in Blue Lacuna, hit a very nice sweet spot, I found, and I also enjoyed Galatea similarly.

Maybe it’s not so much the range of NPCs I mind, as the necessity of manipulating a complex NPC to a specific goal. Or maybe it’s the existence of more than ONE such NPC. I dunno. I’m not comfortable with that. I prefer a pre-scripted, well-written NPC that, story-wise, is totally predictable and that the author can fuly integrate into the story in a premeditated manner, so that it fits with the author’s artistic conception of the work.

Then again, I’m in the minority. :slight_smile:

(I do enjoy emergent gameplay - puzzlewise. Emergent NPC relationships… meh)

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One thing I’m interested in is NPCs who are not just there to be manipulated; they are human beings who you can interact with in many ways. More like interesting characters from a book than puzzle pieces.

Well, I can understand that. One of the things I’m going to look at is drama management – in this context, making sure NPCs fit in properly with the story. It would be a very long time (if ever) before a computer generated character could be written anywhere near as convincingly as one hand crafted by a human author, though.

But I would like to see something beyond NPCs who are predictable and premeditated; I think it would be very cool to be surprised by your own creation.

I’d like to see more immersive games. Meaning more graphics and sound. My favorite text adventures (by far!) have always been the ones produced by Legend Entertainment in the 90’s (think “Gateway” and “Eric the Unready.”) But they’re more expensive and time consuming to produce, so I don’t have much hope on that front these days.

And the direction I see IF going now are CYOA games (“choice” games.) Which I have really zero interest in :stuck_out_tongue: So for me, there’s not much to see these days when it comes to IF and the genre has become mostly part of my retro-gaming activities. But that’s just me.

Heh, this made me think about this article.

I’ve seen quite a few discussions about making NPCs react more like real humans. I can see why people have this goal, but even with sophisticated NPCs in different games like Galatea and Varicella, I’m always aware that they’re scripted. Frequently I run them to their scripts’ limits. Galatea “found this conversation confusing” many more times than she answered me coherently. But see, the thing is, I don’t mind this at all. It doesn’t suddenly snap my suspension of disbelief. I suppose the reason why is because I’m always aware that I’m playing a game anyway. I’m not too concerned with immersion as long as there aren’t typos and the code doesn’t start breaking down.

If you spoke Spanish you’d love Spanish IF. :slight_smile: The French and Italian too, but mostly the Spanish. It’s not just that they prefer media-intensive games; I get the feeling that for a significant number of Spanish IFers media is essential. The ruling paradigm in the English-speaking community seems to be mostly just text (partly due to Infocom’s mediatic stance, partly because it’s so much simpler, easier and faster). The ruling paradigm outside of us, though, has no such qualms!

Germany also had tradition in graphical text adventures in the commercial era. I’ve played pretty much everything sold by Software 2000.

Why can’t the future of IF be like the future of 8-bit NES platformers. There’s like a gazillion of them sold on Steam.

What I tell people about my experiences with Versu:

You want your creation to surprise you; but you don’t want it to surprise you in a surprising way. The second derivative of surprise should be 0.

Here’s what I mean by that. In testing for Versu, we had cool things happen like:

– recombining characters from different settings, we allowed Patrick (a parodic modern-day frat bro character) to chat with Admiral Heron (an early 19th century British admiral). Patrick started talking about his success with the ladies, and Admiral Heron responded by talking about how his sailors caught STDs while visiting the Pacific. In context, it felt as though Heron was perhaps reprimanding Patrick for his behavior or at least drawing a comparison with his sailors. Procedurally, all that was happening was that each of those characters had some smalltalk dialogue associated with the conversation topic “sex”, and this caused an automatic transition here.

– locations and props in locations could provide affordances for expressing particular behavior. In one case, two characters got into an argument while standing in a park, and then one of the characters pushed the other into a lake – because the lake provided the affordance of pushing someone into it as an aggressive action, and the aggressive behavior became available because of the angry mood.

Those were both things that were not specifically intended by the author and both produced output that was funny and plausible. They were also the types of surprise that we expected to be facilitating when we designed the system the way we did.

But we also had loads of things happen that were outcomes of the system that were hard to understand or justify narratively. These were the surprising surprises, and they were undesirable. For instance

– a case where a character was rude and aggressive to the protagonist at the first meeting, even though they’d never interacted before. Tracing back through the simulation history, it turned out that that character had exchanged gossip with another NPC offstage and had heard negative things about the protagonist. Here the simulation was still working (in a sense) as intended, but the problem was that the system wasn’t designed to show the player that that was what had happened, so instead of being an instance of persuasive, interesting NPC autonomy, it was a thing that looked like a bug.

– cases where, for a combination of reasons, characters became avoidant and hid off in the corners of the map; or became aggressive and attacked one another; or hit on their own relatives; or had sex in front of coworkers during an office meeting; or various other things of that nature. These were cases where the simulation was not working as intended, either because the rules we had written had unanticipated ramifications in particular circumstances, or because the simulation did not include enough rules to accurately represent how people behave in these situations.

In Blood & Laurels, we did all sorts of things to prevent the surprising surprises: NPCs don’t ever interact offstage, only in the player’s presence, so there’s no invisible shuffling of NPC allegiances or knowledge states; NPCs don’t lie to the player except in clearly defined and authored situations; most scenes take place in a single location and NPCs are not allowed to wander off; each scene is marked to indicate whether the extreme simulation outcomes are allowable. (So for instance, you can set a scene to indicate that no one may leave the room, have sex, or die during that scene.)

So if Melbourne House’s “The Hobbit” has been tested with more care, it would have turned out more like “Blood & Laurels”. :slight_smile:

(Couldn’t resist the comparison. It seems like an age-old struggle!)

There are still quite a few parser games being released, though, including some really sizable (arguably too sizable) parser games in this comp; and I’d say there’s actually more experimentation in the parser space this year than in the last couple of years, especially in CMG’s work.

Should NPCs feel like living and breathing people? Is that really a universal goal? Would The Beginner’s Guide be better with beautifully performance-captured NPCs that moved around and had facial expressions, instead of the box-headed mannequins?

I think people are way overeager to declare “this is where the medium is going” as opposed to think in terms of research areas and things that they would like to see exist.

I haven’t played Blood & Laurels (I want to, and I would if I could), but that level of NPC autonomy does sound interesting and it’s not anything I’ve seen in a text game I’ve played. I think, though, that for me that sounds like it might run the risk of turning into a more sandboxy experience. I know this would be really desirable for some people. Sandboxes are popular. But I always feel like I’m wandering aimlessly in them. I prefer to have a directed narrative. Finding a middle-ground between scripted and autonomous NPCs would be my sweet spot. Although, as always, it would also depend on the story.

I always use Lime Ergot as an example because I love it so much, but in that game, having General Tudor-Adolphus just sit in one place and glare at the PC works perfectly. She doesn’t need to move around a lot. More complex NPC mechanics wouldn’t serve the game very well. I mean, they might spruce it up, but the game’s core idea is already strong without them.