Judith Pintar is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and a faculty affiliate with the Illinois Informatics Institute.
When people hear that I am teaching a course on the writing and programming of Interactive Fiction (IF), if they have an association with the term, they will invariably mention Zork, the most famous game released by the 1980s software pioneer Infocom. Despite the company’s dramatic fall, which heralded the death of commercially successful text adventure games, IF never actually went away; it merely shifted sideways and continued evolving within a non-commercial literary commons.
Recently I’ve been reading short works of IF, and I have been intrigued by those that set their narratives in single locations. Early text adventures typically sprawled, often requiring players to map the world on a piece of paper while their character wandered through twisty underground passages, solving arcane puzzles involving unlikely feats of engineering and a desperate need for light. Contemporary IF writers defy conventions of content, structure, style and narrative, revising (sometimes reprising) old tropes, and stretching the genre in new and unexpected directions. In single location games, because the player doesn’t move through an external map, interior spaces—relationships, conversations, histories, memories, and nightmares—drive the narratives instead.
Galatea (2000) by Emily Short, is a work recognized for it multi-linearity and the complexity of its character development. The story takes place in an art gallery, where we find an installation of a statue with its back turned to us. We discover that it – she – can speak, and that she is, more or less, a living woman. Depending on what we choose to ask her about her existence, her sculptor Pygmalion, and how it was that she came to life, we elicit her memories, thoughts, and complicated emotions. How the story ends depends on the particular thread of the conversation and the kind of relationship that we have developed with Galatea as a result.
>ask about waking
“What was it like, waking up?” you ask.
She turns—not her whole body, just her head, so that you can see one ear behind the cascade of hair. “It was night. I had been able to hear, and see, for a long time—it was the talking, or the pain of being carved, that made me aware, I think.
“But one night—he slept in a corner of the studio—I heard him screaming in his sleep. More loudly than usual. And I forgot that I couldn’t move, and I just stepped down and woke him.”
Short is a co-author of the programming language and game development system, Inform 7, in which Galatea was written. She extended the capacities of the language to make conversations with the character Galatea more natural. She has taken it on as an ongoing programming mission to help IF writers give their non-player-characters (NPCs) the appearance of agency, so they feel as “real” as the character whose actions the player directs—both constrained inside the narrative structure, of course, but with preferences, resistances, and desires.
In contrast to the conversational complexity that is central to Galatea, Andrew Plotkin’s work, Shade (2000) is all about mood. Plotkin, like Short, has made many technical and creative contributions to the IF Commons. Shade begins in the player’s own apartment as we are getting ready to go to a Burning Man-type desert festival, nervously packing as we wait for our taxi to arrive. There is no other character in Shade other than the player. Available actions are all familiar and banal: reading a to-do list, vacuuming the carpet, watering a house plant. Anomalous and initially inexplicable changes in the apartment confuse, and then disturb, and then frighten us. We find ourselves moving towards an inexorable ending that we finally comprehend, but can’t avert. Plotkin manages in this simple story to make us question our facile presumption that Interactive Fiction must be a game that can be won.
Another single location short work that I like a lot is Caleb Wilson’s Lime Ergot, (2014). This narrative gains its depth through time rather than space. The puzzles are all about attention to detail. The plot emerges through the triggering of the player-character’s memories, and through opaque revelations about the history that led us to be left behind on the fictional island of St. Stellio in the company of a terrifying eighty year old woman in a wheelchair, a former General with a murderous past. There are two endings to the story which are not exactly two different outcomes but, rather, two interpretations of what our player-character has been experiencing on this strange island.
Wilson, like many writers of IF, is an active and long-standing participant in the online IF community. Many of his games, as well as games by Short and Plotkin, were written for annual game-writing contests, sometimes under pseudonyms. The point of these ubiquitous contests is less about competition, and more about inspiring the game-writing community as a whole to write and write and write, and to read each other’s work.
There is no denying that the non-commercial nature of contemporary Interactive Fiction has narrowed its audience. But consider: poetry readings can be small affairs, attended mainly by other poets. That fact would never be taken as a judgment on the quality of the work presented. Nor would anyone be surprised if non-poets in the audience, after arriving home from a reading, are moved to try their hand at poetry-writing themselves. Interactive Fiction is just like that. You’ll see.