Interactive Fiction · Resources

Parser-based Interactive Fiction: A Primer

I have been using game writing and narrative design for 10 years now; all this time, I’ve had students making parser-based interactive fiction games (a.k.a. text adventure games).  One of the biggest challenges is for students to understand how these games work – they’re not a mainstream commercial genre any more. But I keep them on my syllabus because this genre teaches the foundations of story-driven games very well: how to tell stories through objects, establishing interactions, basic dialogue systems and AI for characters. On top of this the rise of intelligent agents like Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana — all of these parse spoken input instead of written. Turns out that this old-fashioned type of games still have a lot to teach us.
So my main hurdle is how to get students to play parser-based interactive fiction. The nice thing about the format is that there is so much out there that there’s a game for everyone. In the past, I used the collection put together by my friends at the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction. It’s an exquisite selection, but there’s not a lot. My introduction to parser-based contemporary interactive fiction was a wide list of works, and I just picked and chose whatever sounded interesting. So I decided to make a larger, updated selection, so my students could find whatever they’re interested in. This list is not a canon – I’m not a fan of canons – but an invitation to find one’s own way into the world of parser-based interactive fiction.
What follows is a primer to understand the conventions of interactive fiction, alongside a collection of games to pick and choose from.

How to play Interactive Fiction

Interactive fiction (IF from now on) starts with text and then invites you to type what you want to do. The commands follow specific conventions, so you have to learn those first. Start by having a look at this quick cheatsheet. If you need more details, this old guide is still very handy.
There’s several ways in which you can play IF. You can do it on your browser directly – most of the links below include a link to a browser version of the game. Games can be as short as 30 seconds to more than an hour. For longer games, you may want to play them on your computer or even your phone to be able to save your game. In order to do that, you need to run an interactive fiction interpreter, which is a program that loads the game and plays it on the platform of your choice. The most reliable interpreter for modern platforms is Andrew Plotkin’s Lectrote.
One nice thing about IF is that If you want to play games on your phone or tablet while huddling under a blanket, you can! There’s interpreters for Android (Hunky Punk,
Some of the games require to draw a map if you want to know where you are. So be sure to have pen and paper at hand to take notes.

The Interactive Fiction Collection

These are some recommended games, grouped in different categories to fit a variety of interests. You don’t need to play them all, though I’d start with the ones on top of the list and then explore the rest of the list based on your interests. Enjoy!
Beginners
Experimental

It’s better to play these once one’s familiar with IF.

Fractured Fairytales

These are Emily Short’s games based on traditional fairytales.

Lovecraft

For some reason, all of the horror games that ended up in this collection are based / inspired by Lovecraft.

Science Fiction / Fantasy
Mystery
Puzzle-lite
Wordplay
Weird and Wonderful

(a.k.a. Andrew Plotkin does his thing)

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choice design · Interactive Fiction · Narrative Design · Resources

Taxonomy of Narrative Choices

A few years ago, I realized that in order to teach narrative choice design I needed a classification of types of choices. Creating games in the style of choose-your-own adventure, in the style of Choice of Games, Inkle Studios, Failbetter Games, the sadly defunct Telltale Games, or for interactive film, requires having a vocabulary that refers to the different ways in which choices can be expressive.

I came up with my own taxonomy, which I have been teaching in different iterations over the years. Inspired by works like Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, I finally realized it’d be best to illustrate the taxonomy interactively, on top of discussing examples in the class. You can read/play the taxonomy on my itch.io page.

This taxonomy is part of a larger lecture, which is the introduction to narrative choice design in my classes. While games may be a series of interesting choices, they also become much more complicated when we make those decisions be part of a longer narrative. One of the reasons why making choices can be compelling is that players can see the consequences of their decisions—that is the foundation of agency, one of the pleasures of digital media as defined by Janet Murray. We like feeling that the game is listening to us, that we are in control of our actions in the game, that our choices matter.

Challenging agency, however, also has a lot of expressive possibilities. First of all, players can have the illusion of agency without having to change the content of the game. If you’ve played any of the choice-based Telltale games, you have probably seen the caption “So-and-so will remember that” after making a decision. Most of the time, it turns out they won’t—but the player can believe that their action had an effect on someone. It is a way to use the player’s perception and imagination in order to fill the gaps and not having to expand on the content.

Frustrating the player, taking away agency, can also be expressive. Games have the annoying tendency to become “entitlement simulators” ; game designers should challenge players to make difficult, painful decisions, have them realize that the world may not revolve around them, and that there may be problems that are beyond their control. Untethered agency can be problematic in dating sims, for example—boiling down intimate relationships to choosing the right things to say oversimplifies how humans connect with each other. Representing love as having agency over a person, or being able to “win” them by achieving a score, can reinforce certain unhealthy ideas about relationships, and push players down the brink of toxicity

The taxonomy I propose is therefore a breakdown of the different ways in which undermining agency can be expressive, and can help players think about what they do. (Maybe.)

combinatorics explosion.001

Using different types of choices is also a healthy way to keep projects under scope. As the image shows, if for every decision the player makes the story bifurcates, the content multiplies very fast. In order to write a choose-your-own-adventure story where each version is only four pages long, and only gives two choices to the player on each page, we  would have to write fifteen (15) pages. It is not very efficient and the combinatorial explosion goes out of control very fast. There are also models of different structures that both provide players with interesting choices without having to generate inordinate amounts of content—Sam Kabo Ashwell provides one of my favourite classifications on his blog.

Last but not least, a lot of what went into the taxonomy and my original lecture comes from the lessons I learned from working  in my classes with ChoiceScript by Choice of games (check out their game design blog posts if you’re interested in the topic).