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Andrew Plotkin and Emily Short: The CGM Interviews

by Lara Crigger

The following interviews originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #185 in shorter form. The interviews are reprinted with permission.

Emily Short Interview, Part 2

Lara Crigger: What do you think is the greatest strength of interactive fiction? Likewise, what is its greatest weakness?

Emily Short: There are several answers I could give, but I'll concentrate on the story-telling angle. The best story-telling in recent IF explores the problem of choice in a way that static fiction cannot: works like Rameses or Kaged or Photopia are about constraints and being unable to influence things the way we want to; Slouching Towards Bedlam is about a situation where there may be no decision that comes out well for everyone. These subjects have already been tackled in static fiction, but the reader of static fiction is always able to stand back from the work, to say "no, the protagonist just didn't try the solution I would have tried" or "I don't believe the world really works this way—the author is imposing artificial constraints". The player of interactive fiction doesn't have that luxury: if he wants to play at all, he has to accept the author's terms and act within the world as it's defined. And that makes the author's premise more compelling. It's one thing to read a story about a man who decides that he has no choice but to murder an innocent person. It's another to reach a point where you decide the best outcome requires you to type KILL THE LITTLE GIRL.

The compensatory challenge is that, because the interface of IF is so open-ended, the author must give the player a lot of direction at all levels: what sorts of commands are going to be useful in this IF? What kinds of things can he do? Is he supposed to be searching the place for buried treasure? Spending his time exploring the relationships he can establish with the NPCs?

In constructing a typical interactive fiction game, would you first start with puzzles and then build a story to contain them, or would you begin with a story and then add in the puzzles?

Savoir-Faire is the closest thing I've written to a typical IF game. I started with a premise for both the story and the puzzles: that the protagonist had this specific kind of magical ability. So the story was about how he got it and what that meant for his life now, while the puzzles were all designed to use the magic in different ways.

What do you think distinguishes a good puzzle from a bad one?

A good puzzle goes on being interesting from the moment you see it to the moment you solve it. It offers feedback to the player who tries unsuccessful but plausible things, and it's fun to explore. Most of the kinds of puzzles now unpopular in IF are unpopular essentially because they fail this test: mazes that require a lot of notetaking or mapping (but nothing else); riddles where you have to guess what the author was thinking but have no way of getting feedback on your intermediate guesses; puzzles with arbitrary time limits that are only there to make things harder.

How did your approach to writing interactive fiction evolve over time? What about your approach to the programming aspects?

I know a lot more than I used to about designing a game, but perversely I think that makes it harder, not easier, to start something new: there's so much more to think about. I've come to appreciate the importance of beta-testing not just as a mechanism for removing coding errors but also as a way to detect and correct flaws in a game's structure. I ask people to look at my work earlier in the writing process, do a lot of discussion of any playability concerns, and do my best to correct anything that seems to be making the work less effective. Then we go through another several testing iterations to polish off the rough edges.

I think I've also become a better programmer—in particular, better at thinking about writing code systematically instead of producing a jumble of special cases. But that's not saying much: I started out pretty bad.

The very interactivity of IF makes it difficult to design what most writers consider plot and narrative (since plot tends to hinge on linearity). As an IF author, how have you managed to reconcile this problem and craft a compelling story?

The player doesn't have any control over the story that I don't give him. If I want, I can write a plot where the player's role is to explore and occasionally trigger a new event, but all the elements of the story are still predetermined. With a sufficiently ingenious design and writing, this can feel less limited than it actually is.

But I do enjoy writing interactive fiction in which the player can affect the plot. Then I'm telling a story about the way the world works: you can see what happens if you make this choice, and you can see what happens if you make that one, but both branches contribute to understanding the situation the protagonist is in, and the issues that might affect his decisions. The key is never to offer a choice where one option leads to a boring or irrelevant outcome. The player may be a spy who can choose to be loyal to his fatherland or to betray it, but he may not choose to quit espionage and become a baker.

What is it about interactive fiction that has inspired such a community to rally behind it, even after any commercial aspects from the game have disappeared?

I haven't taken any surveys. But I think there are a number of reasons—nostalgia for the old games, the fact that it's possible to write new ones as a single author... Most games in the style of current commercial work are much, much too complicated, and require too many resources, for a single freelancer to write one on his own.

It's also exciting to work in a medium where so many techniques still have to be refined and so much remains to be invented. There is a sense that IF still has many directions for development. This isn't so surprising, really: IF is only "old" in computer years. Most art forms invented in the 1970s would be considered very new. And most art forms are not first and foremost money-makers, either: most novelists, poets, artists, actors, playwrights, etc., do not make a living wage from what they do.

Do you think IF titles these days are better than the ones put out 20 years ago?

Some are; many aren't. On the one hand, we've discovered some things about how to make games more playable, and a lot about how to tell interactive stories. On the other hand, there's no filter: games produced commercially had to pass certain quality standards, whereas now there is nothing to stop someone releasing a game full of bugs and grammatical errors. The best IF today is usually well-written and tested as thoroughly as the author was able to arrange, given the lack of a paid testing staff, and some of it is thematically richer and of greater literary interest. The worst is dreadful.

What are you working on now?

Several things, but I hate to jinx them by talking about them before they're done.

What is and why did you get involved?

Infocom packaged its games with fun stuff: the detective game Deadline came with a dossier of police reports and a sample of the "drugs" found with the dead body. This was partly a copy-protection scheme, and a few of the games required you to produce some information that came from the packaging, to make it harder to pirate the software. Obviously, that isn't a concern with freeware, but the feelies themselves could be a lot of fun. So some freeware IF authors have created their own feelies for their games, and is just there to help with production and distribution. Authors can set up an account with the website and send a batch of feelies in (or arrange to have us do the reproduction, if it's something simple), and we handle the finances and shipping from there.

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These interviews copyright © 2006, Lara Crigger. Originally published in Computer Games Magazine, Issue 185. Reprinted with permission.

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