Brass Lantern
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Magic Words: Interactive Fiction in the 21st Century

by Andrew Vestal and Nich Maragos. Illustrations by Erin Mehlos.

INTERVIEW: Emily Short

Emily Short is as prolific a reviewer as she is a writer, with a few dozen writeups on Baf's Guide to the IF Archive and more at her own personal site. She's written so many games that it's difficult to categorize her style in a particular way, but her more recent work such as Galatea and Pytho's Mask have focused more on what's possible in NPC conversations through IF.

1UP: You seem to be one of the most active IF advocates out there, having written everything from introductions to the genre for newcomers to dozens of IF reviews to guides on how to write your own IF. Is it safe to say you feel the current audience level for IF isn't as large as it should be?

Emily Short: Maybe, though I don't look at it quite that way. Some people point at commercial games, or novels, and lament the fact that IF doesn't have nearly that kind of following, won't pay the rent, and never gets optioned for movie deals.

Personally, I'm more interested in the people out there who would love IF if they knew about it. New players occasionally turn up on the IF newsgroups saying things like "wow, this is fantastic and I wish I'd heard of it five years ago" or "I've been looking for more games like Infocom's but it took me ages to discover the modern community". I would like those sorts of people to know what's available.

Emily Short 1UP: Do you think there's a need for more advocacy of the medium? Should the best IF writers be doing more to raise public awareness of their work?

Short: They should be doing what they want to do. Writing IF is a hobby -- or, in some cases, something closer to a vocation -- so I'm not going to tell people what they should be doing with their spare time for free. And, selfishly, I'd rather see another IF game from Andrew Plotkin than have him spend the equivalent amount of effort publicizing the ones he's already written -- 'cause hey, I've already played those.

On the other hand, there are some people who do have the desire and the skills to market their work more widely. I've been pleased to see Peter Nepstad getting his historical mystery, 1893, out there and distributed in Chicago stores. So IF publicity is something I try to support where I can, especially if I think the author's got a good product, but I don't actively expect it from anyone.

1UP: Leaving aside the concern of paying the rent with IF, is it still commercially viable even as a way to pick up a few bucks? Nepstad's game is in stores, and you have a couple of items available at How are those doing for you?

Short: They do as well as I expected them to -- which is to say, a new item on tends to sell between 50 and 100 copies, and that's as much as I have time to keep up with, in terms of mailing stuff out -- but they're not actually for-profit. (At least, mine aren't.) The whole site was more about the fact that some authors enjoy making physical accessories and packaging for their games, and some players like to have them.

1UP: What complaint or excuse do you hear the most often about why people don't read/play IF? How would you address it?

Short: I've seen a few gaming forums with threads that went something like this:

IF Fan: Hey, you guys should really try these great IF games. They're cool! And they're free!

IF-hater 1: Agh! Text adventures! They never understand what you type! You look at stuff and the game just keeps saying YOU CAN'T SEE THAT HERE.

IF-hater 2: i tried 1 of those they suk there are no pictuers wtf???

IF-hater 3: I've tried the recent stuff and it's all literary crap by pseudo-intellectuals too self-absorbed to write a game any more. Give me Infocom any day. OR: I've tried the recent stuff and it hasn't evolved since 1977. Give me something a little more up-to-date.

So I think there are a couple of things going on here.

One is that IF appeals to certain kinds of people and not to others -- and I don't think that it's because everyone who doesn't like IF is illiterate; many just have the wrong sort of personality, or are looking for a different experience. The people who play games mostly for the spectacle and heart-pounding action, or who just want something that lets them zone out for fifteen minutes, are not going to find those features in IF no matter what we do. That's fine.

As for IF-hater 3, he may not have tried a broad enough sample. People are still producing puzzle games much like the good old puzzle games of yesteryear, with scoring and inventory and the whole bit, and they're fun. There are probably more new ones per year now than there were when Infocom was selling them back in the 80s. At the same time, people are also pushing the boundaries in every direction: better world models, more intricate characters, more sophisticated writing, more flexible plots where the player has a real element of control, not to mention the experiments with adding sound and illustrations. It frustrates me seeing these comments because I suspect that IF-hater 3 might well like some modern IF if someone recommended the right ones for him to try. Recently, partly to combat that problem, Chrysoula Tzavelas put together the IF scoreboard, which sorts by many different criteria and is wonderful for people who are looking for a specific kind of IF.

But the complaint about communicating with the game is valid. AI research has yet to produce a computer able to understand every possible command, however complex or metaphorical or idiomatic, as though it were a human listener. So, failing that, there's a push to make IF more accessible. Some authors have their games tested by newbie players in order to figure out what unanticipated things they would be likely to type, for instance. There're also more help websites out there than there used to be, and more games come with instructions and hints built in.

Of course, once the players have learned what vocabulary IF usually understands, they will also know how to play the other two-thousand-odd freeware games in the IF archive. In terms of input for eventual payoff, that's a pretty good deal.

1UP: How were you yourself first exposed to IF?

Short: When I was five or six years old, my parents bought an Osbourne 1 -- a horribly clunky box with a five-inch screen and a disk drive that made a chuk-chuk-chuk-chuk-chuk noise when it read data -- and they had Deadline. It was much too hard for me, especially since I was too young to catch the hints at shady business dealings and extramarital affairs. I was hooked anyway. I watched my parents play, and then I tried it myself, over and over. A year or two later they got me a Vic 20 and some Scott Adams games on cartridges.

I never solved any of them. I don't think I won a text adventure until Plundered Hearts and Wishbringer, which are both considerably easier than the Infocom standard.

1UP: What prose authors have influenced you and your work? In what ways?

Short: Wow, there's a hard question. The answer is "more than I can possibly remember", so I'll stick to two who particularly influenced my work. Orson Scott Card first made me aware of what goes into the craft of writing. I read a lot of his books as a teenager, and every novel or short story collection I picked up seemed to have an author's note at the end explaining why he'd written it and where he got the ideas and what he'd been doing at that time in his life. Sometimes the author's note was more interesting than the story it explained. (I'm also a sucker for the commentary tracks on DVDs.)

So I learned a lot there about how a new concept comes together, and how it gets refined and pruned and mashed into its (sometimes surprising) final form.

Then there was Donna Tartt's Secret History. It's a creepy book, and it's about classics students, so I think I'm professionally obliged to be interested in it. But leaving that aside, I was impressed by two things I wanted to emulate. One was the elegance and clarity of her style. The other was her gift for description: she is able to capture whole moods and atmospheres with one or two sharp images. I hold that as the gold standard towards which I'm working when I write IF descriptions.

1UP: Some of your work, such as Galatea, can't really be classified as either a story or a game. In what way do these experimental, conversational pieces still qualify as IF by your definition?

Short: Sure. My definition of IF requires a world model (code that represents some objects and some rules for how they can affect each other) and a parser (something that takes typed instructions, breaks them down, manipulates the world model accordingly, and reports the result).

As far as I'm concerned, anything you can cook up with those features counts as IF.

1UP: What do you think simulation and mimesis add to the gameplay experience? Why do you work so hard to make your games lifelike?

Short: When I come up with a puzzle, I want something that the player can work on for a while, making visible progress, and then finish just when he has decided that this puzzle is impossible. If I leave the player thinking that he is an incredible genius, my puzzle design has succeeded.

A sophisticated model, in IF, might be one that simulates a few real-world physical principles in detail, or introduces a system of magic (see Words of Power) or machinery (Spider and Web) that works in a complex but consistent way. When you have a complex but consistent model, you have the perfect setup for good puzzles. The player has to fiddle with the model to figure out what the rules are; he has to figure out how to apply those rules to solve a specific problem; there's constant feedback as he's working on the puzzle because your complicated model provides for interesting failure results as well as an interesting success.

Often, a complex model will also allow for the same problem to be solved in several ways, and that's usually a good thing as well -- it gives the player something interesting to do should he ever decide to replay the game.

1UP: On that note, do you feel that replayability is important to IF? Since no money changes hands in the majority of cases, you could say that a game which rewards replay provides more entertainment, but does that necessarily make very linear games with one conclusion inferior?

Short: No, not necessarily. It really depends on what the author is trying to achieve. If you view the game as something like a crossword puzzle that you're trying to solve, then having one right answer might be reassuring. If you see it more as a world to interact with where you're trying to achieve some goals, then you might prefer it to accommodate more than one approach. Some people have told me they love games that branch and have multiple endings, and some have said they hate it and never replay a game no matter how much they might have missed the first time.

1UP: Currently, multiple-author IF is somewhat rare. But do you think there might be a call for the IF equivalent of "middleware" – people with their own specific interests, such as physical object modeling or detailed NPC conversation or really devious puzzles, working together on IF as specialized creators now work on videogames?

Short: Maybe. Certainly there have been a couple of quite successful collaborations: Mike Sousa seems to like to work with other authors, doing the coding himself and letting someone else write most of the text. And the winner of this year's IF competition was written by two people.

I'm not sure how far you could go with that -- I think the ideal team size for IF-writing is probably fairly small, and in most of the cases I know of one member of the collaboration did the majority of the actual coding, while the others contributed text, design suggestions, and so on. But I could see some compartmentalization happening. People already write library extensions to do things like improve NPC behavior or model special kinds of objects, so in a sense by using those you are working with another author.

1UP: This is admittedly not quite what I was talking about in the original question, but I'm reminded that you did work on Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle, as one of 13 listed authors. What was that like?

Short: Very silly and free-form. A group of us were spending a week together at a vacation house in North Carolina, and David Dyte got the idea -- I think chiefly because he thought it would amuse Rob Noyes, who had written the original Pick Up The Phone Booth and Die game but wasn't in NC with us.

So we passed around my laptop and various folks added to the code, or suggested content to the people who were coding. There wasn't a plan or even really any guidelines. The source is the ugliest thing in creation. It was sort of like what might happen if you did a high-school yearbook signing as IF. I seem to recall hacking the UNDO command while everyone else watched a kung-fu movie and gave advice. When we got back, we made a few more code tweaks, let Rob see it himself, and uploaded it to the archive. People complain on the IF ratings site about what an in-jokey thing it is, and this amuses me because it was really written for specific people who couldn't be there. Of course it's full of in-jokes, but so what?

Not exactly a model for a professional design team, though. Or even of how to write IF for the broader community.

1UP: What piece of your own IF would you most recommend for newcomers to the field? What work of others?

Short: City of Secrets is the only piece I've specifically designed for people who have not played IF before. So it's deliberately somewhat easier than the others, and it has more in-game help.

Of other people's work, it depends what the newcomer is looking for. For a nice, strong mix of story and game, I'd suggest:

Anchorhead, by Michael Gentry, which is widely considered one of the best IF games ever written. It's got a wonderfully atmospheric setting, a compelling plot, and (at least for the first portion of the game) relatively easy puzzles. It is a horror piece, but I'm not a horror fan and I still loved it.

For someone who wants to try out something more on the story end of the spectrum: Photopia, by Adam Cadre, is a completely different kind of thing, an IF story with very few simple puzzles. It's also worth a try, for people who are curious about the range of stuff out there. Shade, by Andrew Plotkin -- sort of a Twilight Zone episode made interactive.

And for IF that is mostly game rather than story, but still easy enough for a newcomer, perhaps Ad Verbum, by Nick Montfort, a game in which wordplay is the order of the day, or The Meteor, The Stone And A Long Glass Of Sherbet, by Graham Nelson.

This article copyright © 2004, Andrew Vestal and Nich Maragos. Illustrations copyright © 2004, Erin Mehlos. This article originally published at Reprinted with permission.

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