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: Stephen Granade

Stephen Granade is the overseer of, an IF resource site, and the organizer of the yearly Interactive Fiction Competition. Between these two roles and extensive contributions to Baf's Guide, he's one of the key figures in the formation and maintenance of the IF community.

1UP: Your IF often filters its narration through the perspective of the PC; Losing Your Grip, for example, has a highly unreliable PC, whereas Common Ground features a narrative told from the perspective of multiple PCs. Do you think that IF gives a game designer more liberties in designing the PC character?

Stephen Granade: I'd disagree that Terry, the PC of Losing Your Grip, is unreliable: most of the game is set in Terry's head, and Terry doesn't mislead the player. Granted, the landscape is very strange....

I do think IF gives you more latitude in shaping the player character. A lot of this is because of how I can control the player's focus. For example, when I describe a room, I determine in what order things are described. I can alter the tone to give you more information about the player. Room and item descriptions can be a mirror that reflect the PC and let the player see him or her. "The couch is old and worn, but you've had fond memories of it ever since you smooched Katie Landers on it when you were 13." That one line tells you more about the player than a picture of a couch will. You can achieve these effects using graphics, sound, and music, but it's a harder task.

Stephen Granade 1UP: Do you think that a player relates to an IF PC differently than he or she would relate to the PC of a graphical title?

Granade: There's such a wide range of both IF and graphical games that I can't really generalize. Many adventures don't have a defined PC, regardless of whether they're text or graphical. All I know is people really wish they hadn't related to Rob Schneider's player character in A Fork in the Tale.

1UP: Your games also tend to strive for a more personal or emotional component to go along with whatever puzzles there might be. How do you feel that IF can involve the player emotionally when compared to other media?

Granade: If you're talking about IF versus fiction or movies, it comes down to a question of agency. If I'm reading a book or watching a movie, it's not me acting, it's the characters. I'm along for the ride. But in IF, as in other computer games, I'm the one performing the action. That gives the designer tremendous power to help players become emotionally invested in what's going on. If a player cares deeply about a character, will they be willing to kill him or her towards the end of the game if it's the only way to finish? Players, especially empathic ones, will be uncomfortable with the choice.

1UP: Why do you think that everyone kicked the head in Losing Your Grip?

Granade: Since it was at foot-level, perhaps people got frustrated at not being able to save him and took out that frustration on him. But that's just a theory -- I don't really know. Maybe it's a sad commentary on the fallen state of mankind.

1UP: Though your IF has been well received, you're probably best known in the IF community as the organizer of the yearly IF Competition and webmaster of How do you see your role? As community spokesperson? Evangelist? Curator? Overlord?

Granade: I tried being overlord, but no one would vote for me. I've been a community spokesperson, though mainly by default -- I had a well-known website and therefore journalists would email me questions about interactive fiction.

Come to think of it, my roles have all been by default rather than by design. The thing to realize about the interactive fiction community is that it's made up of individuals. No one is elected to any position. I started reading the Usenet newsgroups dedicated to interactive fiction and wanted to give something back, so I wrote a very incomplete IF bibliography and made it available for download. Then I wrote some not-great games. Then a dot-com paid me to start running a website, but not because I was the logical choice. They contacted ten or twenty people in the community and asked them to apply. As far as I know, I'm the only one who answered the call. So I guess I've ended up doing a lot of different things and playing a lot of different roles. These days my main role is really that of a vocal enthusiast more than anything else.

1UP: Has the creation of the IF Comp (and later Xyzzy awards) been successful in building more interest in IF each year?

Granade: I'm not sure how much more interest they've built, but they've certainly helped focus interest. The IF Competition has become the black hole at the center of the Usenet-based community. Even if you're not sucked in, you feel its gravitational pull. That's not really a good or bad thing, it's just a thing.

1UP: For such a relatively small community, there doesn't seem to be a danger of cliques or well-known authors dominating the awards every year. What do you think prevents this from happening?

Granade: Good games are difficult to write, and they take a hell of a lot of time. Few authors can crank out a game a year, which leaves openings for other authors. In addition, authors try different things that don't necessarily work, as Graham Nelson did with The Tempest. Making an award-winning game each and every year is possible but difficult.

1UP: What kind of gamer do you feel would enjoy adding IF to the kinds of games they play?

Granade: The kind who would like IF? It's hard for me to say, since so many of the people who enjoy IF now do so because they enjoyed it back in the 1980s. Gamers who are avid readers certainly have a leg up. A lot of IF is science fiction, so science fiction fans are more likely to find something they'd enjoy. Really, though, the field is wide-open these days. We've got mysteries and period pieces and comedies and steampunk. My recommendation is to get a good beginner's guide to IF, like the one at Brass Lantern. Once you get over the initial learning curve of knowing how to make the game do what you want, the rest becomes much easier.

1UP: It's been nearly ten years since Graham Nelson released Curses and the second age of IF began. Where do you think the IF community ten years from now? How do you think 2014's IF games will differ from today's?

Granade: I'm hoping that there will be even more experimentation than there is now. I'd love to see more games that play with graphics and sound, since I think there is a lot of untapped potential there. There's a burgeoning academic community that's interested in IF, and I have no idea what kinds of things we'll see come out of that.

My most far-out wish would be for IF to provide some authors with a livelihood. It's great that so many of us are willing to write games for free, but I think you could get more games if there was even a small commercial market for it.

Plus all of the games will have rocket packs and food pills.

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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