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Magic Words: Interactive Fiction in the 21st Century

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

INTERVIEW: Dan Ravipinto and Star Foster

Daniel Ravipinto and Star Foster are the duo behind Slouching Toward Bedlam, the winner of the 2003 IF Competition. Though it features a unique setting, a nonlinear plot with several endings, and some very complicated devices as objects, this is Daniel's second game and Star's first.

1UP: How did you two decide to work on a game together?

Star Foster: We were talking about IF games last summer when Dan mentioned that he'd entered a competition back in 1996. I told him I would love to learn to write IF and Dan replied that the competition was still ongoing. It all sort of took off from there.

1UP: Dan, what did you find different about working with a co-author than writing IF entirely by yourself?

Dan Ravipinto: The collaborative process was really interesting. On my last project, I ended up doing a lot of research as the source of my brainstorming sessions, but for this Star and I just sat down and wrote whatever came to mind. The background and the feel of the world came first, with more and more details filling in as we went.

During the writing process, we would each end up editing a lot of the other's work, trying to catch stuff that our partner had missed. One of the earliest things I wrote was a transcript of the opening, which, after Star's edits, basically entered the game unchanged.

We ended up with a project that sat somewhere between my vision and Star's, something truly greater than the sum of its parts.

1UP: Star, this is the first piece of IF you've worked on. Did you approach IF from more of a writing or coding background?

Star: I don't have a coding background, so I approached the project from a storytelling standpoint. I think a lot of my contribution was saying, "Yes, that's a brilliant idea, but how do we make it work within the context of the story?" For me, the story has always been the most appealing aspect of interactive-fiction...or any other type of game I play.

Dan: Star gave the game world and background a coherence it might otherwise have lacked. A lot of the subtle connective elements of the story are her doing.

Star Foster & Dan Ravipinto 1UP: One of the more interesting aspects of Kabbalism is the infusion of words with power. Words are indistinguishable from the objects they represent, and speaking an act is the same as performing it. As a text adventure with significant Kabalistic elements, Bedlam plays with the boundary between player input and player action, often interpreting and giving meaning to the player's input beyond the literal actions intended. Was this subversion of traditional IF input planned from the start? Or did it arise as a result of the narrative?

Star: If memory serves me correctly, Dan, a more seasoned IF player and developer than I, came to our original development meeting with the seed for this idea. If anything, certain aspects of the story (particularly the creature being transferred through speech) came from the pre-ordained subversion of the medium.

Dan: It was a mixture of the two. Our concept of the Cypherists -- who and what they were, and what they believed in -- demanded a storyline that emphasized the power of words. That concept took on a life of its own, much like the Logos itself! It began influencing both the story and how it was told.

From the perspective of narrative, the player starts out in an office of Bethlehem Hospital, listening to the final diary entry of Dr. Thomas Xavier. We, as storytellers, knew things about the PC the player didn't.

All of this had to come across in our writing, in some sense. We tried hard to make all of our descriptions utilitarian, describing no more than the physical aspect of things. We also rewrote a major portion of the default INFORM library to remove the word 'you' as much as possible.

But the the hybrid, the Beast alluded to in the game's title, isn't complete. It's lacking important pieces such as Xavier's memories of himself. And there remain some truly alien aspects that simply cannot integrate with the human mind. It's that which occasionally rises up due to stimuli in the environment, performing instinctual actions such as propagating itself (in the form of the memetic virus), or protecting itself from that which causes it discomfort (such as avoiding crowds, or the cricket in the Panopticon).

All of this resulted, from the perspective of game play, in a subversion of the IF format. We twisted the meaning of meta-commands commonly known to anyone who plays interactive-fiction, making them part of the storyline, as if they were natural instincts of the newly-formed player character. Then, we occasionally yanked on the strings the player used to control the PC in the form of the Logos' self-will.

1UP: The most striking thing about Slouching Toward Bedlam is the implementation of some very sophisticated machines as objects in it. Did you build the game around the idea of these machines, or did they start out as elements of a story that gained in importance and complexity?

Star: We settled on the steampunk genre before developing the story. Steampunk dictates a certain level of technology, so we knew there'd be some sort of complex machinery, but not specifically what sort.

Dan: The machinery grew naturally out of the storyline. Once we decided on Bedlam as the game's main location, we realized that we could mechanize some of the common functionality of the hospital. A Panopitcon Plan actually was put forward to the Bedlam governors, but was ultimately rejected. Our version is a much more complex imagining of what could have been.

Star: Triage was a special case. It was designed for a game that Dan had done previously but not finished. It came fully realized into the Bedlam universe.

1UP: Though Bedlam has multiple endings, the majority of these endings require the player to complete the game or to die in order to learn how to reach another conclusion. Were these multiple endings planned simultaneously, or were they added one-at-a-time, as each new ending suggested other, possible resolutions?

Star: The endings were determined simultaneously in the beginning. In a way we wrote the story backwards....we figured the possible endings of the overall story, and then filled in how players could come to those conclusions.

Dan: A lot of our early conversations were about the game world and its initial state. What was the Logos? How did it propagate? What were its parameters?

We played around with several possibilities, some of which included the Logos being able to spread via written or recorded language. Another idea included the possibility of Triage becoming infected by the virus, and its subtly trying to affect the PC through its responses.

Once we'd determined what we were dealing with, we simply tried figuring out every possible line of action given the constraints we'd placed. I sat down at one point and wrote out a state-machine, detailing the actions that would be required to move the game world into a new state.

Once we realized that each ending represented a different potential timeline, wecame up with the idea of the Appendices -- little pieces of text that would show where the world would go after you'd made your decision. We used them to fill in gaps in the back-story, or to comment on the outcome.

The basic logic of the endings all revolve around the Logos. There's a function in the actual program that keeps track of everyone who is alive or dead at the end of the game (including the PC) and whether or not they're infected. Based on that, it chooses an ending.

The actual text of the endings and the Appendices was written piecemeal. As we implemented each line of action, we wrote the text for that ending.

1UP: How long did it take to put the whole thing together, start to finish?

Star: [laughs] Six months of coffee and story development. One month of writing. And one week of coding where Dan did not sleep at all.

Dan: Entirely my fault, I will add. The project was originally envisioned as a chance for Star to learn some programming skills, but it unfortunately didn't end up working out that way.

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

Dan: I would definitely say that the story ended up having a Lovecraftian feel, even if that isn't what we originally envisioned.

Much of my descriptive prose from a gaming perspective has been influenced by the likes of Emily Short and Andrew Plotkin. Emily, for example, tends to have layers of description - items that reveal more and more detail as you examine them and that seemed to work well for the more complex objects.

Star: I have a lot of influences when it comes to my writing, but for this work I think Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Dickens had the strongest effect. I'm a fan of Gothic 19th Century literature, and that flavor seemed appropriate for this story.

1UP: Fantasy and science fiction are heavily represented in IF, but steampunk is surprisingly absent. What made you choose this genre for the setting of Bedlam?

Star: I'm not sure how we came to this conclusion. I know we settled on 19th Century London fairly early on...steampunk gave us an opportunity to play with some complex devices in that era without being limited by its existing technology. Also, I seem to recall Dan had a PS2 game at the time, a Japanese flight sim, in which steampunk figured prominently. That may also have influenced our decision.

Dan: To me, steampunk is a minor sub-genre of science or speculative fiction. It has a very narrow focus and very specific constraints. As such, I can see why it's not hugely popular, especially since it's not as general as "Fantasy" -- which can encompass everything from Terry Pratchet to George R. R. Martin.

Why did we choose the genre? To be honest, I think it was nothing more than me saying to Star one day "Hey -- let's do something weird and steampunk in London."

1UP: Why would an author want to tell a story through IF instead of through traditional prose? Why did you decide to write the story of Bedlam as IF?

Star: Well, in the case of Bedlam, the medium was the impetus for the story, rather than an option for storytelling. That being said, I do feel IF offers an interesting alternative to more "traditional" storytelling methods. Rather than having to spell out character personalities, plotlines and mysteries in a cut and dried manner, an IF author can further immerse themselves in their universe and allow players to determine these things on their own through research, observation and interaction. In addition, it forges a more intimate bond between the author and player/reader. Whereas any author has to consider their reader and that reader's understanding of the situation, an IF author has to step back and consider their reader's ongoing reactions to the story, and their subsequent actions, and write accordingly.

Dan: Absolutely. I've always been fascinated with the world-building aspects of fiction, static or no. Interactive-fiction gives the storyteller the ability to simply build the world he or she's imagined and then allows the reader to wander through it as they see fit.

Star: One of my favorite goofy IF thrills as a player is asking a NPC a non-gamerelated question and getting an appropriate answer. It makes the character and universe more realized. I had great fun trying to anticipate those kinds of questions for Bedlam, and writing dialogue accordingly.

Dan: Filling in the little gaps like that really helped bring the world to life. We did a lot of research before we began writing, and including little things like references to the attempt on Gloriana's life and McNaughton's infamous case added a dimension of verisimilitude.

1UP: What's the most frustrating thing about writing IF instead of traditional prose?

Dan: Easily the combinatorial effect. Every item that's added to the game world exponentially affects the complexity of the game as a whole, because the user may try to use it with every other item in the world. Trying to cover all the possible actions a user may take becomes harder and harder.

Star: In some cases it can be daunting. For example, (in part due to the contest deadline and time limit) we went to great pains to create a hospital location that gave the impression of being large, without actually creating several floors, rooms, and NPCs. In traditional fiction, we would have been able to describe large groups of patients, other doctors and hospital staff in a few sentences. Because of the interactive nature of IF, we couldn't do the same thing for Bedlam. We used a mechanical device to make most of the floors and rooms inaccessible, and effectively hid whatever other patients might have existed in the nigh abandoned location. Otherwise we would have had to make innumerable locations searchable, full of realistic objects, and dozens of characters (non-essential to the story) would have needed personalities to interact with.

I suppose it could be argued that we could have included their descriptions and have made them inaccessible to the player...but it is an IF pet peeve of mine when the PC can see a person or object clearly in a room description, but then are unable to "see" them when they try and interact with them.

Dan: We had a lot of good ideas that simply didn't make it into the game because it would have increased both the length and the difficulty of coding it. The ones we ended up keeping we tried to implement as completely as possible.

1UP: What's the most rewarding thing?

Dan: The final implementation, the ability to point someone to the game file and say "Here -- this is a whole little universe you can explore."

Star: For me it's been seeing how people interacted with the game (through discussion on and reading player walkthroughs), and what impressions they took away from it.

1UP: What advice would you give someone looking to create their own piece of IF? Would you recommend they enter their first piece in the IFComp?

Dan: Well, my entry in the 1996 Competition (Tapestry) was the first piece of IF I'd ever written. So I think I can unreservedly say that I don't have a problem with people entering their first attempts at interactive-fiction.

That being said, I'm confused when I play entries that are obviously unfinished or untested. I don't understand when I boot up a game and the first room contains obvious typos, or it's impossible to finish the game because of serious bugs. I can understand rushing a bit to get it done on time, I'm certainly guilty of that, but if a game simply isn't completed it probably shouldn't be entered.

Star: If they are comfortable with frank observation and are able to separate judgment of their art from judgment of themselves (some of those reviewers are brutal!), I see no reason not to enter a beginner's game into a competition, so long as the game designer feels as though the game is complete and would be interesting to other players. As with any contest, people should try to enter their best effort.

Personally, I don't think I would have had the moxie to enter my first IF effort in the comp if I hadn't worked with an experienced IF writer.

Dan: As for advice, I'd say I've learned to keep things as simple as possible, as they have a way of getting more complicated as you go along. Having the ability to say 'no' -- even to great ideas -- has come in handy, especially as the deadline approaches.

Also, definitely have at least three people other than you look at the game. It's so easy not to see the obvious problems because you've been so close to the project. Looking at it from another person's perspective can be immensely useful.

1UP: Why do you think the modern IF community has come to revolve around the yearly IFComp?

Star: Being new to the community, I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer that.

Dan: The original intention of the competition was to get a larger amount of new, original interactive-fiction created. And it's succeeded. I believe that it's very unlikely that I would have created either of my games without the impetus of the competition.

I think the reason it's become so important is because of its visibility and the amount of feedback that entrants receive. I'm sure it can be frustrating to release a game earlier or later in the year, announce it on the newsgroups and then have it be completely ignored. People will certainly be playing your game, but other than a few requests for hints, it's possible you won't hear much back.

Every year, in the wake of the competition, there's a great deal of analysis, reviews, and discussion of the entrants. I know "Tapestry" set off several interesting threads about interactivity versus linearity back in 1996, and I'm not sure it would have if I'd released it separate from the competition.

I'm not certain what the solution to this problem is, though. Several efforts towards discussing and reviewing interactive-fiction already exist: SPAG, XYZZY, and the IF review conspiracy, for example. In fact a new IF reading group was suggested and has just recently started up.

Beyond that, I guess it's just important to get the word out that authors really appreciate any sort of feedback on their work and even a small post or e-mail can make a big difference.

1UP: Do you think that the focus on the Comp has negatively impacted the quality of titles? For example, IFComp games are supposed to be finishable within 2 hours. Do you think that this has led to shorter or easier games? Without the restrictions of the IFComp, would you have designed Bedlam differently?

Star: I think we might have tried a few more things puzzlewise, and made some of the locations larger. I do remember saying to Dan several times "We have to pull X or Y back, the game is only two hours long." On the other hand, just because we might have had the opportunity to make a large and (potentially) more complex game, I don't know that it would have been a better product in the end.

Dan: To be frank, I really don't know if I'm capable of writing a larger game. The two competition entries I've done have ended up being massive undertakings for me, and I can't imagine having the stamina to see through something larger. As for the quality of the game, I feel that the constraints actually improved Bedlam. We had to cut out the less important sections and really focus our efforts.

I feel that a competition entry, being so short, should only try and do one or two things extremely well. If it's complex or difficult, by nature it will have to have less content. A simpler game could contain more content, as the player is going to go through it faster.

And in the end, the constraints can be ignored. Several entrants over the yearshave obviously contained more than two hours of game play and still have managed to do well. Bedlam itself requires more than two hours to see all of the endings.

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

Star: When I started playing IF as a kid, my favorite games were those based on books I knew: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Nine Princes in Amber.

Dan: The first piece of IF I ever played was Infocom's Wishbringer which I think is perfectly suited for beginners of all ages. It has a wonderful fairy tale quality to its story and a gentle in-game hint system in the form of a magical wishing stone.

1UP: Now that you've won the 2003 IFComp, is it difficult to go out in public without being mobbed by adoring fans?

Star: We can barely walk down the street together, what with all the staring, pointing and whispering. It's a good thing we spend most of our social time together huddled inside playing video games.

Dan: [laughs] It's nice having a little notoriety.

It was very, very strange toread reviews where people were saying stuff like "Yeah, and whatever happened to Dan Ravipinto?" I really thought Tapestry would just fall off the map.

It was nice to be remembered, though.

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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