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PC Gamer UK Interview: Andrew Plotkin

Richard Cobbett [R.C.]: Spider and Web and Shade in particular played around with distinctly different types of narrative to standard games, and IFComp especially seems to thrive on these spins. What do you think it is that makes IF authors able innovate in such ways?

Andrew Plotkin [A.P.]: The extreme infancy of the form, really.

We have barely 25 years of IF experimentation -- half that, if you count only the time when good IF tools were available to the home hobbyist. The world of narrative prose, in contrast, has had centuries to mess around. All of those ideas are out there, available for the stealing... I mean, available to inspire innovation.

I like to say that we're in the Golden Age of Interactive Fiction... in the same sense that the Forties were the Golden Age of Comics. The technology was primitive, the stories didn't always make a lot of sense, and the genre certainly didn't attract the best writers of the decade. But every idea was new; all the (later) cliches were just being invented. You were accounted brilliant merely for coming up with a new twist, a new angle, a new way to transcend the form.

I think IF is still in that stage. Maybe just starting to move out of it -- perhaps.

I don't say this to denigrate the current generation of IF writers. I just think we haven't seen the best yet. We're all still monkeying around with the possibilities of the form. Someday we'll get to the point where technical innovation elicits a chorus of "Yes, but is it written well?" That's a mature form.

R.C.: Which IF game has most caught your eye as an example of what the genre can offer and why? (Note: With the obvious exception of Being Andrew Plotkin! ;-))

A.P.: Oh... Worlds Apart, for pulling the player into non-human ways of perception. For a Change, for coherent surrealism. My Angel. Anchorhead. I'm afraid if you ask me again in a month, I'll have a completely different answer.

R.C.: I've frequently seen Text Adventures and Interactive Fiction split into those rough camps -- the former principally focusing on its puzzles, the latter on storyline. Which side, if either, do you feel is the most important when creating a game?

A.P.: In fact IF is split into two camps: those that believe that there is a split between puzzles and storyline, and those that don't --

Well, obviously.

Really I consider puzzles an underpinning of storyline in IF, just as exposition, physical description, dialogue, and scene-structure are. Puzzles can regulate the pace of the story; they can direct the player's attention. (In static fiction, showing is better than telling. In IF, you can show or tell, but there is a third option: to guide the player into discovering for himself. This is why I care.)

It probably seems strange to talk about puzzles as an element of storyline. It's easy to think of the puzzles as an interruption of the story -- you break off your heated chase to slide colored tiles around a table, and then the door opens and you're back in pursuit...

But really a "puzzle" can be anything you interact with in the game -- anything at all which engages your attention, causes you to make a choice. Truly puzzle-less IF would be an e-book; a window with a "click for next page" button. It would not be interactive fiction at all.

Certainly a puzzle can cause bad pacing, bogging you down too often or for too long. A puzzle can direct your attention to something boring and irrelevant to the storyline, like those sliding colored tiles. That's bad design. I'm interested in good design, not in eliminating interactivity entirely.

(By the way, everything I've said here applies to graphical adventures too. Colossal Cave and Myst have very different styles of interactivity, of course. But they do surprisingly similar jobs; the design problems are ultimately the same.)

R.C.: Part of the [magazine] feature talks about the creation of IF games, with a very quick tutorial. What would be the most important piece of advice that you would give to an aspiring IF author?

A.P.: Give me a world I can believe in. Things should make sense... at least in hindsight.

If the Next Thing that happens makes rational sense, the player will be able to solve puzzles. If the Next Thing makes thematic sense, the player will be moved by the story. If the Next Thing makes sense in some completely lunatic way... okay, I don't know what that means. But if it doesn't make sense at all, your game will just sit there.

R.C.: Summed up in a sentence -- why should a non-initiated reader care about IF?

A.P.: Why should a non-initiated reader care about 15th-century Spanish popular music performed on period instruments?

If you love it, seek it out and play it. If you don't know whether you love it... well, I say try it, but I say try lots of stuff. Your mother said to try Brussels sprouts. Go prove somebody right.


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An extract from this interview was printed in PC Gamer UK, issue 118 (Jan 2003). Reprinted with permission.

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