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"Easy" Interactive Fiction Languages, Page 4

by Eric Mayer

Table of Contents
• Introduction
• Alan
• Conclusions


Stephen Griffiths, who has done a lot of work with Alan, explains, "The simpler languages like Alan tend to have things more tailor-made to write adventure games as the system-writer intended them, but there is little, or no, flexibility to step outside the tailor-made features.

"The hard languages offer more ways of doing things. That gives the programmer more things to learn (which naturally makes the language harder to master). It also gives greater freedom which also makes using them harder because there are more decisions to make about how best to do things."

In practice, authors working with easy languages who exhaust the tailor-made features often end up inventing increasingly hard workarounds. For example, the Alan "event" feature, designed mainly to allow for simple happenings unrelated to player input, like a bomb exploding, has been used to add score change notification to the interpreter. Likewise, provided both with the facility to create variables and with a file importing feature designed mainly, according to the tutorial, to replace text, ADRIFT aficionados have been busily extending their language's capabilities to vary descriptions, among other things.

Having been enticed myself down the dark narrow side passages of Alan, trying to coax it into doing things it wasn't designed to do -- and usually ending up with an axe in me (or my attempted coding) -- I'm not sure such efforts are a good idea from a writer's point of view. After all, the player doesn't care what the coding looks like or what was checked off in a pull-down menu. The only thing that's important is what shows up on the screen.

Certainly, authors should use whatever language they enjoy. I like the little taste of programming Alan gives me, and if someone invented a magic IF-wand that I could wave to turn regular prose into IF, I'd still write with Alan. Sometimes I think that the little coding puzzles I'm able to solve are more interesting than the puzzles in the games I play. But how many potential IF authors never produce anything because they feel they must first master one of the harder languages but don't have the time or inclination to do so, when they might easily have produced an enjoyable game in a simpler system?

When talking about "easy" IF languages, it should be remembered that Inform, TADS and Hugo are also meant to be easy in the sense that, unlike more generalized languages, they are geared specifically to IF. Alan and ADRIFT are merely "easier." An artist's tools necessarily influence the artist's work. Not only what an artist does, but what an artist imagines doing, is influenced by what the artist knows how to do. You're not going to paint a vermilion alien if you don't have a tube of vermilion paint. But there is something to be said for using the simplest tool suitable to the job, and for a lot of the IF, including IF written in harder languages, that tool, in my opinion, is one of the easier languages.

Even experienced programmers might consider limiting their palettes from time to time. After all, pleasing effects can be achieved through simplicity. Languages like Alan and ADRIFT might be considered watercolors as compared to the oil paints and turpentine of more difficult authoring systems. For some paintings you might want and need to work for weeks, in minute detail, layer after layer, as one might do with a traditional oil painting, while other paintings might be better composed quickly in broad watercolor washes.

Most of all, though, I think it would be healthy for the IF community to have more nonprogrammers writing IF. I suspect they'd bring a slightly different twist to the medium. At the very least they might remind everyone that, if it is writing you're interested in, the words are always more important than the bells and whistles. There are excellent tools out there for us nonprogrammers, among them Alan and ADRIFT. It's up to potential writers to take advantage of them.

In addition to writing IF Eric is the co-author of the mystery novels, ONE FOR SORROW and TWO FOR JOY.

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This article copyright © 2001, Eric Mayer

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