Sunday, March 06, 2016

Can Interactive Fiction be Improved?

Like many readers old enough to remember the 80s, I have fond memories of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series of books, as well as their more sophisticated cousins, adventure gamebooks like "The Way of the Tiger" and "Lone Wolf". So when I recently looked into interactive fiction again I had high hopes that the genre had really been brought into the 21st century.

I wasn't entirely disappointed. Once upon a time an author would have had to make do with simplistic platform engines, or even write one herself. These days the developer has a much slicker experience thanks to the likes of Inform and Spatterlight. The author can focus on writing a good story with rich options, rather than working around the system.

On the down side, however, as a would-be-reader-slash-player I found the interfaces to be rather clunky. As a power user of *nix style terminals, typing in commands such as "look" and "go" and "<object>" will drive me insane very quickly. I expect tab completion, shortcuts, custom hacks, and quite frankly having the option of moving forward by doing nothing at all. Programmers are lazy.

Clearly, this is in part due to the genre's roots, a throwback to the ink-and-paper world of physical books. So I've been wondering, what if the interactive text interface doesn't try to be an interactive book? Because, given the choice of reading through reams of text, or navigating a little character across colourful, scenic screens and interacting with other characters visually, most people choose the latter. It's a stark choice. Hence the popularity of gaming as we know it, while interactive fiction is comparatively languishing.

What if there was a middle ground? Imagine a game where the interface can be discovered via tab completions, as well as clever command combos, where those behaviours actually prove to be more efficient than walking through various screens. Could that not attract some gamers back into the world of text adventures, while opening new possibilities for non-gamers?

If this sounds farfetched, consider the choice a *nix user makes every time he or she fires up a terminal to execute a complex set of commands, versus the same outcome achieved in a Windows world. The terminal experience has a number of advantages: command-discovery, accuracy, programmability, repeatability. That's not to say window interfaces don't have strengths, they certainly do! But most power users I know have learned to love the terminal, even on Windows.

My question is simply this: can the strengths of terminal command line interfaces be leveraged to create compelling interactive fiction?

Perhaps if we did, we wouldn't actually call it interactive fiction anymore, instead it would have the look of fiction, the intuition of programming, and the responsiveness of gaming.

And that's a triple win.