Wednesday, April 22, 2015

April A to Z - S is for Emily Short

Hello gamebookers! Today, we have a new addition to the April A to Z series and someone with her own Wikipedia page This is Emily Short, expert at interactive fiction. I'm so glad to be making steps into the interactive fiction world by interviewing Emily who has a fabulous blog.

> Tell us about yourself.

I work as a consultant in interactive narrative, mostly for video games but also sometimes for publishing and other types of creative projects. I got into this field through interactive fiction, which I've played since I was a young kid; I've been writing IF for about 15 years now. I also write a lot of reviews and other coverage of interactive storytelling, which you can find at

> What is the best Interactive Fiction game you have played?

I really couldn't narrow that list down to a single game, but here are a few that are favorites of mine. (If you asked on a different occasion, you'd probably get a different list.)

ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III (Porpentine) -- Porpentine has written a lot of excellent IF, but I think this may remain my favorite because the ending is so personal and accessible, in contrast with the filigreed bonework style of a lot of her other writing (gorgeous; likely to cut you if you handle it at all). The trick of characterizing the protagonist via reactions to an old-school game is also beautifully handled.

Solarium (Alan DeNiro) -- This is masterfully horrific because, alchemy and superhuman characters aside, the scary thing it describes is true: there were fanatics during the cold war who did bring us close to destruction repeatedly, and who used the threat of nuclear disaster as justification for unethical experiments. It's also a structurally inventive piece of choice-based fiction with very good prose.

Even Cowgirls Bleed (Christine Love) -- A story about the personal dysfunction that undermines a relationship, told through a choice-based story with a bit of an arcade mechanic tucked in: you "shoot at", and thus select, whatever links your mouse passes over, and at a certain point in the game this may become more difficult to control than you might wish. Compact, effective, and highly personal; and a rare example of IF in which the UI itself is a critical part of telling the story.

Spider and Web (Andrew Plotkin) -- One of the best story-and-puzzle moments in all of interactive fiction, in which the protagonist does something that is not only surprising and clever but also has a profound effect on the other major character in the game. People talk a lot about the puzzle design here, but often I think in the process they undervalue how much of its success comes from the puzzle-story integration. There's something wonderful about solving this puzzle and getting a huge reaction out of the story.

Horse Master (Tom McHenry) -- Compellingly gross, with a very effective switch on what kind of story it's even going to be: it starts out feeling like a sim and winds up as a dystopian horror story about poverty and exploitation. One of the most viscerally powerful games I've played. Today I happen to give it a slight edge over Michael Lutz's My Father's Long, Long Legs, which could also have occupied this slot, because in Horse Master I was fooled into thinking maybe I could make things come out well, whereas in MFLLL I pretty much always realized things were going badly. But on a different day I might go the other way.

Fallen London (Failbetter Games) -- FL's size and structure are unique, providing a network of stories that you can sink into and inhabit for months or years. The content ranges from silly to horrific to affecting. People have often talked about the possibility of shared-world writing in the IF space, but this is one of the few to actually pull it off, since FL's contents and related games have been worked on by many authors over the years. (* Disclaimer: I've written for FL myself; otoh, my contributions are a drop in the ocean, and I was not involved in any of the original design.)

Make It Good (Jon Ingold) -- Very difficult, but with superb good puzzle/story integration. Characters pay attention to every little thing you do, and everything they notice matters; solving the story requires thinking deeply about the NPCs and their motives and probable reactions, then manipulating them to get the results you want. They seem to have their own inner life, purposes, and goals, to a degree very rarely found in IF.

80 Days (Meg Jayanth/inkle) -- Grand, beautiful, polished, with lots of lovely individual tales that weave together over replays, describing a world full of very different people with a wide variety of individual concerns. One of the most truly replayable pieces of IF out there, and a success of commercial IF in the modern era.

> What makes a good Interactive Fiction Game?

This really varies from one game to another. Some games are great because they have difficult but fair puzzles; other games are great despite having no puzzles at all, instead offering strong writing, a compelling story, or a particular emotional experience that you couldn't get elsewhere.

I've written some here ( about qualities of a good puzzle.

> What IF games would you recommend to people who want to see what IF is about?

There are multiple kinds of interactive fiction — parser IF, which is the descendant of text adventures like Zork, where the player has to type something to make progress, and choice-based IF, which is more like a CYOA where you click options to proceed. There are also a few interesting hybrids that use interfaces combining elements of both — but those are more of a rarity.

For choice-based IF, this list contains some good material:

Parser IF is usually a bit more challenging than choice-based IF, so not all highly-rated parser games are necessarily going to be ideal for someone just starting out. But there are some games that were designed to be friendly to novice players:

Those wanting to dig a little deeper into what the IF community considers canonical might want to check out — this is a list of the "top 50 IF games" as voted on by the intfiction bulletin board. It's skewed in favor of parser IF and is obviously a matter of opinion, but the games on this list tend to be things that the intfiction community talks about a lot or regards as touchstones. You can get more background about why people voted the way they did in the discussion thread at .

> What systems or programming languages would you recommend for people starting out with Interactive Fiction?

Twine is very popular for people who want to write primarily hypertext-style choice-based games. You can make a basic Twine piece with very little technical experience — check out for the tool and forum links. Games made in Twine can be hosted for free on , so you don't need your own website to share your work with the world.

If you want to write some parser-based IF where the player will actually be typing commands to interact, Inform 7 is probably the most widely used and supported system available. You can find the system at (or at the Mac App Store, if you're an Apple user) and get support at . In addition, Carolyn VanEseltine has some recent, up-to-date tutorials for getting started with Inform:

> What tips would you offer for someone who wants to write an Interactive Fiction game?

If you're starting on your first interactive fiction piece, try to keep your project reasonably small: you'll want something where you can see some progress and have a hope of completing the thing in a reasonable time.

Don't be afraid to ask for technical help. For that matter, don't be afraid to ask for design help and alpha-testing. Getting someone to have a look at your work in progress can be extremely useful, as well as morale-boosting.

> There is a lot of Interactive Fiction on the internet including an active community and competitions. Where do you think someone can start in the world of Interactive Fiction?

To get in touch with the community, try the forum at From there you can find out about local meetup groups, as well, if you're interested in that.

To read blog posts, including a lot of reviews and news, check out the feed aggregator at (and feel free to have your own blog aggregated there if you're writing about IF!)

ifwiki ( ) contains a lot of useful information about past and present projects; in particular the Craft page ( ) provides some design help for people learning the ins and outs of IF development.

IFDB contains links to a lot of games; it's a great place to look for things to play and for things that might be similar to a project you're working on yourself. . Among other things, IFDB contains tags that can help you find particular types of game (the tag cloud is at ), and you can also start your own poll to ask other users for recommendations of a particular game style.

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