Fictionally interactive

Walking simulators and interactive fiction

(Excerpt from the book Let a Billion Videogames Bloom.)

Looking back, it's amazing to see how many things we now take for granted in gameing were pioneered by the interactive fiction renaissance. One of them is the environmental narrative (walking simulator for friends). Good luck finding a modern, graphical example that precedes The Fire Tower (2004), by Jacqueline A. Lott. Where the typical text adventure is expected to have a compact map with high interaction density, because it's after all a glorified puzzle box, this new breed of game puts the world first: a place to explore and enjoy as such. Which, ironically, isn't a new approach, but a return to the spirit of Adventure and Zork. No wonder so many people remember those two more fondly than literally everything that came later.

In retrospect, most of my text adventures wanted to be like that. Drawing the map first is a terrible mistake in static fiction, but for an interactive piece it can work really well. The hard part is making it meaningful for the audience, because nobody cares about a bunch of rocks; a world is brought to life by the people who live in it: their hopes and hardships, friends, foes, fights, and ultimately what they leave behind.

In other words, by stories. Walking simulators simply reveal stories from a different angle than most other media. I say most, because there is precedent, such as the Dennis Wheatley crime dossiers. Or for that matter tabletop RPG sourcebooks and boxed sets, if you're willing to treat them as literature rather than add-ons for a game to be played.

Well, so far my forays into RPG books have met with mixed success, and I'm not in a position to make the modern, 3D kind of walking simulator. But I can still write descriptions just fine, and even add the occasional illustration. It's a good fit for parser games and hypertext alike, as it turned out when porting City of Dead Leaves from Seltani to Alan 3, and then again to Texture. Along the way it even acquired a web of easy puzzles, only meant to ensure players visit all rooms in the game. A good thing probably, seeing how it ended up shedding text. Not what you want in a genre players appreciate for the pleasure of reading.

It still came out well enough to make Texture my first choice when working on Kitty and the Sea. Too bad this time it didn't work out. The experience wasn't as good as my memories, and I wanted to flesh out the existing text, not trim it down even further! Squiffy would have been a better fit, except it's designed for stories that move in a given direction, as opposed to going back and forth. You can force the issue, but going against the grain is always a bad idea. And so I ended up not using it this time either.

Oh well, I meant to try out the new Chapbook story format for Tweego anyway.

Imagine a book where focusing on certain words makes the text unfold like an origami flower, revealing more detail — but only when you're ready. Imagine a book where the text changes according to season. Most books don't need any of that; most of the time it would be just a gimmick. Sometimes however you read a text on paper that wanted to work like that and couldn't.

Sometimes I feel just like Case, the protagonist of Neuromancer, watching Molly via cyberdeck as she walks through a flea market. He wants to turn and look at all the curious items on sale, but isn't in control, and it feels wrong.

Sometimes, computers really do have something to add. As long as you try to, you know, build upon the original medium, instead of aiming to turn books into a CD-ROM encyclopedia from a quarter century ago.

Oops, this is getting off topic. Or is it? Adapting static fiction to a game format suffers from a notorious failure mode, and even game stories written as such from the start often grant the player less freedom than they claim, or else less meaning (here's that word again). It makes sense, too: the point of a story isn't that certain events result from certain others; of course they do. Question is, why should anyone care about those particular events?

Answering this question is the essence of storytelling. It's what a storyteller does: picking those events that matter from among countless others, and weaving them together in a way the audience can follow and appreciate. Once that's done, what's left for the audience to contribute? (Apart from fan art and fiction, anyway.)

Why, pointing out the parts that draw their attention the most. The parts they'd like to get a closer look at. Good stories have many layers anyway, such that different people can all find something of value in them.

Walking simulators simply make that explicit. And the same tools we use to present players with intricate puzzles, or branches in the path, can be used much more easily to enrich a fictional world in ways that a printed page couldn't possibly sustain without becoming unreadable.

Kitty and the Sea is just a feeble first attempt. 4000 words long, and with fewer hidden nooks than I would have liked. Maybe my next adventure game, or the one after that, will finally stand comparison to a 15-year-old masterpiece.

That is, if I find something to say by then. And that's always the hardest part.