Interactive Fiction & Me
Updated: Sep 21, 2018
INTRO: BLOGGING FOR MARY-MARGARET NETWORK In March 2009, when I was a struggling writer intent on breaking into the gaming industry, recruiting guru Mary-Margaret Walker generously comped me into GDC09 in San Francisco. Once I'd toured the convention and found her booth, she was happy to answer many of my questions about the industry. She also suggested that I might return the favor by writing a series of blogs for Mary-Margaret Network, which was eager to add lots of quality content to its site focused on gaming professionals. I conceptualized eight possible blogs based on my relevant experiences at the time, and submitted seven of them between May 2009 and May 2010, after which M&M redid their site and all that content went away. I've unearthed those seven pieces and present them on my own blog in all their eager naiveté. (Pretty sure this first one was published, but I have no record of when.)
INTERACTIVE FICTION AND ME What kid doesn't dream about rewriting reality when things aren't going his way? As a young escapist, I was always reading stories, watching movies, and losing myself in immersive play. Then I got my first taste of branching story lines while visiting the Czech Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. It was "Kino-Automat: The World's First Interactive Movie" by Raduz Cincera. During this film, the action stopped five times, and someone would come out and ask the audience to choose between two possible outcomes, voting with the red or green buttons in the arms of our chairs. I vaguely recall a story involving a towel-clad woman locked out of her apartment, but the really important part, the sense of storytelling possibility, stayed with me over the years.
As a writer, I started exploring interactive fiction while developing my craft in college. I merrily created random scenes that suggested bigger stories, and when they started bleeding into each other, I'd build my story arc from what had happened so far and where it seemed to be going. This process included taking roll call in my journal, with each character checking in and sometimes mixing it up with the others. I started using this check-in model for my December holiday stories, where characters from my various projects represented their worlds, which were all very different flavors of science fiction and fantasy. And the next logical step was my zine Information Sickness, which pretended to be a news journal reporting events from parallel universes but was, at its core, the organic evolution of a multi-threaded novel in progress.
What about professional applications for this developing skill set? Well, jumping back about a decade to the early '80s, long before Al Gore invented the Internet, I was invited to join two interactive storytelling projects. First, my media-savvy friend suggested "Chanscape," a branching story that would be serialized in daily newspapers. Players would read a short paragraph, make a random binary decision, and see where it took them the next day. Some branches would be pruned through early losses to keep the tree size manageable, and there would be only one winning outcome. The project went nowhere, probably because I chose to treat it as a showcase for my literary genius. The player was originally supposed to jump from airplanes, land in high-speed boat chases, and steal precious objects from bad guys. The player was not supposed to spend four days making wrong turns in storm sewers with cryptic idiot savants quoting Shakespeare! (Alan's rule #1: Don't show off when you're supposed to keep it simple.)
Around this time, my programmer friends commissioned "The Sleeping Castle," a text adventure game. I didn't play computer games, but just a few minutes of looking at what was out there convinced me I'd thrive in this literary form. Like the fictional experiments described above, I started somewhere in the middle, and then reverse-engineered a story line and logic tree. I wasn't computer literate at the time, so I spent my summer break writing the game in tiny block print on page after page of yellow lined paper. I layered complexity and detailed conditions on top of N-E-S-W navigation and basic lists of tools and treasures. My friends cut it back to something much simpler when they wrote the code, and the homemade marketing package looked cool enough, but they never found a publisher for it, probably because the gaming market was already evolving away from text-based play. I tucked a demo diskette into my portfolio packages some 14 years later when I made my career shift, but I don’t know if anyone ever ran the dumbed-down version. I kind of hope not!
So what actually happened when I entered the new media market as a writing professional? More next time.
Alan K. Lipton calls himself a fictioneer because he brings his core storytelling skills to any project that uses language to entertain, educate, or otherwise engage. To learn more, visit [URL that's no longer active].