A Look Down the Interactive Fiction Road

by Eric Swain

7 May 2013

Not limited by what can actually be represented on screen, interactive fiction can stretch the limits of creators' (and players') imaginations as well as create deeper narrative interaction.

Gaming is a large and vast medium, and yet game critics tend to only focus on such a narrow margin of that whole medium. Big studio blockbusters and certain types of independent games take up the limelight and the column inches, as it were. Very little gets mentioned outside certain parameters. Even in this more indie friendly climate, so much gets lost or pushed aside.

There are plenty of games not within the normal parameters of the gaming mainstream that don’t get their criticism. They have much smaller and more niche audiences. One of those wells that I’ve been dipping into lately is the world of interactive fiction. The genre is an evolution of the text adventure had the genre never moved past the text parser and into the realms of graphical interfaces. Not limited by what can actually be represented on screen, they can stretch the limits of their creators’ (and players’) imagination as well as create deeper narrative interaction.
I’ve tried old school text adventures and can only get so far in them. There is a level of patience that games like Zork and Planetfall expect from you on your first time through. If you dealt with them when they originally came out, I can see how going back to them would be less of a problem, but for a modern audience, they are historical relics. What I was surprised to find in more contemporary examples of the genre is how streamlined and hassle free creators have made the interface to this kind of fiction. Here are two that I’ve played recently.

Castle of the Red Prince (CEJ Pacian, 2013)

Castle of the Red Prince is a relatively short fantasy text-adventure game that tries a few interesting things in an effort to simplify the experience, one of which is how it changes the relationship that the player has to the space in its world. Normally in such games, the player will type in the direction that he or she wants to go before moving to a corresponding room. Castle of the Red Prince does away with that system. I almost included it awhile ago when I talked about Thirty Flights of Loving as an additional example of a game exhibiting a cinematic-style compression of time and space. Instead of inputting cardinal directions as you move from space to space, you just have to type “go” and then your destination. The change creates less of a sense of travel and more of a sense of a “fade out”-style of transition from one location and fade in on another. Likewise, time moves forward. On entering each location, the player is told the time of day—mid-morning, early afternoon, evening etc. You cannot do everything in a single day, and all of the traveling around that usually signals players of such games that they are stuck on what to do next will cause the day to end faster. From there, the player will interact with a built-in hint system. It is woven into the narrative. Each night when you go to bed, you will dream a clue about the next step.

The game compresses space and time. It makes sure only the important plot points are left in the story, cutting out all the extraneous fat. In this way, Castle of the Red Prince offers a more cinematic game experience with only text than most AAA blockbusters.

Other than that, the game offers a refreshing take on the fantasy genre in that it is far less detailed than most. The mechanics of the world aren’t explained beyond what is necessary to solve the few puzzles that the game offers. It doesn’t get bogged down in developing the world’s lore or in world building. Instead, it relyies on a few iconographic ideas from real world mythology and allows the world to be germinated by the player’s mind filling in what is largely unknown. It leaves the world with an air of wonder and a return to a classical style of fantasy, a time before everything needed explanation and magic became science.

Lost Pig (And Place Under Ground) (Admiral Jota, 2007)

Lost Pig is a high concept text-adventure. It takes what is usually simply the speech patterns of the player in a text adventure and turns those patterns into a form of characterization. You play Grunk, a dim-witted farm hand and—you later learn, after some deft foreshadowing—an orc. All the “Look Wall” and “Take Torch” commands make sense in this context, and the descriptions are suitably in character as well. The game is a simple affair, in which you chase a pig that got out of a pen to an underground shrine/museum occupied by a forgotten gnome. The only other people that you meet are the pig and the gnome, who plays caretaker to this underground location.

Apart from the brilliance of having the game written all in character is the gnome himself. You can talk about almost anything, and he will have a response for you. By far, the most fascinating part of the game is to see these two characters interact, Grunk and the gnome. Grunk’s limited intelligence is pitted against Gnome’s infinite patience. The game will give you random suggestions on what you can ask, and these suggestions never seem to run out. I spent over an hour ignoring the rest of the game just to talk to this gnome. I doubt that I ever hit the bottom of what he could say. Yes, he can act as a hint giver, but most of what he says has nothing to do with anything and just adds flavor to the world.

The worldview of Lost Pig is so small, but feels so vibrant. It takes place in a single location over a single night for the sake of reaching a relatively small goal. Finding a lost farm animal in video games is usually the training wheels quest at the beginning of the game before an incident that incites action and before saving the world is on the table. Here, this task is Grunk’s world.  It’s a much smaller story, and therefore, it is far more satisfying when you finally get your hands on that damn pig. With much smaller stakes, they feel more important. You want Grunk to get the pig back so he can keep his job and go to bed. That is a relatable goal, one that we all can understand.

These are two examples of puzzle-focused entries in the interactive fiction genre. Their stories are simple and their world at the mercy of their puzzle construction. They weave these elements together well, but they are still examples of an older school of thought, iterations on well-worn concepts. Next week I’ll look at examples on the other end of the scale, those with more thematic meat on their bones.

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