Interacting with Andrew Plotkin

This is the second entry in “Playing Between The Lines,” a series of expeditions into the evolving space of interactive storytelling, its praxes and practical benefits.

Last time, we examined certain properties of interactive storytelling and discussed their implications for literature as a whole. What this inquiry failed to address, of course, was the fact that one of the oldest forms of computer entertainment has been straddling the border between literature and the interactive since the mid-’70s. Often misrepresented as a dead genre, interactive fiction, sometimes known as text adventures and often abbreviated IF, has enjoyed a steady but stealthy renaissance in the past twenty years, thanks to the contributions of independent authors such as Andrew Plotkin.

On his Kickstarter page, Plotkin refers to himself as “a hacker, game designer, and general messer-around of code, art, and language.” Winner of eighteen total XYZZY awards, the IF equivalent of the Oscars, Plotkin has also made numerous technical contributions that have helped make the form more widely accessible. In July 2010 he gave a lecture that attempted to describe IF for readers and writers of traditional fiction, providing a much more elegant and comprehensive introduction than I could hope to. He’s also compiled a page of decent introductory works in the form.

Near the beginning of November, Plotkin made the shocking announcement that he would be quitting his day-job to write interactive fiction, which has been almost exclusively freely-distributed since 1989, full-time. Within a single day, his announced goal of $8,000 in pledges to kickstart this enterprise had already been surpassed, with total pledges exceeding $31,000 as of the sixth of December–a strong indication of the respect the author commands. His first commercially distributed work will be Hadean Lands, available semi-exclusively on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, a teaser of which is available here.

While all of Plotkin’s major IF works are available to experience in-browser at his website, three in particular are worth singling out. Shade begins in a dark, cramped apartment, but it is not long before the bleak, arid atmosphere, and the overwhelming sense of melancholy, begin weighing down the walls of your tiny existence. Spider and Web is a Rashomon-esque reimagining of the relationship between the interactor’s input and the story–or in this case, stories–consequently constructed. Lastly, Hunter, in Darkness draws inspiration from the classic computer game Hunt The Wumpus, imbuing it with a palpable sense of dread, darkness, and the terror of survival.

Recently, Black Clock had the opportunity to do some old-school interaction with Plotkin, the kind that involves two human beings swapping ideas. In this case, we asked him a few questions about his past and present work, as well as his vision regarding the possibilities of the form in which he works.

BLACK CLOCK: You’re best known as an author of interactive fiction. What exactly does that mean? Just what is it you do?

ANDREW PLOTKIN: I write programs that simulate a story world in an interesting, explorable way.

I build adventure games with a familiar command-line interface, in which the player types simple text commands and the game responds with textual output.

I write stories with a head-thumping abundance of setting and description, inexplicably in the second-person point of view, which give the reader just enough influence over insignificant details to feel responsible for the protagonist’s mistakes.

I take part in a retro school of game design which hearkens back to 1975 (and which was commercially extinct by 1990).

I take part in a forward-looking school of game design which experiments and innovates much faster, and with far more freedom, than the “real” game industry.

Ever heard someone say “twisty maze of little passages, all alike”? Or “it’s dark, you are likely to be eaten by a grue”? I write those.

Alongside people like Graham Nelson, Adam Cadre, and Emily Short, you’re one of the biggest names in independently-developed IF. What’s your proudest contribution?

I hate to choose. Not because of excessive modesty (I’m no more humble than the next guy), but because comparing art with craft is hard. Was it more valuable to create a new IF virtual machine that people now rely on, to come up with a clever dissection of IF storytelling through unreliable narration, or to write an introspective, allusive game that pointed IF beyond the genre adventure story?

Okay, I’m really no more humble than the next guy. The point is, I’m differently proud of software tools, narrative tools, and stories. I’d like to say that I’m most proud of inventing a new rule-based programming paradigm, but after years of thrashing I still haven’t succeeded in inventing it!

On that note, in what role–programmer or writer–do you feel more comfortable?  Or do you inhabit a space between?

I am completely comfortable as a programmer. Programming is easy; you turn the pieces around until they’re elephant-shaped, and then you add anything necessary to hold them in the shape of an elephant, and presto, it’s an elephant. Sometimes you have to knock a bit in half to make the ear look right. I was a programmer to begin with–I mean, from age nine at latest, and we didn’t even have a computer until I was ten–and programming is what I’ve done to make a living.

That is to say: writing is the hard part for me. I haven’t had any formal training in writing, so I’ve had to invent what I do based on the works that I read. See previous question.

I can divide the question up further: I am comfortable writing text, but I’m uncertain writing stories. (This is both cause and effect. IF gives you lots of text to write, even in a game with a slender story, or no story at all. Talent is what you pursue.) If you accused me of pushing those structural boundaries, or writing allusively, in order to gloss over stories that I’m not confident about–I wouldn’t deny it.

You’ve been active in making IF accessible to a more general audience. Do you imagine a future where IF, or some variation thereof, has become as ubiquitous as traditional books?

Imagine? I imagine futures in which people play IF while drifting on very slow glacier-barges across the Mediterranean icefields, pausing occasionally to fight off narratively-starved hordes of extremely literate snow-crabs. Imagining these things is easy.

I don’t find it likely that IF will become as popular as books (that is, books in general)–nor as popular as games (games in general). It’s a narrower medium, and it will have a narrower, more dedicated audience.

But if you were asking me about some new genre of book, I’d inevitably tell you it’s not as popular as books in general. That’s always the wrong question. I think IF could be as ubiquitous as (say) fantasy noir detective stories, or as popular as casual tower-defense games. IF could develop a following that isn’t scattered and disconnected–regular players could be hooked up to authors writing regularly. With discussion and criticism in the literary press.

Then we’d be complaining that our subgenre isn’t as popular as farming teenage vampires, but it’s always something, right?

Speaking of books, have any non-interactive works of fiction been of particular influence to your IF? Or does it change with every project?

You can recognize particular influences–setting, tone, or event–from all sorts of sources. Heliopause riffs on the lyric space opera of Jack Williamson and George R. R. Martin. Hunter has a claustrophobic moment inspired by an Alan Garner novel. Delightful Wallpaper is notionally set in an Edward Gorey illustration.

(I like to remind people that Delightful Wallpaper was inspired by House of Leaves, because the influence is completely undetectable. Except that there’s a house. The book was the start of a thought process, which went off around several corners.)

These aren’t interesting answers. The more fundamental influences…. When I look at prose I try to remember the textures that Patricia McKillip writes. Dave Duncan, and more recently Brandon Sanderson, are great at constructing fictional tools (devices, magics) that interact in subtle, systematic, and surprising ways. C. J. Cherryh can portray a setting, universe and all, just by framing a character’s point of view. Diana Wynne Jones describes the fantastical by grounding it in the reader’s unconscious knowledge of the real world. I try to do all these things.

What element or work of IF first reeled you in as a reader/player? Following from that, what motivated your decision to author your own work?

I got hooked playing Colossal Cave (a.k.a. Adventure), the original text adventure, when I was a child. My father’s office had a take-your-kid-to-work day–one of the few places I could have seen a computer in 1978 or so. He plunked me down in front of a mainframe terminal, and the rest was history.

I started writing IF by sitting in front of the family Apple (a few years later) and thinking “Ok, I can do this. Text input, text output.” I don’t think there was ever a question that I wanted to write IF. IF was the best kind of game there was.

Are there particular spaces or narratives you feel IF is better equipped to explore than traditional fiction?  Than graphical games?

Usually I’m asked what kinds of story-telling IF is best equipped to handle. Immersion, complicity, playing points of view off each other–easy answers. Text games (like any prose form) can do internality and voice; any visual form has to strain to imitate those. (Generally by adding voices, but spoken text is so slow.) IF lets you collapse a room, a building, or a neighborhood into one unit for the player’s attention.

But you asked about spaces and narratives, not techniques. That’s a more interesting question. Questions.

Far as we’ve come in the past twenty years, IF is still best at explorational, environmental stories. A book with that much setting can turn into a travelogue, but in IF you’ve got your hands in it; it won’t get dull. Or it shouldn’t.

Any narrative that turns on a realization is ideal for interactive presentation. Particularly so if the realization is in the reader’s head, with contrasting movement in the protagonist’s. A story that’s conveyed with a system of rules, rather than events, makes great IF…. You know, these are terrible answers. Explore an island! Solve a puzzle! You don’t need me for this.

We’ve just barely begun to figure out what kinds of stories can be told — can only be told — in multiple revisions. What can be conveyed from many outcomes considered together? (Or many in-goes, perhaps?) I don’t have an answer.

In Dual Transform we move between various spaces by invoking metasemantic archetypes, and in Delightful Wallpaper we’re dealing with potentialities and intentions, with all means of physical interaction cut off. Navigation in The Space Under The Window is virtually indescribable by IF standards. Do you think it’s necessary to redefine the way the interactor moves through or conceives space in order to create the sort of conceptual spaces that interest you?

Redefining movement is not necessary, no. Space is a wonderful toy and I love playing with it; it goes back to my love of mazes. (Many IF players will tell you they’re sick of mazes in IF; but if they tell you they’ve never loved mazes, I don’t believe ’em.) But it’s just one toy.

It is necessary for me to build interactions that will befuddle, enlighten, surprise, and then (again) enlighten the player. You could say that any such complex interaction is metaphorically navigation in a state-space. I might say that myself; my perception of game mechanics (and programming mechanics, and probably people mechanics) is proprioceptive and structural, rather than verbal or visual or what have you. But that’s just a way of modeling the design. In the story world, the interesting interactions could just as well be about manipulating objects, or manipulating the environment, as about spatial movement. Wallpaper is an example of all three, in different ways.

(I just asked a bunch of IF-playing friends if they loved mazes, and some of them said “sure” and some looked at me like I was nuts. So, now you know my biases.)

Playing Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home, I found myself naturally falling into these nautical or nautical-romantic terms during play, such as ‘weigh anchor’ or ‘hoist rigging’ or even ‘go forth.’  The effect was really liberating, and at the same time immersive; it allowed me to lose myself in the rhythms of this world. Do you think modern IF has become too mired in its traditional input language, these plain dry verbs that have been handed down from things like Zork and Adventure?  How useful is it to revise that vocabulary?

I push around the edges, but the center is always the same. Or if it’s not, shifting it takes a great deal of work.

Even Heliopause relies on some old-school taking, dropping, and putting. Indeed, you can play it through entirely with the standard vocabulary–get the anchor, open the sails, wait. Discovering the new verbs is fun, but if the player reaches for the old ones and finds empty space, the mood will crack right apart.

Heliopause might be on the edge of what we can do. I chose a vocabulary that most people (most native English-speakers, anyway) would recognize. I laid down a great number of verbs, mapping to a very few actions, so that all of the obvious guesses would have useful effect. And most players don’t know real sailing terminology, after all. It’s not like I tried to handle knots.

Plus, Heliopause is short. I think I took the sailing actions as far as I could; any more would have gotten (more) mechanical and tedious. So should more games try (as it were) this tack? Of course; but it’s a harder course than it appears.

How do you deal gracefully with the need to provide your audience with the vocabulary they need for a successful interaction, without sacrificing immersion?

It’s not a graceful maneuver. Nobody expects it to be, at this point.

(Even in commercial video games, teaching the interface isn’t subtle. You’re maintaining good immersion if you pop up a discreet “press X to jump” banner, as opposed to having the protagonist shout “Press the X button to make me jump!”)

Heliopause starts in a very simple environment; you have nothing to do, which is a pointed clue. The description says you can “weigh anchor”. If you try flying or launching (or even going upward), the game again suggests “weigh anchor” or “raise anchor”. The command is (I hope) impossible for the player to avoid, and I repeat it relentlessly. Subtlety is just not worth the risk at this point; if the player doesn’t step into the right frame of mind, the rest of the game is wasted.

In the Hadean Lands demo, I flat-out order the player to try “recall” and “speak word” at the appropriate points. Since I want to make that game accessible to newcomers, I might go farther, and add tutorial messages for all the familiar IF actions.

Later on, one can back down the learning curve, beckoning the player into her own realizations. You’re still managing the process of learning; but you’ve built more structure for the player to climb.

Then, of course, you spend hours sweating out all the possible variations that a player might type. No learning process is unambiguous.

Let’s talk about Hadean Lands for a moment. Without asking you to show your hand too much, is there something new you’re planning, either in terms of narrative or interaction, with this upcoming project?

How about this? I want to get back to an element which isn’t new at all: resource puzzles. 1980s adventure games were full of items that you could use up, destroy, or run out of — food, lantern fuel, fragile treasures, spells that only worked once. If you consumed a resource for the wrong reason (or just ate the food too quickly), well, too bad. You’d have to back up to an old saved game and try to find another way through.

In that era, players expected that sort of hardcore foolery. You kept your saved games, and you expected to run through tough scenes dozens of times before figuring out the right plan. But that got less popular when graphical adventures came along. Maneuvering through a sequence of video animations was slow, particular on 1990-era computers. A style of gameplay which was already tedious in text (where you could type quickly and skim, after all) turned into a tarpit of graphical frustration.

Myst firmly established the idea that there were no fatal mistakes, only puzzles you haven’t solved yet. (Aside perhaps for a few dramatically-failed denouements.) Text games rapidly began following the same path–particularly in the IF Competition, which invited short games and promised a tighter, less frustrating experience.

My first few games allowed fatal mistakes, but for the past decade I’ve been sticking to the “polite,” safer model. I don’t regret that. But I miss the puzzle designs that are possible when you have irrecoverable choices to make.

So for Hadean Lands, I’m going to try a compromise. As you know if you’ve played the demo, you’ll have alchemical resources to use. Some are in limited supply. As you’ll also see in the demo, space and time are… fractured, perhaps… and that will offer a way to recover from mistakes. You’ll be able to try different combinations of elements to solve problems. The trick will be finding combinations that don’t require the same element.

I have to keep the frustration within tight bounds, of course — the iPhone interface discourages unnecessary typing. So there will be shortcuts for various paths, once you know how they work. You won’t have to repeat sequences of commands. That’s all to the good; the fantastic shouldn’t be made familiar through repetition.

Writing IF full-time sounds like a bold move. Do you see it returning as a commercially viable form sometime in the future, or would you prefer IF works remain freely shared among the community?

Didn’t you start by asking me this?

Yes, yes, I do see IF becoming commercially viable. I could be hallucinating, but I see it. Whether I truly wind up doing this full-time depends on the success of Hadean Lands. I’ve collected enough advance funding to cover its development. If that turns out to be repeatable, then I’ve got myself a career. If not, I’ll do something else.

The community will continue to freely share IF works — of course. We’re several Internet decades past the point where anyone could pretend that a free art community is antithetical to commercial art. If my livelihood has to struggle against a tide of work freely available online, then — I’ll have proven that IF is just as viable as writing, music, and filmmaking. Right? Because all of those people have the same problems. I look forward to it.

by Byron Alexander Campbell
a Black Clock Editorial Assistant preoccupied by dreams and theories of interactivity


  1. Interview mit Andrew Plotkin…

    Das Gaming-Portal Adventure Classic Gaming befragte Andrew Plotkin über sein Hadean Lands-Projekt, seine Rolle in der IF-Community, die Arbeit als Autor und Kritiker und die ersten Erfahrungen mit Textadventures. Lesenswert! Nachtrag 14.01.2011: Auch …

  2. […] Interacting with Andrew Plotkin Byron Alexander Campbell Black Clock An interview exploring IF storytelling and techniques, as well as Plotkin’s influences, many of which are genre: When I look at prose I try to remember the textures that Patricia McKillip writes. Dave Duncan, and more recently Brandon Sanderson, are great at constructing fictional tools (devices, magics) that interact in subtle, systematic, and surprising ways. C. J. Cherryh can portray a setting, universe and all, just by framing a character’s point of view. Diana Wynne Jones describes the fantastical by grounding it in the reader’s unconscious knowledge of the real world. I try to do all these things. […]

  3. […] Interacting with Andrew Plotkin Byron Alexander Campbell Black Clock An interview exploring IF storytelling and techniques, as well as Plotkin’s influences, many of which are genre: […]

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