For IF, the PAX East aftershocks continue

Screen shot 2010-07-02 at 12.54.32 PM.pngAs we enter midsummer, the interactive fiction landscape continues its long thaw out of a decades-long winter of deep obscurity. This is an exciting time to be a fan of the medium one could call indie games’ indie games, and I feel privileged to live in one of its geographic activity centers.

To my eye, much of this motion comes from the continuing fallout from PAX East and the unexpectedly potent meeting of the minds that happened that weekend — not just among established IF authors and critics, but with lots of interested newcomers as well, many of whom help sustain the medium-transforming conversations begun in March.

The last few weeks alone have seen a rich mix of IF-related activity and discussion, which I shall now attempt to summarize:

The most recent SPAG leads with Harry Kaplan’s “How Suite it Was”, a lengthy retrospective of the goings-down at PAX East’s IF Hospitality Suite last March. Beyond Harry’s reporting, the piece collects and recounts various attendees’ memories of the event, and the impressions it left upon them.

The story also served to remind me of my own excitement about the possibilities of writing and publishing serialized interactive fiction, an idea I floated during the IF Outreach panel’s lengthy digression into the thorny topic of the medium’s commercial potential. Just a spitballed notion at the time, the idea grew on me quickly, and I filled several notebook pages with thrilled scribbles on the topic before PAX ended and therefore wiped the whole thing from my brain-cache. Rediscovering it months later, I find it just as thrilling of an unexplored area. Look for a column-length bloviation on the subject later.

Emily Short and Nick Montfort led an interesting exchange about IF interfaces on their respective blogs last month. Emily — one of the lead developers of Inform 7, which I will risk calling modern IF’s most popular language — wondered out loud if the bare-naked command-line prompt, while iconic to IF’s form, might have outlived its usefulness. Working from her notion of the command prompt as false promise (one of my own favorite takeaway notions from PAX), she explores many experimental player-input routes that other text-based games have investigated over the years, and proposes some new directions to try.

On his own blog, Nick — a champion of interactive text by profession — provides some pushback, defending pure-text input as being a natural pairing for pure-text output, and offering skepticism that any other system would ultimately prove easier for a new player to learn. The discussion bled out onto various other blogs and fora from there, and remains ongoing — see, for example, Horace Torys’ alternate interface mockups, and Sarah Morayati’s critique of IF’s library responses, the (in)famous I don’t see that here-type messages that are also, unfortunately, iconic to IF.

After a year of holding monthly meetups, the People’s Republic launched Grue Street, a monthly workshop for interactive fiction writing. Nick Montfort organized its initial meeting in May at a local coffee shop, and Clara Fernandez hosted its June meeting in an MIT classroom, with attendees taking turns casting their works-in-progress onto a projector for a group-play session.

Grue Street carries one strict attendance rule: participants must bring an original work in progress, one meaty enough for the other attendees to bite into and critique. A draft of a single in-game situation, with enough room carved out to let the player explore and interact, represents the minimum offering.

I attended Grue Street’s second meeting, and found it quite rewarding. Not only did I get to see and play a number of works from various local talents, but the event successfully pressed me into starting a new IF game of my own, something I’ve been striving to accomplish for more than a decade. Since writing the somewhat ridiculous Calliope in 1999, I’ve had many ideas for my first “real” game. Invariably they would call for sweeping, novel-length works, and naturally I failed to write a single line of code for any of them.

Under the pressure to get something encoded in time for the next Grue Street, however, I found inspiration in a different angle. My new work in progress is very small, a sour little amuse bouche rather than the sumptuous feasts I once dreamt of. And it will ship, by damn. Barring unforeseen disaster, this work will be complete by the 2010 IFComp’s starting gun this fall, and I have Grue Street to thank for finally lighting that kindling.

The latest version of the Inform 7 programming language and IDE has been released, a year after its previous major update. The most recent page of its excellently off-kilter, Harpers-list-style changelog reveals all.

For me, one feature stands dominant over all others: the IDE’s new ability to release one’s work as a website, with the game running tidily and attractively in-browser, thanks to Atul Varma’s marvelous Parchment system. New sections of the documentation detail ways to customize outputted websites through CSS.

That’s its pretty new Mac OS X icon at the top of this article, by the way, designed by Inform’s creator, Graham Nelson. He also wrote an essay about how that icon came to be.

Speaking of both Grue Street and playing IF in a web browser, a more notable piece of that workshop’s output is Andrew Plotkin’s Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home, a short game with a hard-SF setting but a lighthearted storytelling style — a tall tale of the high seas from a dizzyingly distant future. And, lo, you can play it online.

Emily Short wrote a review of Heliopause over on Play This Thing.

I’ll be forthright with you: I meant to release a Gameshelf video episode about the state of interactive fiction earlier this year, but that definition has been, from my perspective, transforming with alarming rapidity since PAX East. On the one hand I’m glad I waited (ha ha, “waited”, he says), and on the other I have the sense that when I finally do ship this video, it might unavoidably start looking obsolete pretty quickly — especially if the IF community keeps its current transformative pace up.

This is not a complaint. All this stuff happened just over the last five weeks, and I haven’t even told you about the cool games I played. (Like, I finally got around to playing Sarah Morayati’s hilarious and cruel Broken Legs, as well as Jimmy Maher’s Lovecraftian RPG adaptation The King of Shreds and Patches.) Yes, it’s an exciting time be a text-game fan, all right.

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One Response to For IF, the PAX East aftershocks continue

  1. Laroquod says:

    Exciting times! I hope the momentum lasts. I would place the resurgence of interest in IF in the context of a resurgence of 'classic' (what they now call 'retro' to also encompass new works) gaming forms in general, around the world. Here in Toronto there is a vibrant new indie/retro game design community developing with the Hand Eye Society and other venues: it's incredibly exciting. This is a bit of a historical moment I think that represents a huge opportunity for IF, and I hope to see that opportunity pressed with the acceleration of new projects out there, including my own.

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