I encountered this conversation a couple of months ago while idly thumbing through my list of saved Twitter searches, of which “warbler’s nest” is one. The first poster is Mark Sample, a humanities professor at George Mason University.
Introducing students to interactive fiction today with Jason McIntosh’s The Warbler’s Nest. bit.ly/WjjooK— Mark Sample (@samplereality) October 3, 2012
@samplereality So here’s a question: Why teach IF? Isn’t it a tech w/o a readership (beyond academics and other IF authors)?— Garrison LeMasters (@glemasters) October 3, 2012
I found myself struck and unsettled by Mark’s qualified agreement with the “tech without a readership” comment, mainly because I recognized immediately that I had no ground to disagree with it myself. What an elegant way to praise a medium’s beauty and potential while condemning its prospects for widespread appeal: It’s like poetry.
Ever since the 2010 IF revival I’ve been among those insisting that parser-based IF deserves a wider audience in an increasingly game-centric world, and should strive to find novel ways to overcome its main obstacle to help newcomers jump its first, steep hurdle: the text prompt itself, with all its hidden expectations and assumptions. I still stand behind this notion.
However, between Mark’s observations and Emily Short’s thoughts from earlier this year, I sway also towards embracing the bittersweet truth that, even allowing that it has room to grow, IF might simply be unable to support an audience past a certain size — a vanishingly small size, if we wish to compare its audience to those of all other sorts of digital games. The medium must remain obscure by the very attributes that define it. Take the parser away, and you can make a much more immediately accessible work of digital writing that probably isn’t the kind of game I am thinking about.
But I write no eulogies here! I see a future where authors, including first-timers, will continue taking parser-driven IF in startling and wonderful new directions, even more than we see today. The world will not rush to play these works, but they’ll still find their way into the machines and minds of players who know how to appreciate them — many of whom make games themselves, and who will allow these works to influence their own.
This small audience shall remain just large and chatty enough to sustain a halo of new players — even if that means that a significant number of these newcomers will discover these works via university courses and other forms of formalized learning, instead of the day-to-day cultural-transmission channels that more accessible videogames get to ride. Just like poetry.
If most of the game-playing world forever assumes that IF is a long-dead form, suitable only for nostalgic pining for green-on-black, you-have-died maze crawls, then it brings its own silver lining: over and over, another influential member of that world will delightedly discover that this is not the case, and rush to spread the message. Those of us in the know will roll our eyes at the headlines but grin anyway and carry on, and so will be medium.
Parser-based IF will continue to revolutionize, astound, and inspire. Quietly.