W riter/programmer Andrew Plotkin is the author of a series of award-winning works of Interactive Fiction,(IF) including Shade, Spider and Web, and Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home. An integral member of the IF community, he also helps support the software tools that underlie contemporary IF.
Plotkin has worked on game design and game tools his entire life, though mostly outside of the game industry and academic worlds. With his recently released Hadean Lands, a complex Interactive Fiction that was four years in the making, he continues to pursue in his words "a (perhaps chimerical) career as a creator of narrative interaction on mobile platforms."
For content | code | process, he writes about The Dreamhold. A tutorial that is also a work of Interactive Fiction, The Dreamhold offers an excellent introduction to the experience of classic Interactive Fiction
In his words:
"I've tried to create a game which rewards many species of adventurer: the inexperienced newcomer, the puzzle-hurdler, the casual tourist, the meticulous explorer, the wild experimenter, the seeker after nuances and implications."
Winner, of the Best Use of Medium 2004 XYZZY Award, The Dreamhold presents the reader, as do most IFs, with prompts that require input in the form of traditional IF commands. The process -- mediated by software (the parser) that understands and responds to certain natural language instructions -- is continually interactive; the reader navigates the story by entering text phrases at the prompts; the story responds:
T his is a place in The Dreamhold, where a reader unfamiliar with Interactive Fiction may not know what to do. In response, a text-based Tutorial Voice offers advice, suggesting:
Teachers and students, who spend time with Andrew Plotkin's Interactive Fiction Page, will find that Plotkin, aka Zarf, has provided a card with introductory IF commands, as well as a free download for iPhone/iPad. The source code for The Dreamhold is also available. However, because plot details are revealed in the code, readers may wish to play the story first.
The web version of The Dreamhold is available at http://zarfhome.com/dreamhold/
Andrew Plotkin: - The Dreamhold
T he Dreamhold was my attempt to address the traditional accessibility problems of parser-based interactive fiction. Its goals were (1) to act as a tutorial for the IF parser; (2) to provide an old-fashioned adventure experience of exploration and puzzle-solving in a broad world; (3) to be narratively interesting. ...In that order.
The first goal conditioned much of the game design. In order to provide a simple starting environment, I had the player begin in an empty white cell with only one object available. The player is cued to read a description of common IF commands, and then try the most common ones -- "LOOK", "EXAMINE", "GO". Once the player manages to leave the cell, they are rewarded with a change from a spare environment to a lavish one; this provides an opportunity to exercise curiosity and delve into details. The player quickly runs into some locked doors, which are the first formal puzzle of the game. (Although newcomers might consider the parser to be the first puzzle of any IF game...) Passing a locked door gives access to the bulk of the map, with a range of challenges.
I wanted to introduce the player to IF conventions, even those that were (even at the time) considered old-fashioned or unnecessarily troublesome. Thus The Dreamhold has darkness, a "SCORE" command, a set of colored tokens to collect, bendy passages, a maze, (of sorts) and the possibility of death. On the other hand, in-game hints are available, and the game cannot be made unwinnable. (allowing for the option of "UNDO" after death). The possibility of irreversible mistakes is demonstrated with a single object -- the apple -- which does not affect any of the game's puzzles or endings.
O f course, I expected that many players would be long-time IF experts and fans of my earlier work. To satisfy such people, I included less obvious challenges and hidden endings, as well as an "EXPERT" mode (which disables hints and increases the difficulty of some puzzles). Infocom's Suspended inspired me to also add an "IMPOSSIBLE" mode, about which the less said the better.
The game experience deliberately invokes the qualities of my own earliest IF experiences. (Adventure and Zork) The player has many avenues for exploration, once out of the restricted early-game area. The impetus for play is curiosity and discovered challenges, not an explicit story goal. I have no reason to believe this approach is best for enticing a modern audience into IF. But, faced with the choice of crafting an appeal to people like me or people unlike me, I decided to stick with what I knew.
The game's setting was built around the trope of the mystical house, one of my favorite fantasy devices. (My current work-in-progress, Hadean Lands, uses the same theme.) The language and tone were inspired by the writing of Patricia McKillip, who has portrayed the wizard's-house in several of her own books. The narrative fragments which can be discovered are my own. These do not ultimately form a large part of the game experience, but they provide a narrative thread for players who feel the need for one.
I suspect that The Dreamhold has not attracted many new players into the IF field. Of my own works, it is less often cited than Shade or Spider and Web. However, it remains available as a path into the field.
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