Thursday, December 9, 2010

What IF is harder and easier than

Aaron Reed's recent book Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 opens with this quote:
All around him, the Machines' fleet and orbital stations are blasting away at his tree ships, burning the mighty trunks like firewood.
(-- from The Duel That Spanned the Ages by Oliver Ullmann)

Aaron goes on to describe the development work that this scene would require in a triple-A, commercial, graphical game. Concept artists, modellers, texture artists, animators, sound designers, probably a musician, and programmers to pull it all together. You know the drill.

"As IF, all the author had to do was write those twenty-two words," Aaron notes.

This is one of the clear benefits of IF. I can sit down and write a game in a month. (Not a Hadean Lands sized game, no. But Shade, Heliopause, and Delightful Wallpaper were all four-week efforts for me.)

In the game development realm, this is unprecedented freedom. Sure, there are plenty of small-scale graphical games out there; even one-weekend games. But for a complete, detailed, polished game and story experience? IF lets you make 'em in the time that most designers would need for a prototype.

I want to use the phrase "throwaway games", except that's dismissive. (And I admit I'm a perfectionist even on short games.) It's not about throwing them away, but throwing them out there; you can try an idea, develop it, and see how it runs. In a larger game, you can add a scene or scrap one in a few days of effort.

...And with that self-congratulatory mindset, I ran across this post on the writing of books, by novelist Delia Sherman:
Bull on through regardless, throwing words at the wall in the hope that some will stick. One member of my writing group, when writing her first draft, writes scenes that seem to happen in Real Time, in which the characters sit around cooking dinner or mending harness while talking about the weather or the crops or their love lives for PAGES AND PAGES, which is fun for us to read, but not ultimately useful to the plot or the structure of the novel, in the course of which she will write [FLOUNDER], which is obviously exactly what she (and her characters) are doing. She doesn't rewrite them until she's finished the draft, at which point they either disappear or get so completely rewritten that maybe only the setting and one line of dialogue survive from the original. She finds writing them immensely useful, though, however seemingly inefficient, for getting to know characters, for creating an atmosphere or details of her world.
(-- from How to Survive A First Draft, Delia Sherman, Nov 27 2010)

I winced, because I never do anything like this in IF. Write reams of interactive code, to get the feel of a scene, and then throw it away? No. I have to work the whole sequence of game events out in my head, before I can possibly start coding. Not down to the single-action or single-response level -- I'm willing to wing it to that extent -- but nearly all my scenes are first-draft-perfect. Or, they'd better be. Changing them is too much work!

This is one of my big stumbling stones in becoming a better writer, obviously. I don't write nearly enough. And yet, it's the same pace and schedule which (I hope) makes me a good game designer; I can do so much, compared to the typical game creation process!

So there we are, and I don't have a moral for the post. Or maybe I do, and it's about the underlying level of craft in the book and videogame worlds. The broadest stereotypes of the fields are that books can be crap, but games are usually crap. You don't have to tell me about the exceptions. I'm just pointing at the sheer amount of work that it takes to get an interactive scene out, as compared to a written scene. How will I ever get enough practice?

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Paul A. (Dec 13, 2010 at 9:44 AM):

I don't think you should worry too much about comparing yourself against a single datapoint. "Bull on through regardless, throwing words at the wall in the hope that some will stick" only works for some people; there are novelists, too, who need to work the whole sequence of events out in their head before they can possibly begin typing.

One of my writing teachers, when the topic of Proper Technique came up, liked to quote Kipling:

There are nine-and-sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.

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