IF and the Hitchhiker's Guide, but not the way you think

Monday, July 5, 2010

Comments: 6   (latest July 16)

Tagged: douglas adams, pacing, comedy, interactive fiction, if, theory

I have a new theory about IF. Okay, no. It's an analogy. It's not even much of an analogy, but let me change the subject. Pacing!

Let's talk. About pacing.

(Time passes.)

IF authors think about pacing all the time -- in a sense, everything an IF game is pacing. Why is there a puzzle at that point? Because you want the player to stop and engage with the story at that point. Why is some object in a closed (not even locked) chest? Because you want the player to slow down and take in the environment before proceeding. Why did you set up an implicit open action for that door? Because you don't want to slow down the player as he dashes through. Every decision about what to implement, what to split out, and what to bundle together, is a decision about how much attention you want the player to invest at that point.

This sort of pacing has its analog in the world of traditionally-written fiction. When writing a novel, you decide how many words to spend describing each plot event, each character and detail. That's familiar ground.

But then there's the broader sense of pacing: when is the character running for his life, and when is he catching up with his friends? When is she manipulating a hostile alien god, and when is she in the burn ward recovering from the consequences? In other words, how do you arrange different kinds of story action?

IF is weirdly uncognizant of this axis -- at least, that's my experience. Sure, we have rising and falling intensity of action. But a given game tends to be all the same kind of thing. In Shade you're exploring an apartment, in Heliopause you're exploring a galaxy. You don't generally discuss the situation with your sister over dinner, or get stressed out about it the next day at work. These would be natural scenes in written fiction, but not in IF.

Some of this is a matter of length: short stories are by their nature focussed. But only a few stories (and they the shortest) are as focussed as the average IFComp game. Even long-form IF tends to stick to one action model; different sorts of action are cut-scenes or tangentially described.

The explanation isn't obscure. IF has to work so hard to get the player comfortable with one set of actions, that introducing another -- just for a "relaxation" scene -- feels like unnecessary complication.

Let me put it another way. In a novel, if the protagonist is running for her life in the first scene, the reader expects that to be a prologue; the story will continue with either a flashback or an expansion to a broader focus. Whereas in IF, if the first scene is running for your life, the player expects that to be the tutorial level. And figures that the entire game will use these running mechanics.

I've nearly lost touch with my original analogy, so I'll introduce it before it leaves town:

IF is like comedy. Yes? No? You think?

...It's hard, and you have to work like hell to set it up and get the audience in the right spot for the payoff. It's so hard that the entire shape of the work gets wrapped around it. Comedy has its own forms: sketch comedy, standup. It comes in small chunks. It gets the half-hour slots on TV. It runs short because everything has to be perfect and perfectly timed, and only towering geniuses (Douglas Adams, e.g.) can keep that up for a long form.

Okay, it's not a perfect analogy. You don't have to be Douglas Adams to write long-form IF (although, obviously, it helps) but you do have to keep the "running gag" going. Switching tracks can derail the audience.

(Mind you, most humor isn't comedy. You can be funny in a novel without making the whole thing one running gag. Unlike with IF. It would be nice if you could sprinkle little bits of interactivity into a traditional story that way.... I've gotten off-track myself, haven't I.)

Fine, forget the analogy, back to IF design. How can we work around this homogenous-action problem?

The usual fallback is to familiar IF actions -- walking, taking, reading -- something so common that it doesn't need to be introduced. You send the player home, and give him easy things to do.

Or, of course, you can switch to dialogue. There isn't one conversation model in IF, but if you introduce one of the standard ones in chapter two, nobody's going to kick.

If you can introduce a second set of game mechanics, naturally, that's great. (I guess Spider and Web is the extreme example of this.)

You still have to think about changing the flow of story time, though. IF is conventionally action-by-action. You rarely write a "take" action that isn't notionally ten seconds long. Sure, you could specifically evoke further story beats in a cut-scene-like way: "take sandwich" turns into a sit-down meal and a screenful of conversation. But that feels a little jarring. The player didn't mean to sit down, he meant to pick up the sandwich. I use this trick, but I feel a little guilty when I do.

We don't have many IF actions which the player uses to mean "Let's take some time off from adventuring." Even "wait" is conventionally only a few irrelevant moments -- except in the middle of a tense action scene, and then it doesn't typically end the action. Except maybe by killing you.

(Walking is one exception to this rule. We understand that travel time is proportional to distance, but this is rarely used in service of story pacing. The other major exception? "Sleep", which is surprisingly common as a signal for "end this chapter".)

(Hm. Oughta write a game where you end each chapter by typing "wake".)

Speaking of which, it's my bedtime.

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