Issues in IF, part one

Skip to first unread message

Jorn Barger

Aug 20, 1993, 1:29:07 PM8/20/93
[what follows is preliminary, and about 1/3 i think of what i'm thinking
of trying to cover. after writing it, i found a 1986 choose-path book
in a thriftstore (20 cents), about the French Revolution! I mapped most of
its 300 chapters and will post some thoughts soon, i hope.

nant/nart moves at its own pace, but #3 is coming together. as soon as
i gave the icons names, they started demanding better working conditions:
a real plot, scenery, faces. ;^) i'll explain the original, simpler,
combinatoric version soon.]

I've been collecting my thoughts for a while, with an eye toward re-writing
(with you all, as a group?) the 'theory' part of the raif-faq, filling in
some more detail, and adding some of the threads we've explored this year.

How many different sorts of interactivity can we identify, in fiction, at
this early stage of IF evolution?

One clear and concrete paradigm for IF is the choose-your-own-path style of
book-design, where each short 'chapter' ends with a choice of directions
you might go next (traditionally only two, for convenience). If the book
is written so as to make the reader the main character, these may be
physical directions, like "If you choose to go north, turn to page 61" or
actions like "If you choose to eat the cupcake, go to page 62". (One might
give the reader more godlike control over events, however: "If you want to
know what was going on in Rangoon at this moment, turn to page 63" or "If
you want to know what Bobo was thinking at this moment, turn to page 64" or
"If you want a plague of locusts to descend, turn to page 65" ;^)

So a 'chapter' may represent not just a new place, but a new state of
affairs in the same place, possibly involving the passage of time. ("The
clock on the wall now reads two a.m. The guard is asleep at his desk.")

I think it's accurate to say that every Infocom-style text adventure
*could* be re-published this way, in book form (which I'll call "book-
tech"), but almost all their chapters would then be just a sentence or two,
like "You eat the cupcake. It's very tasty." and after each such short
chapter you'd have to be offered every possible combination of command-
words. Almost-identical chapter-text would have to be repeated countless
times with slightly different menus at the end. (If you could end a chapter
with "Go back to where you just came from" that would help a lot! But
that's pretty advanced, for book-tech...)

A number of important consequences for IF theory follow from this single,
simplest design element, *plot branching*:

1. Loss of authorial control: the author now has to anticipate every
possible reader path, and craft the layout of chapters so that every path
offers *a reading experience the author can be proud of*.

2. The 'finished-it' paradox: The first time you reach 'The End' you will
not have finished reading all the author's text. Are you then expected to
go back and exhaust every alternate path, to 'get your money's worth' or to
express your pleasure in her craft? Can an author keep this interesting?
(With book-tech, you can just reread it cover to cover, although you'll
miss some of the subtler meanings this way.)

3. The multi-book paradox: Should other paths offer greatly differing
stories? There's a limit to how much detail you can put into each
alternate path! With book-tech, for example, *choosing a point-of-view* at
the start will necessarily imply choosing one of two entirely distinct
sub-books. On a computer, text-modification rules might make this more

4. Dead ends: The usual strategy for dealing with the multi-book paradox
is to have a single happy ending and any number of dead ends, that usually
involve the main character's (in fact) ending up dead. Where book-tech
might require the reader to use a bookmark to backtrack at this point,
adventure games usually offer a save-game feature, or a password to begin
again at an earlier point, or an Undo facility. "Loom" is an exception,
designed with no dead ends.

5. Added value: There needs to be some added value from the interactive
elements. Some possibilities: a) challenge of solving a puzzle b)
increased psychological involvement c) learning rules of alternate world
d) seeing the consequences of alternate lifechoices

6. Hide-the-happy-ending: A good IF designer will cleverly disguise the
branches so that most players guess wrong at least a few times at each
point. But too many wrong guesses will be frustrating, and too few will be
unchallenging. This might be thought of as 'engineering an optimal
literary path'.

7. Looping, and nonsequential episodes: a path may return you to the exact
same chapter. And a single chapter may have *several* choices that lead
back to it. One can try to predict what order these loops will be tried
in, but the text itself can't make assumptions about this. Some sets of
chapters might be freely experienced in any order-- David Graves calls this
'browse around'. ("If you want to visit the art gallery, go to page 67.")
In a book, such chapters must be optional to the plotting, because you'll
be able to skip them altogether. (In this way they strongly resemble
hypertext.) On a computer, they can supply behind-the-scenes changes that
eventually have a visible payoff.

8. Hidden information: an optional chapter may provide information that
allows one to guess the 'right' path at some later point. (This is a
cliche in computer adventures.) On replays, though, these chapters can be
safely skipped.

9. Linear sequences: Some chapters may have only a single choice at the
end. This makes most sense on a computer that's displaying graphics of
each scene. Graves calls this 'user-paced sequencing'.

10. Merging paths vs shared text: with book-tech, if you can get to a
given chapter by two different paths, nothing on those paths can possibly
make any difference to the future course of events. This is therefore a
much more trivial sort of interactivity. (Semantically, this might often
involve what AI-folk call 'plan repair'. One choice was the right plan,
the other was wrong, but can be quickly corrected.) Computers offer an
improvement where multiple paths may share some text but not all text, so
that only the 'right' path reveals the possibilities hidden for the others.
Graves might class this as 'progressive disclosure'. (?)

11. Menus vs typing: on a computer you can allow the reader to type
anything, or you can offer a menu of options. In a book you're stuck with
menus. Using menus makes solving the puzzle a *lot* easier, which is
usually not what you want. ("If you choose to look in the wastebasket, turn
to page 66...") With typing, though, where the possible inputs are almost
infinite, most of the player's guesses will necessarily lead to boring

12. Literal menus vs tokenized menus: if the menu offers "If you choose to
tell the creepy guy to bug off, turn to page 67" and page 67 says "You tell
the creepy guy to bug off" ...that's boringly repetitive. One solution is
to offer 'tokens' in the menu, like "warm response" "cool response" "cold
response", which are expanded with more humor or interest in the following
text, instead of simply repeating the menu choice.

Jamieson Norrish

Aug 22, 1993, 8:41:25 AM8/22/93
Just as a short note of perhaps dubious interest, there do exist (or
used to) choose-your-own-path books which included the antecedant
number in each chapter. That is, if in chapter 23 you picked an option
saying "Go to 75", chapter 75 would say that it had been reached from
23. This of course limits the story by not allowing multiple paths
converging on a single chapter.


Steppin' Razor

Aug 28, 1993, 9:39:11 PM8/28/93

From grruffin Sat Aug 28 20:40:16 1993
To: /nfs/ellis/e1/grruffin/.article
Subject: Infocom as MultiPath Books

You write that all Infocom games could in theory be turned into multiple
path books, although admittedly not w/o a lot of hassle, redundancy, what
have you... Maybe you already knew of Steve Meretzky's efforts in that
direction in 1983 and 1984? He wrote a series of four What-Do-I-Do-Now
books dedicated to the Zork series... although not at all strict
retellings of the Zork series, they definitely take place in that world and
make good use of it's mythos... Interesting, although somewhat childish.
Check 'em out, esp. if you're a Zork fan.
On another note, does anybody in this newsgroup know whether or not a
hacked version of the original Zork mainframe version that was modified
to allow for multiple players still exist anywhere on the net?
Giovanni Ruffini

Jorn Barger

Aug 30, 1993, 12:23:54 AM8/30/93
Here's another rec.arts.books reply:

rec.arts.books #68019 -( )--(1)
From: (Brent C. Williams)
[1] Re: Choose-your-own-path fiction
Organization: NETCOM On-line Communication Services (408 241-9760 guest)
Date: Sun Aug 29 22:47:15 CDT 1993
Lines: 23

jo...@genesis.MCS.COM (Jorn Barger) looks for:

> any books [that] were written using the multi-path strategy ("If
> you want Bobo to follow Mitzie, turn to page 961") *before* the
> first computer adventure games were written in the mid 70s?

There is actually a more recent example. Sci-Fi writer
Harry Harrison, creator of the legendary Stainless Steel
Rat series, wrote one in the last 3-4 years called
"You Can Be the Stainless Steel Rat" in which you are
directed from one paragraph to another based on either
what you want the characters to do or the output from a
coin toss. I can't find my copy right now or I would
give you more information.


-brent williams ( san jose, california
"There's a special place for lovers, one we understand, there where
neon bends the daylight sky. In that sunny room, she soothes me,
cools me with her fan. We're drifting, a thousand years roll by."

Hans Persson

Aug 30, 1993, 3:12:42 AM8/30/93
to (Steppin' Razor) writes:

>Maybe you already knew of Steve Meretzky's efforts in that
>direction in 1983 and 1984? He wrote a series of four What-Do-I-Do-Now
>books dedicated to the Zork series... although not at all strict
>retellings of the Zork series, they definitely take place in that world and
>make good use of it's mythos... Interesting, although somewhat childish.
>Check 'em out, esp. if you're a Zork fan.

Where can I get these?

/ Hans
! Hans Persson / The Pink Unicorn SophistiChaos Game Design !
!, !

Steppin' Razor

Aug 30, 1993, 2:05:50 PM8/30/93

From grruffin Mon Aug 30 13:06:39 1993
To: /nfs/ellis/e1/grruffin/.article
Subject: Zork MultiPath Books

Where to get Meretzky's Zork choose-your-own-path books?
Good question... they are 9 or 10 years old at this point, and weren't, as
I recall, raging sellers at the time, although I could be wrong... scouring the
children's section of used paperback stores would be your best bet for now,
although writing to Infocom or Tor Books (Tom Doherty Associates) might also
produce some results. I'll post here if I find out any more details. I myself
have all four, but haven't seen any other copies in years.
Good luck!
Giovanni Ruffini

Reply all
Reply to author
0 new messages