December 17, 2009
Follow me on Twitter

IF: Walker and Silhouette

At eLit Camp, we talked a bit about the difference between IF and hypertext fiction.

If you squint enough, IF really is hypertext: interlinked passages, read with a computer. You follow links by typing special words, I follow links by clicking; let’s call the whole thing off.

Still, I sense there’s a real difference here. J. Nathan Matias touched on it in passing when he said, "argumentation is hard for IF." I think that’s right: IF can do a lot, but it seems to me that it would be quite challenging to explain carbocation rearrangements through IF, or to explain why you believe the HMAS Canberra was or was not torpedoed on August 9, 1942. Yet these are things we can do with hypertext, and so we may agree that IF and hypertext differ in a meaningful way, that there are some things that one can do fluently and the other can achieve only with difficulty.

Trying to refresh my sense of the potential of modern IF, I grabbed Walker and Silhouette, an interactive fiction by C.E.J. Pacian which Emily Short review at Play This Thing .

Walker & Silhouette is designed to be friendly to novice players, and in particular to get around some of the challenges of parser-based IF: instead of requiring the player to type full commands, it provides keywords that can be typed in or (on interpreters that support hyperlinks) just clicked on. Selecting a keyword means having the protagonist do whatever he (or she -- you play both characters during the game) thinks is the most reasonable action applying to that object at the moment.

Short likes the work, writing that "It's fun, adventurous, and not too hard; it feels like enjoyable fluff while you're playing, but after you're done you may find it leaves more of an impression than you expected." It seemed like a good place to start.

But I’m stuck. I’m prisoner in a police station, I’m left alone with my file and a desk of folders and a pneumatic tube which has a bunch of keys I can press, and pressing those keys is probably part of the solution for advancing the plot and getting on to the next part. But I can't quite figure out which key to press.

And, while the writing is terrific by the standard of video games, it’s not always as taut or as precise as the story’s short passagework seems to require. When we first encounter the Mindflower Asylum, we’re told that

Mindflower used to be a medieval gaol where murderers and debtors rubbed shoulders.

But gaols aren’t particularly medieval, and imprisoning debtors is more George or Victoria than Henry II. Inside the gaol, our heroine is confined in a padded cell, suspended upside down in a straitjacket.