The Fourth Era Remembers

Nick Montfort’s “Interactive Fiction’s Fourth Era” ended with a wonderful surprise for me (though perhaps only because I had been thinking it the whole way through the essay).

“The basic framework of interactive fiction, in which approximately one event happens per conversational turn, means that this deficiency does not cause too many problems. But it also rules out richer simulation in which many things happen per turn (and are narrated in an interesting way), the use of flashbacks to events that occurred earlier in the interaction, and the ability to narrate events from different perspectives.”

I love this idea of the Fourth Era of Interactive Fiction. That, in order to be revolutionarily transformed, IF will essentially have to get more complex in its responses and ability to remember events that have taken place in the story and in what order these events have taken place. It seems a big undertaking: I imagine the code used to write interactive fiction stories now (Montfort mentions Inform as being a good writer) would have to be almost entirely altered to perhaps date code events and prioritize certains responses based on whether one event occurred before the other for one user versus another user. Montfort’s essay makes clear that IF is not simply a story, it is a world to be explored. Unlike traditional book narratives that have a start and an end, and every reader generally progresses through this narrative in the same order, IF lends itself to a more varied reading asking you to explore around different directions and hallways and tunnels and fields and on and on. While The Warbler’s Nest offered a Walkthrough, with essentially the shortest path to the end of the story, such a Walkthrough almost seems to defeat the purpose of Interactive Fiction where it’s preferable to see all there is to see than simply “beat the game.” In the spirit of that exploration, Montfort’s call for an IF that can provided many, and  diverse, responses and interaction for users seems an obvious course of action. You can certainly play an IF many times over, exploring different places and sometimes achieving a new ending, but in general the responses of the computer are based simply upon going to a place or picking up an item, and not on what order you explore places or the ways in which you might ask the computer to move forward. The Dreamhold does, though, have built into its code some of this remembering of events: at the beginning when you can squeeze to the narrow hallway to go up the stairs, I went up the stairs, then down the stairs, then up the stairs, then down the stairs, over and over again. While the actual IF content did not alter, interestingly the Turtorial Voice did notice that I was doing the same events, and that I had already been to the place I was just at.

“You’ve been here before, but it’s a particularly crowded room,” says the Turtorial Voice, acknowledged my prior entrance into the same room, and later, going down, it says “The first time you enter a room, you’ll see a detailed description. But if you return to a room, you see just the roomname, followed by a list of the more portable objects lying around.” So, this IF does have the capacity to remember where I have been, which is a start. I don’t think the Tutorial Voice quite compares with the vision Montfort has of the future of IF, but it’s a start. Now, if only the Tutorial Voice remembered how many times I went back and forth up the stairs and responded different every single time, maybe noticing new things, maybe just some snarky response about choosing a direction.