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Tips from interactive fiction authors – Jacqueline A. Lott

October 15th, 2010 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
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Continuing our series on interactive fiction, and tips from the masters, this week we have some advice from Jacqueline A. Lott.

Jacqueline A Lott

The Firetower - interactive fiction by Jacqueline A. Lott

Jacqueline's The Fire Tower goes to great lengths to provide an award winning sense of place

Jacqueline is an interactive fiction author and prolific tester. Her story The Fire Tower, won the 2004 Xyzzy award for best setting. These days she tests interactive fiction more than she writes, so has a great deal of experience in judging what works and what doesn’t. She has also been running IntroComp since 2003. Her official website is allthingsjacq, on which she has an interactive fiction section.

  1. How do you decide that a piece of fiction should be interactive, rather than a traditional story?

    Jacqueline: Do I have but one linear plot thread in mind? How interesting is the world in which the story is set? How much do I think others would enjoy exploring the issues, experiences, or thoughts of the protagonist? Is this just a story or event that I feel needs to be told, or would it be better explored? I think interactive fiction lends itself, first and foremost, as an excellent venue for world-building and exploration of cause and effect. Personally speaking, there’s also an element of ‘how difficult would this be to code’ or ‘how fun would this be to code’ in there as well, but I’m finding that these days I’m fixing the first of those by collaborating with coders far stronger than myself.
  2. What software do you use to write your IF, and why?

    Jacqueline: I use the Inform 7. I first began writing in Inform 6, and was among the private beta group who got to test Inform 7 when it first came out, so I guess I feel a certain affection for the language. I’m also one of those people who’s closer to the writer end of the spectrum than the coder end. Inform 7 is still a coding language, there’s a distinct order to how you can say things, but I do find it easier to grasp mentally because of the natural language aspect of the code. The other day I took a look at something a friend and I started in I6; we’re thinking about resurrecting it, and we both agree that the first necessary thing will be to port it to I7. Reading I6 makes my vision blur a bit these days.
  3. What’s the first thing you do when starting a new piece of IF?

    Jacqueline: Laying out the map, and creating locations and their descriptions. I like having a world I can walk around as I lay out parts of the story, and setting the scene is (for me) the easiest and most enjoyable part of the whole affair. I also get a great deal of joy out of research, probably more than is good for me and my actual productivity.
  4. How much time do you spend planning your stories versus writing them?

    Jacqueline: I think I almost always spend more time writing than planning. That said, one of my current works in progress has been much heavier on planning thus far, but I suspect that eventually the writing will overtake that.
  5. IF takes the practically unique second person perspective. With the reader essentially playing a character, do you expect your readers to roleplay, or do you prefer to give them as blank a canvas as possible?

    Jacqueline: Honestly, unless I have a super firm idea of who the player character is, I like letting the player pretend that they’re actually in the game. In The Fire Tower, the player character was modeled after myself, so I took the easy route when I was writing and made the player role play (hopefully they enjoyed pretending to be me!). I’m usually fond of making games more accessible, though, by allowing people to more comfortably fit in the player character’s skin, but that, too, is an easy route. While I haven’t done this myself, I do very much value works which force the player to step outside themselves and experience challenges that they wouldn’t otherwise have to face. That’s part of what makes the experience worthwhile.
  6. There can be an overwhelming amount of choice for the reader. What do you do to signpost important objects or interactions for them? When you restrict their choices instead, how do you make sure it is done in a realistic way?

    Jacqueline: Well, I do believe in very exhaustive world-crafting, which often means that there are a lot of objects you can explore. Generally, though, if an object is there merely for setting (the thing that I believe IF does better than anything else), then I find some way to reasonably lock that object down. I give the player a plausible reason, not merely a “Sorry, can’t do that” response. Those responses are like a wet towel tossed over the player’s head. No fun.
  7. There is potential for a tangled web of intersecting paths through a story. How do you keep track of everything?

    Jacqueline: Well, you can make things linear, which is fairly boring and frowned on these days. You can make things branch in a somewhat linear way–that is to say, the game itself isn’t linear, but each critical decision puts you on a separate linear path, so what you end up with are a series of individual linear games nested within one larger work. There are ways to make it more complicated, of course. One of the things I’m working on right now allows for lots of exploration and full reign, but each decision you make has a value to it, and the game silently keeps track of your actions, ultimately affecting the outcome; this is accomplished by a value chart that, perhaps unfairly, the player never sees, but the player does know full well whether his/her actions are selfish or not, cruel or not, etc. Whichever route you chose as an author, there’s one common thread for them all: solid testing. You’ll never be able to predict the multitude of ways in which the paths you think you’ve delineated so well will actually cross until you let other human beings navigate those paths for themselves and report back to you about the journeys on which they’ve been.
  8. How do you go about testing your work?

    Jacqueline: There’s a lot of self testing before things go out. I’m actually more accomplished in the IF community as a tester than as an author, and that serves me well. Then I open it to a very small group (say, 1-3 people) and work through their suggestions before releasing it to a larger testing pool.
  9. What’s the most valuable mistake you have made writing Interactive fiction?

    Jacqueline: Releasing something before it was ready. I love IntroComp. I love it so much that I took on the role of running it, which I’ve done now for eight years, and which I hope I’ll do well into the future. But I look back on the first thing I released (as part of the first IntroComp in 2002) and see that it really wasn’t ready, and really wasn’t thought out well enough. When the full version of that game comes out (which it will, eventually) it will be a very different thing indeed, a much better creation, which it never would have been had I not fallen flat way back then and gotten some of my newbie blunders out of the way. Shame it had to be public, but it probably wouldn’t have been as valuable a lesson otherwise.
  10. If there was only one single tip you could give a new IF writer, what would it be?

    Jacqueline: Use beta testers extensively, not just any ol’ people you can find, but people who you respect, and listen to them. It’s hard to get past the fascination of playing your first game, seeing it run, thinking to yourself, “I created this world oh my goodness isn’t this amazing,” but you need to get past it. Fascinating as that world you created may be, it’s imperfect. You do it a disservice by not polishing it where other eyes see smears or streaks.

Further Reading

Books on Interactive Fiction*

There’s not a lot of literature on IF, but there are a couple of seminal works. If you like the sound of this medium, you should really read these

  • Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction
  • Creative Interactive Fiction With Inform 7
  • Get Lamp is a documentary by Jason Scott chronicling the history of the text adventure
  • Or you could always search on Amazon

*Note that all Amazon links go through my associates account, to help out Getmewriting.com. If that bothers you, don’t click!

Further reading on Getmewriting.com

There’s a bunch of coverage on here. Here are the highlights: