Tips from interactive fiction authors – Aaron Reed
More professional tips this week (you can find the first post here). This time it’s the turn of interactive fiction writer, Aaron Reed. Aaron is also the author of the recently published Creating Interactive Fiction With Inform 7. Do you want to guess what his favourite IF writing program will be?
Aaron Reed is the author of Whom the Telling Changed, and Blue Lacuna, a full length Interactive Fiction novel. His work has won him Spring Thing awards, and numerous XYZZY Awards. Back in 2006, he was interviewed for the documentary Get Lamp, which was recently released. His book Creating Interactive Fiction With Inform 7 has just been published. In it he guides the reader, chapter by chapter, through the making of the example work Sand Dancer.
How do you decide that a piece of fiction should be interactive, rather than a traditional story?
Aaron: This is definitely an important question to be asked, although finding the correct answer is trickier. One thematic element which works well in an interactive story is moments of revelation– where a character realizes something profound about herself, her world, or the people around her. In IF you can make this character the player, and let them come to that realization on their own, which has the potential to be more moving and memorable than a static character coming to that moment before or after the reader does.
IF is also at its best with stories about exploration and investigation, with settings that curious interactors can delve into as deeply as they like (and the author was prepared for). Emily Short’s Floatpoint is a great example of cultural sci-fi where you can learn the ways of a strange people by actually walking around their city and watching their interactions, rather than having to get this information in a block of exposition– it makes you feel more like an anthropologist than a historian, which is kind of wonderful.
What software do you use to write your IF, and why?Aaron: I use Inform 7, because I believe it’s the most expressive language for creating interactive stories around these days. I7 was created specifically for writers, not programmers, and while this rubs a lot of programmers the wrong way, I find that its idiosyncrasies mesh well with my own. (Full disclosure: I just published a book called Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7, so my opinion may be just a little biased.)
How much time do you spend planning your stories versus writing them?Aaron: With both interactive and non-interactive stories, my writing process tends to be very similar: nearly all writing, very little planning. I am definitely not one of those people who plans a whole story out and then simply fills in the words: I seem to have to write iteratively, going through multiple drafts that don’t work at all, conceptually or otherwise, before finally honing in on the final product. This is, unfortunately, a rather time-consuming way of going about things, but it seems to be the only one I can deal with.
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?Aaron: I think it’s nearly impossible not to roleplay while directing the actions of a fictional being in minute detail. If that fictional being is very generic and easy to slip into, on the one hand, you’re essentially playing yourself, or a version of yourself who happens to be in an extraordinary situation. Some IF paints the player-character much more specifically (Stephen Bond’s Rameses is a classic example) and creates characterization out of the tension between what you yourself would do in a situation versus what the character is willing to do. Sometimes, this can be a lot like playing a role in a stage play: the joy comes from performing your character like a virtuoso. My stories have experimented with both ends of this spectrum, but I think leaving the player-character at least somewhat nebulous makes it easier for readers to slip into and have fun with.
There are so many items, rooms, and interactions that an author could put in the story and so many descriptions that could go with them. Where do you draw the line?
Aaron: This makes me think of the difference between a great film director and an only so-so one. The Kubricks and Hitchcocks of cinema stand above their imitators because of their meticulous attention to detail in setting up their scenes. Every shot in their films is crafted to help tell the story: in its composition, in the elements carefully selected to be in frame, in the details on the soundtrack and in the actors’ blocking. Everything is there for a reason.
Likewise, in a good IF every object and room should be there for a reason. You should never make a new item in your story without a clear sense of what purpose it serves in advancing your narrative or further immersing the reader in your story world. Likewise, possible actions should be carefully curated from the vast possibility space of all the things a character might conceivably do, selecting instead only the most dramatically interesting or character building possibilities. Andrew Plotkin’s Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home is a recent IF story that does a superb job at building an epic story using a very restrained and carefully selected set of actions, items, and locations: nothing is there that isn’t relevant.
If there was only one single tip you could give a new IF writer, what would it be?
Aaron: Read IF. As with every medium maturing out of infancy, the field is awash with hundreds of experiments, failures, and moments of genius. Getting familiar with the best of what’s come before will not only prevent you remaking a lot of the same mistakes, but will also put you at the forefront of the conversation, where you’re best able to contribute novel ideas. One of the magical things about the IF movement is that it’s an art form still very much in flux and amidst the process of being defined, and it’s exciting to be a part of that process.
Okay, two tips: use extensions. There are a slew of user-written extensions to Inform 7 and other major IF languages that can save you a lot of time, and give your stories much slicker presentation, functionality, and accessibility. Stand on the shoulders of those who’ve done the grunt work!