Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: May, 2010

Mapping the Cave Crawl of Ideas

Ideas have a funny way of coming together and melding when you least expect it.  It’s easy coming up with ideas but I find them difficult to implement (whether it’s a story, novel, or in this case, an interactive fiction game) right from the get-go because I often have the nagging feeling that something is missing.  So there’s always this bit of time that I force myself to think about something else and let the idea morph and mature in my subconscious before pulling it out again for reassessment.

I’ve settled on an idea that is a mashup of an escape room game, post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, the sillier aspects of archaeology, the grumpy grad student mentality, inspiration from several BBC documentaries*, and Alice in Wonderland.  I am aiming less for originality and more for something that will let me experiment with some concepts that might or might not fail in the IF medium.

Because this is my first serious attempt at IF, I’m planning to keep the game small and relatively straightforward.  And speaking of planning, there’s going to be quite a bit of that going on before I even start writing the code.  I’m approaching it in several stages: 1) prep work; 2) outlining; 3) fiction writing; 4) code writing.

In the prep work stage, I basically worked out the premise of the story, the motivation and background of the protagonist, and the setting.  All of this sets up my constraints–what I’ve decided what can or cannot be done in the scope of the game.  In the outline stage, I am figuring out where the story should ideally go and other alternatives which a player may take.  While the outline of a regular story–for me, anyway–is a rather linear list or timeline, going the choose-your-own-adventure route makes that linear list explode into a tangled web.

The outline, I’m finding, is a lot more complicated than I had anticipated.  This is where I must consider all the possible decisions the protagonist can make, the puzzles and their solutions, and how each object that I’ve included should interact with everything else.  If I were to be optimistic, I’m probably about halfway through the outline.

But even at this stage, I’m worried about one thing.  It’s one thing to write about altered states in fiction.  But how am I to implement it in code?

*How Long Is A Piece of String? Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Parallel Universes Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Illusion of Reality Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

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Scribblers of a Different Sort

After reading Diana Gabaldon’s online ranting about fan fiction and the resulting backpeddling, I can only say that I am not surprised.  There will always be authors who feel so close to their creations that hearing about other people remixing their stuff completely shatters their sensibilities.  And, of course, there are other authors who shrug this off, thinking that as long as nothing illegal is going on, it would probably not be a very good idea to piss off their fanbase.  My opinion is pretty much of the latter.  I don’t have any desire to write or read fan fic (I’m comfortable with writing about my own ideas, thank you very much). But as long as the fan fiction writer is not making money off of their work (unless they’ve gotten permission), who really cares what they do?

I’ve mused a bit about why anyone would want to write fan fiction–the real answer is that there are as many reasons as there are writers–but I’ve come to the tentative theory that perhaps fan fiction exists because there’s some sort of dissatisfaction the consumer has with the creator’s work because it doesn’t precisely come up to expectation or assage a particular desire.  This is not the creator’s fault–because how can the creator of a work know everyone’s expectations and desires beforehand?  For me, if I found a book or a film unsatisfactory, I would say so and just leave it at that.  I’d rather create something totally new than adding to something already existing. For others, perhaps this dissatisfaction leads them to modify what already exists.

Yes, one could argue that writing fiction is also an act of creation.  But I think there’s also a fundamental difference between that and writing from scratch. It’s the difference between a pastry chef making a pie from raw materials using previous pies as inspiration and the busy housewife dumping a filling into a pie crust bought from the local mega food store.  While both may take approximately the same time to cook (or type), the busy housewife has not taken the time to make the foundations of the pie (or world building/character creation).  Both may satisfy the appetite.  But only one gets appreciated for the extra effort involved.

* * *

In Taking Notes, Yahmdallah muses on note taking technique and nosy people wanting to change his technique.  Personally, I think meddlers are going to meddle–it’s their personality and not really the fault of anyone else.  If it’s not note taking, they’re going to complain about something else anyway.

But on the subject of note taking, I recall that I had very peculiar note taking habits during high school.  I used what was called “T-notes”.  I would make a T on the page (after folding in half so I could make a straight line).  Above the T, I would write the date and the subject of the lecture.  On the left hand side of the page, I would write a major topic.  On the right hand side, I would write down the details of the topic in bullet points.  This made it extremely easy to study for a test.  I would simply fold the paper in half to obscure the details and used the major topics to spark my memory.

In college, I abandoned that approach and simply crammed as much as I could into a notebook because I didn’t want to waste paper or time thinking about what to put in which column.  Nowadays, I prefer writing in a quadrille ruled composition notebook.  My own notes lean more towards transcription than “big ideas” because I’m paranoid that everything will have leaked out of my ears after I’ve stepped out of the lecture hall. However, I am not a mindless copier.  If there’s a question or digression that mentally pops up during a lecture, I write that down, too.  And if I start doodling, it means that the lecture or meeting has become so boring that a hardcore insomniac would find it fairly easy to doze off.

As for taking notes on a portable electronic device, well, I’ve done that once.  But only because it was encouraged at this particular lecture.

Unfortunately, I also seem to be the person to go to whenever someone wants to borrow notes to a lecture they’ve skipped out on.  Does this mean I’m a good note taker?  I don’t know.  Often, note taking makes me feel stupid because there are plenty of people attending lectures without jotting a single word down*.  But I do know that note taking is entirely for my own edification.  How useful it is for someone else is pointless as long as it’s useful to me.

*I sometimes wonder if everyone else has the auditory equivalent of the photographic memory or if it’s just vanity–like the near-sighted person refusing to wear his new glasses because he thinks it makes him look like a dweeb.

West of the House and Examining the Mailbox

Now that Script Frenzy is over (at least for this year), I am considering writing an interactive fiction game during any free time I have during the summer.  Sure, I’ve sort of dabbled in this sort of thing before, but I’m hoping this time, I can get past designing the first room and its random objects.

The biggest obstacle, obviously, is learning how to code the game.  I’m a microbiologist by training, not a computer programmer.  In some ways, computer code scares me a lot more than those terrible medical pictures scientists love to put in biomedical lectures.  Why?  I think it basically boils down to flexibility.  Although there may be certain “bad” outcomes in a biological situation, things can be flexible.  There isn’t necessarily one single solution.  Computer code, on the other hand, can come crashing down if you misplace a single bracket.

So why even bother? Interactive fiction is an interesting concept.  Just as computer code on its own is inflexible,  most fiction is a one way street–the author has control of the narrative and tells the reader what happens.  The reader has no input into where the story is headed.  But by melding of fiction and computer code, two seemingly static things, we get flexibility mimicking the real world.  In IF, the reader (or rather, the player) can manipulate the author’s fictional world and create a unique narrative.  So in a way, the resulting story is a collaboration between the author and the reader.

For the next couple of months (if nothing more shiny shows up in the meantime), I’m going to use this blog to chronicle my attempts at writing an interactive fiction game.

I’ve already picked out which design system I will be using (Inform 7).  So far, I have three ideas: 1) a character trying to retrieve a hidden text in a library; 2) my failed 2009 Script Frenzy project; 3) and a mysterious tree house that is bigger on the inside than the outside.  I am not completely happy with any of these ideas, so I suppose I will continue to brainstorm.