For this installment of On the Border, we have an interview with prolific and renowned interactive fiction author Emily Short. Known for her signature pieces like Galatea and Alabaster that blazed the trail for interactive fiction as a serious modern form of literature, Short has had an interesting trip on her road to becoming an IF legend.
As a child, Short was always interested in the possibility space of interactive narratives, noting her early forays into parser technologies and text adventures. As she grew up, she learned of the amateur IF scene and such technologies as Inform 5 and 6, along with other tools that made crafting IF easier, she jumped at the chance to make her own things, though not necessarily for a career. She went on to study Classics in graduate school- all the while creating interactive fiction on the side- and when her IF and critical writing began to gain traction and her teaching aspirations began to contract, she decided to make the choice so switch careers and pursue IF, freelancing on multiple projects until ending up on the Versu project with Richard Evans and Linden.
The Border House: How and when did you get started in writing?
Emily Short: I was trying to write IF at an early age, even though I wasn’t really succeeding at it. I was an early reader, my parents taught me to read before I went to kindergarten, so that kind of naturally flowed into me wanting to write my own initially very little-kid sorts of stories; I always saw myself as partly a writer as a kid, and I did a lot of that kind of thing. A lot of fantasy and science fiction when I was a teenager; I don’t read as much anymore, but that was where my mind was at the time.
TBH: Was there any defining moment that caused you to choose digital, interactive narrative as your medium of choice (as opposed to, say, traditional physical novels)?
ES: I think part of what I find so compelling about the interactive fiction side of things- and this applies to the broader spectrum of video games as well- it’s such a wilderness. We have explored so little of the potential space there, and that makes it really difficult and really exciting at the same time. I still enjoy writing traditional novels- I still enjoy writing in a traditional format, I guess I would say, and I sometimes write things for myself- but just the possibility of what you can do interactively is so compelling to me that that’s taken all of my attention really.
TBH: What about traditional writing lends itself to interactive fiction well, and vice versa? How do they aid each other?
ES: I’d say- I’d apply this to most fiction in games as well- it’s really good at setting. It’s really good at world-building, and saying, “You’re in this space, and you can explore it at any level of detail that you want.”
Another thing it’s really good at is communicating with the player through the choices they make. Getting people to understand that a particular character’s predicament is really difficult- getting them to sympathize with somebody that they might not otherwise find particularly charming- there are characters in games that I would find annoying and repulsive to read about in a short story, but because the game puts me in those shoes so effectively, there is this experience of “Ok, I can see from within all this person’s choices are terrible,” or “I can see what the problems are,” and therefore I empathize with them in a different way than I would otherwise.
I think the challenges conversely are- first of all, just the raw quantity of content that you need to make for an IF experience, because almost always given player is not going to see/read everything you’re making. So to provide a sufficiently deep and rich experience- whether that’s because you’ve got a branching narrative or an explorable environment with a lot of optional detail- you wind up having to create a lot more stuff to go in it.
The other major issue is pacing. When you’re doing a book or movie you obviously can control how quickly the person is going to experience certain things: are these two events going to come right after another? Or are they going to be separated by some down time or what? That’s a lot harder to control in games, not just because the player has some freedom to move around, but also because if it’s a challenging game they might fail a piece and have to replay it over and over.
TBH: Can you tell me a bit about the Versu project?
ES: Versu is based on a social AI engine created by Richard Evans. Richard’s worked on Sims 3, and Black & White, and various other AI projects in the past. And what he wanted to do in this case was create something that was about modeling how people interact in particular social situations. So: how do you interact in a conversation with somebody? How do you interact if you’re having dinner with somebody? What kinds of things are you expected to do at a given moment? And then making a simulation in which the simulator works out what’s a range of appropriate options for both the player and the NPCs. So that means, instead of having certain verbs that are always available, like always you can jump and always you can shoot, instead the gameplay is about the verbs that are available to you are based on the social context of the moment.
TBH: The project page also speaks about user-created content. Is Versu a tool that others can use to create their own stories?
ES: The aim is to open it up to the point where others can create their own characters, their own stories, and mix and match that content. It’s a sufficiently complex platform that’s going to take a while to get all of the tools perfectly to the point that we want them to be at. But that’s always been the vision of the project, Linden has always been about doing shared creative spaces, giving people the ability to create their own material and share that with one another, and that’s very exciting to me because I think there are some things that Versu can do that are no generally-available tools for. The content that we currently have is all sort of regency and Jane Austen-focused, and that’s not going to be how it is- the system is capable of doing a wide range of different genres and styles as well, so that’s another thing that we’re working toward.
TBH: How was it working on a team of 11 writers to create Alabaster?
ES: Alabaster came out of a project of mine to test a conversation tool I’d been working on previously, not Versu but before I was working on Versu. What I did for that was, I created a conversation tool that allowed you, when you were playing through the story, if you got to a point where you wanted to say something to the NPC that wasn’t previously coded in, the tool would say “There’s nothing like that available for you to say. Do you want to add some dialogue?” And at that point the player becomes the co-author and can answer some questions; if they say “Yes, I want to add dialogue,” the game would actually step them through, “Ok what do you want your character to say? What do you think her character would say in response?” And it would generate actual code in a text file on the player’s system, and then they could send it back to me. So what I did was I put out this game with the tool built into it, and it only had the beginning of the scenario. And people played through, and they would create new dialogue about what they wanted to ask her and how they thought she might react to being asked these questions. They would send an email back with the files, and then I would compile a new version of the game with their contributions in it and I’d put that back on my website, so people were able to sort of iterate and sort of branch off one another’s contributions and create this thing. What I got back was people had gotten really into it, like the people who sent me stuff at all really were trying very hard to make a good piece of interactive story. So when that concluded, I thought, “Ok well I started this experiment just thinking it would be sort of one off technical test, but people tried really hard to create something of quality, and therefore now I feel like I should actually finish it as a game and put it out there.”
TBH: What is the creative process like in constructing any character in interactive fiction?
ES: There are a couple of things I would say about that. One is, you’re asking yourself some of the same kinds of questions as if you were a writer of traditional fiction. I’ve read a number of books about strategies of characterization that are designed for people who are writing novels, but the things that they say are not that far off from the kinds of things that you’re going to wind up thinking about if you’re doing an interactive character. On the order of, what does this character want? What motivates them? What’s at stake for them? What are they afraid of? Where do they come from? Y’know, you want to dig into their backstory, you want to flesh them out.
However, there are a couple of things about writing for interactive content that comes up particularly. One is that you want to be really fast in communicating the core information about your character, because the player is going to have to make a decision about how to interact with them really soon. And I always think about this, because one of my pieces from a number of years ago was kind of fantasy-espionage setting, and early on the player encounters a couple of characters, and the two characters are at odds with one another, and the player’s kind of encouraged to pick sides, and agree to work with one of them. I got a number of complaints from players they felt like they were being forced to make that choice too soon, because they didn’t have enough information to know whether it was a good idea to join sides with this person or not.
And the thing was that the story- if it’d just been a novel, that wouldn’t have been a problem because you could just read and be like, “Well ok, the character decided to go with this.” And that doesn’t put any stress on the reader in the same way. Whereas as a player, you’re sort of in this moment of “I don’t know what the stakes of this decision are, I don’t know whether I’m supposed to trust this person or not, it’s very uncomfortable.” That can still be an interesting aesthetic experience, and I’m not saying you should never put the player in that situation, but it’s just something to be aware of that communicating who the characters are and what they’re doing and how they’re supposed to feel about them early helps the player feel like they’re competent when they’re making choices about how to interact with them.
TBH: Do you think it’s more work to create a character or an environment for interactive fiction than it is for traditional fiction?
ES: It’s more work relative to the amount of time that the player is going to spend with that piece, probably. You put a huge amount of work into creating what might be a 20-minute experience for somebody, and that could have a surprising number of words in it- far more words than they could read in 20 minutes because they’re not going to read all of them- but the flip side of that is there’s an intensity about their experiences- or there can be an intensity about those experiences- that in a more static format might take them a lot longer to have the equivalent feeling of connection with the character.
TBH: Do you think that there are any threats to the longevity of the interactive fiction medium? If so, what do you think they are?
ES: I think if you’re looking at the broader set of things, I see that as being in a period of expansion rather than contraction right now. There are lots of people who are experimenting with different ways to bring that into a commercial space, into educational spaces, and also people are working on making more tools for people who just wanna do things as personal hobbies.
The thing that I’m most concerned about about that right now is archiving. That’s important, not just because the games themselves are of inherent value, but also because that generates a kind of continuity of craft and technical knowledge, and it helps the medium grow up. I think it’s important for us to find strategies to retain those materials and keep as many of them runnable and functioning as possible. Just for the purposes of the medium evolving. But I think, overall, a lot of really exciting things are happening.
TBH: I’ve noticed that there are a great many great women IF writers, many more visibly than men. Is there any truth to this? And why do you think this may be?
ES: I think it depends on what sub-community of IF you’re looking at.
TBH: I guess I should say minorities in general.
ES: There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on. But I think different sub-communities of IF tend to have their own personality and their own feel. A particular tool or a particular genre doesn’t float out there in space, unrelated to anything: there’s a whole community and a whole culture around a tool that has to do with why do people get interested in it in the first place, what kind of subject matter does this community traditionally create, does it tend to be more hard puzzles or does it tend to be more story-related, is it about interaction, is the tool something that requires more STEM education to use, do you have to be a programmer to use it, or can you use it if you’re coming at this from a more humanities background? And all of those things have a huge effect on who gets drawn in, and of the people who get drawn in, who stays. But yeah, I’d certainly say that there are many groups of people doing IF who are not the stereotypical game developer which is wonderful, and there have been some really really interesting things created as a result of that.
TBH: What are your thoughts on the sea changes occurring in the interactive narrative scene? Particularly around the surge of new minority authors, as well as the surge of discussions around issues like race, gender, and sex?
ES: I find all of that encouraging, to be honest. I’ve always thought that there’s a potential for games to showcase aspects of life that maybe aren’t obvious to other people, to communicate what people’s individual experiences are like, to put you in someone else’s shoes. I think they are a really good medium for sharing things that- certainly I’ve learned things from some of those games that, from a position of relative privilege, I had no idea. It’s a really powerful medium and I’m pleased to see that happening. I think we would have even more voices if we also had an even broader range of tools and community contacts. One of the things I’ve been saying is that I think that, because the experience in the community is so important to what people actually create, we need more different spaces out there, so that the people who want to create this kind of thing but who currently don’t feel like they have a home or what they specifically want to do can find some place where there are people doing that, and can produce what they want to produce, have the feedback available, the kind they find useful, and all of that kind of thing.
Many thanks to Emily Short for participating in On The Border!