Tag Archives: interactive fiction

On The Border: An interview with Emily Short


Interactive fiction author Emily Short.

Interactive fiction author Emily Short.

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.

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Lucidity: A game about sexual violence

Game Changer Chicago Design Lab seems like an interesting and worthy cause to stand behind here on The Border House.  This initiative, run by Patrick Jagoda (game studies teacher at University of Chicago) and University of Chicago doctor Melissa Gilliam, is a collaboration between faculty and university students at U of C and youth (mostly high school students from the south side of Chicago, a disadvantaged part of the city) to make digital stories and games about sexual and reproductive health.

Their latest game, Lucidity, has just been released and is available for play on the game’s website.  Jagoda reached out to us to give us the following description of the game: “We recently released an interactive story with mini-games called Lucidity that deals with sexual violence and other issues around sexuality. The piece was co-produced with youth and moves between videos, comics, text, audio, and flash games (a room escape, a point-and-click adventure, and a 3D maze). The game also directs players to resources such as rape crisis hotlines, sexual assault information, and STI FAQs.”  The organization is trying to get the game in as many 13-18 year-olds hands as possible.

The full trailer is above, and you can also visit the Lucidity site to play the game right now. Warning: the game may contain triggering language.

Game of the Day: Violet by Jeremy Freese

Today’s GOTD was submitted by reader Tobias. Violet, winner of IF Comp 2008, is a story about a relationship; it’s funny and a little bit heartbreaking. It’s also the only game I’ve ever played that has a “heteronormativity off” command, which is just one of the many delightful things about it.

If you have made or played an IF or indie game you would like to see featured on The Border House, send it to us at editors (at) borderhouseblog (dot) com. You can see our past featured games at this tag.

The Play‘s The Thing

A screenshot from browser game The Play by Deirdra Kiai

Border House author Deirdra Kiai has a new game out called The Play. It is a browser-based choose-your-own-adventure-style text-based game about a disastrous dress rehearsal. You play as the director of the play and have to manage the attitudes of your three actors and your stagehand in order to get through the rehearsal.

The game is very funny, but there’s also more to it: the game is also an examination of sexual harassment and how a person is forced into choosing between challenging sexual harassment at the expense of their own success, or trying to ignore it in order to not lose their livelihood. I never thought I would play a game about sexual harassment that was funny without making light of harassment, but The Play absolutely succeeds.

The Play also won third place in this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition. Congrats, Deirdra!

Play The Play here–it only takes 15 minutes or so, and there are multiple endings so replaying is encouraged–and when you’re done, read more about the game’s background at Deirdra’s blog.

Choice of Games on Gender, Sexuality, and Authorship in IF

A British ship of the line.  A huge sailing ship with three masts and ten or so sails. It has two rows of windows along the side, many of which are opened to reveal cannons. A British flag flies at the top of the tallest mast.

A British ship of the line. A huge sailing ship with three masts and ten or so sails. It has two rows of windows along the side, many of which are opened to reveal cannons. A British flag flies at the top of the tallest mast.

Choice of Games, creators of inclusive web-based multiple choice games like Choice of the Dragon, recently released a new game called Choice of Broadsides, a naval adventure in the style of the Horatio Hornblower novels. (Both games are available to play for free online in your browser as well as on the iPhone/iPod Touch and Android.) During development of the game, the creators asked the community for opinions on how to handle gender terminology in a setting that is deeply sexist. Adam writes:

We wanted to avoid embracing the sexism of both history and of the source materials we draw on, but at the same time, we concluded that having a mixed-sexed Royal Navy would be both too complicated to implement and would also make the Jane Austen inspired bits of the game very strange. So instead, we let the player choose the sex of the protagonist, and then that choice defines whether the gameworld is patriarchal or has all gender roles reversed in a matriarchal society.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with how it works. It’s not too difficult to code, it lets us include the assumptions of the day while still letting people play female characters, and some of the jarring mismatches between expectation and practice may be thought-provoking, especially when playing the female version. But it has created some difficulties with terminology. Historical gendered terms have a lot of baggage– “Mrs.” does not have the same connotation as “Mr.”, but “Ms” feels anachronistic even in a gender-bent world.

What follows is a thought-provoking discussion that is well worth reading. The results can be seen in Choice of Broadsides, a game which improves on Dragon in every way, notably with a more engaging story and more interesting characters. In another interesting post, Heather explains the choices made with regard to gender and sexuality in Broadsides, explaining that it’s more complicated to deal with humans in a real-world-based setting than dragons in a fantasy setting:


Is the game, on a whole, historically-accurate enough to feel like a Hornblower novel… and at the same time, does it change enough variables to allow the player to play as a character type with whom s/he identifies? Can the player do most of the things (make most of the choices) s/he wants to? And is it fun when s/he does?

AND—once again, remember you’re writing a game, not a novel, so you have to consider the scope of the project, too. “How difficult will that be to code” is also a constraint.

Initially, these considerations led the team to allow players to play a gay character, but not to allow for a same-sex romance or marriage, since it’s something that would not have been socially acceptable in the time period the game is based on. Heather continues:

Well, okay then, what if it wasn’t socially acceptable? How about a vignette where you can pursue something illicit and secret? There was a lot of illicit same-sex love and sex in the real Royal Navy; Winston Churchill described that august body as characterized by “rum, sodomy, and the lash.” But none of the three of us wanted to present same-sex relationships as illicit, shameful, and the sort of thing that gets you cashiered if you’re caught. We had no desire to perpetuate those views, even in the name of historical accuracy; nor did we think any player would find that fun to play.

However, after many folks in the community voiced their interest in Villeneuve, a recurring character who is always the same gender as the protagonist, the creators decided to change the game and add a vignette where the player can romance (but not marry) Villeneuve if he or she wishes; endings were also added to reflect this change. The change led to this post about the role of authorial intent in interactive fiction:

Our target should be to offer every option that a reasonable player, playing within the norms of the setting/genre, would want to pick. We should then try to make all of those options play out in a way that is cool–perhaps not victorious, but cool. We can’t cover every option, of course, and we have to constrain which choices we offer at all–in “Choice of Broadsides,” you can’t choose to be a cavalry officer instead, even though that would (within a certain broad understanding of the genre) be a perfectly reasonable option. We just don’t present the choice at all. But if someone could, playing reasonably, want to pick an option, we should make that possible. Whenever a player says, “I wanted to do X, but the options wouldn’t let me,” we’ve failed a little. We’ve gone beyond the parts of the authorial role that we need to retain–what happens when you do X? What sorts of choices are possible at all? and gone into the parts of authorship that are better given to the player–what’s this character like? What will the protagonist do when faced with a tough choice. I think that shares the role of author most effectively.

By that standard, we failed initially in “Choice of Broadsides”, because people playing a gay protagonist wanted to have the option of taking actions to pursue a same-sex relationship at a point in the game where it appears appropriate.

Adam focuses on IF, but I think much of what he writes about is applicable to any game that seeks to have players experience a story. What makes games so interesting and unique from other media is interactivity, yes, but being interactive means relinquishing some authorial control and handing it over to the player. Game creators can’t and shouldn’t try to control how players experience every moment of their game, otherwise it’s not a game any more. As Adam puts it, “If the player of a game has any meaningful agency, then they are part of the storytelling team.” But there must be some sort of control, otherwise the game would be impossible to create, let alone play. So where is the line drawn? These are tough questions that the Choice of Games team is tackling, ones that game developers have been asking for some time now. Every game has different goals, so the answers are likely different for every game that is created, but they do come to some conclusions that should be thought-provoking for anyone interested in collaborative storytelling.

Thank you to the Choice of Games team for sharing their development process on these topics with the community! It will be interesting to see how the issues evolve as the team takes on different settings.