Interactive Fiction and Feelies: An Interview with Emily Short

Bill Loguidice's picture
Author and Interviewer: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Christina Loguidice and Matt Barton
Original Art: Brandon Knox
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Special Thanks and Notes: Emily Short for being the subject of the feature and providing the product photographs; and Matt Barton for his editorial suggestions
Also see: Baf’s Guide to the IF Archive; PC Gamer UK Interview: Emily Short (via Brass Lantern); L'avventura è l'avventura - Interaction is better than plastic explosive; and 1Up's Magic Word: Interactive Fiction in the 21st Century
The Concept of Interactive Fiction (IF) by Brandon Knox

Interactive Fiction and Feelies: An Interview with Emily Short, is Armchair Arcade’s first in a series of feature articles centered on interviews with computer and videogame professionals. Like all things concerning Armchair Arcade, the editors endeavor to offer more than most readers expect—there is far more here, for example, than a typical question and answer format. With that said, our first two subjects, Emily Short and feelies.org, like that of all future targets in this ongoing interview series, are linked together in significant and interesting ways. Emily Short is an award-winning, modern day Interactive Fiction (IF) author who is deeply involved with the overall IF community. For her own IF creations, Emily has utilized feelies.org, which is a service she helped found that offers high-quality “feelies,” or product inclusions, ranging from printed items to metal artifacts for IF authors’ games, without requiring large numbers of pre-prints or having the authors deal with their own distribution. In addition, Emily represents feelies.org in “North American Fulfillment,” or product delivery, further cementing the common bond.

Before we present the interview, we must explain what is meant by the term “Interactive Fiction.” Although there is some debate whether IF is even the correct term to apply to this type of gaming, most of the community (right or wrong) has come to accept this designation. In simple terms, we can define IF as an interactive electronic book in which the player advances the story through typed commands that are interpreted and responded to by the software’s parser. These commands can be one letter, for instance “N” to represent “Go North,” or complete and complex sentences, such as “Put the flowers in the vase and then take the vase.” Just like a book, IF can be poorly written, but even well written IF can still fail due to poor game design. When IF is done well, meaning the literary aspects such as story and dialogue are as well designed as the technical aspects, what results is a superb union of art and technology. The best IF appeals to both avid readers and hardcore gamers.

Emily Short’s own Website offers a more comprehensive definition of IF (and is an excellent IF resource in general), which is included here as our final clarification of the term’s meaning for the interview to follow:

Interactive fiction works (once called text adventures) are games and stories that you control by typing instructions. They typically have no graphics, or limited graphics that are not the dominant feature of the game. Sometimes the player is asked to solve puzzles, such as finding keys to doors, manipulating machines, collecting treasure, and so on. Sometimes the interaction involves talking to characters, exploring an environment, discovering past secrets, or making moral decisions that affect the plot of the story.

The genres of interactive fiction are quite diverse. You can find modern games that replicate the Dungeons-and-Dragons feel of the oldest text adventures, but there are also works of horror, science fiction, mystery, and romance IF, among others. Some of these pieces are firmly in the "game" category, with challenging puzzles and score-keeping. Some read more like stories or novels. If you enjoyed Infocom games or other commercial text adventures of the past, you'll find new works that appeal to you for the same reasons. But even if you didn't like the old style text adventures, you may find that more recent interactive fiction has something to offer you.

The history of IF, or text adventures, spans almost the entire history of computer gaming. IF’s commercial heyday, however, was reached by the early- to mid-1980s. This peak in sales was led by Infocom, a company that hasn’t existed in its original form since the late 1980s, but whose classic products, such as Zork (1980), Planetfall (1983) and The Lurking Horror (1987), still set the standard by which other IF is judged. Furthermore, while IF is still produced and sold by dedicated developers, commercial products have long since been unavailable in mainstream retail outlets.

Early IF only allowed two-word input (“Hit snake”) and often had limited interaction capabilities (“Talk pirate”). Eventually, even with the addition of graphics and sound, the technology behind the software advanced to allow full sentence input and more sophisticated interactive possibilities.

After the fall of commercial IF at retail, a movement began to develop free and relatively easy-to-learn programming languages that offered the same features as the very best commercial products of the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, these languages, such as Alan, TADS and Inform, began to appear in ever greater numbers, featuring increased sophistication and polish with each new release. These languages allow IF authors to produce the remarkable works they do today. Since modern IF authors can expect little or no financial rewards for their work, IF creation is often a labor-of-love, with the end result being a game that will be “read” (experienced) and potentially appreciated mostly by other IF enthusiasts. It is no exaggeration to say that for those that appreciate quality IF, there is no other gaming experience that can quite match it. (For a more detailed timeline of IF, visit Brass Lantern’s excellent “A Brief History of Interactive Fiction”.)

With all of that in mind, we come to our interview subjects. Emily Short’s work is an example of all that can be right with IF, especially modern IF. Many of her creations are as innovative as anything that preceded them and are often as well written as the best the genre has ever offered. What follows is a partial listing of Emily’s creations to date along with any major awards:

  • Banana Apocalypse and the Rocket Pants of Destiny
  • Best of Three
  • City of Secrets (Winner, Best NPCs, Xyzzy Awards 2003; and ranking on the GAMES Magazine “Best 100 Electronic Games of 2003”)
  • The Crescent City at the Edge of Disaster
  • A Dark and Stormy Entry
  • A Day for Fresh Sushi
  • Galatea (Winner, Best Individual NPC, Xyzzy Awards 2000; and Best of Show, 2000 IF Art Show)
  • The Last Sonnet of Marie Antoinette
  • Marble Madness
  • Max Blaster and Doris de Lightning Against the Parrot Creatures of Venus (with Dan Shiovitz; Winner, Spring Thing 2003)
  • Metamorphoses (Winner, Best Writing, Xyzzy Awards 2000)
  • Not Made With Hands
  • Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle
  • Pytho's Mask (Winner, Best NPCs, Xyzzy Awards 2001)
  • Savoir-Faire (Winner, Best Puzzles, Xyzzy Awards 2002; Winner, Best Individual PC, Xyzzy Awards 2002; Winner, Best Story, Xyzzy Awards 2002; and Winner, Best Game, Xyzzy Awards 2002)

Feelies for 'Savoir-Faire' (booklet, letter and scrap of an old document)An interesting facet of classic commercial IF, which was especially evident in the products from Infocom, was that the games often included exquisite feelies, such as the pink, glow-in-the-dark Magick Stone of Dreams from Wishbringer, or the peril-sensitive sunglasses from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. However, as was detailed in the article on game packaging from Issue 1 of Armchair Arcade, this has long since been a lost art in the mainstream game market. In an attempt to fill this void, feelies.org offers the IF community an opportunity to increase the value and appeal of their products with playful or useful feelies.

With modern IF development software more sophisticated and accessible than ever before and the ability to create an incredible packaging experience for the end user, IF authors are actively producing high quality and endearing works.

What follows is a sample listing of what feelies.org has facilitated for various IF works:

  • A teddy bear in costume for David Dyte's A Bear's Night Out
  • A movie poster for Stephen Granade's Arrival
  • Tourist guide to the city and map for Emily Short's City of Secrets
  • New York subway token for Neil deMause's Lost New York
  • Colored pill of rephasia for Robb Sherwin's Fallacy of Dawn
  • A newspaper clipping for Stephen Granade's Losing Your Grip

Feelies for 'Losing Your Grip' (manual, newspaper clipping, medical form and advertisement proof with corrections) At this point, we would like to welcome Emily Short to Armchair Arcade…

Bill Loguidice from Armchair Arcade (AA): Tell us a little about your writing background. When did your interest in writing first manifest itself and how did you initially express it?
Emily Short (ES): I've been writing stories since I was a little kid. As a teenager for a while I wanted to be a science fiction or fantasy author, and spent a lot of time trying to teach myself how to write well and tell a good story. I think some parts of that exercise took and others didn't. I never sold a story to a magazine, but I did get back a little encouragement on some of the least-awful ones.

AA: You mention that you wanted to be a science fiction or fantasy author as a teenager. Now that you’re an established IF author, have those needs been satisfied, or do you still have interest in more traditional forms of literary publishing?
ES: I’m still interested, but I’m not currently writing anything like that, and I don’t expect to do so in the very near future. Still, there are a lot of things you can do in traditional forms that are more challenging in IF, if not outright impossible.

AA: Can you give us examples of some of the things you can do in traditional forms that are more challenging or difficult to implement in IF?
ES: There are probably a number of other things that qualify, but one thing I think of that's particularly hard to do in IF is any kind of complex or subtle emotional development on the part of the player (main) character.

In a book, you can write your main character falling in love, or changing allegiances, or experiencing a religious conversion, or all sorts of other things along those lines. It's much harder to impose those developments on a character who is partially player-controlled.

You can tell the player that an NPC (non-player character) is extremely attractive, you can try to make the NPC seem emotionally appealing, and you can write scenes in which they're thrown together in romantic situations (whatever that means) but you can't make the player feel, or even necessarily sympathize with, the feelings you want the player character to have.

So there are two things you can do about that if you want to tell a story that relies primarily on complex emotional content. You can have all the major emotional developments happen for an NPC, and let the PC (player character) be, essentially, an observer. Or you can try to write a game that is so open-ended and so responsive that it lets the player choose one of several emotional responses, and have everything play out according to that choice. To some extent, that's what I was trying to do with City of Secrets, but I was a bit constrained by the circumstances of writing it—it was a commissioned game, and it had to come to a specific ending no matter what happened in the middle, and so I couldn't really allow the player any actions that led to radically altered plots. And it's also very very hard to create an environment in which the player has clear choices and comprehends the emotional ramifications of them and is free to do whichever thing he likes.

To me, then, the main thing that's hard to do in IF is build a story where there's a lot of internal character development as opposed to external action. There are some ways to approach it, but they're all challenging, and there aren't very many examples of IF where people have done it successfully before. Whereas if you're writing a book, you can just sit down and write some lines of internal monologue for your protagonist, and it's not inherently different from writing a fight scene or dialogue or anything else.

AA: Tell us a little about your technical background. What was your first exposure to technology? Do you really like technology, or is it a means to an end?
ES: My mother has programmed computers since I was old enough to be aware of her work. We've had one or more computers in the house for almost as long. They've always been a part of my life, and I've mostly assumed that I could make them do what I wanted, if I was willing to put enough time into figuring out the workings. From very early on I realized that a computer was an immensely powerful tool for making the sorts of things I was most interested in – stories and games and pictures – and as we upgraded computers over the years I found them more and more interesting because they could do more and more of what I wanted to do.

AA: What was your first exposure to gaming? At what point did you decide to tackle IF yourself?
ES: Our first home computers had Infocom and Scott Adams IF games on them, as well as Rogue-alikes and some primitive arcade games. I liked the arcade games well enough, but I was terrible at them; and what I wanted to write was IF. Over the years, I made a number of attempts, but without any great success. I didn't find out about modern IF languages until I was in college, and then I decided to teach myself to use them.

That took a while, but the experience wasn't much different from teaching myself to use any other tool. I think the basic process is the same for programming languages and for oil paints, for a band saw and for the clarinet. You play with it a lot; you come up with a lot of garbage; you practice; you critique your work or get feedback from someone else; you eventually get used to the tool and can make it do what you want. Even writing – for all that movies make it look like a wonderfully romantic activity based on sheer inspiration – requires accuracy and technique.

AA: I agree, writing can also be physically and mentally demanding at times! Can you tell us a little about what you do outside of writing Interactive Fiction and working with feelies.org? What about the challenges balancing all of your concurrent interests and activities?
ES: I'm currently finishing my dissertation in classics, and I teach Latin half-time. On and off, I also have tutorial students working with me on Latin, Greek, or writing. And I dabble at other things, being a mediocre photographer and a not-very-experienced cook and a frequent loser of board games.

My problem is that, while I tend to find a lot of things interesting, I usually throw myself into them one at a time. A serious IF project can be very bad for the other work I need to get done. Teaching is a source of some stability because, with that, I do have to stick to a schedule. I can't just flake out for two weeks, leaving my students to stare at the wall until I come back. So that's frustrating, but also useful.

AA: I have a different problem—throwing myself into many projects at once and struggling to get any of them done. Your focus is certainly admirable. Which brings us to feelies.org. How and why did you first get involved with feelies.org? Can you tell us a little about your role with them?
ES: feelies.org started with a conversation that I had with some of my friends in the IF community, about how the one aspect of commercial IF we really missed (as players) was the feelies. Some modern IF comes with "virtual feelies" – PDF files or fake Websites or whatever that are distributed in a Zip file with the game – and I like those, but we were also missing the tangible physical objects.

So, more or less as a lark, we started looking into what we could do about that and how expensive it would be to do reasonable quality short runs of published materials (of various kinds) or other custom objects. I collected a lot of the research information that I found and put it together as a reference page; we located a few authors who wanted to print or reprint some feelies from their games; Gunther Schmidl put together the Web page that we have now, Dylan O'Donnell and Iain Merrick helped get the server and the domain registration set up, and Stacy Cowley volunteered to run the finances. And there we were.

What we have now is a nonprofit and very low-profile Website where people involved with the IF community can buy feelies for games. Some of the feelies are provided entirely by authors – i.e., they send me a box of stuff which I assemble and distribute as needed.

Some of them I put together myself from image files and instructions.

So my role is essentially as drone: do the legwork behind the scenes and get things copied, packaged, and mailed; give authors help with some of the production aspects, in the cases where I have more experience than they do; and write apologetic email when things don't go quite right.

This whole project has been a learning experience because there's a lot I didn't understand about the overhead involved in getting these things done: I priced printing services for a project, for instance, but didn't take into account that I'd also have to spend another $50 at Kinko's fiddling with the file in Adobe Illustrator before I could send it to printers. There are very few items that didn't cost more and take longer than I thought, even though I thought I was estimating carefully based on good information. I think I've finally learned most of the things that I should have known when we started this.

We've now streamlined the procedure to prevent some of the delays in fulfillment that we had at the beginning. Now I get things made in a large batch and have them on the shelf, along with all the packing materials to ship them, before I put anything in the catalog.

Otherwise, it's too stressful to deal with. Often putting a packet together takes a day or two of errand-running to get everything assembled, and it's hard to find two days together when I can completely blow off my other work and pay attention to feelies.

AA: Wow, that sounds quite involved! It seems that feelies.org focuses mainly on products for IF software (after all, the tag-line is “your one-stop shop for interactive fiction feelies”). With hobby development seemingly at an all-time high and new developments for all types of new and classic computers and videogames systems by individuals and companies of all sizes, does feelies.org believe it can (or does it even want to) accommodate the needs of other types of products – say arcade shooters, tactical wargames, etc.?
ES: We've really never considered it, and this is because we're catering to the IF community. There's not much of an incentive to try to branch out and cover other areas, given that we're not a business.

With that said, if someone did approach us saying, "Hey, this is really cool, and I'd like to make something like this for my other game X,” I think we would at least look at what they were suggesting.

AA: As one of the few sources for what used to be a lot more common – inclusions within games – has feelies.org ever considered going to the next step and handling all packaging needs – boxes, DVD keep cases, manuals, etc.? What about publishing or distribution?
ES: Some of those things are more possible than others.

We're not publishers or distributors. We don't have the time, money, or expertise to get things into catalogs or stores, or to buy advertisements and sell stuff ourselves. To become such a company would take a lot of legal work and some capital, and it would also require one of us to have an appetite for that kind of work. I don't.

Printed boxes, the custom kind on slick cardboard, are expensive unless you're making thousands. I've priced them; for the number of runs we're likely to sell, they're so far beyond impractical that it's not even funny. You cannot get a custom printed box when you're likely to sell 50 or 100 of something. Not unless your 50 - 100 customers are fanatical collectors putting down several hundred dollars apiece, anyway.

DVD cases and small manuals are much more doable. A DVD case would add less than a dollar to the price of something; slip in a pretty piece of cover art and you have what looks like a fairly professional, though low-end, game package for about $1.75 apiece. That's possible, and is something we're talking about in the case of some of the packages we're currently planning.

A close-up of one of the feelies that came with Emily’s own 'City of Secrets'
AA: Can you talk about some of the challenges feelies.org faces? Certainly the Website is a challenge in itself to make people really understand what the company can ultimately offer. What are the future goals of the company, if we can term them as such?
ES: Less ambitious than your interview questions seem to suggest. We're not a company; we're a (small) group of volunteers for whom this is a hobby.

Our only real goal is to help interested authors get their feelie packages put together and distributed, and ideally to build up over time a more diverse catalog. The main challenge is always to figure out how to make whatever it is the author wants to make without spending so much money that it'll be prohibitive. I enjoy that, because it's usually a fun logistical challenge to track down suppliers and figure out how to put something together.

AA: Are you presently working on any new IF?
ES: There are many projects half finished on my hard drive, but nothing I expect to finish in the near future.

AA: Do you think your status as an award-winning IF author would increase your ability to sell “regular” stories or books, or do you generally feel that traditional publishers are blind to IF?
ES: I’m fairly sure they wouldn’t care.

AA: Any specific commercial aspirations with your IF or do you prefer to stick with contests and making your work freely available?
ES: I don't have any specific commercial aspirations, no. I couldn't write any of what I've written without the prior work of a lot of other people who wrote programming languages and compilers and interpreters and libraries for them, or maintained Websites and archives, or whatever. So much work goes into the community for free that it seems rude and stupid to turn around and charge those people money for my work.

I also suspect that if I were working for a company, I'd be responsible to a marketing department, and I would find that unpleasant. I like to call the shots when it comes to my own work.

AA: Do you believe there could be a relatively mainstream market again for the right type of IF fiction in fancy packaging (classic Infocom-style) with the right distribution?
ES: I don't know. People ask me this a lot. I am inclined to think that a person could sell some IF commercially, but that it would be a lot of hard work to do so, and that it may never again make enough money to support a company of full-time employees.

If you're interested in that, go see what Peter Nepstad is doing with 1893 – which, by the way, is an extremely cool game. Peter is trying the commercial IF route, in a modest but elegant way, and I think he has the right idea if anyone out there currently does.

AA: Have you found that writing IF has improved the quality or sophistication of your writing, or is the process so involved and different that one has little to do with the other?
ES: Hm. The criticism I’ve received about my IF writing has made me more aware of certain aspects of style, I suppose.

AA: Fair enough. Finally, can you also explain some of the differences between “normal” writing and IF writing? For instance, IF writing must require considerably more text since each object requires a description and can potentially be manipulated by the player.
ES: That's true; to generate any given scene, you usually have to provide far more information than the reader of a book ever reads about a location. What's most challenging about this is not producing the volume so much as it is keeping the content fresh and interesting. I try to write descriptions that engage all the senses and are clear and evocative. I avoid metaphorical description, especially in the early stages of a game, because the player is still learning (through exploration) what the world is like; he might take metaphors literally or be confused by them.

In my IF I also write some action scenes where something happens as a result of the player's behavior. While I don't want to deprive the player of his moment of glory, I try to keep it short. Many players get impatient when asked to read many screens worth of text without getting a chance to act. And because they're playing a game and expecting to interact with the world, they want to be able to read quickly and extract the relevant information about the game world in a hurry.

On the other hand, there are lots of things you don't have to worry about in IF that are more of an issue in more traditional forms. For instance, the pacing of events is more or less in the hands of the player; what control you (as the author) do have over it depends mostly on how you've designed the map and puzzles or other interaction. Narrative structure and plot I lump under “game design” in IF rather than under “writing,” and I approach them differently than I would approach the same issues in a novel.

Author’s final notes: I would like to thank Emily for taking the time to participate in such an in-depth interview for us. Those interested should not only check out feelies.org, but also Emily’s work by visiting her own Website. Most of her IF game titles are available for immediate download and play on the appropriate interpreter. The following titles are also available for play directly online within a standard Web browser:

  • Galatea: Fantasy/SF, easy, estimated play time of 15 minutes. Offers multiple pathways and a unique conversation-based interaction system.
  • Metamorphoses: Surreal fantasy with a touch of Renaissance alchemy, easy-to-moderate difficulty, estimated play time of 2 hours. Offers multiple solutions to most puzzles and attempts to model interactions between objects in a realistic manner.