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My first foray into Interactive Fiction

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Copied from my blog Blade Edge

At the end of last month I was sitting at my computer and staring at the lit of new poll options for GameDev.net. I run the weekly polls that appear on the main page and lately there haven't been many people submitting poll ideas and I've had trouble coming up with good ones. After a couple of minutes of staring at the screen, I decided - completely on a whim - to change things up a bit. Well okay, a lot. I formulated a poll question that wasn't a question, but the beginnings of a tale:
You wake up. The room is dark. Where are you? How did you get here? You see light beneath a door and hear voices in the next room speaking softly.
Very simple, one of the standard entries into a story (think Zelda: Link's Awakening for example). I formulated the poll response options similar to those of a old-style text RPG (well okay, I get to be a bit more linguistic):
  • Search the room
  • Sneak up to the door and listen
  • Open the door
  • Go back to sleep
Then I sat back for a week and watched what happened. After 725 people voted, the clear winner was to "Sneak up to the door and listen". So once I again I was sitting in front of my computer screen thinking - but this time I wasn't figuring out a new poll question to post, but where the story should go from this point on.

I've been doing this for the past three weeks. How's it going so far?

Me and writing stuff

I've always been interested in writing. I still have papers from grade school through high school of my short stories, articles for the school paper, articles in my local paper, etc. I have tons of unfinished novels in Word files on my hard drive, along with many more completed short stories. I've dabbled with Nanowrimo off and on since 2005, but never completed it. I've never been patient enough to just sit down and outline a story, work the plot lines, and then assemble the chapters in whatever order worked best for writing them. On the flipside, I've never been able to just dive straight into a story (like during Nanowrimo) and simply write without care to continuity and consistency before hitting a point where my OCD needs to stop and get everything in order - that's usually the point I fall out of Nanowrimo contention.

So yea, I've always wanted to write something, but I've never found the proper format to do it in. Is this it? Possibly.

Problems with interactive poll fiction

So there's a pretty obvious problem here with what I'm doing - and that's a bit apparent when you go on the main GameDev.net page and scroll down to view the poll scrunched up in the right sidebar. I don't really have a lot of room to work with here! Thankfully that will change at the start of next year, when I'll be able to move the polls into the forum software itself, so for now I'm hoping that things will stay slow enough in the beginning that I don't need to write too much between turns.

Another thing I'm struggling with is how a reader feels attached to the story as it evolves with his or her input. I really have no control whatsoever as to which option will be selected, and when you look at an individual voter, neither do they. The problem I see developing from this is that, after a couple of tries voting each time I update, what if a person never happens to vote for the option that they would like to see win out in the end? I can understand someone getting frustrated that the story isn't being played the way they want it to and thus lose interest. It's easy to look at this and say "cool I'm playing a game in a poll!" and then realize that in truth you are contributing to a game in a poll, but that your vote may ultimately mean squat.

I'm still waiting for some kind of "Eureka!" moment to strike that will solve this problem, but it hasn't happened so far, and fortunately it doesn't seem to be a problem - yet. Voting numbers from the past two weeks have increased slightly - so we'll see what happens as time goes on.

Taking it one poll at a time

Sure, I have some sort of general sense in where I see this story going - but I also had to realize from the start that I have very limited control over the direction. My only method of evolving the story is presenting people with the options I would like them to choose from. In this, I also can't be too constrictive - for example even though I would personally want the main character to be nice to some other character in the world, I have to give voters the option to be mean to them as well. This partially solves the problem I outlined above so that at least on a per-poll basis, the majority of people will see an option they feel is worth voting for, even if it may not win.

It's rather exciting to see the way it's evolving even in the first 5 turns, and I've already worked to make the choices that have won out actually mean something more than just advancing the story. For example, there has been a choice to search the room since the start, but that was picked on the second turn. Perhaps if it had been chosen first, I would have had the character stumble in the darkness and knock something over, but instead by the second turn I stated that your eyes have since adjusted to the darkness in the room. It was very subtle, but I did make a post in the poll result thread to point it and other similar things out to people.

Are you a boy or a girl?

One of the questions that came up early on is whether the character being portrayed is a male or a female. I realized that I was instinctively writing this for a male character - but why should I? Additionally, given the nature of the story and how it's going to evolve without a lot of direct feedback from me, why should I even decide whether the character is male or female? Shouldn't that be a choice left to the voters?

So I'm going to keep this gender-neutral for as long as possible. You can currently play as a male or a female, and I'm writing it as such. For example, was the man's "off-putting stare" in a recent turn off-putting because he was sizing you up (male) or checking you out (female)?

At some point however I'm pretty sure a decision on the character's gender will need to be made. When that time comes, it will be a choice made by the voters. I'm already thinking of several interesting ways to do this.

What about the Role Playing aspect?

Things are really simple right now, as all games start off as. In turn 3 players (I'm using the terms "players" and "voters" interchangeably) found some fungus growing on the wall in the room and pocketed it - now we have the start of an Inventory. In sneaking up to the door in turn 2, players learned of the existence of a character in the world named "Ashwyn" - thus a Codex was started to track this information. Eventually the character will need some Stats and further down the road there will have to be some combat. Dungeon traversal will be anotehr hurdle to tackle at some point.

So yea, even though the full RPG aspect to the game hasn't come about yet, it will all be there eventually.

Is this all really going to work?

I don't know!! :) I'll be completely honest that this idea just sort of struck me when I was frustrated that I couldn't come up with a decent poll question to post. Obviously it's been gestating in my head for a while now, but I'm far from having it all planned out. The funny thing is that I don't think many people realize this - which I suppose is also a good sign. While there's been a decent level of involvement there really hasn't been a whole lot of feedback, I assume because people think I already know what I'm doing. This is far from the truth!

So I'm more than happy to receive comments and suggestions from players/voters on how they would like to see this evolve. Post them here, or check out the GDNet Lounge forum where I sticky the results of the latest turn. The game poll is updated every Monday and Thursday.

I would love if you would play along :) I'm just as curious as (hopefully) you are as to where this will end up!
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I've played since the beginning and even though my choice has only won one time I can't stop myself from playing. I love it.

Got a TweetDeck popup yesterday while working and was the 4th or 5th person to vote. I'm happy to say that my choice looks to be winning at the moment. I wonder if you could weight user choice based on chronological order. That way my quick response would have earned me more sway. Anyway.. Just an idea based on my experience. Keep it up!

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I've been enjoying the whole thing. I also find the knowledge that you don't have the whole thing planned out in detail interesting since this means that our choices may force you to come up with unexpected situations and responses.

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