Interactive Fiction: How Usable?

In a previous blog entry, I discussed the issue of canonizing Interactive Fiction.  Although we may never fully agree on what should be and what shouldn’t be considered Interactive Fiction, I had concluded at the time of my writing that a reasonable definition was any text-based game with a focus on writing over mechanics.

But as I began working on my creative project submission, the programmer in me noticed a fatal flaw in the design of many widely-accepted IFs:  they lack in what we software developers call usability.  Usability is itself hard to define as well, but you can think of usability as an application’s fluidity.  It asks the questions, “How easy is the application to use?”, “How many mistakes does the user make?”, “How easy is it for the user to remember how (s)he got here?”, and “How many steps does the user take to complete a simple process?”.

Certainly, because Interactive Fiction is explorative in nature, there are some parts of our usability doctrine that do not apply.  The user will make mistakes as he or she tests various input values and it’s hardly like the familiar DOS-style platform asserts a heavy learning curve.  Nevertheless, there are things we can add to our IFs which can improve the user’s experience.

Even Pedit5, one of the first text-based games, included a GUI of sorts.

Among all the mechanics I later considered for Colossal Campus Adventure was the addition of a mini-map.  I realize of course that this would add a very heavy graphical component to a text-strong game.  Still, my experience with Colossal Campus  Adventure taught me that most players can remember about 4-5 various paths at a time.  Beyond that, players will inevitably become lost and get frustrated as they test different direction-oriented inputs in hopes of finding their intended destination.  Although most IF platforms like Inform 7 do not include a map builder in the vanilla download, many plugins have been developed to ease integration of a mini-map into your game.

The monotony of plain white text can make it difficult to grasp the important components of each room's description.

The other primary issue I identified while testing Colossal Campus Adventure was connecting the player to the important descriptions, objects, connections, and so on found in each room.  Inform 7 handles this very well by giving the player one command to see all the intractable objects in plain sight.  Still, what if I wanted to do this within the description of the room?

The easiest solution this problem would be to highlight important parts of the text.  Although I didn’t do so at first, I later added text coloring mechanics to Colossal Campus Adventure in order to highlight the objects and room connections for each area.  Later, however, it occurred to me that I might also steal a mechanic from the Hypertext sub-genre.  Why not also make each highlighted room connection a hyperlink, thus allowing the player to either type “go [direction]” or click the provided link?

Of course, by implementing the aforementioned suggestion, I begin to haze the lines between Interaction Fiction and Hypertext.  The question then becomes:  is such a hybrid acceptable?  Suddenly I find myself running back to the issue I addressed beforehand on canonizing Interactive Fiction.

What are your thoughts here?  Certainly, there are many improvements one could make to his or her Interactive Fiction.  What ideas do you have?  And what impact do you think these ideas would have on the definition of Interactive Fiction, Hypertext, and the other forms of Electronic Literature we’ve discussed in class?  I feel this is an interesting issue that merits further discussion and I’m hoping you guys will provide me with your thoughts.

  2 comments for “Interactive Fiction: How Usable?

  1. April 29, 2012 at 8:16 am

    I realize this is anolder blog post, but you raise a really important question here, I think: whether the formal specificity of generic terms like “interactive fiction” or “hypertext fiction” are semantic, historical, syntactic, or something else. That is, do we recognize IF because it looks like prior things we know as IF, or do we recognize it because of intrinsic properties that characterize it’s functions? I don’t know, really. But the better question is probably whether calling it one thing or another helps us understand it better or, say, put a given text in an appropriate and productive context.

    There may also be a politics of nomenclature at work (that is, those who insist successfully on naming things hold the power), but I don’t think that’s really the case in the elit community, for what it’s worth.

    Anyway, you raise some intriguing ideas here, and now that I’ve seen them develop further in the intervening weeks, I’m glad to say that it doesn’t necessarily matter if it’s “really” IF or “really” Hypertext, so long as it works. What really matters is the ideas you convey through it.

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