Small-scale surroundings in interactive fiction

In class on Monday, we played “Shade” by Andrew Plotkin. I found it very impressive, not only because it was emotionally affecting – at least for me, it created a powerful sense of dread – but also because it accomplished that emotional effect within a fairly small fictional world. Video games with a focus on roleplaying are often praised for having long storylines and creating large worlds for the player to explore (note how often “epic” is used as a positive descriptor for new games). In “Shade,” however, the player character never leaves their apartment, which is one room with three separate alcoves. The environment itself changes, but the player does not explore a geographical distance beyond the size of a cramped apartment.

This is not a drawback to “Shade” but an important constructive feature of its gameplay and narrative. Because the player cannot make the character step out of the apartment, and can only explore within that area, all the mundane features of the apartment become important in themselves. Instead of walking out the door and starting a quest, which I might expect to do, I examined the character’s computer, refrigerator, futon, etc., and the statements the character gives in response to commands to interact with those things. The world of “Shade” is very small in a geographic sense, but this gives that small setting more weight, and allows the narrative to create its distinctive psychological effects, like the eventual, horrific sense of vastness.

Playing “Shade” made me realize how much better I could have done on my creative project, “Grandma’s House.” I wasn’t attempting anything narratively similar, but I did focus on creating the environment on a small scale. I hoped that the player would enjoy exploring the world and reading the descriptions of objects, and that this would both create a sense of who the player character was and raise questions about them. I do feel that the world I created is much too limited, and the game as a whole is very undirected, but I believe that it is possible to create a compelling piece of IF in which the main activity is exploring your surroundings.

  1 comment for “Small-scale surroundings in interactive fiction

  1. ebrennan
    March 22, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    I agree – the strongest element of Shade is the evolving environment on such a small scale. This environment is especially compelling because of the way we’re forced to interact with it; we lose all sense of control. The game is a haunting experience because there is nothing to trust absolutely, and usually, regardless of the game, you can trust that you, the player, know where you are. In Shade, however, your confusion juxtaposed with the psychosis of the character you’re playing plus the unreliable environment creates such a strong sense of hopelessness. There is no way to know anything beyond the basic apartment, but its simplicity gives you a false sense of security at the beginning of the game; you think you know it, and then something feels unsettling, and then you’re dying, and you’ve lost a sense of self.

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