I have recently been very interested in what parser IF (that’s text-based “interactive fiction”) might look like in the “post-PC” world brought of mobile computing. What do we do with a game whose core interface is typing, when we’re operating on devices where keyboards, while available, are less convenient and much less central to interaction than on desktop machines? Given the fact that the form factors of smartphones and tablets are encouraging users to explore new forms of interacting with text–as well as to rediscover pretty much unreconstructed older ones–now is an ideal time to consider how we might refashion the interface for parser IF.
[Updating the IF interface more generally has in fact been a topic of interest in recent years, even without any particular reference to mobile computing: The experience of most users has drifted very far from the command-line interface where most IF remains mired, and there has been a recognition that expanding interest in the form will very likely require changes to the interface. For some of the most salient work, see here, here, and here.]
The present experiment is a simple conversion of Sand-Dancer, Aaron Reed and Alexei Othenin-Girard’s example game from Reed’s excellent book Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7–thanks to Aaron for his generous permission to use it here! As such, it is a full work of parser IF. However, the player can use links and buttons to play the game through without typing anything at all. (Actually, I haven’t played the experiment all the way through to see whether I’ve accounted for every section of the game. It’s quite possible that I haven’t–but in principle the interface would allow most standard games to be played all the way through without resorting to the keyboard.) You can play the experimental demo here, using the Quixe interpreter. It will look best on a WebKit browser (e.g., Chrome or Safari) and god knows what it will look like on Explorer. Unfortunately, the browser interpreter is a bit slow; perhaps ironically, it’s too slow to play on a mobile device!
The window is divided into multiple panes, each presenting a different type of information. In the main window, where the story’s text unfolds, the only interactive elements are hyperlinked objects. Similarly, the player’s inventory is shown off to the lower right, where the linked objects are always available. Click on any link in either of these windows, and the selected object will be highlighted in the upper right window, where its description will be followed by a series of buttons that describe actions that can be done with, or are related to, the object. At the bottom of the screen is another set of buttons representing the player’s navigation options, and above these is a narrow area where commands can be typed if the player wants or needs to enter free-form text. Buttons and links alike are implemented as Glulx hyperlinks–they are merely styled differently using CSS with the web interpreter.
For the most part, the entire overlay is procedurally generated. Aaron used the “Get BENT” system that he discusses in Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 throughout Sand-Dancer, and that means that it is easy to use Inform’s “rule for printing the name of” activity to wrap the names of all important objects in links. After a link is clicked, we use object properties (along with a few special-case items) to generate the buttons in the object window (e.g., if the object is a closed container, provide the choice to open it). We also use the built-in conversation suggestions to generate the options for conversation with NPCs and to display them in the same window. This is relatively straightforward, and I had to make only a few minor changes to Sand-Dancer itself to get the thing working.
Interfaces like this one have a clear benefit where players new to IF are concerned. Possibly they will be easier to navigate than the standard interface, but whether or not that is true, the presentation of full commands in buttons provides a mechanism for teaching the basic command grammar. Over time, clicking on buttons like “examine the letter”, “press the red button”, “ask the lawyer about copyright law” and so on will teach not only those individual commands, but the overall gestalt of the parser interface. Presumably this would lower the bar to playing unadorned parser IF.
As to the more focused question of whether the interface demo’ed here is a productive direction, I leave that to you. (I’m still too close to the micro-choices I’ve been making to evaluate the experience as a whole.) Please give it a shot and let me know in the comments how you found the experience. Even better, if you hold sway over someone with little IF experience, see what they think. (My wife says it solves most of the problems she has with IF–barring the map–but that’s just one data point!)
Final note: There are plenty of technical weaknesses in the implementation of the overlay interface, including both missing features and some bugs as well. For this reason, I am not releasing the source code as I normally would–I don’t want anyone to use this particular code as the basis for their own project.