Iain Merrick on Best Technological Development 2012

Iain Merrick writes on Playfic, Quest’s web editor, StoryNexus, and Vorple for Inform 7.

All four finalists for Best Technological Development are web-based in some way: tools to help you write games for the web, write using the web, or both. IF is catching up with the future, finally!

The key question is, what do these futuristic tools help you do that wasn’t possible before? I decided to try them out with a blast from the past: Roger Firth’s Cloak of Darkness, a very simple game template originally designed to compare the features of authoring systems like Inform, TADS and Adrift. How easily could I knock up a quick web-based version?

Playfic, by Andy Baio and Cooper McHatton

First up is PLAYFIC, a web frontend for Inform 7. I clicked “Start a new game”, created an account and logged in (I was pleased to see that it accepted a “+” symbol in my email address — a handy way to add a tag to your address for easier inbox management), and was presented with a simple two-pane view: text box on the left to type in some Inform code, and text box on the right for playing them game (via Parchment). I typed “The Salon is a room.”, clicked “Save & Test”, and in a few seconds I was in the Salon, playing the game! Jumping fruitlessly on the spot! Amazing. This is great — from zero to a working game in just a couple of minutes. Try that with the full Inform desktop app and you’d still be in the middle of downloading it. If you want to quickly show somebody how Inform works and all you have is a web browser, Playfic is what you need.

Okay, how about a real game? I pasted in the I7 code from Roger’s Cloak of Darkness site, even though it looks a little old and dusty and Inform has been developing rapidly… And it worked! If you want to give it a try (no login required) my Playfic copy is at http://playfic.com/games/iainmerrick/cloak-of-darkness. The interpreter is standard Parchment, with a little bit of Playfic scaffolding around the sides. I tried it on an iPad and it works reasonably well, except that the keyboard vanishes after every turn and you have to tap the command prompt to bring it up again. One interesting feature is the “view source” button — great for figuring out how things work, but I couldn’t see any way to disable it, which might be a problem for some authors.

Back to the editor. Error-handling is very primitive: if there’s a bug in the code, clicking “Save & Test” will print the error message rather than playing the game, but there’s no indication of where the error occurred. I’d say that’s an essential feature for all but the smallest games — again, Playfic seems ideal for a quick demo, not so great for a substantial game.

Another feature on my wishlist would be collaborative editing. I tried this out in two separate browsers, and it’s possible but doesn’t work well. When you click “Save & Test”, it saves the current contents of your editor, overwriting any changes that might have been made by somebody else. (But your collaborator could then save and overwrite *your* changes, etc.)

Overall: for quick demos, Playfic is FANTASTIC, easily the fastest way to whip up and publish an Inform game; for larger games, you’ll want to use the full Inform desktop app. But there’s a huge amount of potential here. If Playfic gets better error reporting and maybe some collaboration features, I could see it becoming some authors’ editor of choice.

Quest web editor, by Alex Warren

Next, I tried the QUEST WEB EDITOR, a new web front-end for the existing Quest 5 authoring system. The site has a very distinctive style — boxes and flat colours, like Microsoft’s “Metro” touchscreen interface — which I found rather pleasant and refreshing. The first thing you see is a grid of playable games, with cover pictures, star ratings and categories. I find these social touches really interesting, but I’m not totally convinced by the implementation: all the ratings seem to be either 5 or 4.5 stars, and the list of categories is inevitably a better fit for some games than others. For example, there’s a “Seasonal” category (both narrow and vague — which season?) but nothing for contemporary / non-genre / slice of life. It’s a bit limiting if you believe that the best literature is the stuff that’s hard to fit onto a standard genre pigeonhole.

To create a new game, I had to create an account and log in. This is quick and seamless; besides the usual email sign-up, you can use your Microsoft, Facebook or Google login. I was presented with a slick-looking (again, kind of Windows-ish) user interface, with an object tree in the left sidebar and a form for editing the current object in the centre. Cloak of Darkness, here we come! But there’s a snag: how do you copy-and-paste Roger’s example code into the GUI editor? I couldn’t find any “edit source” option, so I just resorted to clicking around and building out the game by hand.

If you know Quest, you’ll know how to use the web editor. It’s reasonably fast — just slightly sluggish when transitioning between forms — and feels reasonably “native”. I’m sure the desktop app is better, but this feels like a perfectly acceptable and full-featured stand-in. As it happens, I don’t know Quest, and I’m not being paid enough to learn it for this review, so after creating the basic rooms and objects I didn’t try implementing any of the game logic. When publishing the game, you can add a cover picture (yes! I stole one from http://www.cloaksofireland.com/Opera.htm), and you can make your game either Public or Unlisted — a very nice feature for testers.

The web player is pretty fast and responsive, and works a bit better on the iPad than Parchment does — for one thing, the keyboard stays open when you expect it to. If you want to try out my unlisted and unfinished game, it’s at http://textadventures.co.uk/games/view/njo3wqah9u2ymf25ikztua/cloak-of-darkness.

Again, I’d love to see a collaborative editing feature. You can edit the game in two separate browser windows, but as with Playfic, each time you save in one window it will overwrite the changes made in the other.

Overall, I’m impressed. The web editor feels fully capable of supporting a large game at all stages of development. If you like the idea of a form-based authoring tool (with a full programming language available when you need it) but you’re lacking a Windows computer to use the desktop version of Quest, the web version is definitely worth a try. Besides traditional command-line text adventures, it has a mode for creating choose-your-own-adventure style gamebooks.

StoryNexus, by Failbetter Games

I next tried STORYNEXUS, a tool for building games in the style of Fallen London (a.k.a. Echo Bazaar). The website is really slick and professional, with an attractively-presented list of “Featured Worlds” — but I was surprised to find that I needed to create an account (or in StoryNexus terms, a “character”) just to play a game. The namespace is global and there’s already an Iain, so I created his clone brother Iain2.

If you’ve played Fallen London you’ll know what to expect from the gameplay: at each stage you have a set of “storylet” cards, each with a short scene and maybe a choice for how to resolve it. Playing a storylet adjusts your character’s qualities, unlocking further storylets and advancing the story. It’s essentially the same CYOA-with-stats system used by Choice of Games, but with all the mechanics and plumbing proudly exposed — a bit like the Pompidou Centre, maybe? The game tells you how many actions you have left and how quickly they’re refreshed, the effects of any option you choose and your percentage chance of success. And in many cases, you can pay cash — real cash — to tweak the stats: buy more actions, unlock a card, etc.

So what we have here is a very specific style of game, with its own mechanics and design vocabulary, and a well-developed monetization strategy. To me it feels very different from a conventional command-line or CYOA game, where (ideally) the format fades into the background and the focus is entirely on the story. A StoryNexus story seems first and foremost a card game with snippets of story; often very evocative snippets, but you have to weave them together into a narrative yourself. Which is fine! (Although I couldn’t figure out how to adapt Cloak of Darkness to the StoryNexus style.) Relying on your imagination is supposed to be a strength of interactive fiction, after all. It’s up to you, the author, to decide whether this is the kind of story-game that you want to create.

Like the Quest web editor, StoryNexus is based around a series of forms. I found it rather confusing and hard to get started — there seem to be a lot of fields that need to be filled out just to get a basic storylet up and running — but that’s at least partly due to my unfamiliarity with basic mechanics. I suspect that once you get started, extending a StoryNexus game is easier than other IF styles, as your new material is in the form of cards that get shuffled into the player’s deck — you’re not just adding detail that most players will never see.

To a much greater degree than Quest and Playfic, the StoryNexus creators seem to have thought about the full workflow of creating and polishing a game: it’s explicitly designed to allow you to update and extend the game while it’s being played, and to gather feedback from players. And the games look great: rather than playing in a little frame with standard plumbing round the edges, the whole page is devoted to your game, with customisable colours and graphic elements. The card-game element is always present, but the fact that your game is hosted on another website definitely fades into the background. This is real publishing, including a fair share of the profits when people spend money in your game.

Overall, StoryNexus is one of the most professional, full-featured IF publishing systems I’ve come across. The company has a very specific vision and game design philosophy, and if it’s compatible with your own artistic vision, you should give them a try.

Vorple for Inform 7, by Juhana Leinonen

Finally, a few words on VORPLE — the only finalist that isn’t an online editor or publisher, but a more traditional code library. Vorple was popular last year in its CYOA incarnation (as a plugin for Undum), and can now be using in command-line games (as an Inform extension). It lets you add HTML features — graphics, sound, links, tooltips, popups — to Z-code games. So you can create a proper web-based game with Inform, at last! But only web-based, as the Vorple features won’t work on a standard desktop interpreter (though with careful coding and use of “if Vorple is not supported” blocks, you could provide a text-only interface if you wish). It’s up to you, the author, to decide if that’s a tradeoff you’re happy to make.

The code is well-written and nicely-organised — it’s split into several modules so you can pick and choose the features you want without having to bloat your game with unwanted stuff. Typical tasks are easy to perform and the code reads naturally (e.g. ‘display image “teaparty.png”, centered’); and you can drop down to pure Javascript and CSS when you need to. There’s detailed and well-written documentation, and example code that demonstrates all the features. Great stuff!

If you just want to add a few pictures to your Inform game, it couldn’t be simpler. For more complicated tasks, you could crib from the example game — if you’re happy with its look-and-feel — or write your own Javascript code. This is probably a bit easier than writing a graphical game in Glulx, if you’re already familiar with HTML, and you know how to get good performance across multiple browsers. Authors who aren’t comfortable with coding will probably still need to enlist some help, or look for suitable extensions. The Glimmr framework for Glulx currently seems to have a wider range of extensions available, but Vorple will certainly catch up if authors and tools developers get behind it.

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