Saturday, March 21, 2015

Rabbit Trails

Writers often talk about rabbit trails. In case you’re not familiar with them, rabbit trails tend to go off in random directions, like this sign, leading nowhere in particular even though they often provide entertaining tangents. Seat-of-the-pants writers, also known as “pantsers”, are more prone to do this than “plotters”, who plan out a story in advance, but plotters like myself aren’t immune. Even though I’ve got a clear outline of the basic structure of a novel before I start writing it, as I’m typing unexpected things are bound to happen. I’ll be describing a visit to a museum where a specific event is supposed to happen, when my character decides to pause to look at a painting. All of a sudden, the painting assumes much greater importance than I ever intended, and I’m off on exploring how the artist decided to paint that subject, what the circumstances were when he painted it, how it came to be hung on this wall, etc. If you’re having trouble visualizing how this goes, think of the painting in Titanic.

Now, sometimes these rabbit trails are pure gold. They take the story in wonderful new directions that are inspired. More often, they’re pleasant detours that never make it into the final version of the novel. They’re cut from the manuscript and, if the writer is smart, pasted into a new document as fodder for a future story where they’re no longer a diversion, but a key element in that story.

I’ve been experiencing rabbit trails of a different kind as I’m writing the third book in my Community of Faith mystery series. These rabbit trails writers call “research.”

In this novel, tentatively called Kill Them All, the victim is a contestant in a computer game contest. Obviously, the primary suspects are the other competitors. Faith, my amateur sleuth, is a web designer and self-confessed computer geek, so solving this particular crime is a natural for her.

The games in this contest are Interactive Fiction (IF) or, as they’re sometimes called, text adventures. This style of game is one of the oldest ever played on computers. The first game of this genre, usually called just “Adventure”, was written by Will Crowther in the 1970s. Versions were ported to almost every computer as soon as the computer became available. Programmers do that for fun. At the end of the decade, some MIT students founded Infocom to market a game called Zork, which was very similar to the original Adventure. Infocom developed over thirty of these games and was one of the most successful gaming companies of the time.

A variant of this idea are the Choose Your Own Adventure books that are popular with children. More recently, we have enhanced ebooks, which can have the same kind of interaction.

(If you need another example of rabbit trails, reread the previous two paragraphs.)

As it turns out, I became a programmer at the same time Interactive Fiction was the most popular type of computer game. I loved the Infocom games, even though the puzzles could be frustrating. Even after graphical adventures became more popular, IF still had a devoted following, especially among programmers. Several development systems were created to make programming the games easier. In the 1990s, I learned the basics of one of these systems, Inform, and tried creating my own games.

A long time has passed since I actually played a text adventure, and I knew I had to refresh my memory on how they worked. I own most of the Infocom games, which are transportable between systems because they’re basically text files, so all I needed to do was find an interpreter, which reads the game files and translates them into something you can play. I’ve switched from a PC to Mac, which meant that the interpreters I’d used in the past wouldn’t work. I found Gargoyle, figured out how to install it, then fired up Zork. At this point, I cheated. I remembered how difficult the puzzles could be, the mapping with pencil and graph paper to be able to retrace your steps, the number of saves and restores, and the hours it takes to solve one of the Infocom games without dying. So I also downloaded a walkthrough, a list of all the steps necessary to solve the game and win, rather than figuring it out for myself. I am supposed to be writing a novel, not playing games, you know!

Next step was creating a rudimentary game.

It’s been a over a decade since I last created a work of IF, so I knew there had to be changes. Which led me to the second research rabbit trail: game development systems. I learned there was a new kid on the block, Twine, and that Inform now was up to version 7, with a totally new interface and natural language syntax. If I was going to write scenes about programmers creating games in these systems, I had to download them and know enough about how they worked to make the scenes believable.

Which led to finding the documentation and tutorials on the web, printing out The Inform 7 Handbook, going through a PowerPoint presentation on Twine. In two hours, I was able to create a very simple Twine game. A game in Inform will take a bit longer, since it’s a richer and more complicated language. While I was able to do what I wanted in Twine on the fly, I knew that I’d need to have a plan before creating a game in Inform.

I think we’re up to rabbit trail number four: puzzles.

As I alluded to earlier in this post, winning an IF game largely consists of solving puzzles. A mystery is also a puzzle, or multiple puzzles. I like puzzles. I used to do the crossword puzzle in the newspaper on a daily basis. I’ve done Sudoku puzzles. I enjoy Will Shortz on NPR on Sunday mornings. But designing puzzles is tricky.

However, packrat that I am, in 2000, when I was still interested in creating IF, I collected a series of articles and blog posts on what makes a puzzle. Fortunately, I printed these out and put them in a looseleaf, because some of the web sites on which they originated no longer exist. And this week I pulled that looseleaf off the shelf and started reading as preparation for planning the game that Faith will create in the novel.

Of course, that led to looking up more current information on the web, finding books on Amazon (most of which are textbooks and too expensive, even in Kindle format, for me to buy), and wondering how I’m ever going to finish this novel if I keep having to learn new things.

Naturally, ninety percent or more of what I learn won’t be in the book. The story isn’t about how to create a computer game, but about the characters and their motives to murder the victim. Pages full of Faith writing the game would be as interesting as me describing myself writing this blog.

But I love writing programs, which is what creating games is. I do miss it since I retired. It's fun and I'm having a grand old time poking into this stuff. I think I might be part rabbit.

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