Interactive Fiction Competition: Operation Extraction and The Play

Every year, the IFComp features a few web-based games. With the state of web design these days, these can easily include status screens and other formatting that compares nicely to the state of the art in old-school text adventures. However, they generally don’t feature any text input from the player. Text parsing is complicated, and if the designer wanted it, they would probably have used one of the established interactive fiction development systems instead of their own web application. This means that the web-based games may feel very different than the other works in the competition, but in some ways they are very like classic Choose Your Own Adventures.

That’s not to say that a CYOA story has to be bad. There are interesting narrative possibilities that the classic children’s books barely touched on, and telling them through a computer creates a lot of potential that books couldn’t offer. This review examines two of this year’s web-based entries, Operation Extraction and The Play.

Ming-Yee Iu’s Operation Extraction is a simple story about secret agents trying to rescue a hostage, but it bills itself as “an experiment in how to portray multiple interactive interconnecting narratives”. Basically, it tops traditional CYOA stories by letting you play through multiple CYOAs at once. You flit through the agents’ lives as an omnipresent observer, and can make choices for the one you’re currently watching. Every action advances a timeline, though, and the characters will make default choices if you’re not there to specify one. The most frequent action is just to wait and watch the story unfold between choice points, but you can get different information by watching the same events through different people’s eyes. Of course, the agents’ choices impact each other even when they’re not in the same room, so it’s necessary to direct all of them in order to win.

The web interface is simple but works well for this system. The main portion of the screen shows the story, with new text added to the bottom after each action. Choices are presented as links in that text. Status windows on the side show the characters and room description, with links to let you jump to anyone’s point of view or see adjacent rooms. Buttons at the bottom let you move forward or backward through the story, so you can quickly jump through time if you don’t intend to make choices for a while or want to rewind to change a decision. (This rewinding lets you watch the action from multiple viewpoints, including NPCs that you couldn’t otherwise navigate to at the start of the game.)

It’s a well-done interface for this system, but it doesn’t prove that this approach can offer interesting stories. The usual complaint about CYOA stories is that they are too arbitrary and encourage readers to dispassionately explore all the paths without becoming invested in the plot. This is exacerbated when it is possible for the reader to completely miss important plot developments and decision points. Manipulating time and jumping between characters makes this more difficult to “solve” than simply bookmarking the past decisions in a book, but it feels no more mechanical in the end. The impacts of many choices are not immediately obvious, since they will impact another character much later, and only if that character makes the right choices. So it doesn’t feel especially interesting when you need to decide, for example, which spot along the street to stash explosives in.

It might work better if the game seemed to devote the same care to the story as it did to the system. The events of your current location are portrayed literally and dispassionately, but you are not told when anything important happens elsewhere. Even if one of your agents dies, you’ll only know if you are there to witness it. (I spent a while observing the location of one of my dead agents, wondering why she was doing nothing even though enemies were nearby. It’s telling that I couldn’t distinguish between a corpse and a person who is waiting around.) The game also chooses to portray the events in past tense, a distracting break from the illusion that the player is involved in an unfolding story.

Each character does have a unique internal monologue, but this is simply a timed event that rolls out over several turns if you happen to be watching. If you arrive in the middle of the monologue, you’ll watch it unfold with no context for what you’re seeing. These personal motivations don’t actually impact the game, and there are no choices that let you develop the character one way or another. At the end, you’ll have either succeeded or failed, and their only character development is potentially dying.

I’d be interested in seeing what else can be done with this system, but Operation Extraction doesn’t feel invested in anything but that system. Without characters that matter or a plot that the reader feels in control of, its only merit is its experiment.

Grade: C

Deirdra Kai’s The Play also features a side panel for character statuses and choices within the unfolding main text of the page, but the approach is very different. You play a director on a downward career slope trying to keep a dress rehearsal together. That makes you an active participant in the story, with direct control over only your own actions, but you do have authority over everyone else. You can’t abuse them, though, as your success depends mainly on getting these second-rate actors invested in the play and each other.

The first time playing through the game, the results of your choices feel typically arbitrary, but they do flow together to form a coherent, interesting story. (It reads as perfectly natural prose if you scroll back and re-read it at the end.) The status bar on the side tells you whether each character is “tired”, “eager”, or something else, but it’s easy to miss the changes. The text portrays them so well that it doesn’t seem necessary to watch the status.

It only takes a few minutes to reach the end of the story, though, and the real depth comes in the re-plays. Most choices don’t branch the plot as much as one would expect – after all, you are stepping through the script of a play – but they do impact the characters’ moods. Farther along in the story, the characters will react differently depending on how they feel about their situation. This gives the results an organic feeling, rather than being simple branching paths to memorize and control.

Though your play is “reviewed” at the end, hopefully with a recommendation, winning and losing isn’t the point. There are several potential plot threads, and once the mechanics of the game are figured out, there is enough variety to make an hour or two of experimentation a lot of fun. You can control how faithful you are to the original script, how different pairs of characters related to each other, and even dive into past tension between you and another actor. It’s impossible to hit on all these points in one story, or even keep all the characters happy – some choices you make have to favor one at the expense of another. But that’s what makes this truly “interactive” fiction, even if your range of choices is less than in most text adventures.

It’s not perfect. The story relies on the idea that a five-minute play can receive a prominent review that makes or breaks a career, and that a script can be completely overhauled at the last minute as long as the inexperienced actors are enthusiastic enough. But my main complaint is the one that every author would love to hear: I want more of it. The plot is short, and there aren’t enough choices. (There are a lot of links, but most of them are effectively a “continue” choice with no other option. There are also several that let you examine someone or more thoroughly explain a thought, but they don’t impact the results.)

The Play succeeds largely by being the opposite of Operation Extraction: Well-written text is heavily focused on the unfolding story, with the characters’ motivations and story arcs taking center stage. Even when I was just gaming the system to see the results, I was more interested in how the characters would be affected than in whether I would “win”.

Grade: B

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