Andrew Plotkin
Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home
Software: Inform7

W riter/programmer Andrew Plotkin is the author of a series of award-winning works of Interactive Fiction, (IF) including Shade, Spider and Web, and The Dreamhold. An integral member of the IF community, he also helps support the software systems with which contemporary IF is created.

Plotkin has worked on game design and game tools his entire life, though mostly outside of the game industry and academic worlds. With his recently released Hadean Lands, a complex Interactive Fiction that was four years in the making, he continues to pursue in his words "a (perhaps chimerical) career as a creator of narrative interaction on mobile platforms."

For content | code | process, he writes about his IF Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home. (2010) Created with Inform 7, Heliopause, winner of the 2010 XYZZY Awards for Best Writing, presents the reader, as do most IFs, with narrative descriptions and prompts, but the language -- based on classic science fiction -- is different/evocative, and the forward motion of The Horizon of Night drives a continually interactive process, as the reader enters phrases at the prompts, and the story responds:

Andrew Plotkin's Interactive Fiction Page includes a card with introductory IF commands, as well as an interactive fiction tutorial game, The Dreamhold. But in Heliopause, as he explains in his statement, although some action verbs are traditional in IF and some are from sailing stories, "...the player must move beyond standard IF usage and engage some imagination..."

Plotkin, who is also known as Zarf, has also provided the source code for Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home. However, readers may wish to play the story before reading it, as plot details are revealed in the source code.

Andrew Plotkin: Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home

H eliopause is primarily concerned with tone. Its language is drawn from the lyrical science fiction of the early 1970s (which was itself concerned with evoking high fantasy and fable into the science-fictional mode). I obliquely reference Jack Williamson and George R. R. Martin; Vance and Zelazny lurk inescapably behind them.

The language distances the story, already made distant in time and space, and so does the SFnal scene-setting. The form of space travel, the level of technology, even the species of the protagonist -- all are presented allusively, as fabulous imagery rather than speculative fact. The game then marks this distance to the IF player in two ways: First, the scale of presentation: a game location is not the breadth of one room or hallway, as in traditional IF, but one planet, then one solar system, then one nebula or cluster of stars.

Second, the model of interaction: rather than pedestrian compass-based movement, the player must adjust a starship's course using the metaphors of wind and sail.

The action verbs may be drawn from IF stock (PULL SAIL, DROP ANCHOR) or the low cultural understanding of sailing stories (HOIST SAIL, WEIGH ANCHOR -- I accept ARRRR but forgot to include YOHO). By either path the player must move beyond standard IF usage and engage some imagination, with results that are clearer in game mechanics (raising the anchor always means departing from a planet) than in engineering specifics (the anchor is "a disk of whirling strange matter", with no hard-SF infodump beyond that).

The form of the story supports this tonal distancing. It has the strict threefold repetition of a fairy tale, and the choices of navigation are illusory; the player will visit three locations in order and then a fourth. The player's primary agency lies in understanding the navigational mechanics well enough to solve some simple puzzles. (Perhaps not simple enough. I suspect less puzzle-oriented players will be pulled by these out of the lyrical mode into the analytical, if not the frustrated and giving-up modes.)

Once the climax is reached, the player must pull the three earlier rewards of the game together, in straightforward fairy-tale closure, to reach the conclusion. (A second, unmarked ending choice is available. I added this after feedback from expert players who found the original structure a bit too strict.)

I built the game using Inform 7, with no technical innovation beyond a few text buffers optimized for my particular needs. The largest part of my effort lay in building the game's large store of non-standard actions, (mostly dealing with the sails and anchor) and the larger range of phrasings a player might try to invoke them.

As usual for IF, the effort goes into making the player's commands work the first time, so that the player never notices how much effort went in. I spent some time on procedurally-generated descriptions, to give the effect of an infinitely varying field of stars, but these remain brief and are not intended to occupy the player's attention. (My earlier work Hunter, in Darkness went further in that direction.)

Heliopause probably does not add new dimension to the genre of interactive fiction, but it attempts to push the boundaries of practice (and the player's expectations) in interesting ways -- in the scale of the model world, and the range of real-world activities that can be expressed in IF idiom. If its literary homage makes the effort more memorable, then I have achieved my goal.

Judy Malloy,


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