Thursday, December 3, 2009

The case for aesthetic IF

Over on rec.arts.int-fiction, there's a battle raging. Words like "irresponsible," "amoral," and "criminal" have been thrown around; comparisons to counterfeiters, malware authors, and racists have been implied. No one has invoked Hitler yet (we're mostly a polite bunch) but it may be just a matter of time.

What's it all about? Basically, how much control interactive fiction authors should have over the way their output appears to users.

Lining up on one side are the stalwart coders, arguing that by working in a text-based medium, authors are morally obligated to ensure their works can run on any platform that displays text, display however the viewer wishes to see them, and be accessed by any user who wishes to convert that text into another format (like sound).

On the other side are the frustrated writers, arguing that presentation and aesthetic sensibility should be a vital component to their interactive fictions, and that by keeping IF at a lowest-common-denominator standard the medium is being held back in the 1980s rather than evolving into the 21st century.

The firestorm is mostly a derailing of Andrew Plotkin's solicitation for feedback on a significant update to Glk, the presentation layer he wrote a decade ago for Glulx IF games. While the changes seem to be a step in the right direction (and unfortunately my lack of nitty-gritty technical knowledge prevents me from offering intelligent insight here), concern has been raised about whether they go too far or not far enough in giving authors control over how their games appear. I still don't think it's clear to many on the writing side of the aisle how the process of styling text would change or improve for authors under this proposal; knowledgeable people have said Inform 7 extensions could be written to make styling text simple, but I'm hazy about whether this means "simple like the bold tag in HTML" or "simple like recompiling the Linux kernel." Points have also been raised about whether authors have been consulted enough in this or any recent proposal affecting their work, or whether these technical discussions are happening in isolation from the people who actually make games with these systems. In short, the discussion has moved from comments on a technical proposal to debate about the fundamental relationship between author and player in IF; and to be clear, this post is largely a response to the larger questions, not the specifics of Plotkin's proposal.

I wanted to address a few arguments I've seen raised against authorial control, because I think this issue is one of the most important facing the future of the IF community. As my own work has moved towards the realm of public exhibitions and artistic recognition, I have constantly battled with the barrier to entry caused by IF's primitive-seeming, barebones appearance. I'm working on a Inform/Glulx project now that will be presented in a gallery, and it's maddening to have zero or almost zero control over such basic issues as text color, line spacing, and alignment. It makes my project look amateurish, and I'm getting the sense most people are going to glance at it, then decide to give it a pass.

I would love to write my own interactive fiction infrastructure that lets me do what I want, but... I'm just not that good of a coder. And to give up the massive benefits of Inform 7: the extensions, the natural language coding, the multi-platform support... would be heartbreaking.

OK, so: arguments against authorial control over output:

"Letting authors make their text stylish gives them unacceptable control over my computer."

I think this argument speaks to the Linux-using, Greasemonkey-scripting, network-security-conference-attending side of the IF community, the technical wizards who have made everything we do possible. I have a great deal of respect for these people, but at the same time I don't necessarily think they represent the views of the majority. In David Platt's book "Why Software Sucks" he relates a story about usability, where he frequently opens talks at computer industry events by asking audience members how many of them drive a car with a stick shift. Something like 50% of hands go up. He next asks what percentage of cars they think are currently sold with stick shifts, and the guess tends to be around 30%. He then tells them the actual statistic is more like 10%, and launches into a talk about the dangers of assuming your users are just like you.

I think it needs to be acknowledged that most users surf the web with Javascript and Flash enabled, don't use custom stylesheets in their browsers, and rarely adjust the brightness and contrast on their televisions. The small minority who do should not be dictating the base experience for the large majority who do not.

We can certainly still keep both communities happy: I am for, if anything, extending the abilities of interpreters to control appearances. But I also accept that increasingly the greater part of my audience wants to just pull up a website to play my games, using whatever the hell colors, fonts, and backgrounds I've chosen for them, and I want to be able to give those people the best experience I can.

"Letting authors make their text stylish will cause authors to write games that disagree with my personal aesthetic."

Surely, that's your problem. Most television disagrees with my personal aesthetic, so I choose not to watch it. Problem solved.

Perhaps an unstated addendum to this argument is "... and if enough authors follow suit then my beloved interactive fiction will be ruined." Well, folks, that's the breaks. Hearts were broken when silent film gave way to talkies; for some, the movies were never the same again. Times and tastes change, and if IF is held back by a stubborn refusal to evolve with the times, all the promising young authors who want to invigorate the medium will find another medium to invigorate instead.

"Letting authors make their text stylish will lead to games that rely on colors and styles, shutting out blind players."

I'm absolutely sympathetic to the worry here. I understand the importance IF has to many blind fans. Among my proudest moments as an IF author are the e-mails I've received over the years (and continue to receive) from blind kids who've played my game "Gourmet," included built-in on their BrailleNote handheld readers.

There's an assumption here which I'm not sure is valid: that most IF authors, if given the ability, will immediately start producing games impossible to play by blind people without providing any consideration for their needs. I can only speak for myself, but I took care to ensure that Blue Lacuna remained accessible. I had two blind beta testers; I created a screen-reader mode that changed the presentation of the backwards text puzzle to prose descriptions rather than diagrams of letters; I left in standard IF commands so the highlighted keywords could be ignored.

Blind users, at least to the best of my ability, did not suffer with Blue Lacuna. The people who suffered were all of the sighted people who were unable to choose from more than two colors of keywords, who had to remember that "bold" was standing in for a color even though it wasn't as visually distinctive, who had to dig into the menus of unfamiliar interpreter programs (since most of my audience was new to IF) to do things like activate color at all, in one interpreter's case, or make the background something that allowed my forced-into-fixity colors to be seen.

Also, let's not put the cart before the horse. We're trying to fix a problem that hasn't happened yet: a glut of games incompatible with screen readers causing a sharp drop-off in the blind IF population. If and when such a thing occurs, it's a problem that can be addressed. But don't tell me I can't make pretty games because hypothetical blind people can't play hypothetical games by hypothetical authors.

At the same time, forcing people to continue making their games accessible to the blind is legislating from the compiler. I choose to make my games more accessible to the blind because they are an audience I am interested in reaching. If I chose to make my games more accessible to disadvantaged children under 12, I might make different choices, perhaps some of them stylistic. In fact, I was severely crippled in my attempt to make IF more accessible to people who've never played IF, a vastly larger audience than blind people and children under 12 combined.

"Letting authors make their text stylish will prevent IF from working on smartphones and other nontraditional platforms."

But surely that's the concern of the game author. If I were deciding whether or not to do a project in Flash, I would have to weigh the fact that it wouldn't work on the iPhone. If I were directing a 3D movie, I'd have to acknowledge that it wouldn't look nearly as cool on a 13 inch 2D TV. If I'm writing IF doing critical things with positioning or style requiring a certain size of monitor, I understand that I'm writing to a subset of my potential audience.

There are two cases I can think of where this problem becomes someone else's concern besides the author's. 1) You own a nontraditional device and have a vested interest in making sure future IF can be played on it. Fair enough, but that's also your responsibility as a purchaser of nontraditional devices: if Flash is very important to you, you might not want to buy an iPhone. 2) You are concerned that making IF accessible on fewer platforms will erode its audience. This is a valid concern, but again, it's doing things backwards: if and when we come to a future where all IF is written for 23 inch monitors and participation in RAIF is going down because people only want to play IF on their iPhones, then we can address what to do about the issue. I don't see the wisdom in crippling the present over hypothetical futures.

Finally, I wanted to offer a few counter-arguments. Since these align with my opinions, I find them mostly self-evident; if anyone wants to argue or elaborate on these, please feel free. I have to get back to work on my ugly prototype.

"Letting authors make their text stylish will result in the rise of beautifully designed, aesthetically pleasing games."

"Letting authors make their text stylish will open up new branches of textual storytelling and give authors new ways to tell their stories."

"Letting authors make their text stylish will attract more people, especially younger people, to IF."

"Letting authors make their text stylish will reduce the perception that IF is a laughably outdated medium."

"Letting authors make their text stylish is something that authors want."