July 6, 2007

Textfyre, an Interactive Fiction Company

by Nick Montfort · , 12:47 pm

Many of you know that I’m not personally working toward the goal of interactive fiction profitability, and that I don’t think IF has to make money to be a meaningful part of our culture. I’m certainly a big fan of lots of early commercial work in IF, though, and I’m also glad to see interactive fiction practice expand in new ways. So I would of course support, for instance, a long-contributing member of the IF community creating a new company that aims to expand IF readership and offer a new type of work to a new audience. And I do support it – a new interactive fiction company of this sort has in fact been established, announcements have been made about IF authors will write games for the new venture, and a full website is being readied.

Textfyre logo

The company that seeks to bring IF to market again is Textfyre, an initiative of David Cornelson, who also published Graham Nelson’s Inform Designer’s Manual in print for the first time, started the tradition of two-hour IF creation sessions called SpeedIF, and started ifwiki. What follows is a summary of the major news so far about Textfyre and some replies from Cornelson about the company and the future of interactive fiction.

Cornelson has been posting updates about the company on rec.art.int-fiction for a while. Some of the big news, much of which was just announced recently:

I asked Cornelson to give us the “elevator pitch” for Textfyre. This is it:

Textfyre is an edutainment computer game publishing company. Our games will focus on providing entertaining experiences for reading aged children that revolve around cognitive learning skills. Children will be able to use language, reason, and other scholastic abilities to interact with fictional stories that have been developed by highly skilled professional game designers and writers. Textfyre games will focus on stories with settings and characters that are captivating with strong support from teachers and parents.

I was also interested to know about what Cornelson’s long-term vision is for interactive ficiton. Everyone, whether in business, in the academy, or working individually, is usually thinking at most a few years out in order to get the immediate work done. So I asked about what Cornelson’s vision was for the role of commercial interactive fiction in culture farther out, say, in the year 2020. I was interested in hearing how commercial IF might co-exist with non-commercial efforts, if at all.

I actually believe that interactive fiction desperately needs commercialization. Just like most research areas, you need the general public, the collegiate, and the commercial sectors all investigating a problem. These origins of research all produce different results and feed off of each other. Interactive fiction has for years lacked the commercial side of research and Textfyre is determined to fill that gap. There are many things we can tackle that aren’t really suitable for the hobbyist or college communities, such as design processes, project management systems and methodologies, and certain types of tools. Textfyre is already working on project management processes and one of the first tools we’re looking to create will help designers develop dialogue that is well-defined and thoroughly implemented. We’ll work on other areas as the need arises. Of course our needs are different than the other research angles. We’re looking to trim production times and costs. But the results of that will probably help other people develop IF in different ways. It will help people define, manage, and create new solutions based on our findings.

I think in the future we’re going to see technical aspects of interactive fiction expand dramatically. The one example I give is from the movie Minority Report or possibly the librarian in the latest remake of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. You have a character on screen that acts as a real person with real knowledge and the ability to learn about you as it converses with you. Eventually this technology will lead to robots and holograms that will make this interaction even more remarkable.

I think we’ll eventually find ways to develop artificial intelligence based on the workings of interactive fiction. AI has always been an unsolvable problem, but I think we just need to teach ourselves how many things work before we can really create something that is artificial and capable of “human” interaction. It’s all just stepping stones.

Culturally, I think the interactivity of IF will superimpose itself on society. There are so many things that IF does that could be applied to other problem areas. I can think of several, such as virtual shopping, virtual education, and virtual research. If systems were implemented that used parsing like technologies to allow people to communicate, we could create settings in text (and graphics) that gave users virtual access to things for which they would normally have to leave the house.

But in sixteen years I think the biggest difference is that we should be able to develop IF games that are played entirely through sound and graphics, but more like virtual reality than current gaming implementations.

In terms of the particular approach that Textfyre is taking, the thing I find most interesting is the attempt to separate design, writing, and programming through a new IF production methodology – exactly the type of work that academic research and individual creators haven’t done, as Cornelson points out. In my own practice as an IF author and collaborator on digital projects, I prefer collaborating “laterally” and having all the collaborators doing the same tasks rather than placing each person in a special role, as happens in making a typical film. (I collaborate, in part, in order to learn from my collaborators, and I think I learn more this way.) At the same time, the process of abstracting these three layers of design, writing, and programming is very interesting to me. My dissertation work was not about the development cycle, but it was concerned with allowing the expression layer (“discourse”) to be varied independently of the content, or simulated world. This involved creating a similar sort of separation between the world-creator and the author/programmer of the telling. Whether or not an effective pipeline of people results from such a separation, trying to pull apart IF authorship in this way can be very useful to our understanding of IF and what is special about it. But Cornelson may have luck with not just the exploration of IF, but the production aspects as well. Given that he pioneered the seemingly-impossible practicce of two-hour interactive fiction development, it wouldn’t surprise me.