Programming fiction

I haven’t coded seriously in almost five years. Actually, seven, and that was writing some testing tools to do log scanning in Perl. I’ve tinkered a little since then– when I was unemployed, I toyed with using Ruby to prototype a startup idea, for instance.

I’ve been writing an interactive fiction game (think Zork) relating to baseball, in which the player is a general manager of a baseball team, and hilarity ensues.

The funny thing is I’m having the exact same feeling I used to have when I was coding, where I don’t entirely know what I’m doing, so I’ll go in and write out the desired behavior, and then in implementing it resort to increasingly ugly hacks until I can get it to work. I can’t figure out how to get a character to only take certain objects, for instance, so for now I’ve got them accepting anything you give them. While it works, it makes me wince to play through when I can give someone two redundant objects.

Or following: for a plot point I need to get someone to follow the player and then stop when they meet someone else. The only way I’ve figured out how to do that is to turn the follow rule off when they’re near the someone else, which works okay, but it’s also not a particularly good way to do it. And I’ve ended up doing a lot of making environmental behavior location-specific to the player and it just seems unsatisfying.

Part of the problem is that there’s no K&R book for Inform 7. There’s documentation and a recipe book that almost but don’t quite ever seem to tell me what I’m trying to figure out. I have a wishlist for things I want to be able to do and can’t yet.

So my process right now goes:
– pick an item off the to-do list, be it feature or bug
– re-write it
– compile (if fail, troubleshoot)
– test (if fail, troubleshoot)
– repeat

It’s slow, slow going.

The game’s 4,000 words now, which I believe would make it the longest post in USSM history if I pushed it out now, and it’s still a ways from being finished.

The really weird thing is that as much as interactive fiction’s been a niche for ages, it’s been a fairly viable one, but I cannot figure out where to get help on this stuff. I joined a list, it’s dead — though the mod approved me that day. I don’t see updates. I feel like I’m wandering around a ghost town where everyone decided to leave in June of 2007 without bothering to pack up or anything.

Even when I was programming in Fortran 77 in college, you could still find other people tasked with the same kind of work maintaining obsolete systems. But this, this is a little eerie. I can’t seriously be the only person writing a text adventure, can I?

Interestingly (to me, anyway) the only place people seem to be actively discussing this stuff at all is on Usenet, which I haven’t used seriously in many, many years. To see that it’s still living on, well… it warms my heart a little.

3 thoughts on “Programming fiction

  1. Dennis G. Jerz

    Derek, does this code work for you? I sent it out over the mailing list, but you’re right, that list isn’t very active. Perhaps you’re not monitoring it anymore?

    “Giving” by “Dennis G. Jerz”

    The Testing Chamber is a room.

    Derek is a person in the Testing Chamber.

    A puzzle-solver is a kind of thing.

    The book and the ball are puzzle-solvers in the testing chamber.

    To decide whether a puzzle-solver has been used:
    if Derek carries a puzzle-solver then decide yes;
    decide no.

    Instead of giving a puzzle-solver (called the whatsit) to Derek:
    if a puzzle-solver has been used, instead say “No thanks.”;
    now Derek carries the whatsit;
    say “Derek takes it.”

  2. JDS

    I haven’t played any pure text game in oh, a decade, but if it’s anywhere near good as :

    “> punch Hendry

    You catch Hendry unaware!
    Hendry is wounded!
    The other GMs look at you with awe.
    Hendry runs away!
    Some GMs applaud you.”

    then I’m fascinated by the concept.

  3. Evan

    The only new interactive text adventures I’ve seen anywhere in the past few years has been interactive porn. It appears everyone else would rather have flashy pictures (that’s probably true of the “adult” consumer as well, but depending on the story the pictures might get them in trouble).

    People don’t seem to read anymore. Ever noticed what the actual sales figures are for the New York Times fiction best sellers?

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