17 de septiembre, 2014
Jon Ingold: «Coming up with a world, and a setting, which people will relate to and like is hard work»
Jon Ingold: «Coming up with a world, and a setting, which people will relate to and like is hard work»

For an old adventurer like me it is a surprise and a pleasure to see how independent companies are growing and maturing selling Interactive Fiction (IF) as electronic gamebooks, with greater depth than ever before. One of these companies is Inkle. Founded by John Ingold and Joseph Humfrey, they legitimated the iPad as a platform for interactive reading with their free adaptation the classic Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818). It was published as an extremely elegant app in 2012, written by Dave Morris. Jon is a veteran of the IF scene, a prominent author who made his own company, gaining success and recognition in the process. I am glad to have Jon here with us, talking about the past, the present through his projects Sorcery! and 80 Days, and, of course, about IF.

Jon, you are younger than me, but you started making adventure games in your teenage years. If my mathematics do not fail me, you should have been listening to Nirvana instead of playing Infocom Games and even creating great things like Muldoon Legacy. How was this possible?

We got our first computer when I was about ten years old, I think. It came with a word-processing package, a programming language, and the only two games we could find in the shop: proto-Tomb Raider game Rick Dangerous, and Infocom’s Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I was rubbish at Rick Dangerous, so I poured hours into Hitch-hiker’s instead – and after that, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Sorcerer, and the original Zork games.

They were difficult games on slow computers so it was a lot like chewing through cardboard, but eventually I completed them all, except for Sorcerer, on which I became utterly stuck. Six years later, fooling around in my Dad’s office on a thing called the «world wide web» I thought to search Alta-Vista for a walkthrough. A few weeks later, I’d completed Sorcerer, was having a furiously good time with Curses, and reading the Inform design manual, which I studied in depth even though we still didn’t own a computer that could run it.

Mulldoon wasn’t my first game – that was a little thing called Break-In that I designed in a notebook, coded in a word-processor, and only compiled once it was done. It was a very silly thing. Mulldoon was a step forward; and quite a deliberate attempt to replicate the enjoyment I had from Curses while fixing its various design flaws.

So, yeah. I guess all of that added up to a lot of time spent! But at the time I was just doing what I found interesting: the fact it’s proved to be the basis of my «career» is quite surprising.

Your work in IF is pretty solid, and the IF community has given you several awards. Some of your important games include My Angel, which focused in providing a satisfactory and streamlined literary experience; All Roads, winner of both the xyzzy awards and the 2001 IF Competition, with a narrative point of view that shifted from character to character; Dead Cities, a contribution to the H.P. Lovecraft Commonplace Book Project; Make it Good, a detective noir adventure where the protagonist is a drunk and amoral investigator, which turns out to be entirely unreliable, as he hides information from the player. Nick Montfort said in his Book (Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction., The MIT Press) that your main contribution to the medium was: “…your greater sensitivity to the levels of the interactor’s and player character’s awareness…”. So, it seems you were focusing in experimenting heavily with the interaction between the protagonist, the narrator and the characters. What is your main motivation and experimentation field in Interactive Fiction?

I think that’s true, I’m definitely interested in separating the player and the protagonist. Creating moments of delight and surprise are always about finding assumptions that your reader has made without realising and exploiting them, and players of games are constantly identifying themselves with their characters, so it’s an easy source of shocks, twists, and entertainment. I picked the trick up from Hitch-hiker’s, which has a few excellent moments where the parser flat-out lies to you, and I got interested in the idea of sequences where you type one command and the character does something else. I’m pretty sure there’s one of those in every game I wrote, and we added one into Sorcery! as well, in the field of the Black Lotus, and even though that game is choice-based, it’s still a pretty effective device.

At the same time, I’ve always enjoyed dialogue – writing it, and hearing it – and was interested in ways to get characters into games. My Angel was an attempt at that; a narrative device (two protagonists, but telepathically linked) for having communication without the clumsy «ASK CHARACTER ABOUT BANANAS» interface which turns every game-character into a machine that you poke for information. But that meant suddenly my protagonist was two arguing people, which begged the question, who the hell was the player supposed to be identifying with anyway? Who was taking orders? Why were they taking orders?

All Roads is the synthesis of these two ideas: it’s all about who is controlling who, and why. I wrote it very quickly – in 24 hours, plus some bug-fixing, and expected it to be a throw-away project, but I guess it hit a nerve somehow as it did quite well for itself.

Jon_Ingold02These days, though, I feel like the player/protagonist thing is a solved problem, for me, anyway. It’s just part of the writing process, to blur the line between the identification of the player and the character. So in Sorcery!, which is a second-person «anonymous hero» kind o game, we track your decisions and what kind of character you’re playing at — and then, sometimes, when it’s fun, we play a line or a scene based on those characteristics and not on your choices. So you’ll walk into a bar and insult everyone, or start a fight, or be so clumsy that you destroy a precious statue. The nice thing about it is that it no longer feels like a gimmick or a trick; it’s more like there are two sides to telling interactive stories: a «set-up» and a «punch-line», and they sit either side of that dividing line.

Our latest game, 80 Days, has a first-person narrator, and we keep a much tighter control over what he’s like, but the basic ideas are still the same.

The evolution of Interactive Fiction in that wild decade was amazing in a technical, theoretical and practical way. Being myself a chauvinist, when industry people talk about narrative storytelling in triple A games, I can’t keep myself from smiling and saying «we did that years ago!» Half-jokes apart, what graphical games, indie or not, do you like the most in terms of interactive storytelling point of view?

Firstly, I know that feeling. I’m constantly thinking: «Bioshock? Guys, play Spider and Web» or whatever. But it’s great to see interactive storytelling starting to really develop as a well-developed art-form. But I still think there’s remarkably little that doesn’t bottle out and give up. To me, a good interactive story has to make the player feel complicit in creating the direction of the narrative develops (even if that direction is entirely pre-scripted), and most games work the other way around: they tell you what the direction will be, and ask you to perform it. So, The Walking Dead is often held up as a great piece of interactive storytelling, and while it’s well-written and the choices are effective, it left me rather cold as an experience because I always felt I was simply walking through the museum of scenes the creators had built. I didn’t feel the world was responding to me; I felt like I was choosing which page to turn to in a static book.

The secret to good interactive storytelling has got to be in giving the player fine-control and frequent, detailed actions. That’s what made parser IF so engaging, and that’s what we hope to do with inkle’s brand of choice-based games. We want players to feel like there’s no step they didn’t take for themselves.

And not many other studios are attempting that model! But I liked the Banner Saga; and I liked Out There, though I wished the bits of story that pop up knew a bit more about what I had done before, or what was going on at the moment in my game, so I could believe it was truly a story and not a card dealt from a deck.

I enjoyed Emily Short’s recent Versu project, Blood & Laurels, once I got into it: it has a great narrative hook that feels naturally suited to an interactive «performance». I also liked what I played of Gemini Rue: I think I got as far as the first puzzle that I couldn’t solve — so, the first one that, to me, didn’t feel like a matter of doing something natural and in character — and then I got stuck and haven’t yet gone back.

But the best interactive narrative game ever is The Last Express; I’ve made it my mission to mention that game in every interview I do, because no-one seems to talk about it. Yes, it’s brutally hard, and fatally flawed. But that doesn’t matter – once someone fixes the problems with it, it is exactly how narrative adventures should: shifting, adaptive, rich with characters; and set in a world where time is always going forwards and you can never go back.

So you were there making great works of IF, and then one day you told yourself «I’m going indie. I’m going to publish lavish works of IF in mobile platforms and I am going to get rich in the process». So tell us, how and why did you found your own company with the mad purpose of selling text games?

Well, in between making indie text games and co-founding inkle, I got a job at Sony Computer Entertainment making games for Playstation. Where I learnt a lot, and worked on a range of games from interactive drama through to strategy and party games. That’s where I met Joseph Humfrey, the other half of inkle. He’s a very good coder with a strong artistic eye, and he wanted to found a company, make games, and do narrative properly. I’ve got some ideas about that, and a lot of writing experience, but I’ve no artistic eye, so we found that together we could do a lot more than separately. About the same time, Sony canned our dream project and put us on something pretty derivative, and Apple released this weird tablet-thing they called an iPad. It was all too good an opportunity to miss.

We’ve self-funded and never had any outside investment: the first six months were pretty tight while we made Frankenstein for Profile Books, but that was part of our plan: make an app that was so beautiful we couldn’t be ignored. Apple picked it up and highlighted it, and that got the attention of the guys in the digital department at Penguin US, whom we did a few projects with and earned enough money to take some risks.

Then Sorcery! happened, and now, we’re full steam ahead!

How is it going? Are you telling me that out there, in the free-to-play universe, there are people willing to pay for premium text content? Content that stands above the rest, not only in aesthetical quality. However, your prices are above three euros, while the rest of the junk are free or at the 99 cents mark.

Of course there are people willing to pay! Let’s be honest with ourselves:

Free to play is entirely funded by eight-year-olds, who have got hold of their parents iPhones. There are adults who pay money to Candy Crush Saga, but not «that» many; and once Apple fix their software so parents cannot accidentally unlock infinite payments in games, the free-to-play market will bottom out. The industry around F2P doesn’t say this, but that’s because 99% of that industry is companies who «buy» users through advertising, and for whom an end to F2P will be pretty devastating.

Price-points on mobile are disappointing certainly: the same people will pay $15 for a game on PC, and yet the mobile port being more than $2.99 is labelled as «theft». But that too will change, and is already changing: when we started, our price point of five dollars was rare; it’s now standard for games of quality, at least at launch. I wouldn’t be surprised if that inflates.

But the great thing about being a small company is you don’t need huge successes to survive. Sorcery! has so far shipped 160k copies; we’re not retiring any time soon, but that’s given us enough slack to invest in more complex projects with more contributors.

Do you miss Interactive Fiction? Do you miss the parser?

No, I don’t, and here’s why: what I liked about IF, really, was the pace of the interaction – the tight conversation between player and computer, back and forth. And our choice games have that: each choice is small and atomic, and generates a small bit of a text, a little step forward. We can do parser-style sequences if we want to; we simply make sure the choices which appear to the player are the kinds of things they might have typed in – but then, seamlessly, we can transition to dialogue, to different scales of actions, to new verbs, to tricks and other quizzes and whatever else we might want to do. All within an interface my Dad can pick up and play and not even stop to think that he’s playing a game or using a computer.

Do I miss player’s typing in mis-understood commands? No. Or typing in the same command over and over, even though it didn’t work, just because it’s all they thought of. No. Do I miss those surprising, hidden-commands, that magically «just work»? That’s the one thing we can’t do – but no, I don’t miss them either, because while as a player they’re great, as a designer they’re usually a bad idea and go unnoticed.

And besides, when you’re making a game the size of 80 Days it’s easy to hide easter eggs.

Being yourself a pretty competent IF author, with a great use of the parser… how do you translate those kind of interactions to a CYOA interface? You know, there is a debate about the loss of freedom or agency when transitioning from a parser to an hyperlink interface, but you have done the practical jump between both.

To me, the parser is a prototype of what I’m doing now. The parser is the DOS prompt of a game: you can do anything, but you have to do it for yourself, and what we do now is the iOS version. Same powers, but all highly contextualised, so you’re only given the options that make sense in the context you’re in.

The argument about loss of agency is a straw-man: I’ve played plenty of parser games where I had no freedom or agency because the world simply hadn’t been implemented very broadly; and that’s exactly the same reason you don’t have agency in a CYOA book. Our solution is simple: make a game with lots of freedom and agency, where you decide each step with choices. It’s pretty obvious, to be honest. It’s quite a bit of *work*, but that’s okay, so was parser IF – and we have a great scripting language that makes creating «massively choicey» games okay. Not automatic, but okay.

It seems that every Interactive Fiction company doing commercial CYOA has a tool that is open for fans or people in general to use, so they can build their own stories. Failbetter Games has Storynexus, Choice of Games has ChoiceScript and Inkle Studios has Inkle Writer. How important is for a company as Inkle Studios to provide this creativity tools for people?

Jon IngoldCommercially, not at all. We built inklewriter partly for fun, partly because we had a nice idea for how to make CYOA authorship more approachable, partly to see if we might discover some great writers that way… and all those reasons have paid off, but none in spades, really. I think Failbetter have a similar story about their StoryNexus platform, but we’re all in awe of Choice of Games and just how many authors they have right now: they seem to put out a new full-length game every two weeks.

As a writer myself, however, I think inklewriter is great: it’s the tool that I always wished existed – it’s not really there to make full, presentable games; it’s not replacement for learning Javascript or Unity or anything; it won’t help you make an app. But it’s great as a prototyping tool, and a scratchpad for ideas – we use it ourselves to trash out ideas. The first few drafts of the beginning of 80 Days were done in inklewriter, to get a sense of the pacing and the narrative voice, and when we hired Meg to be the lead writer, she did a writing sample for us using inklewriter. It’s great for times when you want to put something together fast, and without having to build any infrastructure.

That said, a few writers have used it to publish ebooks on Kindle, and that’s really pleasing, and Stoic Studios are using it to write the dialogue sequences for the Banner Saga games, which makes us really happy, because they’re pretty awesome.

inklewriter also gives people a glimpse into how we make our content, and I like that too – the way we break everything into small bits, and allow for a lot of flexibility.

Have you considered translating the works produced by Inkle to other languages? I’m interested in Spanish, of course. I know that the Spanish-speaking market is not the best. Latin America is developing right now and the Spaniards are knee deep in a crisis. At least, I can say that Inkle Writer works pretty well in Spanish (I was a beta tester).

We get a lot of offers to translate the Sorcery! series, but the answer is always the same – we don’t really think it’s possible. The script is enormous, and extremely interwoven. In particular, the fight sequences, which write a fluid paragraph of prose to describe the combat based on what you and the AI both choose to do, and the current state of the fight, are highly variable, and they often rely on the way English works – the way sentences fit together, the lack of gendered articles, that kind of thing. So translation would be a massive job and buggy as all hell, and we don’t have the time or skills to fix the errors that would happen during the conversion process.

A shame – but it just means someone in Spain will have to make something in Spanish that’s equally awesome and that *I* can’t play.

What about the PC market? Would Inkle do PC games some day? Or maybe ports of your current works? Don’t you think Sorcery! or 80 Days would work pretty well in PC computers?

I don’t really understand PC gaming; it seems so clumsy. WASD, really? I love the immediacy of touch-screens, and the curl-up-on-the-sofa nature of tablets especially. But, the market is pretty big, and it’s certainly interesting

We’ve been keeping a weather eye on the progress of Failbetter’s Sunless Sea project to see how the Steam market takes to interactive story games. A full port of Sorcery seems unlikely to me, but we may yet do a project targeted at desktops.

Do you miss doing your own games? I mean, Sorcery! is a «remake» of the classical CYOA book by Steve Jackson. Frankenstein is a precious production featuring the writer Dave Morris, and 80 Days is written by Meg Jayanth… you know where I’m going… When are we going to see a new Jon Ingold original production published by Inkle Studios?

To be honest, I don’t. Coming up with a world, and a setting, which people will relate to and like is hard work – and then, having done that, you also have to write the thing. I’m having a great time with the Sorcery! remake because, as you’ll realise once you start to play, it’s really a reboot: we’ve taken the books, chopped them around, and inserted huge new areas, plot-lines, histories, interactions. We’re really having fun with it, but it’s a pleasure having that universe to work inside of. It’s like writing fan-fiction!

Meg has been brilliant, and laid out a great concept for what the world and characters of 80 Days would be, but that game is huge, so I did quite a bit of writing there too, in a similar way; borrowing her ideas and spinning them out.

That said: at some point we will have to do something new, so who knows, maybe that will be one of mine. Though I really do like collaborating – Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish was great fun, so was Shadow in the Cathedral.

Tell us how did come to you to remake the Sorcery! series by Steve Jackson, and how did you approach Steve with the proposition?

We were introduced to Steve through a friend in the industry, and we sat down with him to show the prototype for Frankenstein. But Steve is a canny businessman and not one to take risks, and he said:

Looks nice, come back when you’ve sold ten thousand copies.

So we sold ten thousand copies and went back, just in the gap between Tin Man Games picking up the Fighting Fantasy licence, and the Sorcery! licence lapsing with another developer. So Steve suggested it as a possibility, and we jumped at the chance.

The Sorcery! books were always my favourite part of the FF canon – I loved the interconnectedness of them, the cunning tricks and traps, and of course, the gloriously mad magic system. I began my first digital adaptation of a Sorcery! book aged ten on our home computer (though I stopped when I realised I would have to type the whole thing in).

Working on it now is pretty much a dream job – especially since Steve has okayed us to expand the game and develop it in whatever direction we like. «Stay true to the spirit and not the words» was his guidance, and that’s great direction!

We are not going to talk more about Sorcery! because my partner Scullywen is talking in this right moment with Steve Jackson, so let’s talk about 80 Days instead. Could you please present the project to us?

80 Days is a quantum leap in what interactive fiction can be. It’s a real-time, multiplayer strategy board-game with an interactive story woven directly in. Forget choose-your-own-adventure, or flow-charts, or trees of content. 80 Days is more like a board game in which every action you take is narrated by a bit of authored, responsive content that knows where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and what kind of character you are. It’s as though the chance cards in Monopoly could adapt themselves based on the state of the game.

So it’s part interactive fiction, part self-narrating board game, and it’s network connected, which means that as you play, you can see, in real-time, what’s happening to other players on the app – where they’ve gone, what’s happening to them, and crucially, how far around the world they’ve gotten so far.

We’re on a developmental curve here; with Sorcery!, we took the choose-your-own format and spread it out across a map, providing a much stronger sense of how the narrative was progressing, and how it was branching, and grounding it in a world. With 80 Days we still have that map – though it’s now a 3D globe – but we also have time: the clock is constantly running, and the options that available to you change depending on the time of day, even the day of the week. Sorcery! doesn’t quite feel like a gamebook any more – and 80 Days really doesn’t; it’s something quite new.

What about the technical side of things? What technology support Sorcery! and 80 days?

Well, for each game, we build a lot of bespoke UI and game systems. There’s no magical universal engine running each game; we woke like dogs and iterate every tiny piece of the game a hundred times until we’re happy.

The only constant is the text-engine; we’ve developed a scripting language which is very simple but very powerful, and optimised for writing extremely branchy stories that diverge and recombine frequently. The engine features are everything I’ve ever wanted: the script is content-with-markup, and not code with content, so it’s fast to write and easy to reformat and reflow.

The engine automatically remembers every paragraph you’ve read and makes it easy to alter text and options based on that information, so you can easily alter events based on what the player has seen and done before, without having to set up any infrastructure, any variables or flags. There’s also the ability to build more powerful text-processing routines, and write new text routines in the game code, so there’s no limit to how complex the output can become.

Finally, we have three different styles of script, each good for different circumstances – straight choices, a structure we call «weave» which is optimised for dialogue scenes which go in a fixed direction, and another called «hubs», which are optimised for broad, exploratory section where you can pursue different avenues of a situation. The writer can mix the three freely, depending on what’s appropriate.

As you might have guessed – I love it. It’s an iteration on an iteration of a scripting language I designed when I was a teenager, and all those years of thinking about it have made it much sharper and more focused. It’s not perfect – the error checking could be better, and I wish there was a proper call-stack – but it’s let us do some remarkable things, like the maze at the end of Sorcery! 1 which can rewire itself to be different each time.

I would like to talk with you for ages as there are a lot of topics: your collaboration with Textfyre, First Draft of the Revolution by Emily Short… However, there simply is not enough time, so, could you briefly talk to us about the interests of Jon Ingold nowadays and the current endeavours of Inkle Studios?

Jon_ingold04So inkle has been developing over the last couple of years – we’ve done a fair bit of work for other people, including Penguin in the US – but with a few commercial successes behind us we’re hoping to move into making more ambitious, more unusual projects of our own. 80 Days is the first step in that direction – and has almost killed us; it’s half-a-million words long, but also features about 500 pieces of art – so it’ll be a while until we’ve recovered enough to start another new idea, and we’ve got the second half of the Sorcery! epic to complete.

In terms of interests, though, I think we’re still on the same course; trying to find ways to make things with strong, rich, meaningful stories with the immersion and engagement of a game, but without the repetition – and without the baffling complexity of a lot of games. Everything we make should be beautiful, rich, immediate to play, and constantly surprising and delightful. Running Inkle with Joe gives us both a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make Great Stuff, and we don’t intend to waste it!

Acerca de Ruber Eaglenest

Es diseñador de videojuegos, co-fundador de la compañía familiar Wingless Little People. Editor de Indie-o-rama, crítico, escritor, y entrevistador, además es autor de Ficción Interactiva (o Aventuras Conversacionales) y teórico del medio, donde es conocido como El Clérigo Urbatain. En sus ratos libres es arqueólogo de mundos video-lúdicos virtuales.

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