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Aaron Reed

Witnessing the return of Interactive Fiction (IF) to the gaming world has felt a little bit like waking up to find a Dodo on my front porch. I feel a simultaneous urge to inform to world about the discovery while also coming up with a proper breeding program. But I'm far too busy to be bothered. Instead, I've been enjoying the best of what modern Interactive Fiction has to offer.

One game stands out above the rest for me. Blue Lacuna (as discussed elsewhere) is an incredible, intelligent, gaming experience that could only come from an incredibly creative mind. So I was pretty excited when that mind agreed to do an interview with me.

Aaron Reed, born 1979 and sometimes considered the father of modern interactive fiction, is currently a second year MFA student in the Digital Arts and New Media program at UC Santa Cruz who has accomplished what most of us only dream of... he's quit his day job as a database admin to focus on what he loves to do! His responses to my questions revealed not only the creativity I'd expected, but also a drive to apply this creativity to a diverse range of fields.


me: A lot of people that want to get into writing their own IF games find they simply donít have the time. Lacuna is such a huge game, how did you find the time to program it?

Aaron: Well, I did have a day job during most of Blue Lacuna's development. It was a hobby that sort of took over my life. But I worked on it evenings and weekends, and finally actually quit my job and started working freelance during my final push to finish it up.

I really needed to get it finished and out there, not only because of the amount of time put into it, but because I really believed I'd made something I could be proud of, and wanted to share it.

me: Was there any point when you ran into difficulties? Enough to make you rethink the project?

Aaron: So many points. :)

I tend to write very iteratively-- I have to rewrite things over and over again until I'm happy with them. When you're writing a game along with words, that means rewrites are that much more complicated.

There were several major portions of BL that got redesigned and rewritten several times. The opening sequence with Rume and the various dream sequences are a few examples that went through at least three total rewrites/redesigns.

me: Any specifics? Like, was it a particular puzzle... or dialogue...

Aaron: I think those difficulties were mostly based around figuring out how to give the player genuinely meaningful choice and participation in the story.

So the dreams, for instance-- narratively, they serve an expository purpose. You're learning more bits of backstory in each one. Initially, that was just sort of a data dump, bits of text. But I realized that wasn't very interesting or interactive.

So the second version turned them into conversations, where you could have back and forth, explore different avenues and so on. But you still weren't really participating in a meaningful way.

In the final version you actually become the people in the dreams, and-- in some cases-- the actions you decide to take or not to take have impact on the larger story, or at least your interpretation of it. Your actions in those "flashbacks" become what the character in question actually did.

So I think that was a big improvement from where I started out.

me: Iíve read other interviews where you said that the story came to you before the ďgame.Ē Were there any major changes you had to make to the story in order to fit a more interactive medium?

Aaron: That's interesting that at some point I said that, because the way I remember it now at least, the game came first. I started sketching some maps of an adventure/puzzle game while I was working on "Whom the Telling Changed" (a previous IF project which had a lot of complicated story structure and plot branching stuff).

I think I was sort of fantasizing about working on an easier project. (Little did I know...) But pretty much all along, the story and game evolved together. I've had some people ask me things like, "Would you ever write a book based on it?" Which to me feels very impossible-- I don't feel it's a story that would work at all in a non-participatory medium.

me: Speaking about some of the evolution of the story and game, where did the inspiration for Progue come from?

[Editor's note: in Blue Lacuna, Progue is a man you meet on the island. Much of the plot ends up revolving around his history and how he came to the island. Rume, another character, is the lover that the player leaves behind.]

Aaron: Progue was something else that evolved a lot. I guess he started out as a sort of stock "crazy old hermit" character. But I put a lot of time into fleshing him out and trying to make him more real.

I read a lot of books about madness-- there's a great one called, I think, "A Mad Person's History of Madness," which is a compliation of writing from people deemed legally insane in their societies-- and a lot of books about people who had spent lots of time alone.

I kept a journal as Progue for a while and he developed his own unique handwriting. Probably the weirdest (maddest?) thing I did in the process was stay up late one night writing questions to him, and writing stream of conscious answers back in his handwriting. I wasn't sure what he was going to say, and he actually gave me some strongly worded advice on what he thought should happen to him-- that was when I started to feel like I was really succeeding at building him up into a real character.

me: What about Rume? Rume seems like a difficult character to write because you had to appeal to a potentially wide range of interpretations of what a romantic figure is...

Aaron: Right. It was fascinating to me how different the same words seemed when I was imagining Rume as a man versus imagining Rume as a woman. There are sort of two versions of the character in my head, and I would switch between them when editing. "Let's see if this Rume would say that..."

Rume was a challenge because originally the character was a fairly artificial stumbling block introduced into the plot. "Let's add some complications here-- what if you're in love and you have to go?" So to develop that plot point out into a character who felt genuine and not like just a trick took a lot of work.

And to make the decision to stay with or leave Rume important took a lot of thinking, too. Not to spoil anything, but it has more of an impact on the story than might at first be apparent.

me: You also allow for the player and Rume to be of the same sex, which is something that we still don't see a lot of in video games. As something that appeals to a wide range of audiences, what kind of position do you think video games are in to promote social progression?

Aaron: I think games, especially story-based games, are going to have a major impact on society whether their creators intend them to or not. I feel like my future work is heading towards doing that more intentionally.

But even in BL it was definitely on my mind. Growing up as a gay teenager I loved games, but there were practically zero games at the time that had any sort of positive queer role models (Lorelei Shannon's "Phantasmagoria 2" was a rare if troubled example).

I find it a huge shame that by and large this is still true today. In my own work I very much want to explicitly give a place for gay and lesbian players in my story worlds.

If I can pass along to even one gay teen somewhere that you can be gay and still be an adventurer, or find love, or do anything that straight characters in games can do, I'll feel like my effort has been worthwhile.

me: You talked in one interview about the possibility of IF gaming entering into the educational arena (which I think goes along with your previous point). Your new book, Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7, seems to be a strong example of hands-on teaching as it is accompanied by your new game Sand Dancer.

Can you talk a little bit about your educational experience and how that inspired you to teach in this format? I imagine you werenít a lover of lecture halls...

Aaron: Right-- this is another area where I feel games aren't yet meeting their potential. I'm reading "The Age of Propaganda," and it just mentioned a study done where people who are asked to figure out how to persuade others to do something are four or five times more likely to adopt that behavior themselves than people who are simply lectured about doing it. This seems similar to me to the whole "learn by doing" thing.

There is some IF, like Peter Nepsted's "1893: A World's Fair Mystery," that recreates a historical event with vivid and well-researched detail, and is so much more accessible and entertaining than simply reading a book about the Chicago World's Fair would be.

I'd love to see more things like this, or write them myself someday. I think being placed in an environment and asked to react and act engages many more parts of your brain than just passively observing.

me: So the big question on this subject is... how do you think technology can be applied in the classroom?

Aaron: That's the trick, right?

To a certain extent, I think that's already starting. In college courses at least, you're starting to see interactive works assigned on a syllabus alongside readings and films.

I think that process will continue, but hopefully start even earlier. So in addition to reading a book or watching a film about the Civil War in public school, you might play a game about it from the perspective of a character on the Union side, and another told from the point of view of a Southern general. And maybe a third from the point of view of a slave.

I think as more and more teachers who grew up comfortable with this technology are in place, and more people start writing games that can fill these roles, it will be a natural progression.

me: And how could Interactive Fiction provide a better medium for this than, say, a graphics heavy game?

Aaron: I wouldn't say IF is necessarily better at this sort of thing-- just far, far less difficult to create.

You're going to have a hard time convincing a AAA gaming studio to spend ten million dollars on a game exploring issues of racism in the antebellum south, but you just need to convince one IF author to do the same thing (In fact, at least one already has: "LASH" by Paul O'Brian).

me: Good point.

Aaron: I think this is why IF in general is doing so many fascinating experiments all the time that you don't see in the mainstream game industry-- because nobody's livelihood is in the line, and nobody's investors are beating down the door asking if this game is going to produce a profit.

It's auteur-driven, which is difficult when millions of dollars are at stake.

me: Along those same lines, one thing that struck me about Blue Lacuna was the sense of freedom in the game, a freedom that so many modern games seem to be striking for. What lessons do you think a modern narrative game, like the Fallout series, could take from Interactive Fiction?

Aaron: I think big-budget games need to figure out how they can be made more cheaply. As long as budget dictates aiming for the lowest common denominator, it's incredibly difficult to make anything that pushes the boundaries, explores new directions, or reaches previously untapped markets.

Fallout is an interesting example-- I actually still haven't played Fallout 3, but I was a huge Oblivion fan, and I think Bethesda in general walks that line really well. Again, for narrative games at least, I think it all comes down to genuinely meaningful choice. In Oblivion, there are a lot of interesting choices you can make, all the time-- should I join the Fighter's Guild or the Assassins? Should I improve this stat or that? Should I buy a house in the big city or the country? Should I explore the countryside looking for random dungeons to loot or follow the main quest line?

You're not just jumping through hoops all the time: you actually get to participate, to live in that world.

The one other thing I'd say is that mainstream games have been trying their damndest for twenty-five years now to be as exactly like movies as possible. "Heavy Rain" was like that-- it wanted to be "Seven" so bad. I would love it if games could get past that mentality and develop into their own unique medium that plays to its own strengths.

me: In most modern interactive fiction Iíve played, the main character canít die or get stuck. This holds true for your games, too. This seems to be a clear difference from early IF games. What do you think has brought about this change in sensibility?

Aaron: I think it's part of the natural progression IF is experiencing from "arcade game" to "form of literature."

A lot of the tropes in early IF-- a score, lots of death, collecting treasure-- sort of came about because those were the dominant themes in video games at the time. Those games have moved in other directions now-- we usually see achievements these days, not a high score, for instance-- and IF is moving in a different direction.

Really, what it comes down to is a sudden unexpected death does not make for a very interesting story. :)

me: Last couple of questions, here.... Will your games continue to be free? What are your thoughts on freely available games? Does it hurt your ability to build a business around your talents?

Aaron: I've had mixed feelings about Blue Lacuna being free. On the one hand, it's been able to reach a very broad audience that way, and has more than paid me back for my time in many other ways. On the other, I worry a little that it contributes to the perception that IF should always be free and will never be marketable again.

I think we're lucky to be living in a time when crowdsourced projects are more possible and successful than ever. One of my classmates at UCSC here did a successful Kickstarter project to work on a text-based interactive story (Heather Logas' "Before You Close Your Eyes") and I know there's work to start selling IF as downloadable content for platforms like the Kindle and the iPad.

me: Handheld IF!

Aaron: Yes! I've always wanted to make a deluxe/premium edition of Blue Lacuna-- sort of the "leather-bound hardback edition"-- but it hasn't really been possible while working on a graduate degree! Maybe some day...

me: Iím going to close on a selfish note... Iíd actually like to get into programming IF myself. Any advice? Iíve already got your book on the way...

Aaron: Well hey, that's a good start. :)

Seriously, the best advice is to play the best IF that's out there to get a feel for what's possible in this medium-- and think about what kinds of stories aren't being told in other formats.

One of the reasons that "Photopia" is one of the most highly-praised IFs-- even though it's not terribly interactive-- is that it reveals a story in a such a novel way, by putting you in the heads and bodies of all of the characters who were involved. The way you understand that story from actually becoming all its participants, no matter how briefly, is profoundly moving.

There's so much narrative potential in stepping into somebody's skin and understanding how they think. IF is a uniquely suited medium for exploring those mental spaces.

me: Do you have anything coming up in the future? I'd love to keep in touch with your projects.

Aaron: I have my hands in a lot of pots right now-- UCSC is home to a lot of exciting games and narrative AI research. I'm also working on my thesis project, where I'm partnering with a student with some amazing augmented reality technology to create stories you can actually physically move through. It should be very cool when it comes together. :)

me: Thanks so much for your time, Aaron.

Aaron: Hey, thanks for the interest. :)


I'd like to take this moment to thank Aaron Reed for answering my questions, for his thoughts on the future applications of IF gaming and for working towards bringing video games wider social attention. His book is available on Amazon.

Are you a developer with something interesting to say about an awesome game? Let us know. Maybe we can talk to you next!

Interview conducted by Jonathan Stark


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