Most IF “historians” will admit that the golden age of the IF renaissance was something like 1998-2002. Lots of great games were released by dozens of talented authors. IF seemed to have unlimited potential, and the community, while often disagreeing, got along.
Somewhere along the way, though, we lost a lot of our fire. The IF newsgroups lost the lively discussion that made it worthwhile to put up with the ever-increasing spam. People drifted away.
It’s a relatively useless exercise, but I sometimes wonder where we went wrong. This post will cover my thoughts on this issue.
- The Political Landscape Changed
In 1999, George Bush was elected President, and in 2001, there was the September 11th attack. For a lot of us liberal-leaning creative types, the world became a much less fun place, as we wondered just how bad Bush was going to screw things up. It took a lot out of our creative sails.
Likelihood: Hard to say
- Life Just Went OnThe Golden Age caught a lot of people at the same time in their lives. Many were still students; some were making early strides in their respective fields. The thing is, time goes on. People graduate, people have babies, work becomes more encompassing. The Golden Age was just very lucky timing.
Likelihood: Admittedly, this one will be the most likely of all the things I mention today.
- The Internet Became More Interesting/DistractingThere was a time when almost every person I knew through IF had moved on to escape-the-room Flash game type sites like jayisgames.com. Maybe all it took was a shiny bauble like that to steal momentum away. Then, some years later, you had things like Youtube and social media sites adding even more distraction to the net, diluting the hobbyist attention.
Likelihood: Probably? Maybe?
- Too Self Aware?Adam Cadre's Endless, Nameless makes some nice implications that the IF community was overrun by critics. Maybe too much effort was spent on disparaging design flaws instead of encouraging the craft. Alternatively, maybe too much emphasis was put on acknowledging successes so that the absence of such was too deafening.
Likelihood: Who knows?
- IF Competition Promoted One Type of Game At Detriment To Other Types
The IF Comp is a great thing, but it's true that its games get way more attention than games released outside-of-comp. That means that longer, more-involved games just don't get the same attention.
Likelihood: Well, actually, I don't think this one is so likely. I mean, the over-importance of competition games was already a concern back then, but a lot of the best games from the Golden Age were competition games. Still, I think this contributed to people who enjoy old-school sensibilities feeling more excluded as the comp skewered more new-school.
- IF Tools Didn't Keep Pace With Technological AdvancesInform 7 and TADS may have cool GUIs these days, but IF languages, in general, are slow to add multimedia capabilities as new formats become available. Of course, the most frustrating part of this problem is that most of us are at the mercy of the tool-creators.
Likelihood: While it'd always be nice if this or that were easier/more powerful, the first step of being an artist is not waiting around for the perfect tools but using what you have at hand. While, in general, I'm disappointed with how IF technology has progressed, it's dumb to blame the tools for lulls in progress.
- The Application Landscape ChangedIF went from something you played in a full-screen (or most of it) to something that plays in a smaller and smaller window as displays got larger and hip interpreters like Gargoyle defaulted to insanely small window sizes. Maybe there's an argument to be made that there's a psychological effect for how much screen real estate you give to something? Plus, what demanded your sole attention before now is shared with several other windows. Maybe we have diminished our own hobby.
There's also the browser issue. It seems that a lot of people play their IF in browsers these days. I can't even keep straight which online terps allow saving, but I know at least one of them only allows one save spot. Of course, this is going to have a limiting effect on how one can design his game. Personally, I think the browser-players are wrong, but that's just me.
Likelihood: Personally, I think that in rebelling against '90s sensibilities and trying to make everything look hip and awesome, we have forgotten that the old ugly way was good in its own way for getting shit done. Maybe that's just me.
- The New-School Ideals Sunk UsPhotopia was definitely a game-changer. A lot of people interpreted it as tacit permission to release games with no puzzles, something which other people have vocally supported. That's all good and fine, but I feel that it also left the door open for the crazies. We had trolls like Jacek P. who supposedly saw the potential of IF-as-literature but would bother us for years since no game was ever good enough (ironically, he reserved his most pointed hatred for games like Photopia that were closest to the ideal).
Also, writing a new-school game is a lot more work than an old-school game. You are expected to have a fitting response to nearly everything, so besides the never-satisfied narrative critics, you have to please the simulationists.
Maybe the old-school was bane to the worst of the trolls (of course, somebody might use Panks as an counter-argument, but he wasn't really a troll). Maybe the new-school made IF too much like a creative writing class, where it's just hard, in general, to have enthusiasm for other people's writing.
Likelihood: This point is probably too intangible to be of any use. No matter how you approach it, writing IF is hard.
- We Have Traded Cool Features For ConvenienceThe IF landscape today is very much the result of certain visions- much of them by Andrew Plotkin. There's glk which popular interpreters like Gargoyle uses, and the blorb package which fits Inform great but is slightly uncomfortable for everyone else. It feels like we spent more time in the naughts figuring out ways to strip color, font effects, and multimedia out of games instead of figuring out ways to put them in.
Of course, part of the problem is that many of the dissenters to zarf's vision gave up when he didn't incorporate their ideas. The IF community probably could have used more branches and more options, even if people who have done so have historically caught very little attention.
I mean, even Inform 6 wasn't so readable that I don't see why someone else didn't write a language that compiles to the z-machine. It's a lot of work, sure, but we had a lot of motivated crazies back then to do such a thing.
My point is, maybe the streamlining of design made us lose some of the elements of IF that made it "pop."
Likelihood: I dunno. This is another intangible thing, I guess. Anyhow, I feel like we could be further along on this issue, but I should probably take a look at other freeware game (graphic adventure, rpgs, whatever) creation systems to see if they have made the strides in useability and capabilities that I'm expecting from IF. Maybe it's just not out there.
Last ThoughtsSo, if any of these things are true, what does it matter and what can be done? My main point is, I think IF is an ever-evolving beast, and it frustrates me to see people (especially non-authors who consider cheerleading Inform as a form of being invested in IF) disparage other IF languages, as none of them are perfect yet. While not-writing-your-own-IF-language is mostly good advice, it also can't be said that there's absolutely no merit to reinventing the wheel. IF could probably still use some fresh perspectives. People thought the ADRIFT and Quest guys were crazy for starting new systems, but other than Inform, they have among the greatest new-user rates.
To this day, there are Inform games that are released with ugly-ass menus and status bars. I'm doing what I can to make Hugo better, even knowing that a lot of people won't give my games the time of day just because they can't be played in a browser.
It's frustrating because people will dismiss my work (and the work of others) because they perceive conventional wisdom as against us. I think those people use popularity to reinforce their own preconceived notions, and hey, that's okay. The world is not going to be changed by those people.
I'm not saying I'll change the world or that IF is even world-changing, but believing in something is always more interesting than the alternative. I also know the only way I can champion my perspective is by just putting my stuff out there. The act of creation is the purest way to make an argument against those people, even if my ideal audience is not them but those with unformed opinions. It's likely that I won't change the mind of the majority of those people, either, but almost definitely, there will be some small percentage of people who play my games who enjoy the same things I do, and when they come across those dismissive, over-generalized comments, they'll also think, "Fuck that noise."
And the world will be better for it.