The Play

It’s that time again, the highlight of the interactive fiction year (for me, at least), and IFComp 2011 is upon us. I’ve been playing my way through this year’s entries, and – as I have in previous years – I’ll be sharing with you any that leap out at me as “things you really ought to try.”

The first of which is The Play, by Deirdra Kiai. This entry stands out for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s one of those uncommon (but growing in popularity) pieces of hypertext IF. I remain not-completely convinced by hypertext IF: perhaps as a result of the medium, the games often feel shorter than they might otherwise be, and while I don’t miss playing “hunt the verb” to try to find exactly the word the designer hoped I would, having the option to click on any one of just a handful of links seems a little… simple.

Play the game online here.

The Play, a recent piece of hypertext interactive fiction

That’s not to say that I don’t like the medium: hell, I feel like I was a pioneer in it, thanks to things like Troma Night Adventure (originally on the long-dead RockMonkey Wiki, and revived in its own engine last year). It’s just… different from most IF that I play, and that difference is stark.

If there’s one big advantage to hypertext interactive fiction, though, it’s that it lowers the barrier to entry. Everybody knows how to use a web browser, there’s nothing to install or set up, and they typically play really well on mobile devices, which is a growing market for this kind of game. I’m excited to see tools like Twine/Twee, ChoiceScript, and Undum (the latter of which powers The Play) appearing, which make creating this kind of game reasonably easy.

Secondly; it’s unusual. And I do enjoy a bit of quirky fiction: something that takes the genre in a new direction. And The Play does that. You play as Ainsley M. Warrington, the director of a disaster-ridden play on the eve of the first night, orchestrating a last-second dress rehearsal. The story is told through alternating segments of your experience and “script”: segments of the play as they are performed (which may vary, depending on how lenient you allow the cast the be with the script and how much goes awry), and this is a wonderful use of the semi-graphical nature of the medium.

Mostly, you’re trying to balance and improve the moods of your cast members (and your stage manager), in order to gain a good review. This is made challenging by the fact that they all have quite different ideas and attitudes towards the nature of the play, how it should be performed, and so on. They only thing that they all seem to agree on is that you’re not doing a very good job.

But beyond that theoretical (and, frankly, self-imposed) goal, it’s actually a lot of fun just to play off the different actors against one another, to experiment with how much you can improvise the ending, and to see how things turn out if you try different choices. And that’s exactly how interactive fiction ought to be. Like a good book, I want to be able to read it again and again. But unlike traditional fiction, I can enjoy it in profoundly different ways based on my moods and whims.

It’s a little short, but quite beautiful for it. There’s certainly plenty of reasonably well-written text to amuse and entertain. I’d thoroughly recommend that you give it a go, whether you’re an IF veteran or if you’ve never played this kind of game before in your life: play The Play in your web browser. And then play it again to see how much of a difference you can make in this well-crafted and inspiring little world.