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Author Interview: Bruno Dias
2015-09-17 · by sub-Q
This interview was conducted by instant message on September 8, 2015.
Tory Hoke: How did you first get involved with IF?
Bruno Dias: I’ve been reading IF for a very long time now, but I’ve only started publishing work this year. There wasn’t really a particular instigating event though, more that a competition (Carolyn van Eseltine’s ParserComp) was about to roll in and I found myself with time to participate. Which was new because I had failed to write something for like four IFComps running.
ParserComp being a lower-stakes competition with a clearer direction probably helped. I guess I figured out how to scope projects at some point.
Tory: A rare and valuable skill! Was it a major life schedule change that freed up the time, or pure luck?
Bruno: It was a case of things lining up—the amount of time and energy I have fluctuates along the year. But it was also a case of having finished one thing and realising, “okay, this is something I want to do” and being willing to dedicate more time to it. The reception to “Terminator Chaser” was positive enough that I was motivated to write a lot more than I would have otherwise.
Tory: Very heard. Some applause never hurts.
Bruno: Assuming I finish it, my IFComp project will be the sixth title I release this year, so there is definitely a big uptick in willingness to commit resources to IF.
There’s also been some renewed interest in the form as of last year, which helped. And the advent of things like Patreon, the IF Fund and now sub-Q makes it more justifiable for me to invest time into it.
Tory: You’ve been part of the community long enough to tell if this is a major trend or one of many cycles. Do you feel like things are heating up in IF in an unusual way?
Bruno: I’m not sure I can say I’ve been part of the community for a long time—I’ve been an observer and an audience member, but active participant probably dates to this year. But I think that it’s hard to deny there’s been an uptick in, very broadly speaking, text in video games.
I’m always a little cagey talking about IF, of course, because I never know whether to talk about texty video games or literature with interactivity.
Bruno: But we can look at the rise of Twine, which has generated pretty much a whole generation of new authors. Or at how massively successful 80 Days has been, and similarly Fallen London and Sunless Sea.
There are now mainstream gaming websites that give attention to things like visual novels about dating bishounen pigeons. And one of the best-selling RPGs of the year goes back to the old Baldur’s Gate model of throwing reams of text at the player…
So I think it’s hard to deny there’s been an upsurge in the popularity of narrative video games, gaming-while-storytelling, and gaming-adjacent storytelling.
Tory: (Heh—to which codex-heavy RPG do you refer?)
Bruno: (That would be Pillars of Eternity. Which I still haven’t beaten because it has just so much content in it.)
I also link it to things like the rising popularity of storygames in the tabletop camp. So I think it’s a great time for the intersection between literature, storytelling, and games.
I think Twine has helped re-link the IF world to the game dev world, and to the literary world at the same time, actually. Twines are accessible enough to be presented to people from the literature camp, while still being “video games” enough to be sold on platforms like Steam.
Tory: Oh man, I had this great segueway to the next question all lined up, but we’ve got to stop and talk about tabletop games for a second…
Seems like what Twine is doing for personal, emotional, literary work, tabletop is doing for high adventure CYOA—bringing people to the table, so to speak, who didn’t have a seat before. Though for very different reasons, in very different ways.
Bruno: Yeah, absolutely. Another thing that has made IF more interesting is that it’s become dramatically more inclusive recently.
Bruno: Of course, over the last year we’ve seen the horrid backlash against inclusiveness in those communities—I don’t think I need to bring up specifics. But another nice thing about IF is that, by and large, it’s openly embraced the growth that comes with that inclusiveness.
Perhaps because it was a much smaller community, and also one that was never about generating commercial content aimed at teenage boys.
Tory: Ah, very true. A community so old and so niche that no one has come to claim it.
Bruno: Yeah. It also helps that, at this point, a pretty big proportion of the people new to IF have come in through Twine, and a big proportion of them specifically through Porpentine‘s work. So in IF, the “outsider” takeover that some people in video games are so rabidly terrified of happened, and the medium is better off for it.
Tory: Very true. And new toolkits are emerging all the time to make IF more accessible. You’ve written in detail about why you undertook writing Raconteur—your wrapper toolkit for Undum. What drives your passion to write stories like “Mere Anarchy“—a passion so strong you’d write your own toolkit to do so?
Bruno: Megalomania, mostly. Also: desire for attention.
Tory: I appreciate your honesty. And relate.
Bruno: Raconteur is really… well, as much as I praise Twine, I also constantly try to use Twine and find that it’s not for me. Chalk it up to pickiness, or to the fact that I’m enough of a programmer to want to just write code. Twine is also in the middle of a transition (which you talked about with Chris Klimas, of course), so I was kind of loathe to either learn Twine 2, or wait for Twine 3/Harlowe to have all the features I want.
The first thing that I wrote for “Mere Anarchy” was the Pulpit’s Shop scene, where you have this implausibly long list of objects that keeps growing as the player clicks. Doing that in Harlowe was actually a bit of a nightmare—not in that it was hard, but in that if I wanted to go back later and change something, it was kind of unreadable, kind of a mess. So I started investigating alternate systems, and I came across Undum.
The default interface for Undum development is, essentially, taking the existing Undum example game and hand-hacking it to be the game you want to write.
Tory: Oh my.
Bruno: Yeah, not exactly fun. So I spent the first week of “Mere Anarchy” development writing a sort of wrapper for Undum. It’s not really a new engine; it’s actually a bit of a hack. It’s a more friendly API, and I hooked it up with a modern web-dev build system, so I could change the CSS and watch as the page style refreshed in my browser in real time, and I could change the story code and have it recompile automagically and reload in the browser. And I had an API meant to make the code more readable and succinct—it uses CoffeeScript instead of plain JS.
Raconteur is a rewrite of that wrapper. It doesn’t actually share code with the “Mere Anarchy” code generator, it just implements a similar thing.
It’s also very much a tool that I built to use myself, so I’m still unsure if anyone else wants to use it; it’s very “opinionated”, which is programmer-speak for tools that are biased towards the people who built them. I’m not even sure building it is a passion thing—I suspect building an elaborate tool is just a great way of procrastinating so you don’t have to write.
Tory: Heh, intriguing. That WYSIWYG automagic sounds awful nice, though.
Tory: Are you tempted to revisit its codebase to make it less… opinionated? Especially when potentially procrastinating your current IFComp project?
Bruno: It’s really a matter of other people being interested in it—if I find I’m the only one using this tool, I’m probably all too happy to make it even more crooked to fit me. But a lot of what I want to do in the future involves upgrading or rewriting Undum to have features and behaviours it currently doesn’t have, which as you might imagine is a pretty hard undertaking.
Tory: Very time- and stamina-consuming.
Bruno: And I imagine if people find that they want to use Raconteur but wish it were different or better, they can change it for their own purposes just like I did with Undum. It’s a programmer-facing tool meant for people who are equipped to fiddle with its insides, so it’s very different from being in the unenviable position Chris Klimas is, where he’s responsible for this absurdly popular tool that people are using for dozens of different purposes.
Tory: Haha, true. What do you see as the next major steps IF toolkits need to take to bring more authors of traditional fiction to the IF fold?
Bruno: That’s a hard one for me to answer, because I’m not an author of traditional fiction—at least not a published one. And, while I’m not a hardcore hacker by any means, I’ve been a somewhat tech-oriented person long enough that I’m not sure I still have access to the perspective of someone who isn’t.
And when we talk about “IF toolkits,” we’re really talking about Twine, of course. It’s the only popular toolkit that is accessible enough for non-programmers, though there are others being made by various people.
Tory: Choice of Games’ proprietary “script” has lured in some comers, although their pay rates help…
Bruno: Very true, ChoiceScript is also a viable alternative for non-programmers.
One big point is to do what ChoiceScript does: make it as similar as possible to writing a prose manuscript. Avoid demanding that the writer spend a lot of his time on writing logic.
Tory: True. They’ve traded flexibility for writability, which is not a bad thing.
Bruno: On a certain level, I think writing IF is a highly specialised skill. You have to hold multiple versions of the same story in your head at the same time—right now I’m working on a story where the protagonist can fly, but only in one third of versions of the story. I imagine some fiction writers want no truck with that kind of thing to start with.
So there’s a part of this that goes beyond the tool, and towards exposing the medium and promoting it, and helping people learn how to do it.
I imagine there’s a good number of fiction writers who would be very good at this, but aren’t aware that it’s a thing they could be doing, or who are basically daunted by the task and don’t know how you can write a story like this.
Tory: Very heard. Most people hear “variable” and they start to feel dizzy. This is how the body protects itself from writing code.
Bruno: And another part of this issue falls on existing IF authors—”choice”, in the CYOA sense of the word, isn’t the only model for interactive storytelling, and so exploring alternate avenues for interaction is important because they would broaden what people can do, and what people feel like they can do. Things like exploratory pieces and interactive poetry, for instance, might entice people who wouldn’t be interested in writing “do you fight the troll or run away” fiction.
Tory: True. Writers and readers just need to be prepared for what they’re about to step into, so the troll-fighters can find their trolls, and the explorers can find their worlds.
What would you say to an author of traditional fiction who was considering trying out IF for the first time?
Bruno: Start small. You’ve probably started out writing short fiction; go back to that. Focus on a single character and their choices in a constrained scenario. Don’t feel under pressure to offer up every possible choice as an actual player choice; figure out what choices or interactions interest you, and do that. Play some interactive fiction to get a feel for the medium.
Oh, and seek feedback from IF readers and IF authors. It’s a niche field but one with a lot of existing experimentation and prior art; showing your drafts to someone who has all that in their head is invaluable.
If you’re an accomplished fiction writer, you’re starting with a huge leg up already: you know how to write good prose. You know how to structure a story. You know how to make characters seem believable. You know that your first draft will probably have a lot of unmitigated trash in it, and you already feel at peace with that. So I would also say: don’t worry too much, and be willing to “fail forward.”
Tory: That’s good life advice in general.
Where have you found the most engaging IF community?
Bruno: Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the “IF Community” was synonymous with two Usenet boards. I was never part of that crowd—I’m too young to have been around for it. Nowadays, most of the community spaces that I know of are linked to specific platforms or tools. The intfiction.org forums still have a lot of people that go back to Usenet in them, and they’re the rough centre of the modern “traditional” IF community now. They’re also the de facto help desk for Inform 7. The IFDB catalogs IF and collects reviews, and unlike the IMDB it’s modelled after, most reviews are actually thoughtful and helpful.
Bruno: Twine and Choice of Games both have their own forums, too. CoG’s “Works in Progress” forum has a reputation for being very helpful. I don’t actually participate in either since I don’t use either tool, but they deserve a shout out.
A lot of the ongoing conversation that has been happening since the Usenet days has sort of atomised, though. Lots of it is now happening in the fuzzy space between people’s blogs and Twitter. I find Emily Short’s blog to be particularly helpful. There’s also Sam Kabo Ashwell, who has written a lot on the theory and design of Twines and choice-based stories over time.
I should probably also mention—in the UK and North America, there is a decent number of in-person meetups in major cities (and Oxford, because academia). The intfiction.org forums usually have information about these.
Tory: What other authors inspire or interest you?
Bruno: One thing about the IF community, though—it’s small enough and niche enough that you can get to know people who are important in the field, even if you yourself are not.
Tory: True, and kind of crazy.
Bruno: It’s hard to overstate the effect of that; I think Emily Short is probably the best author working today in IF. And she’s reviewed my games, and we’ve talked briefly on occasion. That’s kind of like getting your first SF story published and having, I don’t know, John Scalzi or Margaret Atwood pay attention.
As for other authors… I’m almost obligated to name Porpentine, of course, though it’s hard to call her work “inspirational” when I know that if I tried to do what she does I would just crash and burn spectacularly. But I think “Howling Dogs” is a real achievement—it sustains an effect where you can dangle an entire universe off of almost every sentence in it. Having her in the opening story line-up was a great “get” for sub-Q.
Tory: You’re not kidding.
Bruno: Victor Gijsbers is another name that comes to mind—his work isn’t the most accessible or easy, but it’s great. Aaron Reed. Caleb Wilson, whom I’ve actually collaborated with on a number of things (we’ve traded game testing) and whose work in “Six Grey Rats Crawl Up The Pillow” planted the seeds of some ideas that show up in “Prospero” and other things.
Another thing about IF being such a small community—you ask this question of anyone, and they’ll come up with similar names.
Tory: True. Many bells being rung on this end.
What would you like to see more of in contemporary IF?
Bruno: More overtly political work would be great, though that’s perhaps too much of a pet obsession of mine. More experimentation with form and how it relates to interactivity; things like interactive poetry, exploration-based stories, and so forth. More interest in the “micro” scale effects of hypertext in prose—we have a lot of thinking about macro-scale story branch structures, but not so much about the effect of individual links or “hypertext effects” like the ones I tend to use in Undum stories.
We’re in the process of developing a language of how hyperlinks are used and what they mean, but we’re far from formalising it.
Tory: Is there an example of the type of exploration story or poem you’d like to see more of?
Bruno: Vajra Chandrasekera’s “Snake Game” plays around a bit in that space of recasting interaction in a different way from how it’s usually presented.
Tory: *Flops back in the soft fluffy validation and makes validation angels*
Bruno: I had a smaller work earlier this year called “When the Land Goes Under the Water,” too, which sort of approximates those ideas, though it’s something I want to develop further.
Tory: Related to those goals for IF, what’s your dream project?
Bruno: I don’t really have one, I sort of bounce from one thing to the next. I’m definitely not approaching this as Climbing Mount Magnum Opus.
If you want to know what the project I wanted to do, but might never finish because of the extreme complexity involved, I’ve always wanted to produce an IF take on the classic Hitchcock movie, Rope.
Tory: Oh, wow.
Bruno: If you haven’t seen Rope, it’s a thriller about two sociopathic murderers who strangle one of their friends, hide him in a trunk under a dinner table, then hold a dinner party on it.
So I had this idea for a game where you would play as the murderer—you have a body in the wine cellar and you’re hosting a dinner party. And you’re trying to keep everyone happy and keep the body secret.
This, of course, would be loosely structured as a series of chapters (each one corresponding to one course of the meal) which would themselves contain independent “incidents” that would have to be contained.
So it would involve multiple independent NPCs, each one having independent knowledge that has to be tracked, and different behaviours based on how they’re feeling about the evening as it goes on… a nightmare, basically.
Tory: Nightmare for the writer… joy for the reader.
Bruno: Compounded, of course, by multiple tiered, conflicting player goals. Sure, the failure state is being found out, but you also want to impress the guests enough to secure the future of your teaching career. (Of course, this would be set in an aggressive satire of academic politics, because where else do murder and dinner parties go together so well?)
Not to get into the writing difficulties of putting the player in the shoes of a character who’s basically Patrick Bateman.
Tory: Heh, pairing hubris with ambition… and an insouciant Bordeaux. Welp, no pressure, but I need that in my life now.
Bruno: I’m not even sure I can write humour well enough to try!
Tory: Hey, I’m tickled as hell just from this interview. Plus, that’s what critique groups are for.
What’s next for you?
Bruno: I’m working on an IFComp project called “Cape.” The annual IF Competition, of course, has a very strict culture about discussing unreleased work, even though they’ve relaxed the rules recently. So I can’t really say more about it other than it involves superheroes, but in the same way that “Mere Anarchy” involves wizards.
I’m hoping I’ll be able to release that one in time, and that it will do well—neither is a certainty at this point.
Tory: Very understood. Break a superpowered leg!
Bruno: Whew! Thank you for this.
Tory: Absolutely. Thank you so much for your time today, Bruno. It’s been an education and a treat.