With the recent release of the brilliant Hadean Lands by Andrew Plotkin, I was reminded of just how wonderful a thing parser-driven interactive fiction can be. How a complex, satisfyingly clever and excellently written game never needed any sort of graphics and, then, I had to ask things. Happily Mr. Plotkin was kind enough to answer.
So, Hadean Lands, excellent title aside what is it all about?
Alchemy! Catastrophe! A starship crashed on an alien moon!
You’re an apprentice alchemist — a junior crew member on His Majesty’s Marcher “The Unanswerable Retort”. And then something goes wrong…
You wake up in the wreckage, and… no, you haven’t lost your memory. (I did that in a previous game.) But you have to explore your altered environment. You have to learn enough advanced alchemy to make your way through it. You have to collect the resources you’ll need to *perform* that alchemy. Ultimately, you’ll have to try to figure out what happened, and — perhaps — how you can undo it.
Why did you choose to create a full length, commercial parser-driven interactive fiction, instead of taking the safer choose-your-own-adventure route?
When I launched the project, in 2010, CYOA didn’t seem to be much of an alternative!
Of course there *were* choice-based games at that point; there always had been. But there was not yet an obvious commercial market for that style of IF. Choice Of Games was taking a shot at it; Choice of the Dragon had appeared, with a couple of follow-up titles. But it wasn’t what you’d call a *safe* path.
There were other factors. Jason Scott’s Get Lamp documentary had just come out, so we had a wave of attention to Infocom-style IF (even if it was mostly nostalgia). Nobody had tried selling a top-notch, full-length
game of that form in the general gaming market — not since the 90s. I figured it would be dumb to let the moment pass.
And, naturally, I wanted to play to my skill set. I had lots of experience writing parser IF. I should aim at what I was good at, rather than what other people were good at.
I have nothing against choice-based games. But if I’m going to diverge from classic IF, I’d rather try interesting variations, rather than a familiar CYOA model. One of my first side projects of the HL years was Meanwhile, which is a CYOA-style comic book (a collaboration with Jason Shiga). I’ve messed around with a multiplayer choice-based engine and an inventory-heavy hypertext game. But a straight-up CYOA game — no, not my thing. It seemed like a distraction in 2010. Today, it’s a well-explored niche, so I still don’t need to go there, right?
Alchemical starhips, which seem to feature pretty prominently in the game, sound like something you’d need both a wizard and an engineer for. Care to describe the setting?
In fact you need wizards who are trained *as* engineers.
The setting has echoes of Age-of-Sail fantasy. You’re in His Majesty’s Navy; your ship flies the standard of an Empire. But this game is about the magic (or magical science) — not the politics. You aren’t going to have a chance to chase Dutch privateers or cross swords with Napoleon. One wrecked marcher is plenty of challenge for one game.
Oh, and how big a game is Hadean Lands?
There are a lot of ways to measure the size of an adventure game, and most of them don’t tell you very much.
I wound up with about 90 rooms, and about 160 possible inventory objects. (Not counting furniture and scenery.) You’ll never walk around carrying all 160, of course. You couldn’t if you tried. Most of them are either produced by alchemy, or ingredients in alchemical recipes, or both. That’s why so many; there are lots of variations and combinations to explore. And many of them can be used up. You might draw a gold rod out into gold wire, or dissolve one substance in another.
My beta-testers — the ones who’ve finished the game — report spending about 20 to 30 hours on it. That’s working solo, mind you. If you work with other players and trade hints, you could get through it more quickly. That’s your decision to make.
Should we expect intricate puzzles? How intricate ones?
I have been known to use the word “intricate” with regard to this game, yes…
Here’s the thing. You spend the early game just exploring the environment and taking inventory — not in the IF sense, but learning what’s available. Then you spend a chunk of time going over the recipes you’ve found, making them work, and figuring out how to apply them.
Eventually you try to reach a particular goal, and you know *how*, but you lack sufficient resources to do it all. You need substance X for one stage of the ritual, but then you need substance Y, derived from X, in another stage — and the X has been used up. Or you need spell Z in two places, and you can only cast it once. So now what? You have to jump back to the beginning and look for alternatives.
Don’t worry; I don’t force you to replay the entire game from scratch. There are shortcuts that let you reiterate rituals that you’re already familiar with. A whole chain of commands can be condensed to “PERFORM THE FROBOZZ RITUAL”. A command like “UNLOCK DOOR” might condense several
rituals and actions needed to retrieve the key.
But this is where it gets interesting! Every solved puzzle is now just a step in a larger structure. You might have spent hours trying to find the ingredients earlier, but now — hopefully — it’s a tool in your toolkit. You’re now struggling to fit these tools together in new ways. And once you do, those results *themselves* become new tools.
This is a puzzle structure that IF has never explored before. Not to this depth, at least.
It’s been almost 4 years than the Hadean Lands Kickstarter; why the wait?
*I* wasn’t waiting. I was working!
I tripped up in a few different ways. For a start, I underestimated the difficulty of designing this game. I had lots of ideas, but fitting them together was very painful. (Mostly because every time you fit two ideas together, you throw out a dozen *other* ideas you could fit them to. And I hate throwing out ideas.)
I’ve described how complex the puzzle structure was. I had to build a dependency-checker tool just to prove to myself that it was logically coherent. I had to write unit tests covering every stage of every ritual — including the ways the player might get them wrong. Hadean Lands required more *process* than any of my previous IF games.
But I also had to figure out how I work as a full-time indie developer. And that turns out *not* to be full-time on one single game for months on end. I had to work on smaller projects. (Meanwhile was one of them.) I had to stay active in the IF community. I had to help run public IF events. I had to spend time on various open-source IF projects — and, to be clear, this was part of my Kickstarter brief.
I had to take long walks and TV breaks and bake cookies sometimes. And then come back and grind on the game, day after day, making milestones for myself and pounding them home.
So it wasn’t the schedule I expected. If I had known that it would be a four-year journey, I probably would have turned around and set up a Patreon for microgames instead. (Except that Patreon didn’t exist in 2010.)
But it got done.
Oh, and thanks for adding more platfroms, as text adventuring without a keyboard can be irritating. Why did you decide to also support PCs?
iOS was white-hot as a rising platform in 2010. Now it’s levelled off some. It’s still hot, but it’s also oversaturated, and getting attention there is tough. An iOS-exclusive release is no longer the way to go — at least not for a game that plays equally well on desktop machines. (I still have ideas for touch-centric iOS games.)
Also, I figured that my backers deserved a bonus for being so patient. Giving everybody a Mac/PC portable release felt right. And if I was making that available to the backers, I might as well put it on sale for the general public.
This was a late decision, and I have to admit that the game isn’t well-tuned for Windows. You won’t get a self-running .EXE file. You’ll get a portable game file, and you’ll have to download a Windows interpreter (or Mac, or Linux) to play the game. This is old-school IF stuff, and I feel bad asking the general gaming public to put up with it. But it’s what I’ve got. Maybe when the dust has settled, I’ll work on tidy Mac and Windows packages.
Would you say that people are more interested in interactive fiction these days?
Yes! …But the term “interactive fiction” means a lot more things these days.
When I started Hadean Lands, I would have said that “interactive fiction” meant Infocom-style, parser-based text games. That’s what I meant by it. Like I said about CYOA games earlier, I *identified* with the parser.
It was my thing.
Sometimes, the world goes off and does its own thing. Choice Of Games is doing nicely, and they call their work “interactive fiction”. Twine erupted onto the scene, and people called that “interactive fiction”. Narrative experiments like Dear Esther and Device 6 wound up under the IF banner.
I could have thrown up the walls and said “This is my IF, and I’m not interested in what anybody else calls it.” But I *was* interested. And I was engaged. People from “those other” IF communities were crossing the borders and interacting with my world. Twine games were appearing in “our” IF competition and winning “our” IF awards. So — let’s take interactive fiction as a broad label, and continue the discussion about whatever shows up.
Besides, I don’t want to wind up as That Old Jerk who rejects everything he didn’t grow up with. Nobody likes that guy. Ultimately, nobody even listens to him.
What does the future hold?
I don’t even know what Thursday holds right now. Maybe I’ll go to the circus.