Judy Malloy, Editor

Aaron Reed
Blue Lacuna
Software: Inform 7

Aaron A. Reed is the author of award-winning works of interactive fiction, (IF) including Whom the Telling Changed (2005) and Blue Lacuna, (2009) an IndieCade finalist, and his new work includes 18 Cadence, an iPad storymaking platform. His work has been exhibited/published at the 2010 Electronic Literature Organization Conference at Brown University; the (dis)junctions Media Festival at UC Riverside; the UC Santa Cruz Digital Arts Research Center, and the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume I, among others. He is the author of Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7. (Course Technology PTR, 2010)

In his work, Aaron Reed continues to experiment with new forms of electronic literature and participatory storytelling, creating a series of new works that include his recent Blue Lacuna, an IF novel wth nearly 400,000 words of prose and natural language source code. in his words, Blue Lacuna is:

"An explorable story about the nature of choice and happiness, the novel includes a major character who evolves and develops a unique relationship with the player/reader over the course of the narrative. Whether he becomes a friend, a mentor, a lover, a sycophant, or one of eight other archetypes is dependent on how he is treated in up to 70 distinct scenes and conversations over the work's ten chapters."

Although the term Interactive Fiction (IF) is sometimes used more broadly, IF most commonly refers to games/works of electronic literature that create a simulated environment with fictional characters and involve the reader (who may also be a character) in interactively navigating a fictional experience by entering text based responses and commands. Blue Lacuna was created in Inform 7, an IF authoring tool/design system which is based on natural language source code, is accessible to non-programmers, and provides teaching tutorials. Inform 7 is, the website notes, "a radical reinvention of the way interactive fiction is designed, guided by contemporary work in semantics and by the practical experience of some of the world's best-known writers of IF."

In his statement for Authoring Software, Aaron Reed describes the creation of Blue Lacuna, focusing particularly on levels of interaction and how they enhance the user experience.

Aaron Reed: Blue Lacuna

Blue Lacuna is a novel-length interactive fiction that attempts to marry the scope of classic long-form IF, such as Infocom's A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, with the richer character interaction and detailed environments found in modern short-form IF, such as Emily Short's Galatea and Victor Gijsbers' De Baron. The resulting work has found audiences in both indie gaming circles and the electronic literature community, as well as in the broader digital arts world. With enough time passed to gain some perspective on the three year authoring process, I've come to be most proud of the way Lacuna realized a model of "accrued personalization" for interactive narratives; rather than focusing on branching decision points, the story allows a build-up of small choices and personalized moments that combine to give a reader ownership of her particular traversal.

On the lowest level, Lacuna tries to be more flexible and accessible with input than has been the case with traditional IF. Modern interactive fiction has often had a limited audience due to its obscure conventions and steep learning curve; With Lacuna, I hoped to make IF more accessible to readers not already familiar with the form. The text highlights important nouns, directions of possible movement, and conversation topics, and these words can be typed alone to take the expected action. (examining, moving, or asking about) The system also looks for a broader range of command structures than are traditionally recognized by IF parsers and does a better job at explaining normally hidden assumptions about the simulated world model and what sorts of commands are likely to produce responses.

On a deeper level, I wanted to create an experience that respected the player's decisions and allowed him or her to participate in the story world. While decision-tree narratives such as "Choose Your Own Adventure" books vary text only at the paragraph or section level, IF has much greater affordances for customizing sentences or even individual words in both obvious and subtle ways.

Lacuna simulates weather and tides for its tropical island setting, a day/night cycle, and player-caused environmental changes; it responds to a wide variety of pointless but performative actions, such as digging in the sand or swimming; and it offers control over how the environment is structured and described, as in options to use traditional compass directions versus a landmark system for navigation, or the ability to disable difficult sequences by enabling a "story mode."

More notably, the player is given opportunities to define her vision of the player character through both explicit questions and performative actions. In a later sequence, for instance, as a visitor to a foreign city the player may make many small choices between acting with civility or aggression, which affect whether an important later conversation takes place in an abandoned museum or a jail cell. The content of the conversation is mostly the same in either case, but the context, and personal significance of this moment in the story, are altered significantly.

This approach was most fully realized in the design of Lacuna's central non-player character, a shipwreck victim named Progue. The player character meets Progue early in the story and then interacts with him in a series of conversations dynamically interspersed with their exploration of the surroundings and piecing together of the story. Many small techniques were used to create a similar feeling of "ownership" over the player's relationship to Progue: he develops a nickname for the player character based on their attitudes towards each other, remembers where and when conversations took place when referring to them later, and varies his activities based on the time of day and his emotional state. More significantly, though, Progue's feelings towards the player are tracked on three axes, allowing the story to characterize their relationship with one of a dozen different archetypes, such as "bitter father," representing positive paternalism, positive submission, and negative affinity. Progue's developing archetype affects which conversation options are available, what subordinate clauses and adjectives are used when describing him, and the possible resolutions to his story arc.

The largest level of ownership occurs in the overall structure of the piece itself, which will end with one of three entirely different interactive epilogue sequences based on whom the system thinks the player feels the story is about. Each epilogue attempts to retroactively assign meaning and provide dramatic closure through its staging of the story's concluding scenes. For instance, the epilogue focusing on a love interest, whom the player leaves behind in the story's opening chapter, heavily invokes the language and imagery of that first chapter to make the story feel as if it has come full circle; other epilogues frame the opening chapter as a starting point on a journey of personal change or redemption.

All of these levels of flexibility hopefully allow the story to be about different things to different people; readers should feel more complicit in the outcome of the narrative through realizing that they had a hand in shaping how things turned out. My hope is that work like this actively engages the audience in acts of self-reflection, creating stories that don't just talk at their readers, but listen, too.

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