A la Campagne: Interactive Fiction

An interview with Manon about their history, and a step into the innovative world of Interactive Fiction

1. First, I just wanted to give you the chance to let us know a little bit more about you! Do you have any other hobbies or passions outside of creating interactive fiction?

My name is Manon, a French netizen under the username of manonamora (My website), I love creating interactive fiction games for fun in my spare time since mid-2021. When I am not hanging out in the IF space, I play RPGs with my friends and dive into my never-decreasing pile of books (I am an avid reader of science-fiction and French literature). 

Being a good stereotypical French person, I am also very passionate about food. I am always finding a way to try out new recipes or trying to be creative with old ones.

2. Explain your background history in the field. What got you started with interactive fiction?

I have found my way into interactive fiction pretty much by chance and quite recently. A close friend had sent me the link to the game A Tale of Crowns, a choice-based IF game, in the late spring of 2021. Since I love reading, this genre of games was perfect for me!

After going through the blog of AToC’s creator, I wondered if I could be able to try my hands at the medium. I had zero coding knowledge nor had writing classes past high-school, but I was looking for a challenge and to try something new. And what a fun challenge it was!

The rest is history. Since then, I have worked on dozens of different projects, participated in multiple competitions (and won some!), even organizing game jams myself, and tried to be a helpful member of the community who reignited my love for writing and creating after years sitting in front of blank pages.

3. Tell us a little bit about the piece you are submitting to Portage. What was your inspiration for the piece, and what can readers look for or expect when they start reading?

À la Campagne is a short choice-based piece following a day in the life of Céleste, a young girl spending her holidays at her grandparents’ in the countryside, while she struggles with her feelings of abandonment and loneliness. This piece is a bit of a personal one, heavily inspired by events from my childhood – I used to spend every summer holiday at my grandparents’ in a tiny village in Auvergne (the rural mountainous area in the center of France) – as well as emotions I struggled with when growing up.

4. Out of your top 3 best-rated stories, which are you most proud of and why?

The more I add projects to my name, the harder it is for me to choose which one I am the most proud of, regardless of their ratings. Each project has taught me something different, helped me explore themes I didn’t know I could, and made me realize how much potential I have and how far I’ve come since that spring two years ago. They all have a special place in my heart.

Still, a choice must be made, and I might be cheating by choosing this story (it has only one 5-star rating on itch): La Petite Mort. LPM is a short French hypertext game created for the 2022 Edition of the Ectocomp, a yearly Halloween IF game jam, under the similarly-named category where one creates a game in 4h.

The story follows Suzette, an eight year-old getting ready to meet her peculiar grandmother for an outing. The player must help Suzette by completing (or not) tasks left for her.

Until this point, I had not written fiction in French for a good 10 years, nor had I created a game in such a short amount of time! It was very challenging to have everything ready when the clock is ticking, with making a coherent story, coding it and testing it before time runs out. At the end, I managed with a hair left. It was a very fun experience, and one that helped me reach first place in the jam too!

As for inspiration for LPM, I didn’t need to go quite far at the time; I was going through Terry Pratchett’s work – this is often where my inspiration starts, reading books. His work has influenced me quite a bit during that period, especially in terms of writing and world building.

5. What do you think is your greatest accomplishment as a writer?

Finding the joy to create stories again. I couldn’t write anything that was just for me for a long time, so having fun while writing is very important to me, especially as a hobbyist.

6. What are some of the challenges you have faced working with interactive fiction?

Many challenges, and I continue to face them when working on new projects or continuing older ones. The biggest one currently is scope creep. It is so easy to get enthusiastic about ideas and wanting to include them in a project without understanding how much work it will entail. It can become overwhelming very quickly. Even for the piece I submitted, I had to cut a lot of things, as my original idea would have surpassed the 15min reading mark and probably would have needed a few months to complete.

Another one I struggle with is language rules. Every language has different codes, grammar and structures, making sound sentences in one language turn into complete nonsense in another (idioms can be a nightmare…) at worst, or make them sound just wrong at best. But that’s what grammar checkers and beta readers are for!

And the last one, which I bring on myself every time, is having to learn new bits of code. Different projects or gameplays will require code that another would not, even within one program or coding format. While I am always happy to learn something new, it does come with its set of challenges, requiring quite a bit of testing to ensure it works!

7. What kind of skills comes with working as an interactive fiction writer?

The most important one, in my eyes, is organization. Whether it regards tracking all the required variations for each relevant choice, the placement of plot points, or the solutions of a puzzle, organization is key to ensure keeping a project on track. Without it, it can be quite easy to write yourself into a corner or become overwhelmed.

8. What was some of the best advice you received when you first started writing?

There are three pieces of advice that often help when I am struggling:

A first draft is always bad, and that’s why it’s a draft. So don’t worry about the quality of the writing in that version, just add words onto the page. You can always go back and make it better afterwards. 

Just start writing. It is better to write just a few sentences everyday than worrying about reaching a high daily word count. Any progress is progress at the end of the day. Those few sentences are still better than nothing.

 Write for you. Write the stories you want to tell. Write because you have fun. One advice I’ve been giving to other IF hobbyists is: Do word crimes, it’s fun!

9. What is your dream project to work on?

Would it be too cheesy to say I’ve been working on it since I’ve started creating games, because I see all these projects as kind of a dream project? I never imagined I could have such a creative output for all my ideas, and that it would be this much fun to make those happen. It’s been kind of a dream.

But to answer this question a bit more seriously, I don’t think I have a dream project, but more ideas I’d like to explore. Recently, it was to create a parser in Twine, an IF program for choice-based and hypertext games (The Roads Not Taken). Some months prior, it was creating a Flash-like bar to mix drinks (The Thick Table Tavern). The year before that, it was recreating a game I used to play as a child (Exquisite Cadaver).

I have a long list of ideas and themes I want to take a crack at in the future, when I have time. Most of these I do not want to reveal just yet. But one would be to create an epic RPG with limited text (a struggle for me), storylet-like quests, combat and leveling system; but that is probably a few years in the future.

10. Do you have any advice for readers who may want to learn more about interactive fiction? What would you recommend people do to get started?

I’d say the best way to learn about IF would be to play IF games. The genre is as diverse as there are creators (and there are a lot of those). Browsing the IFDB or the Interactive Fiction tag of Itch.io. That will provide a lot of results, with a wide variety of IF games. But if one prefers another kind of reading, I would suggest them to start with the history of IF on Wikipedia or browsing the IFWiki

Going through the archive of Emily Short’s blog is also very enlightening – Emily Short is one of the most renowned IF authors. Browsing Brian Rushton’s articles about IF authors or IF competitions can help understand the impact of those parties on the IF Community as it is today.

Finally, what other way to learn more about IF than creating your own! There are hundreds of programs and formats out there to create interactive fiction, some can be very easy to start with (like Twine or Texture).

11. What’s next for your career as an IF creator? This is a chance for you to promote any projects you may be working on for future publications, or just a project you want to encourage our readers to check out! 

Short term, a break.

I’ve churned out quite a bit in the past months, with my French Comp entry DOL-OS (Translation TBA), a puzzle-like sci-fi mystery, The Rye in the Dark City, a noir detective spoof for the SeedComp!, and The Roads Not Taken, a parser in Twine for the currently ongoing SpringThing Festival… It’s been a lot!

Mid term, I will be going back to ongoing projects and advance their stories, with the first being The Tribulations of Edward Harcourt, a Lovecraftian horror game built in tandem with the same close friend who pushed me into IF.

And probably by the summer, I will be back working on an IFComp entry. To follow my progress on the aforementioned projects, or just see me talk about older ones, you can find me on Tumblr. This is where I post everything or hint about what I am working on at the time. Otherwise, you can find my work freely available on itch.io!

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