IF Only: Stories With Texture

Screenshot of the Texture Public Library page

Newcomers to interactive fiction tend to distinguish just a couple of IF formats — Twine and parser, often, depending on whether you’re clicking or typing. Those with a little more experience might also recognize ChoiceScript and inklewriter, as options for creating games with a classic choose-your-own-adventure-style interface and some of the qualities of a gamebook. But in fact there are many other possible interfaces for IF — and the IF community has just seen the release of a new one.

Texture, designed by Jim Munroe and Juhana Leinonen, is an interactive fiction platform intended to be effective across mobile devices as well as the PC screen — unlike parser designs that require fiddly typing. Despite its simplicity, though, Texture gives the reader a little bit more control than the average hypertext piece: to interact, you drag a verb from the bottom of the screen and release it over a hotspot in the text.

From a play perspective, the experience falls somewhere between a typical hypertext or CYOA experience and a parser game: especially when there are multiple verbs and multiple hot spots available, there’s room to form some intention and expectation about what an action will achieve. The presence of an “open” verb at the bottom of the screen might lead us to expect we’ll be able to act on doors and locked chests in the page description. A verb like “contemplate” might suggest a more meditative interaction, perhaps directed at important abstract concepts in the story.

Screenshot from Killer Commute

Hot spots don’t become visible until you’ve selected a verb to apply, which means it’s possible to read the text first without being distracted by links. Once you’ve started to move the verb, though, your options light up:

Screenshot from Killer Commute

Texture can track flag variables, so it’s possible to make one piece of the story dependent on another and to have delayed branching where consequences of a choice don’t appear until several pages later. The author can also set counters on any given page to limit the player’s interactions to a certain number of moves before the verbs disappear and the player sees a link to move on to the next page instead. That lets authors put some resource and pacing constraints on their story. (Twine would support the same functionality, but require considerably more work from the author to implement it.)

There are some important limitations. Once a piece of text has been changed once, Texture doesn’t provide much support for changing it a second time — which means that this isn’t the right tool for building expanding text like this tea-making scenario from TelescopicText.

Likewise, Texture doesn’t currently offer support for general-purpose numerical stats other than the “how many actions have happened on this page?” counter. That means that the modeled worlds underlying a Texture story need to remain quite simple. It also doesn’t provide any methods for showing the reader what the current variable state is, unlike ChoiceScript and Undum, which do offer that functionality as a built-in option. And finally, for some of my own explorations with Texture, I’ve wished I could offer the player the option to reset the current page, essentially undoing that page’s existing state so that they could explore some alternate choices instead.

As with Twine, Texture pieces don’t always readily reveal just how branched and complex they are under the surface. There are no visible status details or stat-checks, no evident failures, no maps of the narrative possibility space. It’s up to the author to let the player know (if they choose) which choice points matter and which don’t. That’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing: sometimes really obvious mechanics get in the way, and sometimes they enable a more effective and enjoyable playthrough. So it’s really down to the individual author and project whether Texture’s concealment of mechanics is an asset or not.

All things taken together, Texture is a tool with a distinctly different paradigm than most of the others out there, and it’s both free and straightforward to start using. Though it provides a “public library” site that will host and publicize your game, it’s also possible to download the resulting HTML files and host them yourself on itch.io or elsewhere.

Texture’s library launched with three new stories from well-known indie and IF writers: Date Date by Robert Yang (Cobra Club, Hurt Me Plenty), Predictions for a Strip Mall Psychic by Jake Elliott (Kentucky Route Zero), and Jim Munroe’s own Pretty Sure.

Cover art from Pretty Sure

Of these, Pretty Sure is the largest and branchiest: it tells the story of your relationship to your son, in a science fictional future where human civilization is under alien supervision and control. As in a lot of Munroe’s previous work, though, the semi-dystopic future is background for a story that centers on interpersonal concerns. Decisions you make early in the story affect your son’s upbringing and personality, and may come back to bite you much later on. Though the events in the story don’t change very much from one playthrough to the next, the reader can have a pretty drastic impact on how the characters feel about those events, and how the father-and-son relationship evolves.

Screenshot from Strip Mall Psychic

Predictions for a Strip Mall Psychic is more constrained, an eerie short story written entirely in the future tense. It’s pretty linear, but the player’s choices do add flavor and suggest particular concerns.

I especially like the page early in the story where you can choose a “go” verb — a choice to move on, to continue the prediction, to roll the story forward — or a “worry” verb, to linger on and fret about various aspects of your future until you’ve clarified everything there is to clarify. This takes away the ambiguity one often finds in Twine where it’s not clear whether a given link is going to move the story forward or just elaborate on what’s already on screen, and it also makes that decision (forward? or stay here and dwell?) into a protagonist choice rather than a readerly choice. The choice to “worry” paints the protagonist, the person receiving all this advice, as fretful, while the choice to “go” paints them as bolder.

Cover art for Date Date

Date Date is a vignette that uses Texture’s limited-actions-per-page feature: you are out for the evening with a man, and you must discuss three of an available five topics with him. Do you keep it light, or do you delve into controversial subject-matter? And does it ultimately matter which?

Related recommendations, for those interested in other interfaces for interactive fiction:

StoryNexus is no longer supported by Failbetter Games, but the site still offers some worthy and enjoyable story worlds including Chris Gardiner’s excellent Anglo-Saxon-flavored dungeon-crawler Below and the post-apocalyptic gunslinger tale Zero Summer (Gordon Levine, Tucker Nelson, and Becca Noe).

Andrew Plotkin’s Seltani is a Myst-themed multiplayer hypertext tool where your fellow players can chat with you while you play. Some of the scenarios are things you can play on your own, but for best effect, you’ll want to grab a couple of friends to go in with you.

An Earth Turning Slowly by Maeja Stefansson is a stand-alone game that lets you type instructions but then suggests auto-complete options for a hybrid parser-choice experience.

[Disclosures: Emily Short has slept over in Jim Munroe’s spare room during a conference, and has met Robert Yang and Andrew Plotkin on several occasions. She has worked with Chris Gardiner when providing freelance services to Failbetter Games. You can find out more about her commercial affiliations at her website.]

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  1. Velleic says:

    One thing that interests me is the extensibility of the various tools. Looks like Twine simply allows editing, website-style – but a system similar to modding games seems like it would work well. For example, the basic tool would be very stripped down, and things like variables, images, inventory could all be added in modules.

    The system described for Texture reminds me a little of classic point-and-click styles that would have little icons for the actions, though of course those were the same action for each room whereas any verbs can be present here. Not defined multiple-choice style, but also no figuring out what you have available.

    • Czrly says:

      I have a little coding experience… or, actually, rather a lot of it… and I’m toying with a mental model of a text-adventure system that models areas and actors, each with a persistent state, instead of this all-too-popular “page” system that we have now.

      Areas are a bit like “pages”, but they’re related spatially and feature spatial events such as entered and exited. Actors are like the hotspots in this Texture thing but they are placed in Areas and have their own state, being able to be moved, perhaps, or mutated.

      There’s also an ambient state that any script or event can mutate and any script or event can look up an area or actor by name in order to interact with it. For example, the single-purpose counter system that is described in this article could be done with a simple ambient variable and a script that warps the player to another area when that variable exceeds a given threshold – far more flexible and not single-purpose.

      Oh… and text can be “hyperlinked” to an area or actor, making it interactive. For example, in the sentence “Out of the corner of one eye, you catch a [surreptitious movement] in the shadowy gulf beneath the bed,” might have “surreptitious movement” hyperlinked to the Housecat. “Look”-ing at the surreptitious movement would be identical to applying the “Look” verb to the Housecat, had the Housecat not been a hidden actor in the room.

      Basically, the more content re-use you can achieve, the more “dynamic” the game will feel.

      • Czrly says:

        (This Texture thing really, really, really needs radial menus. Dragging a verb across a 27″ 1440p monitor is too much like work for me.)

      • Velleic says:

        That’s really cool – I had a very similar idea about areas, except it was in the context of a more point-and-click type thing so the areas and actors actually had graphics associated with them. I imagine it would end up more complex than it sounded, and in fact it may well be how some games already work. But still, worth a shot.

        • Czrly says:

          It is a common model in graphical games. I think it has probably been used in IF in the past but the combination of context-sensitive and actor-based game design with purely textual representation is possibly innovative.

          • Emily Short says:

            Czrly, you might be interested in Seltani (linked at the end of the article) — along with being multiplayer, it takes an area-based approach to hypertext and allows for a fair amount of Python-like coding to achieve effects.

      • artecon says:

        You may want to look at group of 6 books called Fabled Lands. They did something similar where the places/cities were persistent. And they did a kickstarter for a 7th book that was successful.
        I know it’s been ported to Java version, check this out:
        link to flapp.sourceforge.net

  2. Red_Fox says:

    Is it possible to at least make a part time income from writing/making games like these?

    I have a lot of ideas, and I’d be willing to learn javascript to execute them well. I’d want sounds and some illustrations too.

    • Red_Fox says:

      Edit: Stuff along the lines of The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo but longer.

      • Red_Fox says:

        Double Edit:

        Holy Crap. On Emily Shorts website she talks about an Inform7 game called “Worldsmith” I checked it out and I’m trying out the free demo. Absolutely amazing. I had no idea Inform7 could be this detailed and innovative. I must learn how to do this.

    • Yserbius says:

      Yes. Step 1: Be Andrew Plotkin.

      Seriously, it’s possible but since it’s such a niche market, it would be really really difficult. Plotkin has been writing interactive fiction since the 90s and has a sizable enough fanbase to use Kickstarter to build Hadean Lands which had 30 people playing it at its peak.

      Which is why most IF is free. If you want to write IF to make money, you should look into alternative sources of income.

      • Red_Fox says:


        • Gleeosin says:

          It’s definitely possible in the mobile space. Choose Your Own Adventure games are great for mobile. They’re lightweight, engaging and easy to play in short bursts. Choice of Games is one group succeeding with IF / CYOA, I’m sure there are others.

          There’s not much of a market on PC or console though.

          • Emily Short says:

            This set of blog posts covers a variety of recent IF in the commercial space, ranging from the only-just-barely-commercial games released for a price on itch.io through to projects big enough you might dispute that they’re IF at all (Sunless Sea). It’s true that a lot of the best-selling stuff is either on mobile or incorporates a lot of non-text elements, but there’s quite a spectrum of possibility.

      • Emily Short says:

        That used to be true; it’s less true these days, at least if you consider non-parser IF. (Parser IF is often still a hard sell.)

        But there are several venues, from Sub-Q Magazine to Choice of Games, that will pay from a few hundred to not-a-few thousand dollars to publish your new IF content, assuming it meets their quality and brand requirements (which are different for different entities, naturally). (Obligatory disclosure: I do business with Choice of Games.)

        An increasing number of places also hire/commission interactive stories, for general distribution or for advertising purposes. That often pays better than the publisher model, but typically it also requires that you have a more robust portfolio of completed work to get the job in the first place, and usually the commissioning entity has pretty clear ideas about what they want you to write for them.

        Finally, a number of IF authors do not have a publisher or take commissions, but do draw some tens or hundreds of dollars a month through Patreon support. That method is more about cultivating your own fan community directly, but it can help support more self-directed and niche work.

        So there are various models. Achieving a long-term, full-time income in the space is rare, but quite a few formerly-hobbyist IF authors now make some beer/grocery/sporadic rent money for their work.

    • damaki says:

      Definitely not. The interactive fiction community mostly releases free games. The engines are mostly free too. So you would be fighting against tons of high quality free games. And the if contests, which make a selection of quality IF are only about free games, AFAIK.
      There may be a small market in the english visual novels theme, though, but the production costs are highers (graphics).
      In a nutshell, I cannot imagine how you could make money from interactive fictions, unless you got some kind of well known licence, like Lone Wolf or Sorcery.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Risingson says:

    I did not say it at the time so: Emily, how fine that you are writing here.

  4. Jalan says:

    I’m alone in thinking that Date Date image looks like Wil Wheaton with a nose piercing eating a burger, right?

  5. trankzen says:

    Well, I’m here, I’m here. That story on the bottom right corner was written by a friend as a test. He didn’t think it would make it’s way to an RPS article, and neither did I.

  6. Premium User Badge

    alison says:

    I’m not sure if anyone will see this comment, but on the off-chance they do, has anyone figured out a Just Plain Nice way to play parser games on their PC? Last week Emily recommended a .z8 game and it took me hours to find a way to play it, and then when I finally found a piece of software that could open it, the interface was so awful I gave up.

    All I want is a plain old window with the same kind of settings PuTTY or mintty has – fonts, colors, transparency and custom rows/cols/resize/maximize. I searched high and low and tried to get Gargoyle and Lectrote and Wingit and Wingluxlelesluu to work… Except I don’t know if it’s because they’re Linux ports or DOS ports or because they are ancient, but they either don’t work or have woeful fonts or are just extremely esoteric to configure. And I’m a computer programmer who has used UNIX since the 90s. I just want to play a game. Am I missing something obvious here? Where’s the point and click IF interpreter for dummies?

    For now I am going to keep playing twines :(

    • damaki says:

    • damaki says:

      Gargoyle is the best!
      Sorry for the previous empty post.

      • Premium User Badge

        alison says:

        Thanks for the reply. I will persevere with Gargoyle, then. The most frustrating thing about it at the moment is that I can’t seem to get it to recognize any changes to the .ini file, even if i put one in my home directory like the comment at the top indicates. I don’t think it was written with Windows in mind. Maybe I will just move the whole thing into my home directory and see if that works.

    • Emily Short says:

      These days it’s pretty common for parser IF to be playable in a browser, with a “play online” link in IFDB. Some older games and some really computation-heavy games don’t play nicely that way, but this is probably why non-browser interpreters are suffering a bit of neglect at this point: there’s just much less demand than there used to be. Are you finding the browser-based versions intolerably ugly too?

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        alison says:

        I must admit I haven’t tried any of the online parsers because I’m scared I will be stuck having to play the game to the end. I remember spending years (!) stuck in Hitchhiker’s Guide, and I still never finished it. Do the website versions let you save and come back later, or are modern text adventures shorter experiences? I must admit I was very pleased by the Twine you recommended the other day (Birdland?) – that only took an hour or so, which is perfectly bite-sized.

        • Emily Short says:

          Yes, you can save files from the browser implementations; also, the majority of parser IF is also playable in less than two hours these days, because it tends to be written for competitions where players don’t have time to judge longer workers anyway. There are some long-form exceptions, but they’re in the minority.

    • Loam says:

      z8? I’m still using Frotz FWIW, although I admit it can come back to bite me occasionally. But with the old z files it’s usually fine.

      As regarding the colors and such, are you sure that didn’t work? I know that at least for some of the older interpreters (if not the newer ones; I dunno), the color doesn’t just apply as a background color universally — it applies to the backgrounds of new lines of text (so you’d want to restart or something for a nice even BG).

      And for gblorb I am using Git — no, not the version control thing, there’s an interpreter called Git, it’s not confusing at all.

      • Premium User Badge

        alison says:

        Good question. With Gargoyle I can’t change the colors at all due to my ini file problem. And I haven’t tried any of the terminal ones yet because the Windows console is so awful compared to mintty, but in my experience apps written for the Windows console do not handle input if you invoke them from a mintty because they weren’t compiled with MINGW. Are you using Windows? I do use ConEmu at work, though, and that’s pretty good. Plus I just noticed two seconds ago that the new Windows 10 console has transparency and proper resizing. I can’t believe I just got excited about that. Will play around a bit more. Thanks for the encouragement :)

  7. Cederic says:

    Newcomers to interactive fiction tend to distinguish just a couple of IF formats — Twine and parser, often, depending on whether you’re clicking or typing. Those with a little more experience might also recognize ChoiceScript and inklewrite

    Whereas us old people remember IF in paper form – my first encounter was the Fighting Fantasy series, the first nine of which at one point I owned.

    On computers we remember ye old text adventures. We remember MUDs. A lot of MUDs were combat oriented, but there were plenty that contained vast tracts of narrative in the form of interactive story, exploration/journey, etc. All text based, all fiction, all interactive.

    The modern IF tools offer fantastic simplicity and flexibility for authors and readers (including simple support for sophisticated narrative paths), but it would be doing the whole genre a disservice to constrain it to the more popular tools.