The ‘interactive fiction’ format hasn’t changed in any fundamental way since the early 1970s, in the same way that the format of the novel hasn’t since 1700.

–Graham Nelson

Musings on Interactive Fiction

Interactive Fiction is nothing new. In fact, it has been around for a lot longer than people think. My earliest childhood memories of Interactive Fiction involve reading the Choose Your Own Adventure book series (I’m stoked that you can get these for your iPhone!).

When most people think of Interactive Fiction these days, they’re thinking of a particular genre of games started by the original, the almighty Zork. If you are looking for resources on Interactive Fiction, check out the Interactive Fiction Archive or IFDB, a database of IF games that is to interactive fiction as IMDB is to movies.

IF isn’t like regular narrative. The reader isn’t just along for the ride, hovering over the shoulder of the narrator who is in turn usually hovering over the shoulder of a perspective character. There is absolutely nothing wrong with traditional narrative books, they just aren’t interactive (save the CYOA series I already mentioned).

IF takes the first person perspective even further and drops the reader (usually called the player in IF circles) into some small piece of an entire world. If done right, the reader will choose to do some exploration, make choices, pick up items, possibly engage in combat, and they will experience, first hand, the quest to get to the end of the book.

Quite a bit of IF can be thought of as short stories, their plots and conclusions are generally shorter than full-length novels (but not always). As the protagonist in an IF game, you may be tasked with simply finding your homework or escaping a zombie-infested high school or saving all of Planet Udon from certain destruction at the hands of an alien race.

Consider the following text:

You stand at the command console of the Drednaught class cruiser, 
feet planted on a transparent floor above the swirling tempests 
surrounding the planet below.

There is a single door leading out of the navigation station to the south.

What do you do next? At the prompt (>), seasoned veterans of interactive fiction might type think to get a list of possible nouns that might be targets for commands. But for me, I would probably look down, look at the tempests, then look at the console. I would then attempt to explore everything in the room before finally typing commands that might push buttons on the console.

Other people are button pushers through and through – they will plow through and go straight for the red button and push it to see what happens, knowing full well that they can save their progress before blowing up the ship.

This is another main benefit of interactive fiction. If your IF is well-written, then you can satisfy virtually every type of reader by laying out the world before them and allowing them to maneuver through it as they see fit.

If they want to leave the navigation room and spend the next four days ordering turkey legs from the food replicator, that’s fine. If they push the red button on the console before even discovering the fine cuisine available in the mess hall, that’s also fine. An IF author can’t take it personally if they craft an entire ship for the reader to explore and one reader ignores it and the other spends a week examining every detail.

In the past, these games were played by loading up a floppy disk. Now you can play them online with server-based and Javascript-based interpreters that read interactive fiction formats (such as “Z machine”, the format used by the original Zork) and you can play an IF game from your browser. There are even a few IF games available on the iPhone.

I have quite a few thoughts on how one might adapt the rich worlds and adventure of Interactive Fiction to smartphones and tablets without losing original feel of IF (e.g. without slathering it with gratuitous graphics that inhibit rather than inspire the imagination).

What I’m wondering from you (assuming anyone reads this blog) is – what do you think? Is there a home for IF in this modern world of Angry Birds and Bad Piggies and Temple Run and Zynga and Facebook and Twitter? Do people actually have the desire to not only read narrative, but to maintain the context of an IF in their head so they can play through a game using no other tools than their imagination as facilitated by an iPhone or an iPad?

Inquiring minds (especially mine) want to know. Please comment here with your thoughts on IF and its place in the modern world of short attention spans and apps that cost 99 cents that have graphics that took 10 3D designers to produce.

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  • Jsimmons

    I couldnt help notice there were no comments, so here’s mine.

    Yes, I think IF has a place in this world; there is a surprisingly large group of people writing and playing it, and there are a lot of apps to play the games on the iPhone and other iDevices, both free and paid. There are many people who are still writing IF, including myself since my own discovery of the genre a few years ago.