What is Interactive Fiction?

To properly christen a new venue dedicated to the discussion of interactive fiction (IF), perhaps an inquiry into the nature of the subject matter we are gathered here to discuss may be of interest and benefit to all. What is interactive fiction? What distinguishes superior from inferior interactive fiction? What distinguishes interactive fiction from other media?

If my investigations below seem too obscure, too dry, or prove too dense for any readers to wade through in one sitting, anyone should feel free to latch on to any random question or proposition below for use as a starting point in your own constructive contributions to this discussion. If you’re not big on theory, prefer to take the perfectly respectable view “I can’t define interactive fiction except to say I know it when I see it,” and would rather discuss particular ways in which some specific title is or is not a good example of interactive fiction, or is/is not an example of good interactive fiction, that’s great too. I’m just here to chat, and since I already know what I think I’m much more interested in hearing what you think. As long as we all share a commitment to enjoying ourselves, any outcome is less important than the journey itself.

Some common views regarding the subject of interactive fiction are:

  1. Interactive fiction is sort of like adventure games, but with text instead of graphics. Adventure games are a form of game primarily concerned with outcomes for the player (the goal of playing is to win). Furthermore, adventure games typically feature a certain form of gameplay constructed to challenge and exercise the lucidity and mental acuity of players. Adventure games are largely characterized by narrative possibilities rather than designer-player collaboration in characterization, theme, or setting. Adventure games are a category of competitive games (in adventure games, the player typically competes by matching wits against the designer). Good interactive fiction design should flow from one or more of these principles.

  2. Interactive fiction is sort of like role-playing games, conducted in a text-predominant medium. Role-playing games are typically a form of noncompetitive game primarily concerned with offering players a certain sort of gameplay experience rather than a focus on objective outcomes like winning or losing. Role-playing games typically pursue this goal by encouraging players to explore the construction of an internally consistent narrative rooted in the characterization of a protagonist (called the player-character) in a fictional setting. In other words, role-playing games are typically focused on narrative outcomes for the player-character rather than external outcomes the player (whose desired outcome is largely to enjoy a certain sort of subjective experience while playing). Role-playing games offer significant and extensive possibilities for designer-player collaboration in narrative, characterization, and theme. Good interactive fiction design should flow from one or more of these principles.

  3. Interactive fiction is a medium or genre in which readers significantly interact with authors in some way. In interactive fiction readers are more than mere observers, compared to traditional fictional pursuits where an author tells a story and an audience merely observes both the tale and the telling. While some interactive fiction may take the form of a rigorously structured game (a medium), this is only a coincidental rather than an essential component of the genre or past-time itself. Though much interactive fiction features interactivity in the realms of narrative and characterization, explorations of interactivity in other literary components such as theme and setting may also occur. Nonetheless, interactive fiction is significantly different from role-playing games, because like traditional fiction the primary concern of interactive fiction is expression of an authorial point of view rather than soliciting audience (participant) points of view. In interactive fiction interactivity is a means of engaging the audience, thereby allowing the author to better communicate his chosen themes to the audience; in role-playing games, an experience of social interaction is the primary purpose of gameplay. Good interactive fiction design should flow from one or more of these principles.

  4. If an author says his work is interactive fiction, then the work is interactive fiction.

  5. If an audience decides a work is interactive fiction, then the work is interactive fiction.

What are some other ways of considering what interactive fiction is? What are some helpful or important ways of distinguishing interactive fiction from other media and genres? Is interactive fiction a medium, a genre, or both, or perhaps something else entirely?

Presumably interactive fiction is thusly called because it’s something interactive-ish and fiction-y. Without claiming any notable or special respectability for the dictionary that has occupied a spot on my desk for many years (Collins Concise Dictionary Plus, c1989) beyond the fact that it’s at my disposal as I write this, we may ponder the following:

interactive: 1. allowing or relating to continuous two-way transfer of information between a user and the central point of a communication system, such as a computer or television. 2. (of two or more persons, forces, etc.) acting upon or in close relation with each other; interacting.

fiction: 1. literary works invented by the imagination, such as novels or short stories. 2. an invented story or explanation. 3. the act of inventing a story.

Perhaps a tentative starting point, then, might be to say that interactive fiction is a collaborative work of imagination in some way composed by both author and audience. Interactive fiction may, in this view, resemble more than anything else a conversation between at least two participants, designer and audience. From this perspective, we may say the fundamental characteristic of interactive fiction is that interactive fiction is a form of social interaction between two or more persons. Yet this social interaction consists of participants communicating remotely, or at some distance, and therefore utilizes a particular medium suited to remote communication. Furthermore, this remote communication is not simultaneous communication, but occurs at disparate times-- the contribution of the designer occurs prior to the contribution of the audience (even though the expression of both contributions occurs simultaneously from the perspective of the audience).

Is this what we mean, at least in broad strokes, by the phrase “interactive fiction?” If so, is the contribution of one participant in the interaction more important, or more meaningful, or more compelling, than the contribution of the other participants? Is interactive fiction less like a purely social conversation (for example, a chat over dinner whose sole purpose is mutual enjoyment) than a lecture (a social interaction, because multiple parties are involved, but less collaborative because one party does the talking while the contribution of other parties is merely to remain and listen, or leave the venue where the lecture is occurring)? Or is interactive fiction more like a job interview-- the designer offers something the audience wants (perhaps challenge, resolution, victory, or something along those lines) and the audience strives (through successful gameplay) to convince, obtain, or otherwise attain some objective (like a job-seeker successfully obtaining employment)?

The latter questions raise another important consideration: what is the purpose (as opposed to the practice) of participating in an interactive fiction experience? One popular view might say the purpose is to facilitate the presentation of certain ideas by the author for the education or edification of the audience-- in other words, rather like a lecture, or perhaps like a rally. A less common view is that the purpose of the interaction is to facilitate the engagement of the audience (in many cases, this engagement may take the form of entertainment)-- in other words, rather like a game. An even less common view might state that mutual participation (for both designer and audience) in an enjoyable and shared social experience is the primary purpose of interactive fiction. We might ask the question, then: in most cases is the primary beneficiary of interactive fiction meant to be the author, or the audience?

What was once a very common view regarding the nature of interactive fiction can be found in Jimmy Maher’s essay “Let’s Tell a Story Together.” He states there:

In its broadest sense, interactive fiction can be considered any form of storytelling which involves the reader or listener as an active participant. Among other things, improvisational theatre, tabletop role-playing games, and of course computer games of many stripes all qualify. For my purposes in this essay, though, I will define interactive fiction – henceforth referred to as IF – much more narrowly in applying its commonly accepted meaning among a unique group of writers, programmers, readers, and players who create and exchange interactive stories on the Internet. In their world, IF is a unique form of computer-based storytelling which places the player in the role of a character in a simulated world, and which is characterized by its reliance upon text as its primary means of output and by its use of a flexible natural-language parser for input…

The single feature which distinguishes an IF game from any other kind computer game is its reliance upon a parser for input. A parser is a computer algorithm that converts simple sentences entered by the user in English, or any of a fair number of other languages for which games have been written, into an instruction that the computer can understand. The computer then updates the status of the story accordingly and reports the latest developments to the player through a textual response, to which the user can reply with another command. This cycle continues ad infinitum, until the players “wins” the game by succeeding in some overarching goal; “loses” the game in some fashion often but not always involving the death of her in-game alter ego; or simply quits playing, perhaps to return some other day. While text is the primary method of input and output in any true IF game, the form does not preclude the inclusion of multimedia elements to augment the story being told. IF games can and occasionally do include graphics, music, sound effects, and even animated “cut scenes.” Games have even been written which allow the player to input commands by choosing from lists of words with a mouse, rather than typing. If this trend is taken too far, however, and the parser is replaced with a purely point and click system, or the game’s graphics replace its text at its primary method of communication with the player, that game ceases to be IF, at least for purposes of this discussion.

Many today would strongly disagree with this statement which only a few years ago commanded wide assent. Perhaps we think insisting on the inclusion of a parser (a detail of a particular medium) is a view too narrow to be sustained. Perhaps we view parsers as inconvenient, incoherent, or both, and thus as an obstacle to be set aside or surpassed rather than as an asset much less an essential characteristic. What do you think? Are there other important reasons, aside from the prominence Maher gives to parser interaction, to find his formulation of the general concept of interactive fiction inadequate or unhelpful?

One aspect of a parser method is that, at least in theory, it is a highly interactive method of communication for audiences, allowing them wide latitude in exploring content provided by the designer in a way likely to be more pleasing to the audience, since an ideal parser both accepts whatever input the audience finds interesting (leading to a response more likely to interest any particular audience) and is more likely to inspire the sentiment that the audience is more expansively participating in the collaborative interaction that is the interactive fiction experience than more restricted means of interaction, such as choosing amongst a few narrowly stated options provided by the designer (options which may or may not interest any particular audience). Is an ideal parser an unattainable ideal, and thus perhaps even if we are fond of the ideal parser as a method of communication and interaction should we abandon that ideal for important or compelling practical reasons? If the main purpose of interactive fiction is to engender a conversation between designer and audience, does a superiority of the parser in facilitating that endeavor mean we should embrace the parser technique above all (while striving to remedy or at least enervate its defects)? If Winston Churchill was an IF enthusiast, would he have said “Parser-based IF is the worst form of IF-- except for all the other forms of IF,” and would he have been wise to say such a thing?

We see again in such queries a more fundamental question I posed above: is interactive fiction primarily composed for the benefit of the author, or for the benefit of the audience? Is it the fiction, or the interactivity, that should predominate in interactive fiction? If we embrace one or the other alternative (must we embrace one or the other?), does this tell us anything significant about the best way to compose interactive fiction, or the most compelling form of output interactive fiction will assume, or about what content is more or less suited to exploration through interactive fiction? Much more generally, if we say interactive fiction is a form of art (what is art?), do we believe the primary beneficiary of art is the artist (who obtains satisfaction through a creative process) or the audience (who either may benefit in some intellectual, spiritual, or emotional manner from tendentious stimulation stipulated by the artist, or who may enjoy an intellectual, spiritual, or emotional experience as a result of the artist’s work)?

If we believe the primary beneficiary of interactive fiction is meant to be the audience, then are there important reasons (beyond mere tradition) for thinking that the most effective or pleasing means of engaging the audience will be in the form of a game? If so, what do we mean by “game” in this case? Pinochle and pole-vaulting are games, yet neither is likely to be germane to our discussion (or am I wrong about that?) The board game Clue (known as Cluedo in some parts of the world) offers players a form of social interaction since it cannot be played alone, and during gameplay a unique relatively open-ended narrative responsive to and requiring player input develops as Mrs. Peacock and Professor Plum (player-characters, in a sense) tiptoe around Mr. Boddy’s shadowy mansion attempting to discover whodunit-- was it Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the Conservatory? Is Clue interactive fiction? Would a text-based electronic game replicating Clue for a single-player be interactive fiction? After all, such an electronic game would feature narratives, characterizations, role-playing, a set of well-defined rules, a spatially organized world simulation with room descriptions, interaction and simulated conversations with non-player characters, deductive and inductive reasoning puzzles, and many more features we typically associate with interactive fiction. If we say a text-based electronic version of Clue would be interactive fiction, on what grounds may we legitimately exclude the standard board game version of Clue from inclusion in the corpus of interactive fiction?

On the other hand, if the primary purpose of interactive fiction is to provide a (novel, compelling, intriguing?) medium for the expression of an author’s ideas or sentiments to an audience in a manner that incorporates some level of interactivity, we may think there are important reasons for limiting that interactivity-- because expansive interactivity may lead to the dilution or corruption of the author’s intended expressions. In this case, are there better and worse methods of interactivity that should be utilized or avoided by authors and offered to or withheld from audiences? Does Clue offer an authorial point of view interactively exploring tangibly literary narratives, characterizations, and themes? I believe honesty demands we answer yes to that last question-- does this make Clue interactive fiction from this alternative perspective? On what grounds might we exclude Clue from consideration as interactive fiction if we desired to so do?

Has my analysis thus far missed some fundamental points and perspectives regarding the nature or practice of interactive fiction? What do you think?

If the example of Clue (whether as board game or as imaginary text game) seems too difficult to initially categorize, consider the following example: a person watches the film Apocalypse Now. Most audiences are likely to agree that the protagonist of the film is Captain Willard (portrayed by Martin Sheen), that the creator Francis Ford Coppola’s purpose in making the film was to express his sentiments regarding the absurdity or nihilism of war, and that the means by which the creator hoped to communicate these sentiments was through audience empathy or sympathy with the ethical and existential plights of Captain Willard. Willard is intended to signify what the creator believed were civilization’s struggles to persist and overcome the inherent chaos and dehumanizing influence of war; he is a man attempting to respond to the challenges and vagaries of war. Yet suppose some portion of the audience instead strongly identifies with Colonel Kurtz (portrayed by Marlon Brando), a man who seems to be War personified, and considers Kurtz the genuine hero (perhaps a tragic hero in that case) of the film. Does this mean the film Apocalypse Now is a work of interactive fiction? Whether our answer is yea or nay, what are our reasons for answering one way over the other? If all fiction is inherently interactive to some extent, precisely what unique subject matter are we gathered here at intfic to discuss? We cannot improve the quality of our subject matter, suggest best practices for implementing that subject matter, or formulate standards for evaluating the virtues and defects of any instance of that subject matter unless we first have a reasonably clear and coherent idea regarding that which is the object of our studies-- or can we?

Are these analyses likely to be helpful or meaningful? Perhaps many of us already agree that when we say “interactive fiction” we really mean electronic text games (in which case, are some games better suited than others for textual presentation?), but for some reason (what is that reason? is it a good reason?) we prefer to use the term “interactive fiction” when that’s not really what we mean. If so, does our use of an enigmatic euphemism unfairly penalize potential new participants in the endeavor, by creating confusion about audience expectations and thus inherently increasing the likelihood of audience disappointment with a new author’s efforts? Are we entitled to persist in such usage and ignore the reality of such a situation (if it exists) merely because we believe we have noble or generous intentions in fomenting such a situation? Or are we really not very interested in text games at all these days (perhaps because we suppose games are frivolous?), and truly do prefer something called interactive fiction (whose nature this discussion seeks to identify or at least illuminate)?

If there are few or no compelling reasons to begin our examination of interactive fiction from first principles, such as broader theories of media and aesthetics, because some self-evident or intuitive consensus on the matter is likely to at once emerge, then by all means let’s move right away into details like effective interactive techniques and effective narrative techniques rather than rarefied musings and philosophies. On the other hand, if the subject is either too complex or likely to be too contentious for any consensus worthy of general assent to readily emerge, perhaps taking a few steps back to explore broader perspectives and principles really will be the best way to commence our enquiry. Or do we believe the matter too inscrutable for any reasonable consensus to ever emerge on these subjects? I think the latter unlikely-- else we would not be gathered here in some sort of pursuit of a common interest, whatever such interest ultimately is-- though perhaps I am wrong in this assessment. I recently read an old interview with film director John Huston (winner of numerous film awards) wherein he argued scornfully that Apocalypse Now (winner of numerous film awards) could not legitimately be considered a film at all due to its lack of narrative structure. If thoughtful, accomplished artists like Mr. Huston and Mr. Coppola could not even agree on what a movie is, perhaps our reaching agreement on an even more obscure matter like the nature of interactive fiction truly is hopeless.

We’re gathered here to discuss, so-- let’s have a discussion. All opinions on these subjects related to the nature and practice of interactive fiction are welcome. Since this is a brand new forum where all voices are fresh and all points of view are novel, I particularly encourage anyone who may have ever felt stifled or intimidated from discussing their opinions on such matters elsewhere to join in the fun and contribute to these ponderings into the fundamental nature of our hobby. If during the course of these discussions we mutually find any propositions reasonable and sound we’ll mutually assent on that basis. Yet even if we reach no conclusions or consensus, let’s strive to enjoy a good time together. Yes, of course, I know this is the Internet where everyone is a megalomaniac bent on world domination, but let’s focus on ideas instead of egos, sincerity instead of rhetoric, and making new friends instead of pursuing old grudges. The mere fact that we are gathered here proves we have common interests-- so let’s survey that common ground together in order to better uncover and appreciate its wonders and marvels instead of staking out petty claims and planting ideological flags.

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My thoughts:

Interactive fiction is read. There may be graphics or sound supplementing the experience, but the primary mode of conveying the fiction is text.

The text that is read, in some manner, rearranges itself based on how the reader interacts with it to create a unique experience for the reader.

This might just be optional extra description in hyperlinks that the reader can choose to skip. This perhaps could be the baseline to consider a fiction “interactive”. A straight-thru Twine that is just pages of text with a continue button at the end of each page, therefore, wouldn’t be considered interactive fiction; it would be an e-book presented in Twine.

The text is fiction. A hyper-linked instruction manual (such as the Inform documentation) is not “interactive fiction” (since it is not fiction) but is a text with hyperlinks.

I subscribe to a rather more non-positivist view. I have extended experience with attempted “what-is”-es in literary theory and there’s a lot to be learned from that discourse about what strategic and tactical steps are useful in talking about a field (IF, SF, Modernism, 19th-century literature, etc, no matter) in such broad terms.

First and foremost, to me, would be that IF is a creative endeavor.

-> It’s an open-ended class of conventions, cultural/historical/textual signals that exist in the audience’s minds.
-> It’s not a fixed set of entities with some overlapping features that must somehow be identified and put forth as “This is IF”. It does not have necessary and sufficient conditions that define it.
-> It’s not productive to carry over methods and notions from science (even implicitly, even without clearly realizing it) into a field of endeavor that’s not amenable to them.

(I could make immediate parallels with the attempts to define science-fiction, or “literary” fiction, or “commercial” fiction. It’s always a muddle.)

So, what I do is study the field’s history and points where IF’s discourse intersects with others. (Literary theory, Internet hypertext, game design, interface design, etc.)

For example, taking Hanon’s straight-thru Twine example and twisting it around a bit (since I find it a bit too obvious in its original form):

Say a passage has a single link that lets you continue. Say that link is a word/phrase you have to click on. A choice has been made to highlight that particular word/phrase and then make the interactor click on it. Given Internet hypertext protocols, this already makes “stuff” happen in the interactor’s brain. They are used to clicking on links with different sorts of intentions, seeking different sorts of information/experience. Within IF’s context, text/input are modulated at a different-yet-familiar level of expectation and intention.

In standard Internet hyperlinks you click to learn more stuff about the thing you clicked on. In IF that’s not necessarily the case. Maybe the story will continue in logical progression and you’ll be left to wonder what the new passage has to do with clicking that particular word/phrase in the old one. This is already new “stuff” happening in your mind, a result of your interaction with the text.

I’m deliberately addressing an edge case since parser-IF foregrounds the text’s “physicality”/interactivity to a much greater degree, so much so that finer responses to “interactive” text are obscured and glossed over.

I might disagree that disguising a continue button as a word in the text makes a text interactive. The reader is still clicking forward, but will get the same text. Prose on a paper page can have text styling as well.

I think the stipulation that Interactive Fiction inherently involves reading text is an important addition, and seems quite reasonable to me.

Jumping ahead (perhaps too far? we’re in no hurry here after all), pursuing your idea about interactivity in the way you proposed may likely to lead us toward something resembling “Common View of IF #3” I mentioned above. What are your thoughts about this?

I’m glad to see the issue or distinction raised that we’re talking about ideas or experiences subjectively occurring amongst the audience. In many ways this is central to my own thinking on such subjects, but as I noted above I’m much more interested in hearing what others think.

Would you agree with a proposition such as “Whatever our subject matter of interactive fiction may turn out to be, we’ll likely find that it is only expressed (or that it only exists nontrivially) when it is enjoyed by an audience, or when an audience is engaged by it.”

How about a much stronger proposition such as “Interactive fiction is an interpolatory experience occuring in the mind of the audience?” What are good reasons for agreeing as well as disagreeing with such a proposition?

I think I disagree with that as a specific aspect of IF. I don’t disagree that IF causes a reactive experience in the reader’s mind, but so does static fiction. A reader interacts with a print book by reading it and engaging with it mentally, but this type of static fiction does not interact in return with the reader.

I would humbly suggest that true interactive fiction also interacts with the reader by changing the output of what is read (either by addition, omission, or rearrangement of text) in response to the reader interacting with it. I believe this two-way interaction is what truly defines interactive fiction for our purposes.

In the edge-case specified above, if you have 100 people read a Twine where the sole interaction is clicking a “continue” button or a word or multiple words of text to proceed to the next page which does not change in response to what link the player clicked, I might argue that the text is not truly interactive since I could print out those 100 transcripts and none of them would vary. The result would be indistinguishable from a linear narrative, and someone reading that transcript on paper would read the words in the same exact order, and could ostensibly have the same exact experience as the person who actually “played” it.

That doesn’t mean I would be so picky as to quibble about such a work being entered in an Interactive Fiction competition of some kind, but I’d certainly not score it high in categories such as “interactivity” nor “agency”. It has no more interactivity than a print book would.

This specification works for “choose your own adventure” books to define them as interactive fiction; despite any sort of mechanical manipulation of the text, a story transcript of 100 readers progress in a CYOA novel would also vary depending on their interaction with it.

I might disagree that disguising a continue button as a word in the text makes a text interactive. The reader is still clicking forward, but will get the same text. Prose on a paper page can have text styling as well.

See, you’re accepting your own stipulation, that the text needs to change, as a yardstick to measure what I’m suggesting, which is that interacting with a highlighted word will make things happen in the mind of the interactor - making them think about that word and how it connects to what goes before and after, how it connects to other highlighted words, - that do not happen that way in other forms of reading, not with pure formatting certainly.

And I’d say what we’re spinning around here are frameworks for thought, without accepting anything apriori. Within the framework that you suggest, my example is not interactive fiction. But I’m not just a giving an example to be assessed. I’m outlining a framework.

  1. Study the dynamics of response to the medium, including how one makes sense of a piece of IF. Pay attention to emerging thought patterns in any and all forms of “interaction”.

  2. Juxtapose to adjacent discourses, i.e. how we make sense of text, hypertext, to gameplay elements, etc.

  3. (Optional) Create so as to elicit interesting thought patterns specific to interacting with text.

Let’s embellish the example just a little bit more, presenting people with a piece of text, giving them 2 (or 200) choices of how they feel about it. Let nothing else change. Or let them click on the aforementioned single hyperlink word, whereupon a piece of the next passage appears first (maybe not even its beginning), the rest filling out later.

It’s about following patterns of response at as low a level or resolution as possible; basically a close reading type of approach.

I’m glad to see the issue or distinction raised that we’re talking about ideas or experiences subjectively occurring amongst the audience. In many ways this is central to my own thinking on such subjects, but as I noted above I’m much more interested in hearing what others think.

I’m very much interested in that too; the mind of the beholder is the ultimate resting point for any material arranged in patterns and presenting for aesthetic effect (which is a functional description of “art” the way I see it).

By the way, that sort of discussion is somewhat heady stuff; I apologize in advance if I’m being unclear, English isn’t even in my native language’s language group :blush: Please ask for clarifications at any point.

Understood. You’re doing something different, so I don’t mean to argue for argument’s sake. That said, I don’t think that highlighting a word or phrase to emphasize importance to the reader is necessarily a specific marker of “interactive fiction”. An author making a choice to emphasize a word or phrase is a one-way stylistic decision, no more interactive than lighting a billboard to make it more prominent makes the advertisement “interactive”.

The closest thing I can think of is Mark Danielewski’s (sp?) book House of Leaves where in certain editions the word “house” is always printed in blue. While that does indicate meaning to the reader beyond just the normal association with the word, I don’t think it makes it any more interactive than my emphasizing the word here by putting it in italics and bold and quotation marks.

A piece of text can inspire different mental reactions in different people, but that is just subjectivity, not two-way interactivity as I’m thinking of it. That’s a property, I would think, of all prose.

(On a side note, I believe House of Leaves is an interesting example of a book that stealthily forces the reader to interact with it. I would argue that it is interactive fiction, because it does its best to encourage the text to be read out-of-order.)

I think we’re getting to a first interesting distinction here, regarding the nature of interactivity. Good job, everyone. Which of the following propositions seems more correct, reasonable, interesting, or helpful in regard to our discussion?

a) Interactivity is mostly a response to a stimulus (a designer stimulates an audience, for example, hoping to provoke some manner of response, and if this response is incited then interactivity has occurred). If I see a shadow in a graveyard and run away, perhaps I have responded to a stimulus.

b) Interactivity is mostly a sum (or perhaps a product, as “four is the product of two times two”) of two contributions from two distinct sources. For example, if I look at a stream in a forest, I am an observer. If I go fishing in the stream and catch a trout, I am interacting with the stream environment.

For everyone who may be reading, I see no reason we can’t conduct an articulate multilevel discussion moving from generals to particulars in one direction and from particulars to generals in the other. If you’re a bit leery of dipping a toe in on matters of general theories, feel free to join the discussion with with any particular examples of works of IF or practices of IF as your own starting point.

Hanon, I did elaborate a bit on that first example though :slight_smile: I do agree it’s not easily “defensible”, but it’s a thought experiment to show how mind perceives interactivity at the lowest level of resolution.

By the way, there’s a purely read-order difference in taking in a passage with a highlighted word, then going back to that word, possibly taking it in with the whole passage in mind, then clicking on it and have another discrete passage appear out of nowhere, immediately after we’ve reread/reconsidered the highlighted word. It’s not just a matter of visual emphasis.

Also, inspiring different mental reactions is what everything in the universe does. I’m speaking specifically of inciting mental reactions through a specific medium, which borrows methods from other mediums, filtering them through its own strategies for achieving effect.

Basically what I’m saying is that higher-order observable changes (text literally changing) are quantitatively different than the lower-order stuff I’m talking about - not qualitatively different. Just like you could make a good case for not making sense of a plot in a novel because too much nonsensical stuff has piled on in this and that throwaway part of this and that sentence, basically tracing high-level symptoms to low-level causes. But one needs to be aware that these low-level causes could materially be there.

A sidenote: I’m not really interested in using such fine-grained effects in my own attempts at stuff. I want a text-game equivalent of the best Infinity Engine stuff (or other classy cRPG’s like Fallout), or a more cRPG equivalent of the best parser-IF, really; but things like the above are a good mental exercise.

For example, if I look at a stream in a forest, I am an observer.

You are interacting with it too, that way. You’re virtualizing a number of possible things to do with/to/around that stream. This has direct bearing on what you “do” next. Same for reading an interactive text. There’s something to be said for drawing parallels of what you thought you could do in a situation and what the game allowed you to do and the nature of available choices.

What if you gave the player a choice out of three, and in that choice’s wording there’s information that implies the character already knows something about the environment that the player doesn’t.

“You’re at the beach, looking at the surf, calf-deep, cold; the music beckons you.”

  1. Take another step.
  2. Back to the sand, to the bodies.
  3. Ipsum lorem
  4. Foo bar (my imagination gave out, sorry)

It’s a play on expectations, delivered effectively. (Just as with my one-word hyperlink, actually.) Sure, there’s a lot to be said for static fiction’s method, weaving the mesh of affect subtly, spacing it out in time, if one could say that, hiding it in plain sight. But that’s not always easy, nor is it successful in some cases.

Here’s my theory:

  • A work is fiction to the extent that it has a narrative that’s revealed to the reader.
  • A work is interactive to the extent that the reader participates in the narrative.
  • A work is interactive fiction if it meets some subjective thresholds for being interactive and fiction, or if it’s sufficiently similar in form to enough other works that do.

(One might add that they have to be written works, but I think there’s enough overlap among the interest in, say, Infocom and LucasArts to question that.)

I wouldn’t classify Clue as IF, because it doesn’t have much fictional narrative. There’s one narrative event that gets revealed at the end of the game, but other than that, the narrative is just the sum of player actions.

Likewise, I’d call a MUD interactive fiction to the extent that it has narrative content for players to discover. If you connect to a brand new MUD fresh out of the box, you can play the role of a wizard in a simulated world; through building rooms and objects, you can have far more influence over that world than in most IF, but there’s no narrative for you to discover. But if you add some quests that provide a story for other players to interact with, that’s IF.

Some works of fiction are interactive, but only in ways that aren’t related to the narrative. Books let you turn the page; the online equivalent also lets you change the formatting. But an online version of Moby-Dick in which you click “Next Page” to read more does not offer a chance to participate in the narrative.

Compare that to one that asks “What do you, the sea captain, want to do next?” and requires you to click “Pursue the whale!” to read more: you’re still not having any effect on the story, but you are at least pretending to take part in it.

Now compare that to a version of Moby-Dick presented in the style of an Infocom game, with a status bar naming each chapter and points awarded for progressing through the story, in which the player must type READ MORE to keep the story moving. I’d be more tempted to call that IF, even though it has no narrative interaction, because it uses the same medium that was defined by traditional IF.

Perhaps a bit of meandering is in order before we return to this issue. Your example raises an interesting question we haven’t considered-- disjunctions between player knowledge and player-character knowledge. We can in almost all cases presume, in works that feature a signficantly expressed player-character, that the player-character knows many things the player does not (perhaps such as the condition of his teeth, how much eye contact with others is polite in the local narrative environment, etc), The example you raised is important for a number of reasons, because it deals with cases where the player-character has important knowledge not inherently or a priori available to the player.

Player-character amnesia is a common stipulation in IF; I think this is more a practical device to make the setting and characterization of a work more manageable rather than a device with much inherent aesthetic merit. Yet, there may also be compelling reasons for arguing to the contrary, or even for arguing that nontrivial disjunctions between player knowledge and player-character knowledge are an inherent feature of IF, and should either be embraced or at least addressed as a general best practice.

What’s your view on these issues?

Thanks for raising several important issues. I think one of most important fundamental issues to be explored in thinking about IF are these questions of designer-player collaboration (particularly narrative collaboration) and what this means in practical terms for the design and evaluation of IF.

When you said you wouldn’t consider Clue IF, do you mean the board game, or the imaginary text-game version I proposed (or both? From your reference to MUDs, I’m not quite sure which position you meant to take). I initially raised the issue of Clue because I think as a metaphor this could be very helpful to these investigations. If we say a relatively straight-forward IF adaptation of Clue might not reach the threshold of consideration as IF properly understood, what embellishments would be required to attain that threshold? Are qualitative embellishments required (perhaps in narrative or characterization innovation), or would a sufficient sum of some other sort of minor adjustments (adding more rooms, objects, etc) be satisfactory?

I was in a bit of a hurry yesterday, and meant to make better use of one of the examples I proposed:

A man wanders about a graveyard, dimly lit by a gibbous moon, at midnight, He sees an enigmatic shadow, and runs away.

Trip is saying the man interacted with the shadow; Hanon was saying the man reacted to the shadow. What does everyone else think of this matter?

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I would say it depends on what the shadow does. I don’t think it makes sense to have a one way interaction. If the shadow recoils at the man’s presence as well or laughs at his running away, then (for however brief there was a back and forth) there would be an interaction. Otherwise, it’s just action (or reaction).

To the extent that a computer program listens for inputs, processes those inputs, and then produces some sort of response, it is “interactive”. That is the difference between an e-book and a book - you turn the pages of a book whereas an e-book turns it own pages in response to you clicking the “next page” button. But I think “interactive fiction” needs to be more than just that. Otherwise, too many things would fall under the category that just don’t feel right.

I do agree that IF should have some hope of influencing the narrative. Perhaps “collaborative fiction” is a more apropos term what at least I think of with IF. It could be as simple as changing the order while still retaining a meaningful, if changed, narrative (as opposed to jumping ahead three pages in an e-book, where the narrative is broken not adapted).

Well, player/PC knowledge abuts on literature, just as hyperlinks abut on ordinary Internet browsing and choices abut on PnP RPGs. Characters knowing a lot of stuff that the reader doesn’t and reacting differently to them than the reader is a staple of SF.

It’s one thing that makes us want to know more and it could be used to similar effect in IF. Sometimes it could be stuff in the scene that the PC has already encountered, but not the player. Sometimes it could be a reaction on part of a NPC. Etc.

Not really saying that :slight_smile: The player is interacting with the shadow, certainly, I think; even before they see (or try out in case of parser-IF) the options they have, their mind is spinning around possibilities. Then the contrast between those and the actually available ones is an important part of perceiving the text as “interactive”. (How much interactive, interactive in what way, etc.)

Good design, to me would be marking in some way the PC’s mind interacting with the shadow, even if it’s just implied and not “NOW SELECT YOUR DECISION: 1. ARE YOU AFRAID? 2. ARE YOU VERY AFRAID? 3. ARE YOU MAYBE… VERY VERY AFRAID?” Maybe something along the lines of offering the choice to step closer three times in a row, every time implying that the PC is getting more and more (or verier and verier, as caps-lock-Ivan would put it) afraid.

P.S. You’re getting a tentacly like for the gibbous moon. Well done! :slight_smile:

Well, lots of stuff doesn’t feel right 'till one throws some ideas and reactions around with other people; and then it suddenly does :slight_smile: I do agree there is threshold of perception below which there’s basically no point in trying stuff since there are like two and a half people that would get it. Unless you’re writing just for them of course :smile: