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