What is Interactive Fiction?

Yes, medium of reception is very important. Experiments have been made to see if people would accept stuff as art if it just sits around in a museum. They do.
Still, it’s not the whole story. As I said, there’s a threshold of reception and below that people would just think you’re fucking with them. Though I’d still argue that typing or choosing your progression through Moby Dick confers some measure of interaction. The player sees their response (be it “Chase the whale -> Arrrr, chase the bugger some more -> NOW GIMME MY SPEAR” or “chase whale -> chase whale -> chase whale”) as something of a role-playing experience. And I believe that reacting (being forced to react, rather) like a chasewhale robot (or madman, in the case of my hammily-worded CYOA options) irrespective of your crew’s unfolding drama is an aesthetic effect in itself, even if the text doesn’t change.

Yeah, I knew even as I wrote that that I was leaving myself open to just that response. But I had to try to get the thought expressed, even if less precisely than I would have liked. :smile:

I have come across a definition of “interactive” that I like, which Chris Crawford gives in his book “Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling”:

A cyclic process between two or more active agents in which each agent alternately listens, thinks, and speaks.

Now, that leaves up for debate the extent to which a computer “thinks”. (I hope we can at least acknowledge the ways computers “listen” (take input) and “speak” (output responses).) The key for me in that is that there are at least two sides taking part, and that both sides are contributing.

I’ve been reading another book on game design, “A Game Design Vocabulary: Exploring the Foundational Principles Behind Good Game Design”, and I happened to light in this sentence just now:

When you go into a conversation, you help shape how it’ll evolve and turn out.

And that is really intrinsic for me in a definition of IF, the need for agency, even if only a fundamental level, to change how the story ultimately turns out. (It also strikes home with me, because I have adopted a view that all IF is conversation anyway. I even wrote about it here, if you feel indulgent: http://forum.textadventures.co.uk/viewtopic.php?f=20&t=3646). The quote is being applied, in the book, to video games, as a conversation between the game author and game player. And perhaps that is a critical thing (if I can explain it properly).

We often look at IF as being about the thing, the work. We look at the player/reader as interacting with the piece of interactive fiction, whereas perhaps what we can move toward is that the player is actually interacting with the author through the medium. And both together are creating the experience. The author uses tools to set up something that allows the player to take the work and continue the creation process, even if only by changing the order in which things are experienced. There must be the creative process on both sides.

For me, something like a single page with a “continue” link will never be “interactive” (no matter what it’s called, even if it’s “Launch nuclear strike against country”) because I as the reader have no choice. It doesn’t matter what happens in my head. All the words on the page make changes in my head. Slapping a link on one that I have to click doesn’t make it interactive. It just gives me a job to do that I have no choice about. The only real choice is to not click the link, but that ends any interactivity altogether. (I contemplated whether a game could see no response as a response, but said response would be ambiguous. The player may be refusing to click or may have simply had to go eat dinner,) Said link is not there to engage me. It’s there to make me control the flow of the content delivery, to keep things (like time) from happening all at once.

I wrote this piece once which took a short story of mine and delivered it, a chunk at a time, with a single word on each page linking to the next page. (http://textadventures.co.uk/games/view/kjg1p57rf0isqdhibywaka/the-haunting) I even went to lengths to make the word that led to the next page somehow reflect the narrative that would continue there - they were connected. But it was all my choice. The reader had none. It was a nice experience, but there is no way I’d call it interactive fiction, even if clicking a link could be termed “interactive” on a base level. There must be an interaction with the fiction itself, not just an interaction with the delivery device used.

It’s the only real baseline, though, isn’t it? I feel different when I click “chase the whale” over and over, irrespective of the narrative around me, than I would feel if it were a piece of static fiction with “and still he chased the whale” in place of the link. I can think of a number of reasons why that’s the case, reasons that inhere in the nature of interaction, even if it’s just clicking on a link.

Not to mention that the static portion of an interactive text would be written differently when one bears in mind that it is an interactive text. This bears direct relation to what I said somewhere earlier in the thread: choices in your head and the contrast between them and the actually available ones form a great deal of the connection with an interactive text. The static portion of an interactive text would seek to “create” choices in your head that would or would not be borne out by the actual choices.

Anyway, I feel we’ve been flogging a dead horse with that “single-link/choice/input” example. I personally find that it has interactive possibilities, but they are very limited. And as I pointed out earlier, it’s a thought experiment; and unless one sees it as that, searching for the baseline of how we react to the very basic forms of interactivity, then it has no merit, nothing more than a straw man really.

Fair enough. There are gradations. And I won’t beat a dead horse. :slight_smile: Just a final note: For me, while there may be a difference in what goes on in my head when clicking or not (since there must be, since I must actually move my hand, visually line up the mouse pointer, etc), for me the level of engagement is the same. Basically, what happens has nothing to do with me. It ends up feeling pointless. And I guess I want more! :slight_smile:

(Though lately life has been feeling that way to me - what happens has nothing to do with me, it ends up feeling pointless, and I want more - so perhaps I’m projecting a bit here. lol)

I’d think it would depend on the particular text :wink: But yeah, that exact type of interaction isn’t really practical. (By the way the particular text part isn’t idle. I value functional descriptions of creative stuff infinitely more than definitions. Generalizations may or may not occur, either way is fine; and insofar as they do, to me their meaningful as prompts of models one can jump around.)

(Just to let you know: I sometimes feel like I’m just skirting long the edges of what you mean and are attempting to convey. I hope I’m not missing too much nuance. If I am, be patient, and I should get there eventually. :slight_smile: )

:smile: Well, just ask what you don’t get. In very, very short:

  1. I feel that distinguishing IF by a finite set of features and the necessary-and-sufficient-conditions paradigm doesn’t mesh with the nature of the arts, especially of writing.
  2. Any conditions that are found to be irrefutably true will also be uselessly vague.
  3. That is why I prefer good descriptions of reactions to IF works, so we can both identify “what works” and also differences in our perceptions, to see if there isn’t anything useful hiding there.
  4. If we take every proposition here to mean “Well, that’s just what I like”, then we’re onto a different question, not “What is IF” but “What are the main problems an IF-author has to overcome to win their audience and what strategies can we think of to overcome them”.

Ok, I can understand that. :smile:

And I know for me, the latter question you pose in 4. is much more critical and practical than the former. (If that’s not stating the obvious in general or, basically, me finally getting your ultimate point.)

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I can’t believe you actually implemented that.

On the 163rd anniversary of the day Moby-Dick was published, no less.

I think this closer examination of “interactivity” we pursued will be helpful to us going forward. We seem to have uncovered numerous forms of interactivity, such as:

  1. Internal audience self-interaction (subjective thoughts and feelings, such as when Trip said “I feel different when I click ‘chase the whale’ over and over…”). Perhaps we might say this is an interaction between the reaction of the audience and the ego of the audience. We might go further here, and say that in the graveyard example above, if the shadow turned out to be a shadow of an inanimate object then the running man interacted with the shadow in this way.

  2. Interactivity between the audience and a tangible medium. We might view this from another perspective as “exploring game mechanics.” In the graveyard example, we might argue the running man’s sensory perception of the shadow in the context of his location (a graveyard at midnight) was similar to this form of interaction.

  3. Interactivity between the designer and the audience. Several people have mentioned this by calling it something along the lines of “interaction with a narrative,” though we might more generally say “interaction with ideas” to expand the category to ideas like characterization, theme, and setting as well. Jaynabonne rather nicely summarized this form of interaction as a conversation between designer and audience. In the graveyard example from this perspective, if the shadow turned out to be the King in Yellow, the running man’s interaction with HRH took the form of running away (a hopeless albeit common gambit in the face of such indubitable doom).

Have I left anything off that list, or can some of the items be further broken down into underlying component aspects? Does anyone disagree with my evaluation of the various relations between these forms of interactivity and the metaphor of a distressed man running through a spooky graveyard? Do cogent distinctions furthermore remain between the choice of an audience, the means of expressing that choice, and the means of initially perceiving that a choice is to be made?

We’ve no need to belabor the above points, so if everyone feels we’ve reached a consensus then by all means let’s move on (with a proviso that if a vital point turns on these details later, we can revisit the subject at that time).

I’ve been trying to consistently use the word “designer” instead of “author.” I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, so please feel free to disagree. We seem to be converging on an initial theory resembling:

Interactive fiction is an experience enjoyed by an audience. A designer facilitates this experience by communication of ideas through a particular medium that is text-based and offers the audience a mechanical or external means to embellish the ideas of the designer. Furthermore since at least two parties are involved, designer and audience, interactive fiction is a form of social experience.

In other words, my earlier proposal that the film Apocalypse Now might be interactive fiction is wrong because the embellishment there occurred entirely in the imagination of the audience rather than through any tangible means or external process of interaction (though Trip has noted there are some reasons to tread loosely on this point). We also stated that interactive fiction involves texts, so that as well rules out films.

A great deal of further philosophizing can flow from such a formulation, but we don’t want to be too hasty. The proposition seems rather controversial, if for no other reason than that the average reasonable person seems likely to say that interactive fiction really is a medium, and that audience experiences are instead other matters called “gameplay” or perhaps “edification.” For example, a book is a thing and reading is an activity-- two entirely different matters.

What does everyone else think? Are there important problems with this approach? Is there any compelling reason to withold an additional stronger proposition:

The means by which an audience embellishes a designer’s contribution to the interactive fiction experience is by making significant contributions to the literary aspects of the designer’s work (such as narrative, characterization, and theme). Thus both designer and audience are co-authors of interactive fiction. This facet of interactive fiction, furthermore, stems directly from the nature of interactive fiction as an inherently social phenomenon.

My impression is that many of those who compose interactive fiction feel rather strongly on the point that they are authors, not co-authors, and that their work is worthwhile only if they succeed in articulating their authorial point of view to the audience. These authors perhaps view their purpose as designing THE experience of the audience, and might not be content with the view that they instead design a means of facilitating AN experience of the audience (or designing potential experiences for the audience, with little inherent reason to prefer one expressed potential over another). For example if I watch Star Wars, and cheer for dour Emperor Sidious the whole time because I believe the Jedi are weak-minded fools who deserve to be ruthlessly exterminated, creator George Lucas might think he failed as an author because I drew conclusions from his work that were precisely the opposite of what he intended. At the very least, Mr. Lucas might say my experience was so eccentric as to be unsound (or even vacuous). On the other hand, perhaps my assessment of points of view of IF authors is inaccurate, or I don’t know what I’m talking about (entirely possible, as if I may be said to have a relevant area of expertise then such is in the design and implementation of computer role-playing games rather than IF, though of course I enjoy IF from an audience perspective).

From this perspective, there may be considerable craftsmanship involved in fostering illusions of audience interactivity rather than soliciting significant audience collaboration-- this point of view need not inherently be reduced to the example vaporware gave of Moby Dick, though in practice we might find reasons for thinking such a likely outcome (should the aforementioned craftsmanship prove inadequate).

Perhaps we could draw a helpful metaphor for a second and quite different perpective on the role of authors from comparing a musician to a comedian-- a comedian unabashedly seeks to entertain others, while entertaining an audience may or may not be an element in a musician’s pursuit of his art. For the musician, interaction or engagement of an audience may be a coincidental pursuit, and is therefore not an inherent element in musical arts (or do I seem to know even less about music than I do IF by saying such a thing?). We might attempt to sidestep this issue by saying a composer or songwriter is an author while a musical performer is a medium, though I’m not sure that’s helpful and surely musicians would be outraged.

As Trip noted, an honest investigation into an aesthetic matter is more likely to be helpful or elucidating if we take a gumshoe approach based on observing what people actually do and think rather than proclaiming propositions and seeking some QED that will always flee our grasp. If we’ve reached initial conclusions that seem at odds with what many IF authors (“I wrote this”) and audiences (“It’s a tangible medium”) believe, perhaps we should ponder these matters further before proceeding.

We seem to have an interesting discussion shaping up here. All comments are welcome, regardless of whether they respond to an existing question we’ve laid before or ourselves or introduce new fields of investigation to our consideration of interactive fiction.

Interesting long-winded discussion.

Is it still interactive fiction when the text is not read, but heard?

I think the text, and the parser, are just historic accidents. Surely most IF authors really wish they could write for ST’s holodeck. Better yet: the ultimate goal is to really build a world with rules and put a player in the real shoes of a very different character all the while completely erasing the player’s own memories and personality so to completely enjoy (or not) the experience.

Interesting point - but then, do you mean to say that “graphic adventures” and “interactive fiction” are one and the same thing, except for the minor detail that one of them has graphics and non-parser command entry?

I think the “interactive fiction” being discussed here precludes such association, but I certainly get where you’re coming from. The reason I love IF is certainly the same reason I love graphic adventures (well, except that I love the parser more than I love the mouse).

You can try drawing a line from Mystery House to King’s Quest V (to mention Sierra alone) and have fun trying to decide where IF stops and graphic adventures start. :slight_smile: Between KQ1 and KQ4 it’s a pretty gray area, depending on what your ideas of IF is! Because if it’s the parser, then even Larry 7 can be IF; but if it’s inclusion of graphics, then Shogun and Arthur and Mystery House are not IF; but if it’s the possibility to move the PC in a (pseudo-)3d environment, leaving the player to command in parser but experience in graphics, then KQ1 is not IF. If it’s about the multi-verb context-sensitive interface, Return to Zork might be said to be IF! Possibly even the early verb-laden SCUMM games, or even Gabriel Knight 1, which had at least eight verb icons (quite a lot!)

(I didn’t read the whole discussion, apologies, but I skimmed through it to see if this point of view had been mentioned before; I don’t think it has…)

EDIT - I’m having fun, of course; it’s obvious, up to a point, what is IF and what are graphic adventures. But there’s a gray area in the middle, as I’ve tried to illustrate, that is a really fun place to be!