the arts13 Dec 2010 03:57 pm

Interactive Fiction – From Art to Entertainment and Back

by Bogi Takács

Interactive fiction, in the broadest sense, includes all fiction with an interactive component. However, the current usage of the concept is much narrower: it usually refers to computer software that is organized around the ‘gameplay’ paradigm but is entirely composed of text. Is there any distinction between these text adventures and interactive fiction (IF) itself? Can IF be an art form? Is the technology behind IF an essential component in the shaping and development of the medium or is it incidental?

Interactivity on paper

Discounting sporadic predecessors, the development of  IF started with nonlinear narratives like Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar or Nabokov’s Pale Fire, both in the 1960s. These early literary experiments failed to start any meaningful trend, even though they were well-received in their own field. The breakthrough came with genre fiction instead: in the 1980s, Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy books where readers could determine the protagonist’s actions in fantasy adventures became massive hits in young demographics. These works were heavily influenced by pen-and-paper roleplaying games, but had advantages over them: they did not require a group of players and an experienced storyteller. The strict second-person perspective these gamebooks used (“You are standing in front of a brick wall”) was different from previous interactive literary works and owed much to these forms of entertainment.

(While Fighting Fantasy and similar print gamebook series mostly died out by the 1990s, the format of choosing from fixed options instead of more open-ended actions still remains. Most contemporary literary hypertext fiction also uses a similar format.)

The text adventure boom and bust

The first text-based adventure games appeared in the second half of the 1970s – they ran on mainframes and were developed by researchers and university students who had access to them. In the early eighties, these people formed companies like Infocom and Adventure International and braved the home computer market. The meteoric rise of the text adventure slightly predated the success of paper-based gamebooks, and these adventures also had a different gameplay mechanism: instead of picking from a handful of possibilities, players were given a prompt describing an environment and the possibility to interact with it by entering verb-noun combinations like “open door”. This was enabled by the use of a parser that interpreted simple natural-language commands.

As technological advances increasingly allowed the use of graphics, first these games began to feature static images and then – with King’s Quest in 1984 – character animation. As fast as it had arrived, interactive fiction soon disappeared from the mainstream of gaming altogether, giving way to graphic adventures.

There is one form of interactive fiction that enjoys continued mass success in the game market: in Japan, a large portion of PC game sales consist of so-called “visual novels”. These works involve mostly static artwork of characters in front of backgrounds (usually both drawn in elaborate manga style), and large amounts of dialogue between the characters with occasional points where the reader can make decisions about the direction of the story. Visual novels are more akin to interactive versions of theatrical works or screenplays than actual nonlinear novels; indeed, some people have adapted plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the visual novel format.

Adventure and art

In the first half of the 1980s, text adventures were massively popular in English-speaking countries. While this success has not been repeated ever since, they still exist, and out of the spotlight, they have gone through a notable transformation: with no commercial pressure, they gravitated away from formulaic fantasy and toward experimentation and artistic aspirations. To be sure, this tendency has always been present: even back in the eighties, science fiction writers authored text adventures (not necessarily making the linear-nonlinear transition successfully!) and there were nonconventional releases, but not to the current extent.

As part of this trend, more and more authors and fans alike began to use “interactive fiction” as the preferred label. Indeed, influential pieces like Galatea by Emily Short, described by the creator as “a conversation with a work of art”, could not be called an “adventure” in any meaningful sense of the term.

The great expansion

While interactive fiction in its present-day form grew out of text-based computer games, the concept of IF can be applied to nonlinear literary works, Japanese-style visual novels, wikifiction (both authorial and crowdsourced) and other forms of hypertext fiction just as well. There is plenty of cross-pollination already: to cite a lesser-known example, Neel Krishnaswami’s Lexicon RPG, a collaborative wikifiction game/project that takes about a month to run, was inspired by The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić; one of the classics of nonlinear literary fiction.

A number of easy-to-use authoring tools also appeared – and continue to appear –, and the Internet allows people to share their creations and to build large databases like the Interactive Fiction Archive, the Interactive Fiction Database and the Ren’Ai Archive (for visual novels). There are regular contests like the Annual Interactive Fiction Competition which also serve to drum up and maintain interest. Thus technology serves as an enabler of interactive fiction – even paper-based forms like gamebooks have made the transition to the Internet, and this has been most fruitful with many fan-made gamebooks appearing that would have had little chance of finding a traditional publisher as the demand for print gamebooks decreased.

Unfortunately, many online fiction venues still shy away from accepting interactive fiction, sometimes for technical reasons, but probably more often due to a general non-awareness of IF’s existence and tradition. The ones that show an interest – like the speculative fiction magazine Ideomancer, which openly solicits for “hyperfiction” in its submissions guidelines –, still do not publish much of this type of material. The reason for this is probably that interactive fiction developers are often not aware such paid venues exist, and thus most often just self-publish online. This gap needs to be filled if we are to see a rise of IF as an art form whose influence reaches beyond its own well-circumscribed group of enthusiasts.


One Response to “Interactive Fiction by Bogi Takács”

  1. […] a bit of shameless self-promotion: I have also written introductions to interactive fiction both in English and in Hungarian. window.fbAsyncInit = function() { FB.init({appId: "", status: true, cookie: […]

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