A Brief Introduction to Short-Form Interactive Fiction

Although part of computer culture since the mid-seventies, the genre of Interactive Fiction, commonly abbreviated IF, is often relatively new for avid readers of fiction. This may be because IF originated from a computer game and, quite frankly, many would classify IF as a kind of computer game rather than a kind of literature (I will certainly refer to an IF work as a ‘game’ rather than a ‘story’). Note that I say a ‘computer’ game rather than a ‘video’ game, for the most common form of IF considers the written word, not graphics, its medium. Nevertheless, expanded definitions of IF have included games that are graphical in nature, such as the King’s Quest series, Myst, The Longest Journey, and the more recent Heavy Rain. But herein we will mostly review traditional ‘text adventures’, games composed and played completely with text.

The question remains: What, exactly, constitutes IF? The answer is, and always has been, difficult to pin down, and it may best to describe what IF does rather than what it is. Central to IF is immersing players into stories (the ‘fiction’) in which they participate (the ‘interaction’). Indeed, almost all games involve a story world with which a player interacts, even in a game like the Super Mario Bros.  However, in many games, the story is just pretense, a foundation on which other, more important components are laid. For example, the story behind Super Mario Brothers is ‘rescue the kidnapped princess’, yet it’s not the hero’s journey that sells the game; it’s the mechanics of the game itself, the hand-eye coordination required to get through the story, that are important to the player. Contrast this to ‘rescue the kidnapped princess’ as it is told in ‘Star Wars: Episode IV‘: It is the hero’s journey itself that is important to the viewer. The most notable IF, like much of cinema and literature, does the same as ‘Star Wars’ except in IF, the audience is actively participating in the hero’s journey, not simply watching the events unfold.

It’s this active immersion that is perhaps the most important way in which IF has advanced traditional literature. Rather than passively absorbing a story, an IF player interacts with the narrative, and, depending on how a game is authored, this interaction can have astounding consequences. A story may have multiple endings, it may be experienced from different perspectives, or it may tell an entirely different tale when played a second time. Since players control the actions of the game’s protagonist, they may feel more attached to narrative, more emotionally involved. The key to IF, then, is not only the immersion of a game player into a game story, but also making the story central to the game player’s experience.

That isn’t to say that IF originally manifested as a vehicle for thought-provoking literature. Classic IF, such as Adventure or the original Zork, consisted mainly of players romping through Tolkein-esque dungeons, slaying monsters, solving riddles, and gathering treasure. Bit by bit, however, IF left its roots and ventured into serious storytelling, starting with games produced by the commercial software company Infocom. Among these are A Mind Forever Voyaging, a science fiction piece that critiques the right-wing and populist ideals of the mid-eighties (ideals, some may note, still crowd the political landscape of the twenty-first century). A year later, Infocom produced  Trinity. Riddled with metaphor and symbolism, the game entices the player with an in-depth exploration of the darker aspects of the atomic age.

After the demise of commercial IF, the tradition of telling deep and thoughtful stories continued with non-commercial productions. Graham Nelson’s Jigsaw, a time traveling adventure that takes place during historic moments of the twentieth century, questions what it means to ‘fix’ history. Mike Gentry’s Anchorhead, a masterpiece of Lovecraftian horror, places the player in role of a dutiful wife who has reluctantly moved with her husband to a quaint, New England town. Finally, Star Foster’s and Daniel Ravipinto’s Slouching Towards Bedlam is noted for incoporating meta-game information (such as saving a game, restoring a game, or undoing an action) into a steampunk adventure that examines the oral word.

Playing IF

So how is this form of literature read or, rather, played? In general, a game starts with a written introduction, and like any good piece of fiction, these first couple of paragraphs are often meant to hook the player into the story. The game then describes a room or situation, followed by the simple question (either asked directly or in the form of a command prompt): “What now?”

It is here the art of IF heads more toward games than that of traditional story-telling, for the player must now enter one of a limited set of commands. Typically, a command may indicate the player wishes to move to another area within a game, examine some object in more detail, or perhaps take an object into his possession. Once a command is entered, the game provides an appropriate response, and the story continues until the player is prompted for another command. Again, they key here is that the player is interacting with the fiction, and by doing so, unfolding a story piece by piece.

Short-Form IF

Defining what constitutes a ‘short story’ can be problematic, though editors and authors can generally rely on defining word-counts to establish an appropriate baseline. In general, a piece of fiction within 1,000 to 20,000 words is considered a short story.

Unfortunately, word counts in IF are relatively meaningless, especially since the process of defining what is meant by ‘word count’ in IF is nebulous at best. When Inform 7, an IF-authoring tool, explains that it has generated a story of 20,000 words, it refers not only to the prose presented the player, but also to the game’s code—a glorious amount of text that is generally never experienced by anyone but the author. If we are to ignore code in the word count, which is often suggested, then perhaps we can only count the words encountered by the player. Even this is problematic, for a majority of this prose may consist of standard responses, not author-generated content; or, perhaps, the author has written only a few lines of text, but through the trickery of randomness and some clever use of code, the game erupts with an infinite supply of unique prose.

So rather than dealing with stories in terms of word length, in IF we instead fall back to another measure of length, that of time, specifically in how long it may take an average player to work through a game. Classic IF tends to take many hours, sometimes hundreds of hours, to play from start to finish. Indeed, the commercial heyday of IF necessitated such lengthy games—after all, buyers wanted their money’s worth. But with the decline of commercial games and the rise of games brewed by hobbyists came the decline of spending long hours in front of the screen. Indeed, the annual Interactive Fiction Competition, which inspires many writers to produce IF, encourages authors to limit their games to a two-hour experience. So we will consider a short piece of IF to be one that an average player can complete within an hour or so. This is certainly equivalent to enjoying a piece of short fiction, and also sits comfortably with Edgar Allen Poe’s philosophy that the best literature can be read in a single sitting.


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