Interactive Fiction

This is less of a how-to post and more of an introduction to some of the digital media already out there that most will have probably missed.

Interactive Fiction (IF) is one of the oldest forms of digital media composed in a literary mode. IF was hailed by people on the forefront of new media as the future of storytelling and was expected to grow into a genre of writing in its own right. However, in 2012, 37 years after the first canon Interactive Fiction game (Adventure in 1975), the form remains incredibly niche having been financially undercut by graphical videogames, critically ignored by the literature community, and virtually unknown to the general public.

Interactive Fiction is often referred to as Text Based Adventures which is a pretty accurate descriptor of the genre’s historical examples, if not its present forms. These were the first video games. Just the player, a block of amber text on a dark display, and a blinking cursor.The poster child of the form is the adventure game Zork by Infocom, was was coded at MIT on their university server in 1977. In that game you wander around a network of caves below the white house collecting objects, solving puzzles, and earning points while trying to find a way out.

The form has since become far more experimental, exploring both the nature of games and the power of interaction in storytelling. A game titled Pick Up the Phone Booth and Die (PUtPBaD) put the one way to lose the game in it’s title. This is the opposite of most games where the rules tell you how to win. Instead, in PUtPBaD figuring out how to win is the game. Another game, called Aisle, takes place in a grocery store asile where you are allowed one action (in contrast to the many many actions of a game like Zork). There’s even a remix that mashes the two together called PUtPBaAisle. These and other IF titles try to explore the medium of interactive text, a subset of digital media as a whole.

For a insider take on writing text adventures, this guest lecture (on iTunes U)1 by Steve Meretzky, creator of Planetfall and an IF version of Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, has a bunch of interesting insights.

If you are interested in creating your own interactive fiction there is a relatively non-techie tool for writing it called Inform. It allows you to create adventures (or more literary explorations) through short declarative english sentences. Follow the included tutorials (on the right, “Writing with Inform”) and you shouldn’t get too lost.

1. “Interactive Storytelling”, Free Audio File, iTunes U, MIT, Comparative media Studies, Media Industries & Systems, Spring 2006, Week 6: Interactive Storytelling