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Interactive Fiction. Is it a legitimate genre?

Discussion in 'Novels & Stories' started by ChaoticanWriter, Jun 7, 2020.

  1. ChaoticanWriter

    ChaoticanWriter Scribe

    For those who are not familiar, interactive fiction (IF) is a type of fiction told through software, which simulates scenes in which players use prompts or text commands to navigate through the story, control a character, and interact with the environment.

    Early versions of this genre came in the form of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure like novels, told on paper which allows the reader to choose one of a few paths depending on their choice. They are often told in 2nd person, and provide the reader the sights and sounds of the environment so that they sense they are interacting with the world while making those choices.

    In more recent times, this has come in the form of software, "interactive novels", and similar. These kinds of stories are closely compared to "video games" for the sake that its an interactive medium with cause, effect, and consequences. However, most of the IF community sees it as a literary narrative.

    - The Dreamhold
    - Spider and Web
    - The Boat
    - Depression Quest
    - the uncle who works for nintendo
    - Zork, Colossal Cave Adventure, and text games from the 80's

    Software used: iStory, Twine, Choice of Games, Quest, etc.

    I've been dabbling in Twine recently, and have been cooking up a "Part 1" for a sci-fi/portal fantasy story, and its consumed enough of my time that I'm considering it a legit project. I've intertwined it (pun) with some RPG elements, so its a bit more gamified. Of course, I'm curious where everyone else is at when it comes to IF.

    Is IF something that stands today as something that aligns as a "genre of novel", or do you see it exclusively as a video game?
    Does this format have potential to grow in the future?
    Does it deserve to be recognized as a wider genre, or is it too niche?
    Any opinions are welcome.
    Dark Lord Thomas Pie likes this.
  2. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Sage

    I looked a bit at Inform 7 once. It's a text adventure engine that uses natural language. Sounds like a hack, but it's actually a really solid language. Here's an example of some code:


    The murderer is a person that varies.

    When play begins:
    now the murderer is a random person who is not the player.

    The Billiards Room is a room. Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum are men in the Billiards Room. Miss Scarlet and Mrs White are women in the Billiards Room.

    Instead of examining the murderer:
    say "[The noun] certainly looks fiendish!"

    Test me with "x mustard / x plum / x scarlet / x white".
    ChaoticanWriter likes this.
  3. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Sage

    Oh, I forgot to address what you actually asked. :p

    I would say that in most people's minds, IF is closer to video games. But it does have a tint of literature too it. But personally, I would call it a "game" too. I think the interactive nature is what sets it apart, even when we talk about a text-heavy one like Depression Quest.

    With the exception of Visual Novels, IF has failed to reach today's mainstream. Why? I have no idea. Possibly, it just requires too much tinkering without the impact you get from full-blown 3D. Also, it is hard for it to go viral. You can't make any over-the-top trailers or hysterical game reaction vids.

    I think there's a lot of potential for online play-in-browser IF, or text-based games played on the mobile. People are already reading novels on their phones, so, obviously! (of course, text-based input won't work here)
    ChaoticanWriter likes this.
  4. Slartibartfast

    Slartibartfast Scribe

    My opinions are not quite entirely random but are pretty close. Any non-random elements are drawn from my general lack of knowledge of the subject.

    I think IF in print or ebook form is a niche genre; real and whole. Fighting fantasy never quite went away and is still in print. If you look on Amazon there is a small amount of new IF fiction from indie authors and collectives which is available through Kindle or POD. Some of these have enough thoughtful reviews to suggest that there is a readership or some size or other. I wouldn't like to suggest whether that means IF is a commercially viable endeavour. Once you get away from things which are obviously books it's really hard for me to draw a line between IF as a literary endeavour and as part of a video game. Possibly it's a false distinction.

    Growth is a difficult one. IF books haven't really advanced much on Fighting Fantasy as far as I'm aware and I think that this will hurt the genre more than anything. It's bad enough to have nothing new but IF doesn't even have anything current: Game design has advanced considerably but the print books seem to have hit the limits of what you can fit into limited space somewhen in the early 90s. There is a lot more you can do with even very basic languages like HTML, but there is no accepted or large scale way to monetise HTML books. EPUB allows for very, very large IF books to be produced but the format is too unreliable to do anything cool like status tracking which would break IF books out of their current mould: You could approximate this using 'blunt force' techniques involving a genuinely insane number of pathways but I don't know if it would be worth the effort. Basically I don't think there is anything genuinely groundbreaking that can be brought to the format if it is designed to fit into a paperback or distributed using current ebook formats. I could be wrong.

    That's not quite the end of it for growth though. Life is cyclical. The original Fighting Fantasy books were released between 1982 and 1995. If you assume people picked their first one up aged 10 that means that the million or so Fighting Fantasy readers are now between 31 and 44... about the right age to have 10-year-old kids of their own. Maybe it's about the right time for a resurgence?
    ChaoticanWriter likes this.
  5. ChaoticanWriter

    ChaoticanWriter Scribe

    Interesting observations!

    Video games do seem to grab attention more because of the graphical element. TellTale Games sort of lived in this genre of visual/graphical animated storytelling where you could play it like a game (interact with button presses), but it truly is a story which the player is immersed in (like a reader) and can follow chapter by chapter. THAT you could certainly make a trailer out of, because the graphical element is something worth showing off.

    Interactive fiction seems like something that could gain traction if someone went forward and developed an "industry standard", and marketed it widely. Peoples acceptance of a medium is often tied to what their know is possible, what they can see is trending, and what is available to them.

    I had the same thought with table-top games like Dungeons and Dragons. Lo and behold, it came into the mainstream and is widely accessible now. I do think that enough people would remember Fighting Fantasy, COYA's, and old text-based adventures, and would be interested in seeing it brought into a new format. ... You are right, however. There are limitations to what one can do with a paper medium, and I don't think EPUB or otherwise are going to be revised to support multiple-choice narratives anytime soon.
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Some of things listed are a game. If you can win it, it's a game. If it's a narrative that has an arc, its a story.

    It's never worked for me as story telling because I have to switch between roles. As a reader, I get swept away by a narrative constructed by someone else. It's like listening to music--I can be surprised, moved, elated, by where the music takes me.

    But then, I have to stop that mode and become a gamer. I have to remember clues, check inventory, make decisions. Sometimes I have to un-make decisions. When I'm in that mode, it's sort of me *against* the story. I'm trying to outfox or (very often) just trying to figure out which damn button to push in which order (looking at you, Zork). That all may be fun (or exasperating), but it's not reading.

    In IF, I'm being asked to jump back and forth between the two roles or, more frustratingly, being asked to participate in the narrative like a gamer but being expected at the end to have feelings as if I'd been a reader. Neither winds up working especially well for me.

    Your imagination may vary. <grin>
  7. nck

    nck Scribe

    I'm a huge fan of interactive fiction, and I actually think the tension between "is it a game or is it more like a novel" is one that you see play out in the history of the development of the form since the Infocom days. Most recently, this has manifested in the tension between "parser IF" and "choice IF" (to simplify massively).

    Personally, I think it doesn't really make sense to ask whether it's "legitimate," especially if the implication is that what would make it legitimate is if we could see it as being more novel than game. It's a medium largely unto itself (until, maybe, you start moving into territory rooted in IF but that plays more like a game or an interactive movie, like Telltale (RIP) stuff or *Her Story*), with a rich history and lots of fascinating and interesting works. I think that's enough.
  8. MythicLearner

    MythicLearner Dreamer

    Hahaha, it is a tricky question, but not really. It is role-playing game which includes both a game and a story. It is a game because you can play. It is a story because the game developer have to write and present it to a reader or a player.

    visual novel is an interactive fiction game, which originated in Japan, featuring text-based story with narrative style of literature and interactivity aided by static or sprite-based visuals, most often using anime-style art or occasionally live-action stills (and sometimes video footage). As the name might suggest, they resemble mixed-media novels.
  9. Chinaren

    Chinaren Scribe

    I agree with the sentiments above.

    For me, it's never lost the olde Choose your own path paper versions flavour. I also see it as more of a game.

    Which is also, IMHO, why it's never really gone 'mainstream'. It takes people too long to get into it, and involves effort, Hades forefend.

    Still, there's a definite fanbase out there. I've been pondering doing one lately. There's a language out there you can use, the name of which escapes me for the moment, which doesn't look too hard.

    The end result though, is still... Turn left -> Go to page 100. Turn right -> Page 82. Smack yourself in the nuts and get a beer -> The fridge.

    As an aside, I write on a site called Opus path (The Opus Path - Index) which has interaction when writing. That is, you write a chapter, and then ask for ideas for the next part. It works quite well, although it's even slower than 'playing' the above.
  10. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Interactive fiction has developed a loong way from Choose Your Own Adventure books. Online systems have the space for complex choices with radically different paths for character development and diverging plots. And the tools for doing this are progressing steadily.

    Are they mainstream? Not yet.

    Are they legitimate - as a storytelling tool? Also, I think..... unfortunately, not yet. From what I've seen, even when it doesn't get "gamey," the interactive elements become a lot about crazy wish fulfillment and end up watering down the strength of the story. In a novel one decision leads to another which leads to the powerful emotion and awesome conclusion. In an interactive story we have things like "Frodo rejects the ring..." and then it just gets weird, never quite building the emotion the way a normal story would. A lot of choices are cosmetic, and the meaningful ones are secretlty between "Tell the story..." and "Screw up, miss out."

    Don't get me wrong - the tools are there for a powerful story to be told. And there's bound to be some out there that have gotten there already. But I think the genre is still developing, the quality of the writers is still second or third tier, and best practices aren't yet proliferating widely through the field.
  11. I think it's a legitimate genre and actually a reasonably mature one.

    However, I also think that it has outgrown the create your own adventure books and the capabilities of an individual writer. The genre has gone to computer games, with games like heavy rain. These kind of games are great stories you get to experience.
  12. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    I've not been on the site lately, but still get emails with topics of potential interest to me, and this one came on my radar. Interactive Fiction is not mainstream by any means, but it's far from dead, and certainly as legit as many other literary genres. The degree to which an IF is more game than novel varies widely. There's at least one author I know of personally who is publishing IF in the Choose Your Own Adventure style, where there's no programming involved and no need for the reader to keep track of anything, but only to click the link to the next chapter. Check out the Click Your Poison site. If you buy one of his e-books, you'll see that you could, if you wanted, read straight through the paragraphs going page after page, but of course that's not how you're intended to read it. At the end of each section, you're presented with options, you choose one by tapping the link, and it takes you to the next logical paragraph based on your decision.

    Then there's the Tunnels and Trolls solitaire adventures sold by Flying Buffalo on DriveThruRPG. They are still going strong, their customer base continuing to grow, and their Kickstarter campaigns sometimes bringing in thousands of dollars more than their stated goals. For their adventures, you create a "character" and maintain a "character sheet," which smells like a game--and they don't try to pass it off as Interactive Fiction, but it has the essence of IF. The adventures consist of numbered paragraphs. When you read a paragraph, you may be called upon to make some dice rolls to determine an outcome based on their rules set (rules book sold separately), or you may simply be asked to make a choice, but either way, you move to some other specified numbered paragraph to continue in the adventure. This can bog you down as far as immersion into the story line, and thus perhaps is more game than IF. They do, however, have an app for playing some of their games, relieving a reader from having to maintain a character sheet, which starts to allow for more immersion in the story.

    Then there's Choice of Games, which was mentioned already in a post above. They have over a hundred IF products for sale. I've read some of them, and while they have game aspects, it was easy for me to become immersed in the stories, to the point of not only caring about the characters, but worried I'd make a bad choice for them. :unsure: To me, those products are much like reading any other novel, except for the intrusion of needing to make a decision about something when you're ready to turn the page. There's nothing to stop you from taking the default option every time, so that you don't have to think about it, and can traverse a path through the story just as you would any other novel. It likely won't be the optimal path for the characters, but it will be a complete story. I looked at their custom programming language, and it didn't seem overly complicated to use. That was years ago, and they may have improved it in the meantime.

    There's even an online zine for IF, called subQ. These are shorter stories, sometimes illustrated. It's not a good sign that they are going on indefinite hiatus, but their presence online for the past five years shows there has been interest.

    What many people seem not to have noticed is that Amazon will now allow writers to submit HTML apps for their Fire tablets. No more need to use Java. You can submit straight HTML and whatever assets the HTML app needs, such as images and JavaScript. I haven't heard of anyone taking advantage of this to create and publish IF. I'd be looking into it more if I weren't trying to finish up a novel.

    To answer the question, is the IF genre legit, the answer is yes, if having a number of people interested in the genre is what qualifies it as being legit. Will it remain legit? The story for subQ is a very different one from that for Choice of Games, who is doing well enough to have their products not only on Amazon but also on Steam. Suffice it to say, the genre is not dead.

    If your criteria for legitimacy depends on whether IF qualifies as literature, well, readers will make that decision for themselves. If the criteria for legitimacy depends on how much money is to be made writing in the genre, there are enough success stories to demonstrate that money is being made. What's the potential for any given writer? Depends on the writer and their marketing capabilities. The target audience is there, if you can reach them and convince them you've created something they need to experience. Cheers!
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