Interactive Fiction: A Three-Way Discussion (Plus Survey!)

Is Interactive Fiction (IF) a game or a new literary form?

In my opinion, it can be either or both. I decided to re-evaluate whether I should write IF. Again, I ended up in a three-way tug-of-war between my inner reader, inner writer, and what I call my inner geek.

If you’d like to skip straight to the survey, be my guest. I need the data, especially from people who have never tried IF. If you’re interested in the history of IF, here’s the pre-computers and the post-computers background.

The Arguments of the Geek, the Reader, and the Writer Within

First, the Geek. I have to divulge a secret (or two).
One is that I really, really enjoy table-top role-playing games (TTRPG). Every one of them ties into my love of fantasy and science fiction. The fantasy game systems I’m most familiar with are Dresden Files, CHILL, D&D (~4 versions), Pathfinder, D20, and all their ilk. For science fiction, I’ve played in FireFly, Star Wars, Modern D20, and Traveller systems. I have a group of old friends, many of whom are talented Game Masters (GMs). I have also been a GM myself, usually running something in my own worlds. I do a lot of prep before running a game. I keep prolific notes and even alter (after the fact) the scenario to resemble the strange right-angles the players can take in their adventures. It’s not unusual for me to have a 40 to 60-page Word document when I’m finished (including handouts). When I first looked at the IF tools and their products, I thought what a great way to write a game scenario!

Two, I used to be a software developer (web apps, servers, database interfaces, user interfaces, etc). But that’s not the secret. I’m addicted to trying/getting new software tools. It’s hard for me to go a month or two without getting something that should make me more productive or help me gather more data or analyze my writing or help me find the right words faster… Even though it’s rarely life-changing, new software is fun to play with–I can’t help myself. That’s why I almost salivated looking at all the IF tools out there. Most of them are free or even open-source. One generally has to create a flow chart of decisions and learn a simple “programming language” (very simple, which is why I don’t buy the idea that there’s a technical barrier to IF for a lot of writers).

Anyway, the Geek wants:

  • To play around with new software and create a game (the Geek is more interested in a game than a story)
  • To try tools like Twine or ChoiceScript (in which case, it could be posted on Choice of Games)
  • To map out an RPG game with one of these two tools–maybe use it as a GM guide.

However, the Geek realizes:

  • Creating an RPG scenario is just an exercise because TTRPGs are played as a group (even online), not singly.
  • RPG players have more agency than IF readers/gamers. In reality, GMs often have to wing it, back out of, or just drop a story thread.
  • These tools are for making a single-person text-based game of choices. Unfortunately, the Geek has less enthusiasm for creating single-person games than multi-person RPGs.

Second, the Reader. No more secrets.
It’s no secret that I’ve never gotten into computer games. When I tried them in the 80s and 90s, I never had enough time to get deep into a single game. Then I discovered I get migraines if I’m in front of a computer screen with moving graphics for more than 30 minutes (sometimes less). This might be because I never have 20/20 in both my eyes at once–they’re always changing due to keratoconus. Luckily, if the screen is further away (like for TV or movies) or just filled with text and static images, I don’t have a problem.

So I was pretty excited to find Choice Of Games. I discovered it long after it had been started and only because one of the games on its platform had been nominated for a 2020 Nebula in the category of Best Game Writing. Choice Of Games is both a publisher and a hosting platform for IF. Of course, they’re all text-based and I had to try them. After three IF stories, I hadn’t gotten a headache!

But did I enjoy them? Not as much as I thought I would. First, I had to get used to reading 2nd person (exclusively). Second, all the fiction is “gamified” (because it is Choice Of Games, right?). If the story wasn’t that interesting, I could concentrate on the game but then it began to feel like too much effort. One of the stories, though, was so intriguing that I became invested. Unfortunately, I forgot I was playing a game. My character tried to give a minor goddess some encouragement regarding the town’s support and strength. Oops. She nearly bit my head off and said I didn’t have enough courage or strength to talk that way. Oh, right. My character is talented in the spiritual area and not a warrior. Knocked me right out of the story. I went back to making choices based only upon my talents, not how I’d like the story to evolve. In a way, I lost all agency in the story.

I did find independent short stories on the Web that were fun, several of which were gamified. Having a goal can make a story more interesting, even if that goal is just to pick choices that work with your character’s strengths. That makes it less of an experience and more of a challenge. The result of all my testing: the Reader is on the fence regarding IF.

Third, the Writer. Do I really want to write IF?
At this point, the Writer is slightly dismayed by the following factors:

  • Is my inner Reader more inclined toward conventional fiction because she’s lazy? Or perhaps the Reader likes to be surprised and ride in the roller coaster rather than drive it. Leigh Fisher quotes Chris Crawford: “There are theoretically sound reasons for the apparent conflict between interactivity and plot” and that “writers insist that any audience instruction into the process yields only garbage.” I’m not sure I’d agree with those “writers,” but I do have the following rule: I only write things that I would want to read myself. Does that extend to games, if that’s what IF really is?
  • It’s generally accepted that writing IF is harder that writing conventional fiction. First, there’s the word count. An 80,000-word plot will easily explode into 250,000 words or more. If you browse the offerings at Choice Of Games, 250K is at the low end of the spectrum. Second, there’s the fact that you’re writing multiple plots that have to reconnect at points to prevent the experience from feeling entirely random. Third, how much agency do you give the reader before you don’t even have a plot any more?

I found Max Gladstone’s article on about writing Choice of the Deathless for Choice of Games. I consider Max an amazing writer and was tickled to find that he runs and plays TTRPGs as well. But as he says, “Turns out that while I understood the independent skill sets of writing and adventure design, their overlap was a new beast in which elements of both combined to form an entirely new animal.” Max provided an eye-opening amount of tips and as a final word, said: “I can’t recommend the experience highly enough.” He added, “It’s not easy—in fact sometimes the tension between characterization and interactivity will make you want to rip your brain in half—but you’ll learn a lot about storytelling in the process, and at the end of the day you’ll be a better writer for it.”

Huh. Maybe I’ll start with some IF short story/games on my website and see how it goes. I now believe that Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror IF should be “gamified” in some way. There’s just too much connection and history with gaming. Role-playing and computer games are IF’s grandparents.

Take My Survey!

Well, even if I can get the Geek, the Writer, and the Reader on the same page, I still don’t know how many people actually read/play IF. Please take the following survey–it’s short (7 questions). Please take it even if you’ve never encountered IF; the questions give you appropriate background.

Any opinions?

  • Illuminating (0)
  • Interesting (1)
  • Useful (1)
  • Ho-Hum (0)