Interactive Fiction (IF)

being revised May 2006

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Interactive Fiction is fiction in which the reader is no longer passive but is involved in the action. This is the format for "Adventure Games Software" of which there are a host of CD's appearing on the market. Myst and Zork were some of the first clutch of adventure games to be published on CD with still, video and narrative segments intermixed. In this format the reader/protagonist collects tools which are used to solve problems along the route in order to bring the story to its successful resolution. Puzzles, wit, invention, stylistic and thematic integrity are some of the key qualities to making successful adventure narratives.

Because of the active participation of the reader as a key protagonist, there are a number of caveats. The author cannot refer to the protagonists character, opinions, viewpoints or any other qualities because in this case the author is talking about a real person with his/her own opinions and characteristics. In this form the "hero" is somewhat unique in not having any character. This means that the hero is a somewhat shadowy figure within the narrative compared to the other characters over which the author has total control. Handling this is difficult, but the sense of immediacy which the reader has in interacting with the story more than makes up for this, and perhaps defines the genre.

Instead the protagonist and many of the other characters must be handled using an "action" style in which actions are paramount and reflection is left to the reader/player trying to solve some of the maze puzzles which appear in adventure games. The whole adventure genre has a maze like quality which was clearly apparent from the appearance of the very first game. The spatial relationships of the protagonist are a ubiquitous quality of the genre, again noticeably absent from other narrative forms.

While adventure games are marketed today using the most advanced technology, the basics of Interactive Fiction are pure text. Typically the protagonist moves from place to place as permitted by the constraints of the scheme, and performs simple actions, including answering questions. In other words, this is a state-based system for asking questions and verifying answers, before moving onto the next topic. This structure is just the same as is used by many pieces of "learning software". It just happens that the adventure setting hooks the reader into participating, as opposed to confronting the reader. The reader is required to exercise comprehensive problem solving skills every step of the way, and so while this section deals with writing Interactive Fiction, simply the act of reading can be an educational exercise.

Interactive fiction is written using a special IF driver. This driver has a number of features which provide services to the writer, so that the writer is not bogged down by the complexity of managing all the characters and objects in the story. These services consist of a library of object types, such as human actors, animals, clothes, containers, liquids and so on. Each kind of object has certain verbs, properties and "capabilities" appropriate to the object and the way we might expect it to behave.

Interactive Fiction is written using a programming script which defines how objects interact and what text is generated under which circumstances. The programming task is as great as the writing task, and the programs require many walkthroughs to make sure they retain their integrity.

Interactive Fiction has a much wider applicability in education than people may realise or give it credit for.

The Colossal Cave Adventure page describes the circumstances of the historic birth of the first interactive fiction game, called adventure. This game introduced the word xyzzy to the dictionary.

Fredrik's Interactive Fiction Starter's Kit has some sample IF and drivers for various platforms. Fredrik says his page is deprecated and recommends this next reference:

A Beginner's Guide to Playing Interactive Fiction. Yes IF has got so complicated now, that you need to read up on how to play it.

The Interactive Fiction Authorship Resource is a good resource and includes links to the TADS programming language manual.

The FTP server of the GMD, the German National Research Center for Information Technology is the major reference for Interactive Fiction.

The Text Adventure Development System (TADS) is one of the popular tools used for interactive fiction. The fiction is written in segments where objects and relationships are formally described so that their interactions can be managed throughout the rest of the game. This special format is then compiled to make the game, which can then be run by the reader. There are compile and execute packages for most common operating systems.

Of particular interest is the MS Windows HTML TADS authoring kit which allows you to write and run your own interactive fiction using a special workbench program that guides you through the process. The Text Adventure Development System (TADS) authoring kit has a wizard for beginners which walks you through the first steps of writing your own story. It also has links to more documentation and manuals. HTML TADS allows you to write HTML text instead of just plain text.

What are suitable vehicles for interactive fiction? Adventure games rework all the vehicles mentioned in the Basic Chapter: The Haunted House, The Desert Island, The Magic Mountain, The Secret Valley, The Lost Planet . . . . But these vehicles have been done to death, and they often devolve into a maze-like rat-run. It can easily be argued that following a rat-run is not a literary experience, and this is a valid criticism of Interactive Fiction at its worst. It can certainly be done better with more emphasis on literary values and less on mundane mechanics . . . . . . . . .

The Parent Trip
But honestly, sometimes I wonder if parents of teenage children don't sometimes think they have fallen into some kind of adventure game Hell, getting their teenagers to or from school, to special classes, sports events, to the movies, to friends etc. This could make a very amusing satirical topic for an adventure game in which the mechanics serves and informs the plot and character development.

Other topics in the English curriculum could be explored using IF authoring, such as "Getting to School".

IF has broadened its perspectives since 1995, and now includes serious subject matter, as well as silly, witty, satiric, dramatic, surreal and funny as in the self-parody exemplified by the following script which was posted in response to an assumedly sincere question on the IF authors' newsgroup:

>Should I say "May I have a garlic bagel with vegetable cream cheese?"
>or "May I have vegetable cream cheese on a garlic bagel?"
>or "May I have vegetable on garlic?" Thank You.

Maybe try something like this:


The bagel picks up the small tub of cream cheese. How, you are not sure, for it has no hands; it is merely a torus of bread, sliced perpendicular to its axis; nevertheless, it picks it up.


The bagel looks at you quizzically, as if to say "I only have zero hands!"


The bagel does as you tell it.

The bagel now has the knife.


The bagel glances (without eyes) at the tub of cream cheese, but since the tub is closed, it does nothing.


You open the tub for the bagel. The bagel nods at you approvingly.


The bagel gets a knifeful of vegetable cream cheese and waits patiently for your next command.


The bagel looks doubtfully at you, unwilling to sully its perfectly toasted flesh, but awkwardly mashes the white spread upon its sliced surface using the knife. The knife is now empty.


The bagel lets go of the knife and it clatters to the table.


You make a grab for the bagel, but it evades your grasp.

The bagel, sensing your toroidophagic intent, rolls away from you off the table.

(taking the butter knife)

You thrust wildly at the bagel, but it is too quick for you.

The bagel has reached the telephone and is calling 911.


You hurl the knife at the bagel. Unfortunately, it passes neatly through the central hole, causing no damage.

The bagel finishes its phone call and hangs up the phone.

You hear a police siren.


You stand up from the breakfast table.

The bagel throws the knife at you. It hits you squarely in the chest, but fortunately, it is a blunt butter knife and you are unharmed.

The police siren is getting louder.


You make a grab for the bagel, but it evades your grasp. The bagel rolls rapidly out of the kitchen.

The police siren is getting very loud now.


You make your way into the living room.

The police burst through the front door. One cop picks up the bagel and holds it protectively, while another one aims a gun at you and shouts "FREEZE!". You make a dash for it, so he shoots you in the back.

*** You have died ***

You scored 0 points out of a total of 10, which means you are Hungry. Not to mention dead.

Next time, give a little more thought to your evil plan before ordering a bagel around.

Ross Presser *
'"Stuck" is not a state of being unable to solve a puzzle. "Stuck" is a state of *believing* that you are unable to solve a puzzle.' - Andrew "Zarf" Plotkin, waxing philosophical again

Quoted courtesy of Ross Presser

The above quote lovingly spoofs many conventions of Interactive Fiction, along with many literary genres including "adult" fiction, and the mathematical and existential worlds of Lewis Carrol. It also demonstrates that it is the combined imaginations of reader and writer that make Interactive Fiction a rich experience.

Interactive Fiction can be written in HTML, so images, sounds and even movie clips can be included, making IF a multimedia format. "Return to Zork" and "Myst" were two of the earlier multimedia IF works published on CD which attempted to present something close to a cinematic experience.

Computer technology has already reached the stage where it can deliver this form of entertainment to people at home. Fast modem and sattelite download connections are now available even here in New Zealand at affordable rates. This will probably be the most important narrative format to develop over the next 20 years. And just wait till it goes 3-D! Unfortunately there is no money in IF, it is a labour of love, but many of the skills learned through IF are important in other industries.

The process of writing IF involves the author in the business of manipulating objects such as actors, places, objects and clothes and their relationships. This raises some interesting questions about literature in general and some interesting exercises in writing. Here are some very short story exercises in which the story could simply describe an event and an observer's reaction to the event.

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