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Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction

Author: Nick Montfort
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003
Review Published: December 2006

 REVIEW 1: Russell Mills
 REVIEW 2: T. Michael Roberts

Thanks very much to both reviewers for their close consideration of the book. Here, I will just touch on a few points they made and mention a small bit about the state of IF scholarship -- and about what I have been working on -- since Twisty Little Passages.

T. Michael Roberts is right to emphasize the systematic world as an essential feature of interactive fiction. Interactive fiction may lack qualities of a game, by not keeping score or by not letting the interactor win, and it may even lack a "story" in the typical sense of the word, but it provides for a textual exchange that is based on an underlying simulated world, one that works according to some set of principles. The system of this simulation can be discerned during interaction, providing the most powerful way in which interactive fiction can be encountered and figured out. Roberts' suggestion that a riddle contains "as many red herrings as life itself" and his concept of a parser as fluent as a person are both based on well-reasoned principles themselves, but I am not so certain that life must be imitated exactly in either case. Art always abstracts. A more compact underlying riddle and a parser with less than human language ability can accomplish a great deal, perhaps more than their ornate and highly realistic counterparts.

As both reviewers point out, I do distinguish interactive fiction from other new media forms -- not only hypertext, but also other forms, such as the chatterbot -- and I argue for interactive fiction as a worthwhile form, with particular capabilities and potential. As an interactor and a critic, I find interactive fiction engaging, and my own writing and programming practice has led me to spend a great deal of time and effort developing work in this form. But I should point out that I was not trying to establish interactive fiction as the supreme category of new media, however much I like IF. Hypertext fiction and poetry, chatterbots, and the many more graphical forms of digital literature and art each have their own compelling aspects as well.

Russell Mills sees no case in Twisty Little Passages for Adventure and Zork being worthy of careful literary analysis. I should clarify that I do see both as significant literary interventions worthy of further study, and I tried (perhaps not persuasively) to argue for this. There is little that seems interesting to me about the surface texts of either work -- the room descriptions, narration of character action, and other replies. Adventure and Zork are not great because they have great sentences in them. But the former is the first textual virtual reality, simulating a real location that was subtly altered to include treasures and denizens and even a metafictional finale, and it definitely merited literary analysis in Mary Ann Buckles's 1985 Ph.D. dissertation. Zork included the first computer game character of any sort to participate in complex story functions, and it also offered more complex and riddle-like challenges. It is in matters of form and function such as these -- in the development of "character," "setting," "plot," and "narrative" in the new context of interactive fiction terms, as Mills discusses -- that Adventure and Zork made real contributions. There was much left to be done after these two games were completed, and there still is. I am, however, certainly looking forward to more scholarship on both of these important early games: Dennis Jerz and Adam Thornton have an article coming in IF Theory on Adventure and Zork, and Jerz is at work on a detailed consideration of Adventure in the vein of textual studies.

I know that there is other substantial IF scholarship coming from Jeremy Douglass, and I'm sure that there is more I don't know about. A documentary film about IF is being made for popular audiences, and it is sure to offer many insights. Perhaps another book on interactive fiction will be published before too long?

Since finishing Twisty Little Passages, I've tried to contribute to the ongoing study of IF by writing some criticism of specific recent works: Adam Cadre's Varicella (Stuart Moulthrop and I wrote this article together), Dan Shiovitz's Bad Machine, and Emily Short's Savior-Faire (in press). I've also tried to apply the approach I developed in Twisty Little Passages to my creative practice, in writing and programming Book and Volume. And, finally, I have been at work on a large interactive fiction research project and related creative projects. This work involves creating a general-purpose IF development system that is able to generate the basic types of narrative variation described by Gérard Genette in Narrative Discourse: variations in order, speed, frequency, focalization, and time of narrating. I hope to strengthen interactive fiction's literary capabilities, and to allow an interactor's attempts at figuring out a world to play in interesting ways with description and the telling of events.

Nick Montfort


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