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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

This book, first and foremost, develops in great detail a definition of the genre of interactive fiction. This definition is achieved through comparison and contrast with other genres and through a telling of the history of the genre offered in the style of an illustration by examples of the limitations of the genre and the strategies used to overcome these limitations and create richer works in the genre. The works discussed at length are presented as paradigms of the possibilities of the genre as they have evolved and expanded over time.

A history of the genre is offered which begins in antiquity with a consideration of the genre's main literary ancestor, the riddle. This history then proceeds with a discussion of the first interactive fictions, which were developed to run on mainframes and were, more or less, adventure games based on solving riddles structured into the systematic world of the game-space. One aspect of Montfort's definition of interactive fiction is that riddles, puzzles, and sometimes puns must be woven into the fabric of its systematic world and solving them must be a learning experience which helps one cope better with that systematic world and achieve a successful outcome.

His argument is that if this aspect of puzzle solving is missing, if the quality of the interactor's inputs considered as attempts to learn about this world do not matter to the outcome, then the interactor is not learning about this systematic world through acting and noticing how these actions change that systematic world. This learning of a systematic world through actions which change that world, or at least one's situation in or perception of the world, is an essential part of the experience of interactive fiction.

Hypertext is not necessarily interactive fiction. According to Monfort, interactive fiction requires a parser which generates original text in response to input provided by the interactor. This means more than a hypertext menu with options triggered by the occurrence of key word or phrases. A hypertext made up of prewritten screens that are presented in a sequence determined by the input the interactor typed in at any given point would not be a true interactive fiction. This would be true even if the interactor were required to type something in order to continue at various points and the unique path followed through the interactive fiction were determined by the interactor's inputs and provided a different experience depending on what these inputs were.

In such a hypertext, the information given in the hypertext is given at the beginning and is not altered by the interactor's inputs even though the interactor's path through and experience of the hypertext is determined by the interactor's inputs. The reader/player in this situation is not truly interacting with the text in ways which alter it and, thus, should not be called an interactor at all. An interactor, for the purposes of Montfort's theory of what ought and ought not to be called interactive fiction, is someone whose input causes new text to be generated by the parser which was not there at the beginning of interaction. A mere triggering of different sequences of material that already existed at the beginning of interaction is not enough to qualify.

Interactive fiction is a true collaboration between the interactor and the person or persons who have created the interactive fiction. All are collaborators whose contribution will help determine the final outcome. Several people working together to create an interactive fiction are striving to create a kind of thing that will only be the kind of thing it purports to be to the extent that they will finally be collaborating with the eventual interactor as much as they are with one another to determine the outcome. The nature of the genre is to be unfinished and open in a way that makes the interactor's input necessary to closure and completion.

Given this, it is rather remarkable that interactive fiction as a genre is disparaged and given little attention by literary scholars fascinated by deconstruction, intertextuality, and reader response theory. The core argument of reader response theory is the assertion that the meaning of a text is collaboratively created by the writer and the reader. The words written by the writer are considered the "work." The "text" is created as the reader interprets these words, drawing from whatever cognitive resources are available for doing so.

Within such an approach, one important resource is other books the reader may have read. The idea that one reads any book in light of every other book that one has read before makes the notion of intertextuality central to reader response theory. The emphasis is on how the reader constructs a text -- a meaningful interpretation of the words, based on the work, the words the author put on the page -- using cognitive resources beyond the information given in the words themselves.

The relationship between the creator of an interactive fiction and the interactor literalizes the relationship assumed by reader response theory. Interactive fiction is a genre of fiction which could have been created to make the argument of reader response theory, the argument that no work becomes a text until some reader interacts with the work to create something in not fully given in the work initially. This is why it is so surprising that literary scholars have paid relatively little attention to interactive fictions which run on computer. The accident that these works require computer mediation to become texts should have mattered less than the wonderfully literal example they provide of works which only become the texts with input from an interactor.

Both riddles and interactive fictions present a systematic world. The riddle creates a systematic world through metaphor. The interactive fiction maps or models this systematic world as a virtual space where the interactor can learn more about this systematic world by observing and, especially, by acting and learning from the consequences of these actions. In both the systematic world of the riddle and of the interactive fiction, there is something to be solved that presents a challenge of appropriate difficulty and joins the literary and the puzzling.

The systematic world of the interactive fiction is a riddle world which either possesses or lacks literary merit on roughly the same grounds as any other genre of fiction. We can ask all the same questions about the reliability of the narrator, how well rounded the characters are and whether they develop and change in the course of the narrative, and whether important themes were played with in an intriguing way to determine the literary quality of an interactive fiction.

Montfort's evolutionary history of the genre records a steady increase in sophistication from the mainframe days, through a commercial era that is now clearly over, and forward into the present when interactive fiction exists as one more form of experimental fiction no less aesthetically accomplished and no more commercially viable than any other. Along the way, Montfort rightly points out that if lack of commercial potential proved lack of aesthetic merit or philosophical depth, then poetry and short film must be dismissed as trivial genres right along with interactive fiction.

At times, Montfort seems to accept the idea that most interactive fiction exists merely to entertain, but, many of the examples cited, including "Being Andrew Plotkin" and Plotkin's own work, entertain by playing with discursive conventions and plot situations that objectively correlate very deep questions in ways that make these questions compellingly real for the interactor. If this is mere entertainment, then so are the novels of Richard Powers and Thomas Pynchon and films like Being John Malkovich.

Interactive fiction has evolved so far beyond the early adventure games that there is no reason to dismiss the genre as being by nature escapist or in any way limited as a vehicle for offering a criticism of everyday life. If the interactor's experience of the systematic world of an interactive fiction "makes strange" the everyday world of his or her routine activities, if what is learned or unlearned in the interactive fiction world changes response in that other world, then the interactive fiction's world has become a counter-environment from within which that other world becomes available as content. To the extent that this occurs, learning the riddle world is a learning experience which deepens our knowledge of our normal waking world.

Montfort obviously loves this genre and has invested considerable time and effort into developing a description of what exactly interactive fiction is. This work provides a reasonable framework for the appreciative study of the best examples of the genre. He has succeeded in doing so and this is what makes the book a seminal work. I have, however, two quibbles to offer -- one minor and the other major.

Montfort defines interactive fiction as a riddle or puzzle and states a strong preference for examples that contain no red herrings that fail to offer information that will help lead to a solution. My own preference would be for an interactive fiction that contained as many red herrings as life itself. Figuring out what matters and what can be safely ignored is a big part of making sense of things and solving problems. Interactive fictions which only tell the interactor what matters to the solving of the puzzle will always lack texture as a direct result of being so much clearer and more obvious than life itself.

My major quibble can be expressed as a question. If the Turing test will tell us when we have a true artificial intelligence, what specialized version of the Turing test would apply to an interactive fiction's parser? When will we have a parser good enough to make the interactor's experience of an interactive fiction as rich as the experience offered by the best novels, but enhanced by the special possibilities involved in the ability to act within the text and see the literal words of the text change in response to these actions? My answer would be that we will have such a parser when the interactor cannot be absolutely certain that Andrew Plotkin is not sitting at a terminal typing responses to the interactor's input rather than those responses being generated by a parser. At that point, we will have a parser which is also a true artificial intelligence capable of writing creatively. Until that point, the actual potential of interactive fiction will be limited to the extent of the difference between the perfect parser imagined above and the best we actually have.

T. Michael Roberts:
T. Michael Roberts teaches writing at North Harris College. His research interests are writing as therapy and identity formation under conditions of media saturation.  <dr_haqiqah@yahoo.com>

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