When I was asked to write a blog post about interactive fiction I began by doing something very apt. I dithered. I had a Hamlet moment. It seemed there were so many different ways to approach the topic that I was unable to choose one. So I’ve decided just to pitch into it headlong and hope my enthusiasm will carry me through. I should warn readers up-front that I intend to use a lot of links, hoping to sap a bit of reflected glory from a range of more insightful commentators…
‘Interactive Fiction’ is a term which gets bandied about a fair bit at the moment and I’ve even seen a pretty heated argument about its exact definition (then again, this is the internet – I have also seen a heated argument about Bagpuss) so I’d better give a quick explanation of what I’m going to mean by it. Purists sometimes say it should refer only to computer games played with a text parser such as those published by Infocom back in the 1980s, but I’m going to use it (in lieu of a better term and not being brave enough to invent my own) to describe all fiction which changes according to the interaction and choice of the reader.
My first experience of interactive fiction was when a Fighting Fantasy gamebook was delivered into my grubby seven-year-old hands back in 1982. I was already an avid reader but the idea that books could be played in this way was the coolest thing ever (until, at least, the next coolest thing ever came along – I was seven, after all). There were heaps of great gamebooks (Fighting Fantasy, Choose Your Own Adventure, Lone Wolf etc.) around until the late nineties when the rise of videogames almost finished them off. In my opinion, this was an unfairly ignominious end for a genre which still has a lot going for it. A gamebook is a completely different thing from both ordinary books and videogames, with its own distinct appeal.
Anyway, it’s nice to see that I’m not alone in my thinking and there is a sizeable and growing community of gamebook fans around. Anyone with an interest should check out Stuart Lloyd’s excellent and passionate blog or the hilarious Turn to 400. It’s true that the genre has always been dominated by heroic fantasy and sci-fi but if you’re not into that then you should at least take a look at Kim Newman’s excellent and overlooked ‘Life’s Lottery‘ to see the format used to its fullest extent.
My own attempts at writing interactive fiction began with The Tower of Clavius Boon, an affectionate pastiche of the fantasy gamebooks I had enjoyed since childhood. Creating it was the most fun I have ever had while writing, even though the fact of its creation drew (and draws) more bemused looks than anything else. Writing in short segments suited my meager attention span and the branching narrative allowed neat opportunities for swerving round writer’s block. I’m certainly not done with the format yet and I’m already mapping out two more books, one a similar pastiche of heroic sci-fi and the other a more serious affair set in Renaissance Italy. I’m hoping the Machiavellian intrigues of this setting will lend themselves particularly well to gamebook treatment, allowing the reader to explore the wider ramifications of every plot and ruse.
With the rise of new ways of reading such as the kindle and ipad, a lot of people are predicting a resurgence of gamebooks and an explosion in new styles of interactive storytelling. There are already some exciting signs of this in projects such as Dave Morris’ Frankenstein (Dave is a gamebook veteran who also blogs regularly on the future of interactive fiction) and developers such as inklewriter, Varytales and Choice of Games. The lines are also becoming increasingly blurred between serious fiction and gaming with projects such as Dear Esther and a growing trend for indie games which value art as much as entertainment. I could probably do no better than direct anyone interested in these possibilities to the blog of Emily Short, the uncrowned queen of IF.
Sometimes this can all seem a little frightening for aficionados of the humble book, especially with over-zealous publicity departments trumpeting the death of the novel every time a new experiment in interactive literature arrives. But have we anything to fear? Perhaps the answer lies in the very fact that the prospect can seem worrying at all – nobody wants to lose the simple reading experience of a good novel or short story because there is still nothing to replace it. Interactivity doesn’t necessarily enhance a reading experience – it changes it into something else. Would you really want to be able to make decisions on behalf of the characters in your favourite novel? Or is it more enjoyable to submit to the will of the author and to find out how these characters will interact and what lessons can be drawn from their behaviour? When even footnotes can interrupt the flow of a good book, is it always desirable to foist choices on the reader, destroying the gentle pleasure of a passive experience and turning it into an active one?
I personally think there is ample room to explore the possibilities of interactive fiction without worrying that we will lose anything in the process. The choices are just beginning.
Lee Williams is a writer who blogs occasionally here, where links to his published short stories can be found. His spoof gamebook, The Tower of Clavius Boon, is available to read online and he is currently writing dialogue for a number of upcoming videogames, including Rambros and The Inflicted.