Interactive Fiction: An Introduction to Scholarship


This bibliography was published in the November 2002 issue of TEXT Technology.

25 Aug 2001; Dennis G. Jerz

§0.1 About Interactive Fiction (IF)

Academic journals regularly examine the rhetoric of discussion groups, the form of literary hypertext and the culture of MUD communities, but only a handful of "serious" academic studies seem to focus on the "Zork" style of interactive fiction (IF), which was immensely popular in the 1980s. (Note: If your browser is configured for Java, you may try some online interactive fiction programs.)

The term "interactive fiction" (IF) is here applied to a specific form of computer-mediated textual narrative that responds to user input, generally in the form of brief typed commands (e.g. "take keys" or "headmaster, tell me about Malcolm"). User input is interpreted by a "parser" - a computer program that recognizes grammatical structure. The computer then displays a few lines or paragraphs that describe what happens next, and awaits further input. Because both the author/programmer and the reader/player take part in generating the text, IF enthusiasts generally consider command-line interactive fiction to be more fundamentally interactive (more "writerly") than canonical literary hypertext.

While scholars regularly apply the term "interactive fiction" to hypertext, command-line IF (the subject of this bibliography) is entirely unlike hypertext. In order to discover what simulated actions will advance the story, the IF reader/player must compose short textual inquiries to determine how richly implemented the simulated world is. For instance, in a scene set in a bedroom, the reader/player may try to "get on bed," "sleep," or "look under bed." The author/programmer may choose to make these actions dead ends, or may choose to reveal a box of old clothes with pockets to be rifled, or a dusty photograph album full of further interactive possibilities. IF requires the reader/player to explore and experiment, discovering (through logic and trial-and-error, an intuitive combination for many computer programmers) whether and to what extent the whole simulated world is affected by the manipulation of one small component. For Aarseth (see §1.1 of this bibliography), "[e]ach decision will make some parts of the text more, and others less, accessible, and you may never know the exact results of your choices; that is, exactly what you missed. This is very different from the ambiguities of a linear text" (3). For instance, if the reader/player never thinks to look under the bed, an important character detail or plot point may go undiscovered, and the story may grind to a halt. While the reader of a literary hypertext can click links at random without comprehending or even actually reading any of the text (just as the reader of a traditional novel can flip to a random page), the reader/player of command-line IF cannot skip difficult or troublesome passages in this manner.

Literary hypertext has received far more academic attention than IF, perhaps because the initial canon of literary (pre-HTML) hypertexts was established easily, via Landow's Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992), which presented the work of authors and critics who seemed to find, in hypertext, the perfect illustration of certain pre-existing literary theories (although see §2.1: Pinsky). Those scholars who consider IF as something more than an amusement often cast it as a form of postmodern narrative; yet unlike hypertext, IF does not neatly embody any pre-existing literary theories (although see §1.1: Hutcheon). Further, hypertext authoring tools are now so widespread, and the World Wide Web so firmly entrenched in contemporary culture, that hypertext authorship has been thrown open to the masses, and at the same time thoroughly colonized by literary theorists. No such point-and-click authoring tools have, as yet, brought IF authorship to the masses; the IF author with any creative ambition must still invest considerable energy wrestling with the mundane technical details of programming, while simultaneously writing character dialogue and brief narrative passages that can be pieced together in multiple different ways. Theories of communal oral composition and dramatic representation also offer much that can enrich IF scholarship, since interactivity involves perhaps more doing ("action") than telling ("narration").

In my own classes, I find that some of the least literary-minded of my students respond the most favorably to interactive fiction. Of the students who dislike it, several have complained that it forces them to think too much. Ultimately, the manner in which an IF text is revealed - dynamically, in response to the user's commands - favors those readers who combine textual criticism skills with the relentless problem-solving drive of a computer hacker. Whether the intellectual energy required by an encounter with IF is worth the aesthetic payback is ultimately a matter of individual taste.

§0.2 About the Bibliography

This document attempts to collect all academic and selected popular references to command-line interactive fiction, in the hopes of supporting the efforts of future scholars who may wish to investigate this under-examined and under-theorized genre. 

Rating Criteria

The bibliography follows the subjective but still useful Internet convention of rating each item (in this case, from * to *****). Lower rated sites are not necessarily of lower intellectual quality - they are simply less relevant to the limited purpose of this bibliography, which emphasizes the literary or cultural study of command-line IF. For instance, several articles that include the term "interactive fiction" in the title are actually referring to hypertext, and hence have little to add to the study of command-line storytelling; yet I include them here for the convenience of future researchers. When an item is listed as "unrated," I have so far been unable to obtain a copy.

Electronic text in general is a volatile medium, where conventions often emerge and change before they can be translated successfully into print. Further, IF in particular has attracted only sporadic academic attention. Therefore, this bibliography includes useful information that can be gleaned from non-academic sources, including popular periodicals, fan tributes, and authors' manifestos. Excellent theory, critical classification, technical advances, and textual analysis also spring from a devoted community of IF aficionados, mostly centering around the newsgroups "" and "" In reproducing quotations from the various sources, I have made no effort to standardize such things as whether computer game titles should be set off by quotations, by italics or underlining, or (as is common in non-scholarly sources) not at all. My annotations employ terms which may be unfamiliar to non-gamers; these include "PC" (player-character, the main character of a computer game, whose actions are controlled by a human being sitting at the controls) and "NPC" (a non-player character, or supporting actor, whose actions are controlled by the computer).

For a detailed introduction to IF, and a community-authored site tracking current events in interactive fiction, see the IF Wiki FAQ.

by Dennis G. Jerz
03 Sep 2001 -- last modified
Dec 2006 -- minor HTML edits