What is Interactive Fiction?

Interactive fiction (IF) is computer-mediated narrative, resembling a fine-grained "Choose Your Own Adventure" story, in which the reader helps to determine the outcome of the story. The classic IF interface is a command-based textual feedback loop: the computer displays a few lines or paragraphs of text; the interactor types a command; the computer describes what happens next, and then waits for additional input. 

In the sample transcript below (from Firth and Kesserich, Inform Beginner's Guide 14), the player's typed commands are marked with ">" and are followed by the computer's response.

Further along the street
People are still pushing and shoving their way from the southern gate towards the town square, just a little further north. You recognise the owner of a fruit and vegetable stall.

Helga pauses from sorting potatoes to give you a cheery wave. "Hello, Wilhelm, it's a fine day for trade! Is this young Walter? My, how he's grown. Here's an apple for him -- tell him to mind that scabby part, but the rest's good enough. How's Frau Tell? Give her my best wishes."

You are carrying:
   an apple
   a quiver (being worn)
   three arrows
   a bow

You warmly thank Helga for the apple.

"Thank you, Papa."

If you aren't familiar with the genre, you can try an online version of "Colossal Cave Adventure" (the first interactive fiction game).

When programmed properly, the plot can change based on what the interactor types. "One experiences a story stitched together by a machine, with plot points of its choosing; but one can also affect the story, especially if one understands the rules of operation." (Emily Short's "What is Interactive Fiction?") This fluidity makes IF (potentially) more interactive than hypertext (which draws a disproportionate amount of attention in literary circles).

Talented programmer/authors who are creative enough to predict and account for a wide range of reader responses to a given situation can manufacture -- within a finite computer program -- the illusion of almost infinite freedom. 

Hypertext narrative offers some degree of free interaction from the reader, who can choose this link instead of that one; yet the chunks of text themselves remain static.  They may be reshuffled and recontextualized, but all of the text has already been grouped into small, stored, linear formats. 

Text-based IF, by contrast, actually requires the interactor to write part of the narrative, and the computer "writes" back in response to real-time user interaction.  If a character enters a bedroom, the interactor might type "examine bed", "look under bed", "push bed", "get in bed", "make bed", or even "eat bed". 

Since the programmer cannot possibly predict and create meaningful responses to everything that a player might possibly type, it is fairly easy to stump the parser (the subroutine that reads your typed input). Likewise, when interacting with a computer-controlled supporting character in the game world, the game will expect the player to type commands that follow patterns like "kiss headmaster," "attack headmaster," "ask headmaster about Malcolm", or "give book to headmaster."

The first interactive fiction works offer very little in the way of fictive narrative.   When placed against the holographic or virtual reality possibilities that contemporary science fiction prompts us to expect, or when contrasted with relative voyeurism of the point-and-click interface, IF may seem an insubstantial genre for serious critical inquiry.  From our perspective, the first motion pictures seem equally shallow -- images of trains pulling into stations, or unedited, head-to-toe recordings of showgirls or vaudeville acts.  The motion picture, thought by many to be a bastardization of the theatre, only emerged as a legitimate art form thirty years after Thomas Edison.  Like those early movies, the early works of interactive fiction were labor-intensive endeavors, created by entrepreneurial technicians who had no particular skill in any form of storytelling, and therefore had difficulty recognizing the artistic potential of their new art. 

See also:

Classic IF online:

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