Interactive Fiction and the Future of the Novel

Reading a decision novel is much like walking along a path: when you come to a fork in the path, you must decide on the left path or the right path. You cannot leave the path. Decision books look a lot more like novels than interactive fiction. They are cleverly woven stories that overlap at certain points and they are a far cry from being interactive. They do allow you a choice, a “decision,” but what happens if you want to do something that is not one of the preconceived choices? —Michael Berlyn and Marc BlankInteractive Fiction and the Future of the Novel (Atari Archives)

A classic article from the 1984 book Digital Deli, which is available online at the wonderful Atari Archives website.

I’d have to disagree with their claim here. It’s true that interactive fiction (text-adventure games) offer far morie decisions than “decision novels” (the best-known of these were the “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels — made up of one-page stories with a multiple-choice question at the bottom: “If you pick up the telephone, turn to page 10. If you let it ring, turn to page 14”).

But an IF game still offers only a finite set of solutions. A good programmer will account for all sorts of attempted actions, typically by writing funny refusal statements (such as, when a frustrated gamer types “bite tree,” the game might respond, “That would be worse than its bark.”). But even if a game recognizes a lot of attempted actions, only a very small number of actions will actually affect the outcome of the game. Yes, you can type whatever you want in response to the “>” prompt, just as I could take a Jane Austen novel off of my shelf and start turning pages at random. The Austen novel is optimized for the reader who starts at page one and turns pages sequentially, just as the typical interactive fiction game is optimized for the gamer who knows the conventions of the genre (or who is willing to learn them as they are taught by the author during the early stages of the game).

This classic article, co-written by one of the founders of Infocom, naturally emphasizes that company’s improvements over Will Crowther’s original two-word parser. Despite the article’s bias, or perhaps because of it, it offers an excellent introduction to the structure and possible future of interactive fiction.

Of course, improved graphics displays and the rise of CD-ROM games would kill the commercial value of the genre — but the whole computer gaming market sort of imploded in the late 80s anyway, mostly due to the failure of dozens of independent computer platforms.

On an only barely related note, one of my students wrote that until she visited the office of the student newspaper (which uses Macs) she hadn’t seen an Apple comptuer since elementary school — that is, not outside of “old movies.” (By the way, she’s a CS major.)