Interactive Fiction -- How is it Different?

(This article is a sidebar to What is Interactive Fiction?)

To help explain what interactive fiction is, this article explains what interactive fiction is not.

How does IF differ from a chat room?

Interactive fiction is something like a one-person chat room, in which you interact only with a computer program. While it is possible to have rudimentary conversations with some of the computer-controlled characters (NPCs) you meet, you can also pick up objects, open doors, explore a simulated textual landscape, and so forth.  IF generally involves the exploration of a simulated physical space, and interaction with the objects and characters that inhabit that space. The plot advances when the interactor either wanders into an unexplored space or solves a puzzle of some kind.

How does IF differ from mainstream computer games?

During the 80s, when games had to be small enough to fit on a single 5½ floppy, the only way a computer could tell a complex, engaging story was through text-based interactive fiction (also known as "interactive novels" or "text adventure games"). From the blocky cartoon sprites of Sierra's early King's Quest and Leisure Suit Larry, to the full-screen video clips of the Tex Murphy series (which featured recognizable actors such as Brian Keith and Margot Kidder), during the 90s, designers experimented with ways to use the computer's multimedia capabilities to tell engaging stories.  For the foreseeable future, the computer gaming industry's push towards multi-player online combats and role-playing will continue to overwhelm what was once a healthy market for computer-mediated storytelling.

Modern multimedia games require a huge investment in programmers, writers, artists, musicians, and  performers -- not to mention marketers, lawyers, and distributors.   The product must be tested on scores of computer platforms, the bugs must be identified and fixed.  What little narrative such games contain is frequently produced by committee, according to the demographics the marketers wish to reach. Nevertheless, in the retro world of interactive fiction, a single talented amateur can create an epic.

How does IF differ from tree fiction?

Tree fiction, like the old "Choose Your Own Adventure Novels," typically involves a finite number of short narrative passages (one to a page), most of which ask the reader to make a simple choice: "If you go up the stairs, turn to page 5. If you want to stay put, turn to page 12."

A "conversation tree" is a slightly more complex variation, which presents the player with a list of possible conversation topics or dialogue.  Such trees explicitly displays all the options currently available to the user, whether those choices are sprinkled throughout the text, or collected into a single multiple choice question.

The classic IF interface, by contrast, requires the user to intuit, deduce, or otherwise stumble upon alternative actions.

How does IF differ from hypertext narrative?

As with tree fiction, a person interacting with a hypertext document can generally only click on links or hit the "go back" button. Most "serious" hyperfiction does not phrase narrative choices in simplistic terms which control the outcome ("click here if the monster hugs the stranger; click here if the monster attacks the stranger), but rather in controlling the reader's perspective on the story (a reader may choose to revisit the same scene from a different character's perspective, or explore an interconnecting web of relationships among characters).

Hypernarrative is, in this sense, more passive than IF (since the reader is still simply clicking on links) but richer than ordinary tree fiction (since the reader doesn't always know what will happen when he or she clicks a particular link).

How does IF differ from a MOO, MUD or MUSH?

IF takes place in a single-user textual environment, which resembles a depopulated MOO.   Shared virutal environments rely heavily upon improvised interactions between the visitors; hence, MOOs rarely involve complex puzzles, or any sort of dominant plot.   MUDs and MOOs rely upon interaction between users to provide depth. IF, on the other hand, tends to rely less on interactions with simulated people (all of whom are controlled by the computer) and more on puzzles that rely upon simulated physical environments (a sprawling cave, a hedge maze) or objects (a locked door, a rickety bridge, a hostile animal). As the user solves more puzzles, new areas open up for further exploration, and typically the over-arching story connected to those objects and places begins to unfold.

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