“Interactive fiction” from the publishing side

Recently I’ve run into a few references to “interactive fiction” where the term doesn’t mean any kind of game, but something more choose-your-own-adventure-like. In the 80s we had Infocom appropriating the word “fiction” in order to lend an impression of literary depth and respectability to its brand; now we have book publishers borrowing interactivity in order to make their publications seem more appealing, particularly to young people. I’m interested in this, but not terribly heartened by the samples I’ve run into recently.


One example is this series of choose your own adventure books aimed at helping “tween” girls make Christian decisions. I assume the author has the best intentions for this project, but — leaving aside the actual content of the decisions — I get the strong impression that the reader is presented with choices each of which has only one rather blatant “right” solution:

In the Scenarios series, each main character is faced with many choices and moral dilemmas. Eventually, they find that their choices have led them into a situation that requires them to make a very difficult and potentially life-altering moral decision. When the story has fully unfolded, and the main character arrives at that moment of truth, the reader makes the big decision for her and then turns to the corresponding section in the book where the resulting circumstances unfold. This places the responsibility for those decisions squarely on the reader’s shoulders, in hopes that she will learn from her personal experience as she lives it through the eyes of the book’s character. She will learn the importance of good decisions as well as the truth about forgiveness and grace. Even when poor choices are made, the redemptive power of Christ is evident as forgiveness is sought, offered and received.

When I was in sixth grade we had a drug awareness program in school that included similar exercises, in which we were asked to pick whether we would Give In To Peer Pressure or Just Say No. Not so much roleplaying, which I can somewhat understand; just picking what was the Right Answer. I’m not sure what this was meant to accomplish other than to make sure the students knew what the teacher wanted to hear.

Though I’m very interested in interactive choice in general, I find this particular use of choice (“you get to choose, but if you choose the Morally Wrong Answer, you get preached at!”) aesthetically repellent and also ineffective as propaganda. This is not a story; it’s a quiz. I have no problem with that in the context of, say, safety training: I once had a job that involved potential exposure to chemical toxins and radioactive substances, and I had no problem being trained with multiple-choice questions about what to do when I dropped a beaker of liquid, or the role-playing scene where I needed to dispose of something safely. But there wasn’t any moral judgment involved there, just a procedure I needed to learn to follow.

I suspect the Christian Morality Storyquiz does the reader a disservice by pretending that life is simpler than it actually is. Unless the reader has some ability to share the protagonist’s temptation, it’s easy to piously do the right thing on her behalf — and for that experience to be nothing like preparation for real world situations. (Not to mention that sometimes you can do what you absolutely believe is the right thing and still hurt someone’s feelings thereby and face unhappy consequences.) So it all sounds a bit plastic. And most kids old enough to fit the “tween” category are old enough to smell the artificiality a mile off.


The second example comes in the form of a press release emailed to me:

Writers of interactive fiction for the 21st Century wanted

mifiction calls for entries from established and aspiring authors to create modern day interactive fiction –

UK, October 13, 2009: mifiction, an innovative online publisher based in the UK, is looking to reinvigorate interactive fiction using the latest in modern technology, and your writing skills.

In an effort to encourage authors and to find a host of exciting and imaginative stories, mifiction is hosting a writing competition which is open to anyone with an interest in interactive fiction and a passion for writing.

About the competition:
Aimed at writers who are enthusiastic about teen fiction, mifiction is encouraging authors over the age of 16 to submit entries from almost any genre…

It turns out that what they’re looking for is choose your own adventure stories that can be delivered in snippets of 150 words, the better to display on a mobile phone.

This is a fairly restrictive form, I feel, and I’m not encouraged by the fact that the very first snippet of their example “interactive fiction” contains the text “You can sees it now…”.

But what bothers me about it even more is the recommended implementation structure. To avoid uncontrollable amounts of content, the guidelines suggest that story branches should reconnect to the main storyline. However, the system does not track variables and has no preserved state other than the fact of which text we’re currently looking at. So player’s past choices are forgotten and disregarded as soon as the story rejoins, which means in practical terms that none of one’s early choices will matter. (Unless — one could argue this — viewing one branch rather than another significantly affects the interpretation of later material. But that’s a bit meta.) In any case, what they’re implementing could be implemented equally well as a series of very simple HTML pages, with none of the complexities to be found in more sophisticated literary hypertext software.

That said, first prize in this competition is 300 UKP (about $490 at present exchange rates), for what I suspect is substantially less work than entering the IF Comp once. So hey, perhaps someone will find it’s worth trying to wrangle an interesting interactive experience out of this extremely bare-bones format.

35 thoughts on ““Interactive fiction” from the publishing side

  1. One option with reconnecting branches is have the player find different things out before rejoining the main flow, which could affect later choices. Edward Packard’s classic Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? did something like this when you had a choice of suspects to interview.

  2. Hello!

    I have found your blog really interresting and thougthful. I apologize my crappy frenglish in advence. I thanks you for sharing so many useful thought and tips regarding interactive writing.

    But i may suggest that “viewing one branch rather than another significantly affects the interpretation of later material” is not that meta but very concrete in term of writing.

    Imagine if we read “romeo and juliet” and the writer omit to say that romeo is a montague, while telling about the hatred between capulet and montague. Because this information raise expectation, it shape our emotional journey and understanding of later events. Toss choice within this journey and even a simple branching story can be powerfully told.

    Wether we deal with interactive of fixed media, good writing is not about the fancy and sophisticate, but how the delivry of informations raise emotionnal impact.

    I’m a ludologist, i tend to see story aestically akin to puzzle of informations. Not only the system tracks events, the viewer also does. By directing what he know, between choices, we can affect the meaning and the weight of all choices that will come after the current one.

    Character reveal through action but player reveal itself through choice. By carefully plotting what informations he would know according to his choices (building his character), and how these stacks each other to create meaning, it is still possible to acheive interactive breakthrough with simple branch, a story where choice are made meaningful.

    Many static story use the trick to hold important information until the end that change the meaning of everythings (cheap exemple: sixth senses), forcing the audience to “backtrack” the stories like it was a maze where they had taken the wrong path. This the same mechanism at work, we could use. The “level design” could be set up in a way that the player, by the end of the stories, feels impact by the ending because he feels he may have miss something important that shape his understanding and then his choices.

    The system doesn’t do all the job.

    By the way, it is just an opinion, i’m not very literate myself nor very educate about the matter, but i hope i say something with some sense.

    Thank you for sharing your work and keep up with the good work :)

  3. My suspicion (and I’m sure I’m being uncharitable) is that for committed Christians, making the right moral choice is viewed as not much different from learning to handle a beaker of toxic sludge. There’s a right way to do it, and a wrong way, and they want to make sure their adherents learn the right way! That being the case, a preachy CYOA is probably exactly what the preacher ordered.

    But that’s an aside. More to the point, I think it’s fascinating that these folks are trying to borrow the panache of the word “interactive” without having the least idea what the real possibilities of the medium might be. Maybe it portends well: Maybe they’ll push mass media awareness forward, and the IF community will reap the benefits! Or … not.

    • That is not a fair summation of the view of all committed Christians, no.

      For what it’s worth, I count myself in that category. I have a lot of problems with the more authoritarian and anti-intellectual manifestations of Christianity; vote center-to-left; regard the Bible as a product of its time that has some valuable contents but also contains many instructions that are now culturally irrelevant and (in the case of e.g. homosexuality) sometimes actively damaging.

      On the other hand, something happened to me in my teens that I can only understand as (a) a miracle or (b) evidence of my insanity. Since I have no other reason to think I’m mentally ill and since the occurrence was unquestionably a positive and healing one for me, I choose to continue to believe in God; and because the Christian stories of forgiveness and redemption are vital parts of my moral understanding, I choose to continue to frame my religious beliefs as Christian rather than in terms of some other tradition.

      I’m sure that to some people that would sound like an insincere way to come to a set of beliefs, but to my mind, choice — not certain knowledge, not temporary inspiration — is the essence of faith. I had to go a long way from “this is how I was raised” or “I believe this because I find it emotionally moving to do so” in order to find a way of believing more compatible with my moral instincts and my intellectual understanding of reality.

      I don’t expect this argument to have any force with anyone else, which is one reason I don’t discuss this much. But I can’t quite let your remark stand without comment on my own blog. Part of the reason I don’t like simplistic Christian propaganda is that it gives a false impression of the range of thought and practice available.

      Anyway! I also think it’s very interesting that there’s this thirst for interactivity from other media. It’s not just books, either; I recently reviewed for a future Homer in Silicon article an interactive film/website project put together as an ad for HBO. It’s got really slick production values, as one might expect, and is technically miles more sophisticated than either of the things mentioned in this post, but it still feels like they’re having to rediscover from scratch a lot of basic ideas about what makes interactive storytelling interesting.

      I wonder whether there’s a way to help jump-start that process, but the thing is that as far as I can tell a lot of the people putting together such projects don’t even realize there’s pre-existing work they could be learning from.

      • What strikes me as the most annoying thing about these books is the very claim that they will help you to make “Christian decisions”. This betrays either an immense ignorance about the diversity of the Christian tradition, or an immense arrogance about your own place in that tradition. You don’t need to do years of study to realise that Rush Limbaugh, Soren Kierkegaard, Gianni Vattimo and the writer of the Gospel of Truth have very little moral ground in common. So when someone steps up and says that they know what “Christian decisions” are, that irritates me.

  4. Yeah, I had a lot of sex education classes in JrHS that amounted to (as Matt Goering once put it) “pre-marital sex will blow your legs off.”

    Judy Blume wrote a book — I think this was “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Daisy” — which was based on Planned Parenthood’s points for young adults. Which has caused some people to laud it and others to scorn it.

    Jim, I think it’s your moral obligation in the eyes of God to write a subversive Christian CYOA. Perhaps the person who makes the right choice ends up crucified?

    Conrad.

  5. A playthrough of the mifiction sample brings to mind two words, and those words are Rail and Road. It might be justified because it’s a time travel story, so whatever actions you take have to lead to the eventual future state, but I’m not confident that they’re actually doing anything interesting with that idea. It might be hard to actually give the player a sense of real choices while leading them to a preordained end.

    IIRC, the old Choose-Your-Own-Adventures solved the problem by killing you off a lot. There was one that, before you could get into the main part of the book, had something like seven straight instadeath choices. I don’t know if that would work with their business model.

    • So player’s past choices are forgotten and disregarded as soon as the story rejoins, which means in practical terms that none of one’s early choices will matter. (Unless — one could argue this — viewing one branch rather than another significantly affects the interpretation of later material. But that’s a bit meta.)

      It is limited, but I think you could still get some good effects with this. For instance, “The Baron” has a world model and tracks certain decisions, and it would definitely lose something if you took this away, but it wouldn’t lose everything. (There are other reasons why it would not work as a CYOA, but those are perhaps not relevant here.) I also think it would be possible to adapt “Alabaster”: a lot of the state of the game would be stored by your place in the conversation maze, and the main adaptation would be to stop the player from returning to earlier nodes once she has done one of the few irreversible things (talking to certain persons, or starting one of the endings). And of course, “Photopia” tracks basically nothing, but still works.

      You could also use the trick: “If you took the amulet, turn to page 34. Otherwise, turn to page 45.”

      • Alabaster relies a lot on procedural stuff that lets the NPC decide when to move the story forward, and I’m not sure how I would replicate that in this system (even in stripped-down form) without a massively unwieldy tree.

      • I didn’t study that part of Alabaster in detail, so maybe I don’t see the problem clearly. But it seems to me that pacing is the single thing in which CYOA is really good?

      • Well, there are (for instance) points where the NPC will move things on if you’ve done all of several prerequisites (but done them in any order). It’s hard to imagine how that would work in a CYOA format that’s this restricted.

      • Yes, I see. That might lead to problems. (These are often the kind of things that you do not notice as a player: you see that X happens because you have just done Y, but you don’t see that you also needed to do Z, A, B and C, which you did 10 minutes ago.)

    • Yeah, these people say they want to avoid unhappy endings/deaths as much as possible, to allow the player to continue moving forward. They also say they’re avoiding die-rolling and having the player do external tracking (like “if you have the silver sword, turn to 54” sorts of options). So it seems like the whole of the art would be in having earlier branches affect the way the player perceived later text.

      As people have suggested, it’s possible to do something interesting with that, but it’s only one of many possible techniques, and I think the technology is unfortunately limiting.

    • The old _Time Machine_ CYOAs very rarely lead to death; instead they would have these fairly long loops that prevented you from moving forward without requiring that progress stop.

      Some of the _TM_s were pretty good tools for teaching logical thinking and trouble-shooting — I realized this long after, when as an adult I reviewed CYOAs I read as a kid.

      –Anyway, if you’re going to run the game story on a computer, why wouldn’t you allow it to track variables?

      C.

      • Someone metioned the Time Machine! I feel obligated to mention Edward Packard’s excellent Escape from the Castle of Fromm. As a child, I remember being really amazed when I realized I simply *could not die*; there was only one ending and the challenge was to find it. The story circled around itself until you found its end; it was like being cursed to read the book forever.

        (You know, Conrad, that is a really neat idea for this cellphone format. Maybe I’ll look into this contest…)

    • Well, there are (for instance) points where the NPC will move things on if you’ve done all of several prerequisites (but done them in any order). It’s hard to imagine how that would work in a CYOA format that’s this restricted.

      Well, you’d have to turn it into a tree. Some of the nodes would apparently be the same, but they’d actually be duplicates to save the state.

      A logic engine, like Prolog, could automagically turn a more complex set of dependencies like the one you descripe into a directed graph, by cranking through every possible permutation to the end.

      So you could probably without too much theoretical thinking, but doubtlessly a lot of scraped knuckles, automate the process of turning a more complicated, interestingly-logicked game into a CYOA file.

      It’d have a lot of redundant nodes that the user would never see, but then that’s just a space issue. And text is cheap these days.

      –but much easier all around to have a delivery system that tracks variables!

      C.

      • Maybe. (The conversation chart is *big*, and then there are mood variables, knowledge variables… there’s a lot of state being tracked in the original.) As you say, though, the real question is “why bother?”

      • I think maybe that is 10 to 15 sections for the reader, not 10 to 15 sections for the writer.

        Actually, 25,000 words strikes me as quite a bit of writing, and a fair amount of reading too. I suspect that they’ve set their sights too high in that respect.

      • The 25,000 words isn’t what they’re asking for as a competition entry. It’s what they’re offering to contract with you for later if your 2,500 word entry wins the contest.

  6. My apologies for including one of my personal off-topic rants. It’s perfectly true that there are many varieties of Christianity, some of which have very positive value systems. But the most reactionary members of the faith community consider themselves “good Christians,” and it’s not my place to dispute their stance. As far as I’m concerned, they’re good Christians if they say they are.

    If other believers choose to dispute them on this point, I think that’s great, but I can’t help wishing the dispute were carried on a little more stridently.

    –JA

    • What is this article supposed to be? CYOA bashing?

      Not at all; I’m discussing why I think a couple of particular CYOA strategies followed by specific publishers aren’t as flexible or expressive as one might wish — in one case because of the content of the choice, in the other because of the format chosen.

      And what the heck has Christianity to do with it?

      One of the things I’m discussing is the use of CYOA to convey religious content/propaganda, and that led to some further discussion in the comments.

      (I’m not sure a brief reply is going to make this a lot clearer than the original post did, but there it is.)

      • I find your reasoning irrational. It’s like saying MP3 format is badly chosen, because most music encoded and published in MP3 format is bad. Just because there are authors and specific publishers out there who write sucky CYOA games doesn’t mean that CYOA is bad in general. That sounds like a generalisation to me. You know, some women are bitchy, thus all women are bitchy. This is a prejudice.

        Besides, there a lot of authors out there who write sucky Interactive Fiction. So interactive fiction is badly chosen format now? Is that your mindset?

      • No, you’re either trolling or misunderstanding my argument completely. I’m not saying anything here about the use of CYOA in general, only about two specific deployments of it. This is closer to criticizing individual IF games for a poor handling of content (in the case of the Christian CYOA books) or an IF authoring system for being severely underpowered (in the case of the CYOA contest).

  7. Then it was a misunderstanding. Sorry. I just don’t like it when a tool is judged by its user. A tool, such as a pen for instance, is a neutral thing. Some users can write brilliant novels with a pen, some don’t. Unless you can show that the tool itself has a major flaw ofcourse. But this is not the case with CYOA. It has its own advantages and disadvantages, same as Inform and other parsers have too.

  8. The expressed purpose of Christian CYOA is, ostensibly, to help its readers learn to make good life choices. As has been discussed above, we can quibble for a long time about defining “good” narrowly — although I expect we can agree that “teaching young people how their current choices affect their future lives” is a worthy effort.

    I’m not sure this medium really will achieve its goal. Almost all tweens are impossibly concrete thinkers — this isn’t a bad thing, just their developmental stage. But it’d be overly optimistic to expect a 10-year-old girl to be able to balance several complex parallel story arcs in her head while analyzing which choice(s) contributed to which result(s)- and then applying it to her own life. (Many adults appear to have skipped the causation-is-not-association operational level, hence the current generation of parents that are convinced that MMR causes autism.)

    I suspect the authors know the cognitive limits of tweens. So they’ve probably opted to make their morally didactic CYOA simpler, just like the Edward Packard stories (“Do you walk to school, or take the bus?” “Do you call Jenny, or wait for her to call you?”) A lot of memorable stories are simple that way — they narrate the cascade of events after a *single* choice — inviting the old hag into the castle on the stormy night, rather than turning her away at the door — missing the subway and remaining ignorant of Gerry’s infidelity — all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

    However, it does kids a disservice to have them see their moral choices exemplified as:
    Do you choose spend your Saturday evening…
    a) reading wholesome literature at home; or
    b) wearing slutty clothes, cooking meth, and having casual sex with strangers?

    There’s some Schadenfreude in picking all the “B” answers, just for perverse entertainment value, in seeing what happens to the edgy protagonist. Other than that — as Emily points out, it’s one thing to choose the obvious “gimme” answer on a written test, quite another to ace the practical exam of Real Life. And converting fact into practice is truly the sticking point. Take obesity: it’s not a cognitive deficit. Most people are aware that weight loss requires better eating and more physical activity. So why doesn’t everyone look svelte?

    Real life is less like a CYOA and more like an open-ended IF, where you’re constantly getting the _What next?_ prompt. Certainly there’s more than one right answer, and occasionally all answers are equally bad.

    The best way to teach kids how to make good decisions is constant, consistent microfeedback affirming their positive choices, i.e. a well-implemented HINT and SCORE system. :)

    • (Many adults appear to have skipped the correlation-is-not-causation operational level, hence the current generation of parents that are convinced that MMR causes autism.)
      FTFY, Kate McKee.

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