Mailbag: Studying IF and Narrative

I sometimes print letters I’ve received and what I wrote in response. This is usually for one of two reasons: I’d like to pass on what the writer had to say, or the writer asked a question that requires a long detailed answer, and I think other people might benefit from seeing that as well.

I am experimenting with doing this in a more formal way, with a regular mailbag post. Reprinted letters may be edited for length; if so, I will note that editing has occurred. I do not do this without the permission of the letter-writer, so if you write to me and would be open to seeing your email appear as a blog post, feel free to mention that fact. On the other hand, I do not guarantee to print every letter that grants permission.



[Identifying information removed.] I’m in the formulation phases of an honors project, for which I am working to create and advocate for interactive fiction as a literary medium. In doing so I’ve been trying to explore interactive fiction and engage with creators, and I’ve repeatedly had people refer me to you! I’ve been spending time reading your blog and your IF work, and I was wondering if you would answering a few questions (or, at least, directing me to more reading material). 

• First, I am a bit curious about how you would define Interactive Fiction. When beginning reading about it, I began with my preformed definition of the medium that has since been a bit challenged. Initially, I had been using the term to describe any fiction that is interactive, i.e. video games and visual novels, as well as traditional text-centric fictions. Would you say that Interactive Fiction, at least in regards to how it is broadly discussed, is more of a straightforwardly defined medium consisting of text-based fictions, multilinear or otherwise? Where is the line between video game/visual novel/interactive fiction?  Nick Montfort, in Twisty Little Passages, suggests that a work isn’t truly interactive fiction if it does not utilize a parser and have an interactive world. What do you think about this? (I know that this is probably a question without a very quick/easy or objective answer, but I would still love to hear your thoughts).

I intentionally avoid trying to specify such definitions.

In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of community upheaval around what is or is not “real” interactive fiction, which somewhat mirrors the broader arguments about what is or is not a “real” game. These are not bloodless battles: they’re pitched fights about who gets access to resources, coverage, and respect. In that context, I’ve become much more cautious about trying to provide exact labeling instructions for IF.

I’d also say that it’s common to see choice-based and hypertext work included in lists of interactive fiction and submitted to IF comps these days, so it seems that at least a significant part of the community is inclined to include those.

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IF and Other Media

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June 14, the Oxford/London IF Meetup had talks from three speakers. First up was Tory Hoke of Sub-Q Magazine, who Skyped in from Los Angeles to talk about the process of founding and edition for Sub-Q. She gave us some background on how she got started, how she decided on the pay rate they currently use at Sub-Q, and a bit about the collaborative process.

Next we heard from Derek Moody, whose whodunnitmanor project is designed to facilitate multi-player mystery games, where the author has created clues and information for each player to discover at each turn. Different characters have different expertise, as one might expect in a mystery dinner party set-up, and they can decide what to share with one another during any given turn. When the players think they’ve figured out who is guilty, they can vote — which makes this partly a game of persuasion, like Werewolf, in which the guilty party is trying to pass off attention to everyone else.

Moody also talked about how his system is designed to support players who might not feel sure what they want to do, and how automated features take over if a player disconnects or skips out on the game — always issues in a multiplayer IF context.

Both Derek and Tory are currently seeking writers.

Finally, we heard from Nathan Penlington about his Choose Your Own Documentary project. Penlington is a collector of CYOA-style books — his blog documents many choice-based artifacts of all kinds — and at one point he bought numbers 1-106 of the original CYOA series in a single lot on eBay. When his set arrived, he found that the books contained notes from a Terence Prendergast, and several handwritten diary pages. He became fascinated with the question of what had happened to Terence and where he was now, so he made a documentary about the process of trying to track Terence down. The documentary itself was then performed in front of a live audience equipped with voting clickers so that they could respond to choice points in the story. So, to recap: Choose Your Own Documentary is a choice-based performance that is itself about the Choose Your Own Adventure series, as well as several people who became fascinated with them.

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Writing Interactive Fiction With Twine (Melissa Ford)

WritingInteractiveFictionA curious and fascinating thing about Melissa Ford’s Writing Interactive Fiction with Twine is how it combines hypertext craft advice and Twine syntax tutorials with design expectations largely derived from parser-based interactive fiction.

This is a 400 page book about Twine fiction whose index lists Anna Anthropy once (in a passage discussing how she did geographical description in one of her games) and Porpentine never — though it does refer, without attribution, to the tiny Twine jam Porpentine ran. Steve Meretzky and Brian Moriarty appear, but not Michael Lutz or Tom McHenry or A. DeNiro or Caelyn Sandel or Dietrich Squinkifer, nor Michael Joyce or Shelley Jackson or other luminaries from the literary hypertext tradition either. The book has early and prominent chapters about how to design puzzles, inventory, and a room layout; fonts, text transitions, and CSS effects come quite a bit later, despite being much more common than inventory systems in practice. The section on genres starts with a helpful definition of the word “genre,” then runs through bite-sized descriptions of some common fiction genres — rather than, say, trying to describe the range of genres represented in current Twine fiction. The section on story structure explains terms such as “climax” and “exposition” from scratch, assuming essentially no writing-workshop-style experience from the reader.

This writing style, along with the tendency to draw examples from Narnia and Harry Potter, suggests that the author intends the book to be accessible to younger users as well as adults. It would probably be a bit over the head of most young children, but I could picture a motivated tween handling it just fine. Possibly that accounts for a decision not to explore much of the most innovative content for which Twine has been used. If you’ve read Videogames for Humans, almost none of what you saw there is replicated or even mentioned in this book.

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Mark Bernstein on Hypertext Narrative

Literary hypertext has a long history that isn’t always well understood or well acknowledged by interactive fiction authors, even though with the growing popularity of Twine and other hypertext tools, the techniques are more than ever relevant to us.


Recently Eastgate released Storyspace 3, a new version of software used to produce many canonical works of literary hypertext; and, to accompany it, their chief scientist Mark Bernstein wrote a book, Getting Started with Hypertext Narrative, in which he discusses the challenges and the craft of writing in this form.

Whether or not you are interested in using Storyspace or writing literary hypertext, the book is worth reading, not least because it offers terminology and insights from a body of work IF authors seldom study.

In the exchange below, Mark and I discuss various sections of his book, together with other relevant tools in the space. We find some common structures and implementation strategies that cross over from one tradition to the other, and notice that Storyspace 3 might be a viable alternative to StoryNexus for people who want to experiment with quality-based narrative structures but don’t want StoryNexus’ art requirements or styling: what Mark describes as “sculptural hypertext” shares a lot in common with QBN.

All blockquotes are from the text of Getting Started with Hypertext Narrative: I sent these to Mark with my comments, and in some cases he had thoughts in response, so this is actually sort of a three-cornered conversation between the book, the author, and me. Thanks to Mark for supplying the text and taking the time to answer, and also for his patience with how long it took me to bring this together.

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Notes on New and experimental IF Tools

Last night the Oxford/London IF Meetup had a session on three tools, and I promised to write up some notes for the benefit of the people who weren’t able to attend.

inkle’s ink, the open-source, Unity-compatible language used by inkle for 80 Days and other projects. If you’re curious about ink and missed the session, there’s always Joe Humfrey’s GDC talk on the subject; but Jon also talked to us about The Intercept, the new free and open source ink/Unity game.

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Jon was a bit apologetic about the fact that there is currently no specialist ink runner, meaning that if you want to create (say) an ink entry to IF Comp, you will need to use Unity to build standalone apps. But to me, this is also partly a selling point, in the sense that ink is designed to build custom, professional-looking apps and doesn’t constrain the author to something a bit bland.

Doing this doesn’t have to mean figuring everything out from scratch. What I hadn’t realized about The Intercept until that conversation — and it’s very useful to know — is that the whole Unity project is open-source, not just the ink script that goes into the game. This means that if you want to build an ink/Unity game of your own but you have very little Unity experience, you could download the whole thing and then copy or gradually adapt The Intercept‘s look and feel. (Also worth saying: a personal Unity license is free if you’re not making significant money from your projects.)

Edited to add: on Twitter, I learned about the existence of Blot, a rough and ready alternative Unity project using ink that has fewer genre-specific features than The Intercept. So you have options, even!

Personally I’ve found working with an existing Unity project to mod it into something of my own to be a great route into learning how Unity works, because it means I don’t have to tackle understanding every type of asset at once. So if you’re in the same boat, that might be a way to get an ink game functioning, and then later you could start to figure out things like changing the fonts and presentation. (If you want to! Because it’s open source, you could just keep the way it looks, too.)

Indeed, you may want to play The Intercept even if you have no interest in using ink yourself: it is a short piece, short enough to play through (if not necessarily win) in 5-10 minutes, and it makes interesting use of the conversational options, as in the above example. Especially early in the game, we’re offered the chance to lie without really knowing ourselves what the truth is; and I found myself hesitating over whether I wanted to take the course that seemed safest or whether I wanted to steer towards the option that might reveal most about the story. Did I trust the protagonist, or not?

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Spring Thing 2016: Evita Sempai, Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony, and Standoff

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The 17 IF games of Spring Thing 2016 are now available! This is a huge crop: historically Spring Thing has tended to have entry numbers in the single digits. I’m delighted to see it, because I think it’s useful having other events that at least somewhat rival IF Comp in size and attention. The trend towards diversity continues as well: there are a mix of Twine and Inform games, but also Ren’Py, a homebrew HTML/javascript game, and a pen-and-paper RPG submission.

So far I’ve had time to look at Evita Sempai, Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony, and Standoff.

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