The Interactive Fiction Renaissance

By Christian Saenz

It was 2006 and, on a whim, my older brother had rented the movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In the weekend that followed, I must have watched the movie about five times. It wasn’t long before I bought the books and devoured them. I wanted more. What was I to do? I searched the internet for additional content — the radio play didn’t sound like my kind of thing at the time, and the television show looked like it was made on a budget of three … whatever the UK currency was back then. Enter the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text adventure. The BBC website boasted a 30th Anniversary edition with new graphics and a shiny interface.

I was confused, at first. A game that you play by typing? My only comparisons were point-and-click mystery games like Spy Fox and Myst. The website, thankfully, had extensive documentation on how to play and what to watch out for. In fact, the sub-header underneath read “A word of warning: The game will kill you frequently. It’s a bit mean like that.”

I played. I died a lot. I started over a lot — the game is very cruel in that if you don’t get a few things done early on, there’s no way to win later. I was in love! When I was done with it and could no longer find replay value, I looked for more text adventures. It turned out I was a couple of decades too late, but that didn’t stop me. I played old classics and more recent experimental games. I amassed a library of text adventures. The freedom of being able to do just about anything by typing a few words was unparalleled in video games at the time. So was the vibrancy of storytelling fueled only by my prodigious imagination and well-crafted prose.

Even the newer stuff was niche, though — echoes of a once booming industry that had been outpaced by graphics-based games. Interactive fiction was dormant. Until recently.

What, exactly, is interactive fiction? The category was easier to define when it only included text adventures — they were text-based games with little in the way of graphics, played by typing commands which affected the story. Nowadays, games like Episode, 80 Days, Lifeline, and White Wolf’s Vampire The Masquerade: We Eat Blood, and Mage the Ascension: Refuge do include graphics and are played by choosing from action and dialogue options. The definition for interactive fiction hasn’t been updated since the heyday of text adventures, so here’s my take:

Interactive fiction is storytelling that depends on audience participation with a primarily text-based interface.

This definition conveniently excludes point-and-click adventures and tabletop role-play, while including Choose Your Own Adventure books and modern dialogue choice apps like those mentioned before. If, in the future, someone comes up with audio-only interactive fiction — the popularity of audiobooks and the advances in voice recognition make this possible, if not likely — then the definition would change accordingly. Perhaps I’d change “text-based interface” to “language-based interface.”

Here’s something to consider as well: not everyone can play graphics-based games. I have a friend with vertigo whose only experience with the big, glossy AAA games has been vicariously through her friends. Likewise, people with epilepsy or motion sickness with an interest in gaming can only absorb them through Let’s Plays or summaries. Interactive fiction offers the opportunity to engage with sweeping narratives and fictional characters for people with limited access or ability to play graphics-based games.

Contemporary interactive fiction works differently from classic interactive fiction. Text adventures used parsers to interpret a player’s word input, compare it to an internal library, and then spit out the according response. Most interactive fiction today is much simpler and does not use a parser, instead relying on preset hyperlinks to give players the various choices relevant to the story. The player clicks the link that they think is the best choice, and they are shown the results of their choice. However, the lack of a parser does not mean these games are any less sophisticated: hyperlink-based game creation tools like Twine give creators the freedom and power to add HUDs, maps, state changes, graphics, and sound.

I still miss traditional text adventures, true. I miss the freedom of being able to go anywhere in the game and do anything, no matter how counter-productive or useless to the story it was. I miss the responsibility and mystery behind that blank command line — contemporary games spell out your choices for you. However, contemporary games can emulate conversation much more faithfully than classic ones. Either way, the return of interactive fiction is exciting for players like me, who are interested in games that focus on narrative, characters, and setting.

The advent of mobile games has contributed largely to the return of interactive fiction. It created a market for easy-to-produce, cheap games which made original games stand out. Players can find themselves more invested in a well-crafted narrative that they participate in than in another Temple Run or another icon-matching game. That doesn’t mean text-based interfaces are an easy sell, though. Each newcomer has a different approach to selling players on the concept and earning money for their work.

Episode targets teens and 20-year olds with content derived from their favorite shows and movies like Mean Girls, Pretty Little Liars, and The Bachelor. They even have one about Demi Lovato. The stories are all about hooking players in with simple, melodramatic premises and keeping them playing with cliffhangers and mysteries. Players access each episode in a story using tickets — they get 3 every three hours — and certain story options cost diamonds. Both tickets and diamonds can be bought with real money, ensuring a cash flow for the app. Episode also has a game-creation tool allowing writers to create their own stories using a simple, intuitive scripting language and library.

Both Vampire The Masquerade: We Eat Blood and Mage the Ascension: Refuge target players of White Wolf’s classic tabletop roleplaying games. In them, you play out conversations through text messages, choosing dialogue options that determine how the story unfolds. Both are dark and tense, taking the player through various facets of their respective underworlds. They don’t use micro transactions like Episode, instead being sold as complete experiences on various app stores.

Lifeline games operate similarly to the White Wolf games: each installation is sold separately with no micro transactions, and all of them are played in an interface designed to mimic text messaging apps where the player chooses dialogue options to continue the story. The hook to the Lifeline games is that they play out in real time: the player gets notifications of events as they happen, with the option to react to them as soon as they are updated or wait until they have time.

On the non-mobile side, interactive fiction has been driven primarily by Twine, generating countless numbers of games. But not every PC game is created with Twine. Various games are made from the ground up, or using proprietary creation tools. Many of these games are accessible with only a web browser.

80 Days is a real-time adventure based on the Jules Verne story, Around the World in 80 Days. Players are tasked with just one mission: to circumnavigate the world in 80 days, and the clock begins ticking as soon as they start. Rather than take the same journey as the book, though, the game’s creators developed an alternate version of 1872 in which trains and balloons exist alongside airships, gyrocopters, and hydrofoils — all so the player can chart their own route around the globe.

Choice of Games is a browser-based platform producing pure-text multiple-choice games that range from silly stories about dragons to serious tales of revolutions and war. They are made using ChoiceScript, which is available to anyone wishing to make games in the same format. Choice of Games also hosts games made using ChoiceScript, earning yourself part of the revenue from your game’s sales.

Speaking of creation tools, what if you want to make your own interactive fiction? You have access to all these platforms, but how do you get started, how do you ensure you’re creating quality content? The first step is to immerse yourself, not just in whatever scripting language the platform uses, but also in the content that is usually generated on that platform. Episode’s user-base is largely teenagers and young adults looking for something cheesy and addictive, so it wouldn’t make sense to write a meandering philosophical journey for it. Choice of Games’ user-base is largely sci-fi and fantasy fans, so your story should, at the very least, contain some action.

In an interview with Make Big Things, Rebecca Slitt — one of the many writers and editors at Choice of Games — says “Play a lot of different kinds of games! As with tabletop RPGs or board games, IF can’t be defined as a single thing anymore — which is wonderful! It’s great for players, makers, and the genre as a whole.”

Twine has the widest range of stories and is the easiest to use — at the base level, it simply consists of writing sentences and putting brackets around the choices you want the player to explore. It’s the best platform to start creating interactive fiction for those reasons. You won’t be limited by the genre preference of the user-base nor your limited knowledge of scripting.

If you really want to go back to interactive fiction’s roots and create a text adventure with a language parser, you can use TADs or Inform, two text adventure scripting engines with included libraries created for the niche text adventure audience.

Once you’ve chosen a platform, another thing to keep in mind is to have a story planned out. Improvising your story as you create it is fun, and it’s fine for practicing and figuring out your various tools, but you’ll have a hard time bringing everything together when you want to finish the game. Plan out your story and all the branching paths of it. It would be smart to make a diagram of all the branching paths, and even smarter to set points in the story where these branches meet, so that you can carry out a cohesive narrative and not drive yourself crazy writing fifteen different stories for every possible choice.

When it comes to writing these choices, Slitt suggests that you put as much care into the writing of the choices you don’t want the player to make as the ones you do: “all options should be equally interesting, and even if the character fails to achieve their goal, the failure should be just as interesting as the success.”

Emily Short, award-winning text adventure author — her works include Savoir Faire, Counterfeit Monkey, and Bee — suggests in an interview with The Huffington Post that “The game should stay fun for as long as it takes to play; no aspect should take more of the player’s attention than it deserves.”

Some trivial choices aid the player in caring for the character they are playing as. Most text-based games give the player the opportunity to name their character, for example. Sure, a lot of people will squander the opportunity by naming the character something vulgar and silly, but a lot of players will get a thrill out of naming the main character after themselves, or their favorite character, or their favorite celebrity.

One of the harder things to do in a narrative based game is to contrive reasons for the player’s character to have a say in everything that happens in that world. It’s important to do, because it gives players a sense of responsibility not just for their character but for the world they inhabit and the characters that live in that world. So just like you’re told to show, not tell things in non-interactive media, you should also remind yourself that players should experience events important to the narrative, not simply read about them as if they happen off-screen.

“I think good game writing is a process of getting out of the player’s way.,” says Tom Bissel, one of the writers for Gears of War: Judgement, in an interview with The New York Times. It’s important to keep in mind when writing for interactive fiction is that, even though players have made the choice to play a game that requires them to read, you shouldn’t abuse them for that choice. By that I mean: keep it brief. Keep it simple. Don’t make your player read a wall of text about all the architecture surrounding them, or the clothes X character was wearing, or the variety of food on the table. Chances are they’ll just be skimming for anything important, anyway.

Interactive fiction offers a whole new world of possibilities for writers and storytellers, for people whose disabilities or health don’t allow them to play graphic games, and for players looking for immersive, engaging stories. The possibilities are not just endless, they’re within your grasp with zero monetary investment. I learned how to code in TADs when I was 14 and although my work wasn’t exactly riveting, I did manage to produce two small text adventures. It wasn’t hard — it was actually incredibly fun. And now that more people are making and playing interactive fiction, I feel encouraged to make more. I hope you are, too.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Nimbly Aware’s story.