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[Comments] (8) An Approach To "Twisty Little Passages: An Approach To Interactive Fiction": I've read Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort (cf.), and it's not for you and me, faithful readers. Its goal is to convince people in English departments that, despite the occasional presence in interactive fiction of spaceships and dragons, the medium is a legitimate form of aaaaht. Just like hypertext fiction!

Now, it's already received wisdom in parts of acadamé that video games are a form of aaaaht, but I guess not in the English department. Perhaps they resent video games intruding on their turf, so they lash out in anger at the most story-like form of game. This book is intended to soothe them and get them thinking about IF using whatever vocabulary is hot in textual analysis these days.

I, and everyone who expressed interest in this book to me, is in another group: people who self-interestedly stipulate that interactive fiction is a form of aaaaht, and who are interested in figuring out the theoretical underpinnings so they can make better artifacts. This book is not so good for us. I will demonstrate.

Twisty Little Passages starts off promisingly for us by comparing interactive fiction to another folk-art-ish form: the riddle. I recommend reading this part because while I don't think the analogy is complete, I think the comparison is useful; that by examining what makes a good riddle you can get some insight into what makes good interactive fiction.

But unless you want a refresher course in the history of IF I recommend not reading past page 80, where after an interesting take on IF precursors, ELIZA makes her appearance and the book takes a plunge into the canonical. The well-known-to-us history unfolds (Adventure, Zork, Scott Adams, Infocom, Magnetic Scrolls, bust, post-bust independents), with nary a reference to the riddle analogy. You think it'll be used as a lens through which to view the history of IF, but it's not used for anything, really. Over time it becomes clear that the riddle comparison was mainly intended to get the people in English departments to start thinking of IF in terms of other art forms. It's like a skeleton key in a game that only has one locked door; you carry it around to the end wondering why you only used it once.

The book closes with a roundup of references to interactive fiction in non-interactive fiction, hoping to clinch the argument with the awesome power of intertextuality. This section is a little embarrassing, like those late-80s letters to Nintendo Power touting the hand-eye-coordination benefits of video games. But it too is easily explained if you consider the market: antsy English majors who see a new form of writing intruding on their turf and eroding the overall quality of literature. People who will feel a little better if they know that non-interactive authors have sponsored interactive fiction by inclusion in their works, if they see that not all thinking on the subject has been done by dragon-obsessed, spaceship-loving nerds like me.

The best I can say for this book is that it should get more people thinking about interactive fiction, writing the sort of books that will be fodder to the minds of those of us who write interactive fiction. Maybe Nick Montfort will write another book for you and me, a book called Hey, Remember That Riddle Thing? Well, Have I Got Some Ideas For You.

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Posted by Nick Moffitt at Sat May 15 2004 18:06

Re: "Nick #2"

Is this what you mailed me about earlier?

I was SO hoping it would be a breadbox!

Posted by Leonard at Sat May 15 2004 18:43

No, there is a completely different non-breadbox I intend to give you.

Incidentally, I just started using your CSS syndication feed links in NewsBruiser. Check it out:


Posted by Rachel at Sat May 15 2004 19:28

I am thinking of writing a choose your own adventure explore europe book.

or is that not what you mean by interactive fiction?

Posted by Nick Moffitt at Sat May 15 2004 20:47

Sweet. A bas les gif!

Posted by Leonard at Sun May 16 2004 00:13

Rachel, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure is a sort of interactive fiction, but it's closer to hypertext fiction than what we (and the book) are talking about. Interactive fiction is more like where the computer has a world programmed into it and you give it English directions to move around the game world and do things.

Posted by Jarno Virtanen at Sun May 16 2004 02:59

"It's like a skeleton key in a game that only has one locked door; you carry it around to the end wondering why you only used it once."

Although the point of the sentece applies in the context of Nethack [1] too, kind of, it's still not what I'm usually thinking of [2] when my little warrior has successfully ascended. ;-)

[1] As you kick the door, it crashes open!

[2] Usually I'm thinking about the next game, of course.

Posted by Leonard at Mon May 17 2004 05:46

Hmmm? You shouldn't be kicking doors once you have a key.

But yeah, we have different expectations about plot when most of the elements of the plot are randomly generated. Chekov said that if there is a gun on the mantlepiece in act one, it must go off in act two. He didn't say anything about how if there is a plate mail on level one there must be a rust trap on level two.

Posted by Brendan at Mon May 17 2004 11:26

I always thought that the conditional was reversed, and that Chekov's quote was more about not pulling cheap plot tricks at the end ("if you shoot a gun in act two, it must be on the mantelpiece in act one").


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