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Friday, 17 May 2013

Interactive Literature

 I wasn’t sure whether to put this on my games blog or on here. Obviously I decided to put it here… for reasons that should hopefully become apparent…

People have been talking about fiction becoming interactive since the inception of the ‘text-based adventure game.’ I recently come across an essay written in the 1989, purely by chance,  and soon realised that nothing much has really changed in the general public’s attitudes to this medium from then till now, which is surprising really, as our general attitudes to pretty much every other aspect of computing has changed.
I remember spending many hours of my youth playing these text-based adventure games, and have probably spent more time on this type of program than on any other. I remember eagerly awaiting the release of the next Scott Adams Adventure game for my VIC-20, then later drooling over the hype machines from  the likes of Level 9, Infocom,  and Magnetic Scrolls, to name but a few. And make no mistake, these games releases were major events, with many people more than ready to part with their cash for the next game in a series or for the latest brand new story. The best-selling text-based adventure games were easily amongst the bestselling entertainment software of their day, and it very much was about the story and its, often reoccurring, characters.  This was a recognized gamming genre that only seemed set to stay and grow with time. Then everything changed. As computer gaming become gradually more mainstream the emphasis was firmly placed on graphics and easy to access gameplay. By the time of the Sony Playstation heralded in an era of 3D gameplay for everyone, the traditional text-based adventure game was already commercially dead and largely forgotten by the general games-playing public.
So was it because this medium was purely thought of as a computer-game that caused its commercial demise? Form experience I’d same many of the people who played these games, especially the later ones, had already begun to think of them as interactive stories, fiction that made the reader interact with the story in much the same way as the ‘Chose your own Adventure’ type game-books did. Only the electronic medium seemed much more at home using this concept, with the best programs making the interactivity seem almost seamless.
The term ‘Interactive Fiction’ seems to have first come into use around the mid 1990's to 2000's and appears to have mainly come about because of the increasing mainstream use of ‘Adventure game’ to describe something very different from those early text-only programs. Personally I’ve never quite taken to the ‘Interactive Fiction’ term used to describe what I still see as text-adventure-games, although I can understand why the opinion of someone born in the 1990’s, or later, could be very different.  To me a ‘text-adventure’ denotes a program with strong game elements that focus on puzzle solving to advance through the story, whereas ‘Interactive Fiction’ can be used to describe a much broader and more story-driven experience.

Now, a quick Google will reveille a thriving; albeit generally unnoticed, and commercially ignored; interactive fiction community of both writers and readers, so why isn’t this a more publically recognised media form? The medium has evolved, now ‘Interactive Fiction’ is used to describe much more story-driven, and dare I say it even ‘literary,’ works that are much more involved and fiction-Novell like than the older text-adventure games ever were.  Authors of this interactive fiction are no longer restrained by the amount of text they can use, and the parser technology (the part of the program that takes your written instructions and interprets them) is much more advanced than those early efforts ever were – although some authors have taken their cue more from the early adventure-books than from the games, and yet more have taken elements of both. Some authors have even experimented with going the browser-based hyper-text route. Nobody has ever said there was a right or wrong way to make interactive fiction, possibly because of the non-commercial underground origins of the genera. But whatever the general preconception is still seems to persist. Even although we now have the e-reader technology capable of bringing this type of fiction to the masses the commercial and general public interest just doesn’t seem to be there.  Again personally, I think a modern audience for the interactive Novell could be found amongst the e-Book, iPad, and phone/tablet based book readers of today, rather than market this type of fiction as a computer-game. Surely the lack of a market can’t just be down to a perception of ‘readers’ being too aloof or haughty to play a mere ‘computer game,’ an outdated idea by now surely? How many ‘Professor Layton’ puzzle games players were also avid readers? I’d be willing to bet it’s fairly high…

 Interactive fiction is now a genus in its own right and already has moved beyond the ‘game’ label. It’s just a pity that hardly anyone noticed… 

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