What is Interactive Fiction?
For discussions of the precise nature of interactive fiction, see IF Theory Reader, (2011) edited by Kevin Jackson-Mead and Robinson Wheeler (http://pdf.textfiles.com/books/iftheorybook.pdf) , which includes “Characterizing, If Not Defining Interactive Fiction,” by Andrew Plotkin. Of equal merit is Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort (2005, http://ebook.stepor.com/book/twisty-little-passages-an-approach-to-interactive-fiction-40473-pdf.html.)
In recent years, choice-based, hypertext stories, which do not include parsers, have been welcome in the most prominent interactive fiction competition, an event that ends in mid November. Some of the non-parser stories have done well, finishing as high as second. However, parser-based stories and hypertext narratives are really very different from one another. In 2014, IF prominent writer Carolyn VanEseltine initiated “ParserComp,” for stories with parsers.
The Pain and Promise of the Parser
In the 1980’s, a company called Infocom published more than thirty commercial works of interactive fiction, some of them classics of the medium. The history of the company, in varying degrees of depth, is at http://web.mit.edu/6.933/www/Fall2000/infocom/. A supplement to the documentary film Get Lamp (2011) tells the Infocom story in an especially dramatic way. This supplement is not available on YouTube, but it can be purchased, as part of the DVD version of the documentary, at http://www.getlamp.com.
Emily Short has commented on the “false promise” of the IF parser, and on many other issues, theoretical and otherwise, in her remarkably insightful blog, “Emily Short’s Interactive Storytelling” (https://emshort.wordpress.com/).
Jason MacIntosh’s blog, which includes his videos, is “The Gameshelf” (http://gameshelf.jmac.org/essays/jmac-on-games/).
Andrew Plotkin makes his comments on the parser in the documentary film Get Lamp, directed by Jason Scott (2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRhbcDzbGSU).
Interactive Fiction and Critical Thinking
Robert Sternberg’s Intelligence Applied informs much of this chapter. However, this section owes just as much to the work of Robert Swartz of the National Center for Teaching Thinking (http://www.nctt.net/).
Interactive Fiction and the Reading Process
David F. Lancy and Bernard L. Hayes offer further thoughts on the motivational aspects of IF in “Interactive Fiction and the Reluctant Reader.” The article appeared in the English Journal, in November of 1988.
Mark Engleberg writes about how IF can motivate students in “IF for Home-Schooled Students” at http://inform7.com/news/2009/03/16/mark-engelberg-on-if-for-homeschooled-students/.
Building Fluency With Interactive Fiction
Laura Robb offers a balanced discussion of the advantages of reading fluency in Teaching Reading in Middle School: a Strategic Approach to Teaching Reading That Improves Comprehension and Thinking (2000).
The Report of the National Reading Panel (2000) proved controversial in some of its claims and results, including the widespread use of time-consuming testing for fluency. Still, the report does offer worthwhile suggestions for building fluency.
Timothy Rasinski and Nancy Padak stress the role of public performance in building fluency in “Fluency Beyond the Primary.” The article appeared in Voices from the Middle, September 2005. Rasinski writes about coaching readers for fluency in his book, The Fluent Reader: Oral Reading Strategies for Building Word Recognition, Fluency and Comprehension (2003).
Nick Montfort describes the way readers of interactive fiction feel that they are, to some extent, crafting IF stories in his seminal book Twisty Little Passages (2003).
Creating Interactive Fiction With Adrift
Lively debates about the merits of the various IF authoring systems continue on the IF Forum and elsewhere. It’s clear, though, that, since 1990 or so, the best parser-based IF stories have come from the TADS and Inform communities. These languages are plainly the most mature and powerful tools we have. Adrift and Quest authors have produced some fine stories, too, however. The PK Girl by Robert Goodwin, Helen Travillion, Nanami Nekono, and Oya-G took sixth place in the fall 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition, thus announcing the Adrift had truly arrived. In 2014, a Quest story did even better, as Jacqueline, Jungle Queen! by Steph Cherrywell finished third.
Since its arrival in 2006, Inform 7 has emerged as the choice of a great many, if not a majority of, serious parser jockeys. Inform 7 stories have won the fall IF competition in every year but one since it appeared on the scene. The exception, Lost Pig, was written in Inform 6. From 1995 to 2014, all but two of the winners of the fall IF Competition were written with Inform 6 or 7. The other two were TADS stories.
Adrift, the principal topic of this section is a truly admirable piece of programming. It’s solidly coded (though not without bugs), and, in my experience, it really is the fastest way to get a decent IF story up and running. However, Adrift Developer is Windows-only, and that’s a severe limitation for some of us. Adrift interpreters, on the other hand, are available for all the widely-used full-scale operating systems, so you can read Adrift stories on most computers.
The most popular authoring system for choice-based IF is called “Twine.” Twine was developed by Chris Klimas in 2009, and it’s available, free of charge, at http://twinery.org/.
Creating Interactive Fiction With Quest on the Web
In some ways, Quest fulfills the dreams of many teachers of interactive fiction. It’s easy to use, it boasts a good library of completed games, it can produce both choice-based and parser-based stories, it has a Web version, and it boasts a very active presence among educators, especially in the United Kingdom. Its developers and supporters, especially British educator Christian Still, deserve great credit for the leadership that they’ve provided.
Still, in my own experience, Quest does not quite measure up to Adrift in its maturity and stability.
Inform 7 and the Writing Process
Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms is probably the most important book ever on computers in education. Though its advocacy of the Logo programming language may seem naïve in the twenty-first century, its argument for a computer-rich environment and what to do with it are entirely contemporary. Consider, for instance, the endless debate about whether or not children should be taught to program computers. Papert answers this question in the most rational way possible, by looking at the precise benefits of programming, not by advocating or rejecting some particular style of coding.
My own article, “Logo and Extended Definition” (Journal of Teaching Writing, Volume 5, Number 1, 1986) applies Papert’s ideas to a typical priority of secondary-school English teachers.
Graham Nelson’s announcement of the Inform 7 public beta changed the world, or at least the small part of the world that teaches children and young adults to write IF. See “Inform 7: Interactive Fiction from Natural Language” (http://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/rec.arts.int-fiction/9ZGc8bSbraw).
Aaron Reed stands as one of the most important of all IF writers, known especially for his massive, and masterful story Blue Lacuna. He’s also the author of Creating Interactive Fiction With Inform 7 (2011), which offers a clear and thorough tutorial on the Inform language. Reed’s book is a nearly perfect complement to the hundreds of pages of clear and literate document that come with Inform 7 (http://inform7.com) itself.
Gareth Rees is another important writer of IF stories, who has also produced “must read” essays about writing interactive fiction. He’s the author of the IF classic Christminister (1995), and of “Game Design and Game Analysis” (1995, http://www.doggysoft.co.uk/inform/write/desgn.html).
Why Inform 7?
Among the most prominent computer languages for children is Scratch, which, like Logo, has its roots at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Linda Sandvik describes her work with Scratch and other tools on the Ubuntu UK Podcast in an “Interview With Linda Sandvik of Code Club” (June 27, 2013, http://podcast.ubuntu-uk.org/2013/06/27/s06e18-a-midsummer-nights-ubuntu/).
The Writer’s Self in Interactive Fiction
Philippa Foot (innocently enough, I suspect) invented the “Trolley Problem” franchise in an essay that isn’t mostly about trolley problems at all. The article’s called “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect,” and you can find it in Ethical Theory: An Anthology, (2007) edited by Russ Shafer-Landau. Judith Jarvis-Thompson focused on and elaborated the trolley theme in several insightful essays, including “The Trolley Problem” in The Yale Law Journal 94.6 (1985). Numerous subsequent essays have tried to develop the trolley trope further, often twisting it almost beyond recognition.
Roger Giner-Sorolla identfies the problem of confusing the reader with the player character in his seminal essay, “Crimes Against Mimesis,” (1997) which originally appeared, in installments, in the USENET newsgroup rec.arts.int-fiction. The essay also appears in the IF Theory Reader, edited by Kevin Jackson-Mead and J. Robinson Wheeler.
Graham Nelson’s “Bill of Players’ Rights” is part of “The Craft of Adventure” (1997). It’s available at http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/programming/general-discussion/Craft.Of.Adventure.txt.
Andrew Plotkin comments on common misunderstandings of the IF parser in the documentary film, Get Lamp, directed by Jason Scott. Jason’s interview with Andrew is at http://archive.org/details/getlamp-aplotkin.
Recommended Works of Interactive Fiction
The “Top Seventy” that appears in this section includes some stories that are not good choices for younger students to try on their own. See the comments on each story for details.
Most of the stories recommended here can be easily obtained, free of charge, from the Interactive Fiction Database, at http://ifdb.tads.org. Just use the site’s search bar to find a story and the database will offer a link for downloading, along with instructions for getting the story to run on your computer. In some cases, the database will also offer a link for trying the story online. See “Acquiring Interactive Fiction” on this website for information on obtaining stories that are harder to get.
An Interactive Classic from the Commercial Era: Arthur, the Quest for Excalibur
Arthur, (1989) is the last of the classic Infocom stories. It was published after Infocom’s ill-fated acquisition by Activision in 1986. The author of the story, Bob Bates, along with Mike Verdu, founded Legend Entertainment in 1989. Legend issued several interactive fictions in the Infocom tradition, some written by Infocom veteran Steve Meretsky and others by Bates himself.
An Interactive Classic from the Modern Era: The Firebird
The fall Interactive Fiction Competition plays such an important role in the fostering of IF writing that a casual observer might think that the IF community must be extraordinarily competitive. In truth, however, the “Comp” is less about winning than about finding an audience for new interactive fictions. Still, lots of IF classics have won the competition. Among the best-remembered and most-appreciated winners are A Change in the Weather (Andrew Plotkin, 1995), Photopia (Adam Cadre, 1998), two episodes of the “Earth and Sky” trilogy (Paul O’Brian, 2002, 2004), Floatpoint (Emily Short, 2006), Lost Pig (Admiral Jota, 2007), Violet (Jeremy Freese, 2008), and Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser, 2013).
But plenty of outstanding stories have entered the Comp and not quite won. These include David Dyte’s A Bear’s Night Out, the original Earth and Sky story, Ryan Veeder and Emily Boegheim’s Robin & Orchid, Mark and Renee Choba’s History Repeating, Jason MacIntosh’s The Warbler’s Nest, Leon Lin’s The One That Got Away, and Nate Cull’s Glowgrass.
The “Fall Comp” and the other IF competitions are so important that members of the IF community sometimes seem surprised when a story like The Firebird comes along, a really fine piece of work that might well have won a competition but wasn’t entered. That surprise can often be a pleasant one, though, when the story in question turns out to be as good as The Firebird, or Spider and Web, or Blue Lacuna.
An Interactive Fiction Competition Winner: Winter Wonderland
Winter Wonderland by Laura Knauth won the fall IF Comp the year after its most revolutionary winner, Photopia, dominated the standings. Knauth’s work was a more quiet winner, but its reputation has developed over the years. Wonderland’s gently playful spirit and its gracious characterizations grow on many readers, and its technically flawless programming makes possible a wide variety of puzzles. Laura even manages two very enjoyable mazes, at a time when mazes were very much out of style. In my experience, students always love the story.
An Interactive Tragedy: Photopia
What, exactly, is appropriate for kids and classrooms? It’s hard to say. For a middle school teacher with my own particular style, it was always important not to underestimate what students could handle.
Photopia was obviously not written for an audience of children. In its original version, it began with a scene laced with rather strong profanity, and the story is extremely sad. Still, with sensitive teaching and a warning about upcoming episodes from time to time, Photopia works very well with twelve-year olds.
Emily Short’s Bronze presents an equally tough case. This retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” plays directly to adult interests. It refers to sex in a direct, though always tasteful, way, and one of its climactic moments reveals the suicide of one of the Beast’s victims, a young woman named Yvette who was pregnant with the Beast’s child.
Still, the story offers a dark fairy tale that students can appreciate, though some specific sexual references and Yvette’s horrific suicide would not work with children. As a result, I asked the author for permission to craft a slightly bowdlerized version of the story. She agreed, and the PG version of Bronze has delighted and angered many middle school and high school students. The edited version of the story is at http://bdesilets.com/if/Bronze.z8.
An Interactive Fiction about Middle School Students: The Enterprise Incidents
The Enterprise Incidents, though explicitly a “fantasy” has its roots in a real middle school and in a real middle school program for undermotivated eighth graders. The program was called “Venture,” and, in it, a dozen or so students ran a real business, and went home with paychecks once per quarter. Even the bizarre fashion choices of the story’s “Megan” character are real. Venture ran from 1985 to 2004, and its website is still available at http://venture.home.comcast.net.
Acquiring Interactive Fiction
I should probably stress, more than I already have, that interactive fiction is inexpensive, to a degree that is practically ridiculous. Most of the best stories are flat-out free, and others, like The Shadow in the Cathedral cost $5.00 (U.S.) or less. Even the Infocom stories are free, through several, not-quite-legal abandonware sites. A perfectly-legal purchase of Masterpieces of Infocom, via Amazon.com, costs around $70.00, which amounts to about $2.13 per story