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IF is history! Interactive Fiction in the news at WRT: Writer Response Theory



Last November, Vauhini Vara’s Wall Street Journal article on contemporary interactive fiction, “Keeping a Genre Alive” (2005-11-15), inspired general comment in fan circles that IF had made the big pages. The article’s angle was that the IF community is a “back to basics” cult, and the piece inspired some shorter nostalgia-oriented spots such as Michael Santo’s “Zork, Anyone?” (Real Tech News. 2005-11-15).

When you have read it enough times, the introduction to an IF feature article is a genre all its own, with Andy Klien’s “War of the Words” (Los Angeles CityBeat. 2005-08-11) providing a typical example of the tone of eulogy:

Only once in my life have I seen a wonderful medium effectively wiped out by new technology. Let us then pay homage to the text adventure game, a fascinating form that flourished so briefly that it only lingers on in the minds of fans….

Of course, the eulogy is often interrupted with the information that reports that IF’s death were greatly exaggerated. Yet regardless, eulogy is the opener de jour. Whether you consider IF to be retro, minimalist, or a throwback, you introduce the genre to a general audience as a historical lesson - one which answers the anticipated first question “why does IF look so old?” But history is only a stone-throw away from nostalgia, and so it is easy for even staunch advocates of the contemporary IF scene to come off sounding wistful, as in one of Arjun Nair’s IF articles for Mumbia Newsline, “By the Book” (2005-04-20):

Long before the ubiquitous First Person Shooter (FPS)… there was a genre dedicated to text-based games. This included word games, puzzles and other simplistic games based entirely on interaction through text messages….

To be fair, there is a fairly constrained set of talking points about IF that most features feel they need to include:

1. Remember IF? I loved them. IF…
2. …started the computer game industry
3. …were killed by graphics cards
4. …are still being made!
5. …are still fun!
6. …are being sold by 1-2 individuals/companies
7. …are being created by a vibrant indie community
8. …are available on any computer imaginable
9. …might have some future in the cell/ipod/pda convergence
10. …can be downloaded like this

I haven’t yet written an IF Article Generator, but the code is, I feel, strongly implied by copious example outputs to be found in periodicals. I personally enjoy the 2-4-7-8 articles, and the 4-7-8-10s. I am indifferent to the 1-3-4-5s, and thoughtful about the 4-5-6-9s.

Summary is both the curse and the blessing of many subcultures that usually fly beneath the radar of the mainstream press. I don’t blame the press, who have a lot to introduce in a small space, and are often simply trying to communicate their excitement that the flame of IF hasn’t guttered out. Some articles are quite well written - for example, Klien’s War of the Words reminds me in many ways of the summaries I create at the beginning of conference papers and presentations (”Remember IF?…”) - anyone with an obscure research topic / cause / hobby quickly becomes acquainted with the tyranny of the summary.

I do, however, wonder if the long look backwards is really the only framing short story IF has to tell. Lately, there has been a disturbance in the press.

One anomaly is the full-length feature “Read Game - Heirs of Infocom, fans of interactive fiction still choose their own adventures” (Allen Varney. The Escapist, Issue 7, p12-18) - a well written and cleverly packaged piece, although just as apologetic (”If you’re under 38, you’re now saying, ‘Huh?’) Another oddity is a burst of articles in the Fall of 2005, including “Interactive fiction makes a comeback” (Adam Balkin. News 8 Austin, 2005-08-03) and “Playing with words: New computer text games challenge the emotions as well as the mind” (David Hayes. Kansas City Star, 2005-07-24) - whose hook was not just that IF still exists, but that Malinche Entertainment is releasing IF on the iPod as well as on the computer.

David Hayes’ piece in the Kansas City Star begins like most IF features (”Before World of Warcraft…”) yet it is unusually forward-looking in approach discussing not just nostalgic reenactment what IF is today - and what it might become in the future:

Almost 30 years later, a new dedicated group of programmers is keeping text gaming alive - and turning it into an art form in the process. Some believe it could even mature into a whole new form of computer gaming.

While the Wall Street Journal article highlighted the financial aspect of interactive fiction (that is, you can’t make money off it), Hayes’ article also interviews Malinche Entertainment’s Howard Sherman, head of the only IF business trying to generate significant income from new titles. Sherman’s approach includes among other strategies an IF-to-CYOA mapping technique to create iPod versions of original Malinche interactive fiction stories. (I haven’t yet seen a side-by-side comparison of the parser-IF / iPod-hypertext versions of one of Sherman’s stories, and I’m hoping to write a review of The First Mile here sometime soon.)

Other recent innovations in IF have included the use of multimedia (glulx, HTML and Multimedia TADS) and variety of combinations of the command line with hypertext linking. Also just announced was Mike Tolar’s “Clink: a clickable link text adventure”, with a hypertext-only interface that he describes as a “new generation of browser-based interactive fiction.” Whether or not you consider Tolar’s work to be IF (rather than simply hypertext fiction), the focusable-object method is reminiscent of command-line based experiments such as Andrew Plotkin’s “The Space Under the Window” - and the fact that many of these experiments are genres unto themselves indicates that there is plenty of room for exploration in the form.

Is the real news in IF today all about genre innovation, which is, well, new? That is my inclination, but I can also see that the perpetual historical focus of IF features is important. One important role of contemporary IF is in commemorating and reimagining the interactive past.

One critical retrospective is upcoming, as Jason Scott has announced a text adventure documentary project in October 2005, and the project, “Get Lamp,” should begin filming interviews soon with a focus on implementors’ “unique place in the history of computer games.”

Another interesting look backwards comes from Paul Panks, who wrote an introspective article on lost data called “The Vanishing Bits” that focuses on the experience of writing a large text adventure program about ten years ago. The piece is unusual in that instead of reminiscing about game play, it shares fond memories of game design and beta testing.

I’m still trying to find a balance between recalling IF and anticipating its arrival. Perhaps this is appropriate. When we discuss IF as a genre, we teeter between recollections of a formative era and visions of undiscovered experiences, of works unwritten in modes yet unknown. At its best, we find in IF our memories of what we have always believed is possible.




2 Responses to “IF is history! Interactive Fiction in the news”

  1. 1 Grand Text Auto » The News and Interactive Fiction
  2. 2 Grand Text Auto » IF Awards and Articles

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