A general description

A set of new media for fiction which have a participative element. Properly includes various forms, such as hypertext fiction, "virtual realities", and technically also traditional role-playing games. However, the term Interactive Fiction (commonly abbreviated to IF) has come to refer primarily to a certain form of text-based computerised fiction, where interaction comes in the form of the reader - or "player" - taking on the role of the protagonist of a story and directing their actions. This is done through simple imperative statements (>PICK UP AX), which the story understands and responds to appropriately. You may be more familiar with the term "text adventure game", though as we shall see that phrase doesn't really describe much of the new IF. To clarify, here's a sample transcript taken from near the start of Andrew Plotkin's surrealist classic So Far :

West Portico
More people are relaxing here, perhaps because of the kegman who sells his beer under the theater portico. The main street bakes in sunlight to the south; the front of the theater continues to the north, adorned by some decorative potted shrubs.

You feel the faintest cool breath of air.

Wait. Wait. What's ever cool in this suffocating summer heat? It comes again, slight, smoky, deep with autumn. Impossible.

>smell (the ">" is the prompt, and here the player types "smell", meaning sniff the air.)
The air smells of dry leaves, smoke, distant frost; autumn.

>feel air
It's gone, and there it is again -- a touch of cool air. You turn your head from side to side, feeling... it seems to be coming from the direction of the potted shrubs.

A couple of people nearby are discussing the moons. That's right; tonight is the night that the astronomers have been going on about. You'll have to be sure to watch. Snuggled in a blanket, ideally... if you ever find Aessa.

Again, you feel that cool thread of air across your face.

>examine sky
You lean out of the shade and look up. The sun scorches you from one side of a metal-blue sky. The moons are also visible. Warel is already high; Amwal is just rising, but she will soon be catching up, approaching tonight's lunar event.

>examine shrubs
You know nothing about gardening. Whatever the shrubs are, they're tall, leafy, and not quite dead of the heat.

You notice a doorway, half-hidden behind the shrubs.

>examine doorway
It's just a plain doorway, leading into the relative dimness of the theater. A small sign by the jamb reads "By right, please."

Again, you feel that cool thread of air across your face.
>go north
Ignoring the sign, you slip inside.

Theater Hall, South
This is obviously a service hallway for the theater. You are surrounded by crates and arbitrary stacks of paper, and pieces of scenery lean against the rough planking walls of the hallway to the north. Light glares in from the south.

The coolness touches your face again.

>go north

Theater Hall, North
The hallway ends at a heavy door to the north, and a storage room opens west. The wooden planking of the walls is old and unpainted; you notice a narrow crack to the east. The heavy door is closed.

Sharp voices filter out through the door. They are too muffled to make out more than the tone of anger.

>go west

Theater Storage
Or perhaps ex-storage, since the room is almost bare. A small dirty window to the west admits bright beams, but they fall across only the floor and a battered cabinet against the north wall. The doorway lies to the east.

The air here is rich with autumn, brisk and cool. It's impossible, absurd.

>examine cabinet
A closed cabinet, chipped and stained, stands against the wall. Sunlight brings a tattered, hopeful glow out of the old wood, but shadow falls behind.

>open it
You swing open the door. The cabinet is mostly empty; bare shelves and hooks and a scatter of dust. But on the top shelf rests an unusual, off-square wooden box, its rich polish at odds with the battered panels that surround it.

>examine box
The box is strange, even stranger for being so simple. Just polished wooden sides, trapezoidal, no two faces parallel. But the joinings are precise; no seams show. The craftwork is exact. No mark shows on the rich reddish wood, except for the natural grain; and also a row of paler circles on each side. These seem to be inlaid discs of a blond wood, flush with the surface, each incised with a deep star-shaped mark.

The air swirls briskly around you.

>get it

examine the shadow
Blackness lies behind the cabinet. Opaque... in this brightly lit room, no shadow should be so thick.

As you step back from the cabinet, the shadow flares. A sunbeam might shine off crystal to paint the whole world white for one angle of an instant; so this shadow widens into a gulf beneath black and wider than everything. Then you move a fraction farther, and it is only a line of too-black behind chipped wood.

>enter it
The shadow flares again as you set foot to it. The cabinet is to your left and the wall to your right, never mind the space that isn't there between them, and then never mind anything because blackness has taken the world, never mind, never world, not even you, never you --

-- And then daylight smacks you in the behind, ordinary as a dirt road.

Abandoned Road
The sky is almost violet, infinitely distant -- you've never seen such a sky, and without the haze of metallic heat that summer should have. But the wind is sharp and chilly, and the trees nearby are a quilt of orange, red, and gold.

Beneath you the road is old, filled with weeds and ragged moss; dirt shows only in patches. To the south, the track is choked with trees, as it runs into the fringes of an autumn forest. It continues the other way, though, towards an immense stone wall that hems the northern horizon.

(Which is as far as this transcript goes)

A very short history of Interactive Fiction (adapted from Graham Nelson's Inform Designer's Manual 4)

First, was Advent. Written in 1972 by amateur caver Will Crowther as a simulation of the Bedquilt Cave in Kentucky, and later expanded by Don Woods of Stanford AI Lab, Advent (aka Adventure or Colossal Cave) set up what are now the standard conventions of IF - the imperative-response structure, the separation of locations into "rooms", and the ideas of exploration and puzzle-solving which were to dominate for the next 20 years. Although many more games similar to Advent were written during the next few years, nothing really took off until the late 70's when a group of MIT students wrote the famous game Zork.

Zork expanded the parser (the programme that interprets what the player types) significantly, in line with MIT's AI project SHRDLU, which moved blocks around a virtual world in response to natural language commands, and also copied that system's use of heirarchical object structures - both innovations which are now deeply implanted in the design systems. The people who wrote Zork went on to found Infocom. Infocom was the first company really to write adventure games for a mass market, something only made possible by the introduction of microcomputers at around this time. Infocom stayed in business until 1989, and were crucial in popularising and transforming interactive fiction. In particular, they were the first to start using that term, as opposed to "text adventure games". They were also crucial in subverting the original puzzles-for-treasure format of the earlier games, and though in comparison to much of modern IF their output consisted clearly of games more than stories, they did prefer the latter term, and they encouraged a more literary approach than many of their competitors - and were among the most successful maybe partially as a result.

But as technology moved on, and graphics became more attractive and plain text began to seem so, well, eighties, the big IF/text adventure companies folded around the turn of the decade. This left many people craving for their beloved text, for games which asked for concentration and which rewarded what they got, for proper stories rather than hackneyed back-plot to prop up the latest shoot-em up, and for further exploration of a type of fiction which was just starting to look like it might have been going somewhere interesting. As a result, people started writing stuff of their own. Various new games and design systems proliferated in this period, and a community of amateur enthusiasts began to grow. In 1992, that community became something more definite with the creation of the Usenet groups rec.arts.int-fiction - for discussion of theory and design - and rec.games.int-fiction - for reviews and tips - and also the setting-up of the IF archive (then at ftp.gmd.de, now at www.ifarchive.org). Also around this time what are now the two main design systems, TADS and Inform, were released - systems which made it relatively easy to write stories at least the equal of those of Infocom and its ilk.

Which is exactly what happened, and since then many hundreds have been published - all available for free from the archive. The last ten years has been a period in which IF has grown, morphed, and split into quite different beasts from the classic commercial works; in which the experimental attitude permitted by the amateur nature of the community, and by the freedom of the software, allowed many avenues to be explored which commercial IF perhaps would never have. This experimentalism has also been encouraged by the emphasis on short stories rather than the old, almost novel-length, format - which the popular annual IFComp in particular has promoted by restricting judges to a two hour time limit for playing the entries. As a result of all this the form has developed and diverged hugely, and a modern release like, say, Adam Cadre's Shrapnel differs as much from Zork as Ulysses does from The Odyssey.

Some other, more subjective stuff

OK. You've got the description - the what, and you've got the history - the whence. Now, perhaps, you'll want to know the why. Why IF? In what way is it better than static fiction? Well, that's a big question. If you look at it the right way, IF is just static fiction with an extra thing added - interactivity - and the ways in which that addition can be used are far from fully explored. Still, I can briefly explain a few better investigated ways in which interactivity can add to the effect of IF.

Firstly, it lets you take the role of the protagonist in a story. This is the basic way in which almost all IF works, and one thing it allows is a sense of identification with the protagonist which is unrivalled in static fiction. Simply by having, as the player, control of the protagonist - on the small scale of object manipulation, attention direction, movement and dialogue - naturally produces an almost effortless placing of the self into the story, massively amplifying the emotional and mental impact of the story. Is this cheating? Does it allow the same subtlety that static fiction does? I would answer repectively no - at least as much artistry is required to do IF well as is to write static fiction; and yes - all this opens is the possibility of greater power, and closes no doors.

Secondly, interactivity has been used to allow the exploration of multiple plot paths. Note that, contrary to the expectations of some newcomers to the genre, this is not a necessary part of IF, and to my mind at least is neither practical nor particularly interesting. Still, many others like the idea of the player's actions affecting the course of the story, and many works involve this to at least some extent. If done well, this can give a sense of real freedom to the player which some describe as hugely exhilarating - a feeling which has been compared to the knowledge of power and control provided by lucid dreams. But in my opinion, part of the art of IF design is to create that feeling without needing branching plot lines, and all the superfluous coding and the CYOA feel it can often create, and to provide the illusion of free will without having to actually provide it. Please excuse that little digression...

Thirdly, we have the use of puzzles. In the olden days of text adventures, puzzles were a core component, and their presence in many modern pieces betrays IF's gaming roots. But although many disagree, some consider puzzles to be of little use for writing story rather than game, and their influence has diminished hugely in the intervening years. In some senses IF has returned to the very original roots of Crowther's Advent (it was Woods who added the puzzles, subverting the simple exploration and fantasy simulation themes of the original). See puzzleless IF for more on this trend.

But all of that is about the theory of interactive fiction in a rather broad sense, and doesn't explain why the specific text-based one this writeup is about is of particular interest. Well, as I see it, there are two ways of looking at this question. In the first view, we see IF as we know it to be a compromise - the closest we can practically get for now to the true goal, which is what we might call Virtual Reality Fiction. Fiction taking place in a fully simulated world, with the player completely immersed in it. So since the technology for this does not exist (at least for now - though see Reality modification devices for an... interesting... attempt to describe something vaguely similar), we restrict ourselves to the manageable world of text and turns. Text rather than graphics because text does such a better job of describing the non-visual senses, and discrete time and macro-scale actions (>pick up ax rather than a complicated sequence of motor impulses) because they hugely simplify the world model.

Another way of looking at it, and I think the one which has overall favour in today's IF community, is to see IF as an essentially literary form. An extension of written static fiction, but with essentially the same aims. So the use of text is an obvious consequence, and although better parsing, more believable characters, and perhaps some new alternative interactive versions of literary techniques (like, for example, the internal monologue) might be desired, essentially IF as it is is what is wanted. Though of course this still leaves huge room for experimentation.

Either way, what we have is something decidedly different from both static fiction and modern graphical computer games, and is certainly not just an amateur, backward imitation of the latter as some of its detractors would hold. It is not a relic of a bygone era. It has outgrown its roots, and is increasingly popular amongst those who know little of its history. Long may it be so.