Tuesday, January 13, 2004

twisty little passages

Early in Nick Montfort's Twisty Little Passages : An Approach to Interactive Fiction, Montfort makes a convincing case for using the term "interactive fiction" to describe the sort of electronic literature that he's writing about. I like the designator, partially because, as Montfort points out, it enjoys widespread usage, but also because it can be precisely located in a hierarchy of related descriptors. Specifically, it is a little bit more inclusive than the term "text adventure" (not all pieces of interactive fiction need to be "adventures") and a little bit less inclusive than my term command-line literature (not all pieces of command-line literature need to be "fictional").

(An aside: for those of you who aren't really sure what interactive fiction is, this page might give you a basic handle on the form.)

So. Within the first ten pages of Twisty Little Passages, Montfort remarks on the need for "a book-sized resource on interactive fiction's history and implications—one that considers how the form came into being and how it developed through the decades, with basic theoretical discussions of the nature of the form and at least an introductory critical discussion of important works," and it is apparent that the rest of the book intends to fill that need. To quibble with the book's subtitle, one could argue that the different strands in that list do not really constitute a single "approach," but rather several different approaches: there's really enough there to fill a couple of different books. By attempting to tackle each of them in a single concise volume, a certain scantiness ensues (I had no trouble completing the book in a day), but Montfort deserves credit for ambitiously staking out the territory: other scholars of electronic literature will undoubtedly see this book as a valuable starting point to branch off from.

The most successful chapters, to me, are the ones that consider "how the form came into being and how it developed through the decades." The history of Zork and Adventure's development is especially interesting reading, as is the overview of the contemporary IF scene, which has apparently thrived as a non-commercial subculture in the years following the decline of Infocom and other commercial IF publishers. Montfort's critical overview of the major IF works (of the both the commercial and post-commercial era) is pretty condensed—only the most important works get more than a page or two—but valuable nevertheless: I'm hard-pressed to say that I'd trade it for a deeper read into a smaller handful of works. That can come later.

The weaker chapters are the ones that attempt a theory of the form. The first chapter does some decent work establishing a useful terminology with which to discuss IF works: distinguishing between replies and reports, for instance, or distinguishing between which commands are digetic and which are extradigetic. This material, however, is dispensed with in under ten pages, and is forced to share space in this first chapter with the standard "what is interactive fiction?" boilerplate.

The second chapter, probably the book's weakest, unconvincingly attempts to situate the text adventure within the literary tradition of the riddle. Some of the parallels that Montfort attempts to draw have numerous exceptions: for instance, although it is true that riddles are "presented for solution," it is less true that all interactive fiction can (or should) be thought of as doing the same: for instance, notice that many of the IF works available through Adam Cadre's IF page are said to contain "almost no gamelike elements." ("If stuck, just keep exploring," Cadre writes of his latest work, and, in the release notes, he writes "even if you get to an ending, you may have only seen a small fraction of what's possible," neither of which seem like statements that usefully apply to any riddle I know of.)

I take less issue (at least initially) with Montfort's statement that interactive fiction creates a systematic world, but again, the parallel flags for me: is it accurate to say that a riddle also creates this sort of world? Perhaps technically, but the experience of solving a riddle feels to me substantially different from the far more immersive and ludic experience of exploring the world of a work of interactive fiction.

I think Montfort is more on the mark when he touches on the idea of IF as a "literary machine" or what Espen Aarseth would call "ergodic literature." The literary tradition there dates back at least as far as that of the riddle: the I Ching is commonly cited (including by Montfort) as a "literary machine" that dates back to antiquity.

Quibbles aside, I'd highly recommend this book to anyone studying electronic writing, and I even think that most of it is accessible enough to be of interest to people who remember the old Infocom games fondly and might have an interest in seeing what's new in the field.

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