What Is Interactive Fiction

Interactive Fiction, frequently abbreviated “IF”, is a vital category of narrative fiction that exists within the extensive range of genres, which constitute electronic literature. Interactive Fiction has played an important role in the development of computer gaming, as works of this type became a substantial part of the early computing experience and were the initial best-sellers on Personal Computers in the early 1980s (Monfort, 2).

Interactive fiction, as the title suggests is interactive in nature, as the user/reader takes on the persona of a character or avatar in a virtually simulated story world. The user has an active role in determining how the narrative will unfold. Therefore, the reader/user is incorporated into the narrative and virtual environment. Nick Monfort, provides a comprehensive description of how this occurs; the user stipulates the actions of their character by typing instructions in a natural language into a command line interface. A parser analyses the input and the system responds with appropriate or inappropriate actions. The user’s character usually has a task to perform and the plot of the narrative will only reveal itself to a user who has successfully solved the problems of the narrative, thus, completing the specified task (Riddle Machines).

In interactive fiction, the user plays a participatory role in shaping their own path and subsequently the narrative itself. The reader/user of the narrative interactively participates by entering instructions into the command-line-interface. Eric Eve argues that this is one of the appeals of interactive fiction, that the field gives the illusion that the participant has complete freedom to type any piece of text into the interface, however, this is an illusion, as the game only recognises a limited number of language commands (“All Hope Abandon: Biblical Text and Interactive Fiction” ).

There are two fundamental elements in interactive fiction, the parser and the model. The model is the story world, the construction of the virtually simulated world and all the people and objects it contains. The parser is one of the most important elements as it provides language understanding. When a player types a textual command into the interface, the parser analyses the textual input and acts upon it. Therefore, the model provides the story world, while, the parser provides the text. In this context, interactive fiction vastly differs from traditional printed text. In interactive fiction, the narrative is artificially conceptualised due to an exchange through user and computer. It is this textual input, which makes and displays the narrative and story world as Marie-Laure Ryan argues:

All narratives can be said to describe a world, but the engine that operates IF goes one step further, in that it not only evokes a world through visible text, but also constructs a productivemodel of this world through computer-language statements that the player never gets to see. (517)

Works of interactive fiction can derive of both literary narratives and computer adventure games. The works are often considered equally as narratives and games, as components of both exist within the genre, thus, the two commonly intersect blurring the boundaries between the two. Furthermore, interactive fiction can appear as a game due to the puzzle solving nature of the genre. Often, the story will not come to a conclusion unless a puzzle is solved.  As a result scholars, such as, Marie-Laure Ryan, have made connections between interactive fiction and mystery story frameworks. The puzzle or riddle quality may be viewed as a negative aspect of the genre as users may find it frustrating and overly challenging. Nick Montfort (“Riddle Machines”), contends that this is often the case as pieces of interactive fiction involve comprehensive exploration, mapping, and solutions; attributes which challenge the reader.

An important aspect of interactive fiction, which requires close analysis, is the pedagogical potentials of interactive fiction. The critical analysis of Interactive Fiction is fundamental in both literary studies and in digital humanities as it both challenges and transforms literature through digital means. Subsequently, a critical comparison of the literary quality between traditional print works of high literary quality and the narratives produced in interactive fiction is vital. Although Interactive Fiction is challenging due to its puzzle solving qualities, it is also enthralling due to its manipulation of narrative text. A critical analysis of IF is paramount as interactive fiction has been a vital component in the development of digital literature and the popularity of adventure and computer games.