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A Meditation on the “Interactive” of Interactive Fiction

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Author’s Note: I formulated the following as a consequence of an assignment for my Codes, Culture & the Postmodern seminar.

Interactive Fiction has been around long enough (since 1975) that one might expect the authors to have made playing more intuitive. Instead, I returned to class after being assigned Bad Machine to the sounds of groaning and confusion that I expected.  In BM’s defense, Dan Shiovitz released his work in 1998, and not every writer can be as skilled as Aaron A. Reed or Emily Short (although Short’s Galatea arrived on the scene only two years hence). Furthermore, BM is the kind of work that long-time IF players turn toward when they want a challenge, or a seriously conceptual/philosophical work. The ideas that drive BM necessitate its difficulty, and in fact my frustration with IF’s interactivity stemmed not from that game, but from its trailer.

Zork Displayed in Frotz

The Original Old School

For some in the class, this may be your first encounter with Interactive Fiction, which in all likelihood doesn’t bode well for a return to the genre.  Although Professor Whalen suggested Zork as an introduction, it’s not really newbie friendly, either, providing no immediate hints or tutorial.  (My suggestion would be to play through 30 minutes to an hour of Blue Lacuna, or all of Photopia, actually.)

Why hasn’t Interactive Fiction gotten a face-lift? Well, in a sense, modern video games are that face-lift.  In an era when computers could barely handle a moderate amount of text, IF pushed the envelope.  IF is also a fairly static community; new games are made by players already familiar with its popular tropes for players already familiar with those popular tropes.  And anyone who has ever attempted to code a work of Interactive Fiction understands the complexity involved–not only in simply creating the story, but also in predicting the actions of the future player. (Unconvinced? Have a go at the job with Inform 7.)

There is likely another factor at play.  Good communities (and I’d say, small or marginalized ones, especially) habitually form close-knit bonds and a sense of self-preservation.  These bonds often translate into language, where preexisting words take on new meaning specific to the group, or new words are invented entirely. For example, the military shortened “fragmentation grenade” to “frag”.  “Frag” eventually became a verb that means “to wound, kill or assault (especially an unpopular or overzealous superior) with a fragmentation grenade,” although gamers might know it better as the simple act of shooting down a player/computer/enemy. Non-members of the military or gaming communities would be unfamiliar with the term, and effectively  branded Outsiders.  For Interactive Fiction, retaining the visual interface originally used creates the same effect.

The aforementioned self-preservation I referred to also expresses itself in the visual interface.  And not only is it a desire to keep IF gaming alive, but it also a desire to preserve what the rest of the gaming community has left behind.  The interpreters lack visual frills. The classic “>” command prompt is tenacious, an icon. And why such stubbornness? Is it a pig-headed refusal to accept that the world has moved on? No, I think it is linked to a significant and pressing issue that New Media faces: Preservation of the actual work.  As we saw with Talan Memmott’s Lexia to Perplexia, if technology advances too far in one direction, even pivotal digital works can be lost.

To wind down a rambling and expansive post, I encourage those new to IF to continue exploring the genre.  It has much to offer as a piece of literature, as a piece of the past, and even as a harbinger of the future.

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