In this interview with Paper Tape editors Kristy Harding and Harmony Button Inky Path editors Devi Acharya and Irene Enlow talk about founding Inky Path and reading and writing interactive fiction.
PT: What is interactive fiction?
DA: In interactive fiction readers make choices. These choices can alter the course of the story, change the protagonist’s statistics, and help the reader explore the world.
There are two traditional forms of interactive fiction: choose-your-own-adventure stories and text-adventures. In CYOA stories, the reader picks decisions from a list of choices. In text adventures, she types commands (such as >TAKE LANTERN) to move around and manipulate the world.
IE: Interactive fiction can mean many things and that is what makes it such an interesting genre to explore. There is a great deal of diversity in interactive fiction, partly because I think it is a genre that is still evolving. At its most basic level, I think interactive fiction is simply what it sounds like—stories you can interact with. Rather than being a passive reader such as one is when reading a traditional novel or short story, one who reads interactive fiction can take part in the tale. Whether that means that the reader makes decisions for the character, or simply gets a deeper feel for the world and the plot is up to the writer. Every piece of interactive fiction is different and that’s what makes it such an exciting genre to explore.
PT: What story would you suggest for someone who has never gone through a work of interactive fiction before?
DA: For CYOA stories, I recommend the work of those over at Choice of Games. Games like Choice of the Dragon or Choice of Broadsides are entertaining and can help readers learn some of the basics of variable manipulation. Thousand Dollar Soul is also a fascinating game and demonstrates the impact of interaction with music and graphics.
For text adventure games, Dreamhold was created to help beginners learn some of the basics of interactive fiction. The Llama Adventure Game is a funny, spunky work, and another great introduction to the medium. There’s also a good list going at the Interactive Fiction Database.
The Brass Lantern has some great resources for beginners, and there are also some great tips at Ben’s Text Adventure Page (including this handy list of common commands to try in parser-based games).
IE: As a rather newcomer to interactive fiction myself, something that is really appealing about the genre is that there is something for everyone. If you take some time to explore popular interactive fiction websites and publications, you will find many levels ranging from easy to difficult in many different formats about thousands of different subjects. I recommend trying a bit of everything. Some games are amazing and you will get sucked into them. Others may be badly designed and you will move on. But somewhere you will experience a magical moment in which you forget you aren’t actually a character in the story. Hopefully, after that moment, you will fall in love with interactive fiction the way I did.
PT: How did you get interested in IF?
DA: As a kid I loved to read the old choose-your-own-adventure books sitting around my house. To me, they always seemed to be so full of potential, capable of any twist or turn. My first introduction to text adventure was the Alagaesia Adventure Game, based on Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Trilogy. After playing around with some of the more classic games like the Zork trilogy and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game, I discovered how much I enjoyed reading and writing stories in that medium.
IE: As a child, I often read Choose Your Own Adventure Books, but it actually Devi who introduced me to the huge scope of interactive fiction. Once I discovered it, I was hooked.
PT: What inspired you to start Inky Path?
DA: I’d been writing interactive fiction and poking about the interactive fiction community for a while, and I’ve found the community quite insular. There is a lot of activity from within the community–competition, reviews, rankings–but it seemed to me that few people from outside interactive fiction knew much about it, and it wasn’t always obvious how to learn more about interactive fiction or write pieces of one’s own. Furthermore, there are many different programs for writing interactive fiction, but very little that brings these different subgroups together. I wanted to have a place where interactive fiction from various programs could be showcased, a place where beginners could find easily-accessible works and have at their fingertips the resources to create interactive fiction of their own. The choice of a literary magazine format reflects my decision to showcase interactive fiction as work of literary merit and open up the IF world to those who know and love literature.
IE: We were inspired to start Inky Path because we want to showcase the best that interactive fiction has to offer. Not as many people are aware of this genre as they are of traditional forms of literature, and I think we hope to appeal to those just introduced to interactive fiction while also catering to the advanced tastes of long-term participants. Many people see interactive fiction as “games” but we want to show how it can be a literary form as well. Ultimately, Inky Path will be a tribute to the amazing writers who dedicate their talent to this genre and a place where people who love the genre can all enjoy excellent writing.
PT: Devi, you are an interactive fiction writer as well as a reader and editor. As a writer, what do you find interesting/challenging about the genre?
DA: In think interactive fiction’s potential comes from the fact that it is still growing and changing, even today. There are many new companies, programs, and authors doing some great and innovative work in the area.
The challenge of the genre (and part of what makes the medium so attractive) is the immersive nature of the second-person narrative. By placing the reader into the heart of the situation and allowing her to make decisions that affect the story, the author can pose choices, ask questions, and present stories in a very different way than traditional narratives can.
PT: What kind of technical skill does one need to write IF? Do you need to know how to program?
DA: Thankfully there are a lot of people working to make interactive fiction as accessible as possible. There are a lot of great programs out there that require a minimal amount of programming skill. Programs like Twine, Inklewriter, and Quest provide a convenient user interface and basic stories can be made without any programming experience. Other programs like Choicescript or Inform require a bit more knowledge about the syntax but can be more powerful in the long run.
There are many more programs out there, many of which are linked on Inky’s Links page and discussed on Inky’s How-To site.
PT: How do you see interactive fiction as an extension of a way of reading that people already enjoy?
DA: Reading is always an immersive experience, but interactive fiction offers that extra dimension that can take the work to a different level. Imagine, for instance, being Odysseus, on the prow of your ship, ocean spray stinging your face, wondering whether your decisions will send your men to their deaths. One great article discusses the power of games as interactive narratives, and the same rules apply to interactive fiction–the works are as much about the story as the reader’s reaction to it.
IE: Styles and genres of fiction are constantly evolving, and interactive fiction is just another step in that evolution. In many ways, IF is a lot like traditional literature, because at its best it offers excellent writing and an engaging plot line. No matter what genre or format of the story one is reading, it must have great characters and plots. This will always serve as a bond between genres and forms of writing. I think there are many writers who would have enjoyed the chance to try writing IF. It’s every writer’s dream to make his characters come alive—to make the reader disappear into the story. I’m sure many writers would love the chance to explore a new style of writing.
PT: Are there any authors you see as figures who would have loved the opportunity to write in an IF world?
DA: I’d have to say, I think that many of the great science fiction authors would have worked wonders with interactive fiction. I would have loved to see IF works by Isaac Asimov or George Orwell.
PT: Are there genres that IF tends to lend itself toward more readily than others?
DA: I’ve seen everything from multimedia prose poetry to interactive epics. Interactive fiction works well with many different genres and styles of writing. I personally enjoy interactive fiction with a touch of history because it allows the player to really get into the time period and experience it for herself. Mysteries are also great because the reader becomes the detective–the mystery won’t be solved without her!
IE: I think IF leans rather heavily towards the science fiction and fantasy genres. I believe this is because many who seek out the genres want to have adventures and those genres are the easiest in which to go on an epic quest or to defeat an alien master-mind. Nevertheless, as you will see in our upcoming publication, many writers are exploring genres which defy the tradition of fantasy and science fiction that IF was born into.
PT: What are the pitfalls of IF forms, and how can authors and readers move beyond these pitfalls?
IE: I think there are few that IF writers fall into, which I think happen partly because the genre is very new, and partly because of the nature of IF. Many writers, for example create very flat main characters. This makes sense, because in interactive fiction the reader is allowed to become the character, possessing it and controlling it. However, when writers create characters who actually have a three dimensional quality and a bit of a personality, the story only becomes even more interesting. Overall, I think IF is still developing as a genre and pitfalls are part of what shows that it isn’t stagnant. As writers learn from their mistakes, the genre will improve.
DA: There are pitfalls when it comes to writing IF, many of which can be seen on the TV Tropes page for interactive fiction. One of the hardest things for new authors is working with branching stories. Because every branch can potentially lead to an entirely different story, it is easy for first tales to mushroom exponentially and for storylines to get tangled together. Thankfully programs like Trizbort exist and can help authors map stories.
My advice for those new to interactive fiction is to take it slow and learn the basics–that way their first big projects will be even more polished. Also, I encourage all writers to read IF, find pieces they enjoy, and try to figure out just what they like about interactive fiction games. Do they want to develop great NPCs? Will their piece be about exploration? Mystery? Immersing the reader in a time period? Interactive fiction has the potential to go in so many directions, and I think knowing what you love about interactive fiction can help you to create interactive fiction you love.