When I finished writing If, a novel of ideas with a choice at the end of each chapter, I knew almost nothing about interactive fiction, other than that it existed and made a nice acronym. For anyone who shares my ignorance, “interactive fiction” does not refer to Choose Your Own Adventure-style novels with a choice at the end of every chapter. It refers to a thriving genre of often online text-based games where the player makes frequent choices by clicking on hyperlinks in the text. The hyperlinked choices may arrive every few sentences, or even every few words. After clicking on a link, new text appears based on the reader’s choices, leading to new choices, etc.
If you felt like it, you could go and write your own work of interactive fiction using Twine right now.
By contrast, novels with choices at the end of each section — like If, Kim Newman’s Life’s Lottery, and the Choose Your Own Adventure series — apparently aren’t usually called “interactive fiction” at all. As discussed in my interview with Joe Rositano, there’s no commonly accepted general term for this kind of work. Most people say “Choose Your Own Adventure novels,” even though that’s a trademarked term for a specific series of books. Rositano favors “choicefic.” Wikipedia uses the term “gamebook.”
So: I’ve never written a work of interactive fiction — and, to be honest, I still haven’t had a chance to finish reading one, either. But working on the publicity for If has made me increasingly aware of interactive fiction, which appears to be going through a kind of golden age right now. One of the leading writers (and organizers) responsible for that golden age is Emily Short, so I was delighted that she recently took the time to write a lengthy blog post on If.
I’d encourage anyone who’s curious about If to read Short’s description of the novel, which captures the reading experience more perceptively than anything else I’ve come across.
And for anyone curious about interactive fiction (“IF,” as opposed to “If”), I’ll just note that the format recently received a burst of media attention after a work of IF, Depression Quest, played a central role in the puzzling-to-outsiders Gamergate controversy. Even before then, interactive fiction was gaining prominence (and getting coverage in the New York Times) as a result of ambitious new works like Device 6 and Short’s own Blood & Laurels.
As the title “Depression Quest” suggests, interactive fiction in recent years has moved beyond humor and adventure games to more difficult themes and explorations of the formal possibilities of the medium. There’s even a yearly IF Competition and convention, as well as an IF Theory Reader for the academically inclined. Interactive fiction today seems to be following a trajectory similar to the arc of comic books — starting as straightforward, popular entertainment primarily for young men, then losing most of its popular appeal in the wake of technological and cultural shifts — followed by reinvention as an underground art-form circulating in a community of fans and creators, growing in seriousness and sophistication, gaining more recognition outside of the community for its artistic potential… Perhaps we’ll be seeing soon — if we haven’t already — the interactive-fiction equivalent of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and the formation of a canon of classic IF works — followed, inevitably, by self-referential, experimental works of interactive fiction that arise out of the sense that everything has already been done and the medium is exhausted — as well as continuing attempts to make new additions to the canon, despite it all.
Meanwhile, choose-your-own-path literature (does that really avoid the trademark problem? I think it does) seems to be experiencing a renaissance as well, with Neil Patrick Harris’s Choose Your Own Autobiography, the reissue of Kim Newman’s Life Lottery, the record-breaking success of Ryan North’s To Be or Not To Be project on Kickstarter — and the appearance of several novels that play with alternating narratives, if not branching ones: in particular, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.