Conventional reading for IF

Recently someone emailed me with the following question:

Going on the assumption that if you like to write, you must also like to read, I was wondering if you would be willing to share any books/short stories/writings — anything non-IF — that you really enjoyed or perhaps even inspired your style of story-telling.

I’ve had a pretty busy week and haven’t gotten around to answering, but I thought it might be an interesting one to throw out here, and see what other people think about IF-inspiring conventional writing.

So, a couple answers of my own:

  • Borges. His stories are often thought experiments about memory, narrative, or language, with implications that are evocative for interactive storytelling. For related but not identical reasons, Italo Calvino.
  • Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Tartt has a special gift for choosing evocative details — little sights or sounds that capture a whole mood or carry a wealth of connotation.
  • Annie Dillard’s essays (not the fiction, which I’ve never been able to get through). Dillard writes deliciously musical prose, and describes landscape beautifully. The opening of An American Childhood remains one of my favorite passages of English prose.
  • John Crowley, mainly Little, Big, for the symbolic weight and metaphysical power it gives to simple objects; this was a non-trivial influence on Metamorphoses.
  • Plato’s Symposium. Often dry or archaic in translation, in Greek it is witty, sly, sweet, sad, sexy and beautiful; it describes vividly and presently people now millennia dead. The dialogue that is both intellectual and personal has great resonance with me.
  • Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn. Again: dialogue both intensely intellectual and intensely personal. And, I would also observe, dialogue that is not very naturalistic. I tend to write somewhat stylized dialogue for IF, and I think in this I’m influenced a bit by my diet of plays (both ancient and modern) and my sense that an interactive dialogue needs to be more compact than our rambling conversations in real life. (Not, I hasten to add, that I imagine myself on Frayn’s level, or anywhere near it. Copenhagen I consider one of the masterworks of the past century.)
  • Mote in God’s Eye. I just finished this a few weeks ago, so it’s not so much a longterm favorite as something I recently have been thinking about. What impressed me about this one was how intensely compelling I found it. Which got me thinking more about how to inspire and use the player’s curiosity as a motivating force to get him to keep playing.

5 thoughts on “Conventional reading for IF”

  1. When I was writing the Earth & Sky games, I was reading a lot of comics, and got some use out of thinking about the way they break up a story into discrete images. I think there are some parallels to be drawn between prompts in IF and gutters in comics, each parceling the action out into (hopefully) interesting-in-themselves pieces.

  2. Paul: Reading Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics’ and ‘Making Comics’, I found myself drawing many interactive narrative-to-comic parallels, especially the one you mention. At the time, I figured it was my obsessed-with-story-in-games brain applying McCloud’s concepts to my favourite topic; I’m glad to see that someone else had the same notions.

    I’m trying to recall whether this is related to any idea presented in Jeremy Douglass’s ‘Command Lines’ dissertation ( Does anyone remember?

  3. I don’t really think I have ever noticed, in my reading, a difference between books that are IF-inspiring and books that otherwise inspiring (for instance, inspiring conventional fiction).

    My current project was inspired, at first, by the Divine Comedy, especially the Inferno. There are still some traces of this, although Dante soon started to warp into Milton (whose Paradise Lost is without doubt one of my favourite works of literature).

    More recent, and I suspect in the end much more potent influences on it are John Crowley’s Aegypt and Rene Girard’s Violence and the Sacred. Both of these are very intriguing books, but I don’t think either of them is especially intriguing for an IF-author, as opposed to someone else. (Although they are especially intriguing when you are writing a work about violence, fallenness and redemption.)

    But if I look at your own examples, Emily, they too seem to be more inspiring in a general sense than specifically for which interactive fiction–which isn’t strange. It might be different if you encountered a work of static fiction that would have been much better if it had been executed as interactive fiction.

  4. I can’t help but smile about Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” winding up on your favorites. Not that there’s a direct correlary between the tone of your work and hers, but you couldn’t be more right about her evoking all with a smattering of detail — Richard staring up at the hole in his winter home, the snowflakes making moving gently across his face and the floor, and loneliness.
    I think you might enjoy Peter Hoeg’s “Smilla’s Sense of Snow.”

  5. But if I look at your own examples, Emily, they too seem to be more inspiring in a general sense than specifically for which interactive fiction

    Belatedly, since this had gotten caught in my spam filter:

    I agree these are all things generally worth reading, but they’re also things that specifically shaped my approach when I got around to writing IF.

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