“Dynamic fiction” is a term suggested by Caelyn Sandel some months ago to describe her work, especially but not limited to her serial story Bloom.
As I understand it (and I hope I’m not misrepresenting too much here), the term is chosen specifically to get around some of the expectations people have when they hear the phrase “interactive fiction.” Dynamic fiction allows minimal plot branching, if any: the reader is not being allowed to change the course of events, which may be completely linear. From a CYOA structures perspective, we’re talking about structures that either look like a friendly gauntlet without delayed consequence, or structures that actually literally are a straight line.
Instead, the interaction in a dynamic fiction story is doing something else: it’s providing pacing, it’s creating a sense of identification with the protagonist, it’s eliciting complicity with what happens or demonstrating the futility of the protagonist’s experience.
To answer the question “why isn’t this just a short work of static fiction?”, I’ve picked out what I consider the best exemplars of each of the major dynamic fiction effects I’m aware of.
I’ve written before, more than once, about My Father’s Long Long Legs, so I will not fully describe it again here: the important point is that it is almost entirely linear, with clicks simply advancing the story, and that this is nonetheless very effective in context.
In fact, at least for me, it conjures up an experience I typically I have with interactive fiction that does branch, but not with static prose narratives: specifically, the productive moment of uncertainty or hesitation when I am considering my choices but have not yet selected one. In this moment, I am thinking about how I feel about the story, and about what I want or expect to have happen next.
In My Father’s Long Long Legs, there is no uncertainty about how I will choose to move onward, but there is a moment of hesitation about whether I will do so. Because the story is suspenseful and horrific, I both do and do not want to read what will happen next; having me click the link to progress forces me to inhabit that moment of doubt and dread over and over again. This may be one reason why horror IF works better for me than horror movies or horror books. It may also help explain why horror is an especially common genre for dynamic fiction.
Bloom uses its dynamic fiction elements particularly strongly to create a sense of identification with the protagonist — both through the options it gives, and through the moments that it identifies as choice points in the first place. The protagonist is a trans woman who at the beginning of the story does not yet recognize this fact about herself. All sorts of things around her — things she sees, comments that people make about gender, the way she notices her own body — throw her into doubt about what to do or say or feel.
So Bloom applies that moment of hesitation or uncertainty that I mentioned before as a way to intensify those emotional hotspots.
Bloom also offers a bit more short term choice than some of the other items on this list — the player can make choices that will temporarily change the course of the current scene, even if they make no longer term difference to the plot.
The Writer Will Do Something is a short story by Tom Bissell and Matthew S. Burns. It is a satirical take on what goes on during a game industry meeting about a game that is just not coming together. It features some characters that someone who has spent some time in an industry studio will absolutely recognize as types: the high-octane characterizations are certainly reminiscent of Bissell’s writing style in Extra Lives. Importantly, though, TWWDS manages to hit that sweet spot where all of the characters are a little bit annoying and a little bit sympathetic at the same time. The game would be much less funny or painful if they were all just unreconstructed jerks.
I haven’t heard much discussion of The Writer Will Do Something in the main IF community, but it’s the kind of thing that’s passed around Twitter and drawn a lot of sympathetic retweets from industry folks who recognize it all too well.
In TWWDS, there are two kinds of clicks: you can click to advance the story (pure pacing), or you can click to choose what to say next. There are only a few opportunities to say anything, and nothing you say will change the outcome; your choices are often most of all about how you’re justifying things to yourself, how you’re explaining them in your own head. In the culminating moment, you’re presented with a list of three options each of which is a good paragraph long, and you will almost certainly not have time to read them all, let alone choose one, before a timer triggers and the conversation flows on without you.
Obviously this is very much a futility/constraint mechanism. The point of The Writer Will Do Something is that the writer will not and cannot Do Something.
Tailypo is a Chandler Groover horror story published last month on Sub-Q. It has some audio effects and some timed and visual elements, but its primary effectiveness doesn’t derive from jump scares.
The story concept is not original with Groover, but he has done some things with it that are to the best of my knowledge new. If you haven’t played, I’d recommend just going through it now — it’s not very long, and I want to talk about exactly what happens.
Spoiler-ready? Okay. The original version of the story as I’m seeing it on Wikipedia is more or less just a straight monster story about an animal with a tail that is also able to speak. In Groover’s hands, it retains that premise, and the original pacing about the man having three dogs that are eliminated in turn. But it also takes on a moral dimension to its horror. The frightening thing here is not (simply) that this monster is pursuing the man. It is that the man has eaten a piece of a creature that possibly has a soul. He’s driven to it by a combination of ignorance and terrible hunger. Nonetheless, it’s something he’s specifically called out as wrong, earlier in the story.
And Groover seeks our complicity with him. The rest of the story is highly linear, click-to-move forward stuff, using the same techniques I talked about with respect to My Father’s Long Long Legs. However, at the moment of cooking and eating the tail, our options open out. We can smell it, taste it, decide how long to cook it. The protagonist luxuriates in this food even though objectively it’s not at all nice. For the player the richness takes the form of extra freedom, even though objectively it’s not very much freedom.
So even though I knew that cooking and eating this tail was probably a really really bad idea, as a player I fully committed to it. I enjoyed cooking it. And it was that enjoyment that made the karma-serving conclusion of the story so much more satisfying than it would have been simply to read on a page.