Readerly Experiments in Narrative Form

Sometimes people write to me asking for suggested lists of interactive fiction that fit particular criteria. When that happens, I like to publish the results to my blog rather than just answer by email — both in order to establish a resource for other people in the future, and in case commenters here have additional thoughts that might be useful.

Yesterday I was on a panel that included Richard Beard. He is an author of novels (including the OuLiPian Damascus, which constrained itself to use no words not in a specific issue of the Times) and nonfiction, as well as a contributor to PAPERCUT, an enhanced ebook app. Today he wrote to me for suggested IF — perhaps prompted by my vehement assertion during the panel that there’s lots of interactive fiction that is not simply an enhancement of a pre-existing static text:

I’m particularly interested in any experience that is excitingly different from reading a book, but still recognisable as reading (rather than, say, wordy gaming). This would seem to mean experiments with narrative, with new ways of enfolding form and content and new ways of enlivening conventional storytelling techniques.

“Recognisable as reading rather than wordy gaming” seems to me to exclude parser-based works, since those require typed input: probably not a “reading” activity. Otherwise I would include last year’s Map and Midnight. Swordfight., both of which are certainly experimenting with allowing a plot to be radically reshaped (but within a predictable system) by the reader’s actions. I’d also mention Analogue: A Hate Story for its compelling use of a database narrative structure; Lime Ergot for evoking the reader’s curiosity and telling its story through telescoping descriptions; What Fuwa Bansaku Found for its reweaving of translated Japanese poetry into a new story. Alethicorp‘s storytelling via a faux corporate website probably also includes too many non-reading actions.

The request suggests that the writer might not be looking for something like 80 Days, which — though very much an experiment in narrative and remixable vignettes — bears enough game markers in terms of scores and goals that it might be off-putting to a readerly audience. Anything from StoryNexus is probably off the table, thanks to the card metaphor and overt mechanics. The emphasis on reading would also seem to exclude interactive film, interactive audio, and interactive comics.

Even the Choice of Games catalog — though almost purely textual — might seem too game-like, given that there are success and failure possibilities and some stats-tracking is expected if you want to get the best outcome. (Otherwise, as a first taste of CoG for someone interested in readerly merits, my picks would be The City’s Thirst for general prose quality and imagery, and Slammed! for its investment in its character arcs.)

And given the desire to actually try the works in question, I unfortunately also cannot suggest anything from the Versu project, since those apps are now unavailable.

So now that I’ve eliminated many many honorable mentions:

Branching stories:

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 10.20.39 PMFabricationist DeWit (Jedediah Berry), a story of a post-apocalyptic environment in which the protagonist is confronted by another character with strong views about what we should be doing. Choices we make at one point in the text can visibly and immediately alter other parts of the narration on the same page, and there is a fair amount of computational work underlying the text to adapt it to past actions, but the focus remains on the story the author wants to tell. (Review and discussion here.)

Summit (Phantom Williams) is the narrative of a journey in a surreal landscape where people bear fish-like symbionts in their bodies. The story concerns a goal that you will never reach, but there are many different ways and reasons to get off track. (Review and discussion here.)

Lifeline (3 Minute Games) is categorized as a game app, but is really a branching story with only the lightest game-like features (no score, goals that are communicated mostly narratively). It is instead constructed as an ongoing conversation with another character, loosely emulating the situation of texting with someone. The interface is arguably more interesting than the story itself, but the two aren’t really separable; the interface is doing a lot of important storytelling work. (My discussion here.)


Stories in which the interaction brings the reader’s attention to some aspect of the narrative structure:

Solarium (A. Deniro) tells a version of the Cold War in which supernatural powers intervene and things go very terribly wrong. Some passages of text are initially accessible, others not; the hypertext structure forces us to pass through some texts multiple times, and applies an alchemical metaphor to the text. (My thoughts here.)


Loose Strands (Darned Sock Productions) is a branching children’s story, but one in which the narrative map is made visible, showing both what we’ve unlocked and what futures we’ve made impossible for ourselves as we proceed through the story. This question of accessible and inaccessible futures is itself part of the point of the story, and the map communicates information that otherwise wouldn’t be available in the storytelling apparatus. The text itself runs a bit long, to my tastes, but the use of the map is inventive and new mapping features are introduced throughout play; I think this one is under-studied by IF people, perhaps because it’s commercial or perhaps because it presents itself as children’s literature. (My discussion here.)

Snake Game (Vajra Chandraskera) tells the same events several times over from different perspectives, and offers the player a map with which to navigate both time and genre. As in Solarium, the shape of the work has a thematic relevance; so does the placement of bottlenecks that force the player to jump between worldview/genres at least once in the course of the story. (My discussion here.)


Interaction used to intensify identification or physical connection with the narrative:

With Those We Love Alive (Porpentine) is a surreal fantasy hypertext about the monstrous feminine and about the ethics of community life. It invites the reader to explore in both space and time, and also optionally to involve their own body in the story. (Note that, if the story is not advancing, you may want to sleep, to move forward to the next day. I review and discuss the work here.)

My Father’s Long Long Legs (Michael Lutz) is fairly linear interactive horror, but one that uses its interactivity to pace the experience. (I review and discuss it here.)

pry_textExpandPRY (Tender Claws) incorporates a fair amount of film, so it risks disqualifying itself from a list of readerly IF. However, there are also fascinating moments — the braille passages one must touch to interpret, the stretch text where sentences can be spread apart to reveal new sentences intervening — that still make it worth a look in this context. (My discussion here.)

If PRY’s touchable braille is interesting, see also the tactility of The Secret Language of Desire, though in my opinion that was a slightly less successful experiment because the tactile aspects did less to complicate my understanding of the original text.


Works of rewriting and reconfiguration:

First Draft of the Revolution (my work) is an epistolary short story in which the player participates in the revision of letters before they are sent. (Link includes an author’s note if you scroll to the bottom of the page.)

18 Cadence (Aaron Reed) presents the history of a house in a way that invites the reader to remix and re-envision elements. It suggests reading in such a way that the reader is explicitly seeking, drawing out, and communicating themes. This is made of short rather than extended passages of text, but includes some really beautiful text variation and interface work in order to allow these recombination effects. (My discussion here.)

Ice-Bound, by Aaron Reed and Jacob Garbe, is even more experimental and computational, inviting the reader to collaborate in the creation of a text and interact by introducing themes and props. The interactive aspect here is complex enough that this may be borderline for “recognizable as reading,” but to the extent that these elements might be read as gamelike, they’re still focused on theme. (Not yet reviewed here — this is a very recent release.)


Works of procedural generation:

Taroko Gorge and its remixes (Nick Montfort et al) build new poetry according to supplied vocabulary and constraints each time the reader accesses the page.

Related: Annals of the Parrigues (mine) is a project in which some of the text was procedurally generated by code that I wrote; that text was then curated and edited into a final form. So not it’s interactive, but a constrained creation that reused techniques developed for the purpose of writing interactive fiction.


Narratives riffing on the form of games:

These are definitely stories and definitely readerly experiences that play with narrative form. However, they are all stories explicitly riffing on game structures, and thus presume game literacy.

Birdland (Brendan Patrick Hennessy) is the story of a girl at summer camp; it is about trying on personalities, and about the rules of human socialization. It has overt personality scores, but these are part of the story it’s telling; to the best of my knowledge it’s impossible to fail at the story, no matter what you choose to do. (My discussion here.)

ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III (Porpentine) is the story of a childhood encounter with a game and the ideas in it, and about growing up in a difficult household. Of Porpentine’s extensive catalog, this is perhaps the piece that occurs in a world closest to our own. (My discussion here.)

Horse Master (Tom McHenry) uses the idea of a simulation of horse-raising to tell a story about a dystopia of broken economics and a broken regard for human value. (I strongly recommend the reading by Naomi Clark in Videogames for Humans.)

Gamepoems by Harry Giles and friends; these are poetry-like rule sets, intended to be read and only optionally played.

Sub Way (B. Pearlstein, can be downloaded from here — this is part of a festival still in progress, hence the somewhat informal archiving. It may wind up in a more permanent location later.) Like the gamepoems, Sub Way is a short story that presents itself as a ruleset for a game to be played in a world in which psychic abilities existed. A player might attempt to follow those rules to some degree, inasmuch as that is possible to do in our own universe; so it’s potentially interactive, though not a digital interactive work. (My discussion here.)


Finally, here are a few other places to watch for interesting things of this kind:

sub-Q magazine publishes interactive science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

– the Electronic Literature Collection (in three volumes) anthologizes work from literary and academic traditions as well as some contemporary hobbyist interactive fiction. (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3.)

14 thoughts on “Readerly Experiments in Narrative Form”

  1. I think gamebooks are the most book-like IF form. That said, finding a good free English gamebook that is not a mobile app is quite a challenge. (Fortunately there’s recent Windhammer prize with a decent collection)

    1. I am a fan of those too — and there’s some real structural ingenuity in some of the Windhammer books I’ve tried — but they might be too overt about their mechanics for this purpose. And a lot of the app gamebooks I’ve tried (Cubus, Tin Man, etc.) kind of play up their stats element rather than playing it down. Maybe _if_ or _Life’s Lottery_, but those are both printed books and we were talking on this panel specifically about projects that had to be digital to work.

  2. Speaking of Tin Man Games… (as I do in a heartily biased manner, since I’m one of the writers) Choices: And The Sun Went Out feels very reading-y to me. There are no stats, although different things will happen depending on choices past and present. It has a tiny bit of visual info (the Moti character) and optional sound, and I wish I had an apple watch so I could utilise the fun option of having Moti “speak” through the watch.

  3. Emily –

    What do you think of narrative boardgames like B17 Queen of the Skies?

    Delightful and informative as always.


  4. Have you seen the work coming out of the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol?

    There’s a lot of interactive fiction with a focus on Ambient Literature.

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