Mailbag: Studying IF and Narrative

I sometimes print letters I’ve received and what I wrote in response. This is usually for one of two reasons: I’d like to pass on what the writer had to say, or the writer asked a question that requires a long detailed answer, and I think other people might benefit from seeing that as well.

I am experimenting with doing this in a more formal way, with a regular mailbag post. Reprinted letters may be edited for length; if so, I will note that editing has occurred. I do not do this without the permission of the letter-writer, so if you write to me and would be open to seeing your email appear as a blog post, feel free to mention that fact. On the other hand, I do not guarantee to print every letter that grants permission.

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Hi! 

[Identifying information removed.] I’m in the formulation phases of an honors project, for which I am working to create and advocate for interactive fiction as a literary medium. In doing so I’ve been trying to explore interactive fiction and engage with creators, and I’ve repeatedly had people refer me to you! I’ve been spending time reading your blog and your IF work, and I was wondering if you would answering a few questions (or, at least, directing me to more reading material). 

• First, I am a bit curious about how you would define Interactive Fiction. When beginning reading about it, I began with my preformed definition of the medium that has since been a bit challenged. Initially, I had been using the term to describe any fiction that is interactive, i.e. video games and visual novels, as well as traditional text-centric fictions. Would you say that Interactive Fiction, at least in regards to how it is broadly discussed, is more of a straightforwardly defined medium consisting of text-based fictions, multilinear or otherwise? Where is the line between video game/visual novel/interactive fiction?  Nick Montfort, in Twisty Little Passages, suggests that a work isn’t truly interactive fiction if it does not utilize a parser and have an interactive world. What do you think about this? (I know that this is probably a question without a very quick/easy or objective answer, but I would still love to hear your thoughts).

I intentionally avoid trying to specify such definitions.

In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of community upheaval around what is or is not “real” interactive fiction, which somewhat mirrors the broader arguments about what is or is not a “real” game. These are not bloodless battles: they’re pitched fights about who gets access to resources, coverage, and respect. In that context, I’ve become much more cautious about trying to provide exact labeling instructions for IF.

I’d also say that it’s common to see choice-based and hypertext work included in lists of interactive fiction and submitted to IF comps these days, so it seems that at least a significant part of the community is inclined to include those.

• In your article “The Prose Medium and IF” (which has been extremely enlightening and helpful for me), you mentioned the unique way that detail needs to be handled in interactive fiction: that it should be avoided when it doesn’t help the player find the next piece of the puzzle, or that emphases need to be placed on the elements that are uniquely relevant to the players’ interactions. Would you say that this is true for choice-based IF, or is this an artifact of utility in parser-based IF? I’m particularly interested in choice-based IF, and was curious if this was something that I needed to keep an eye on moving forward.

Choice-based IF has its own different needs and affordances. Here is some discussion on cadence and length of text between choices; on phrasing of the choices themselves and how to reveal them; on choice phrasing and structure in my piece Bee; and on some of the differences within the choice-based ecology.

• How important would you say puzzles/investigation are to interactive fiction? Is that element of exploration and problem solving part of what makes interactive fiction unique compared to traditional literary media? And to stretch that a bit further, what types of stories are best suited for interactive fiction? 

“Part of,” sure, perhaps. It’s not essential, though.

Some genres of IF have traditionally used puzzles to structure and pace games, and puzzles can be a good way of guaranteeing that the player reaches particular information in a fairly open-environment style of game design. But there are loads of puzzleless works of IF.

And to stretch that a bit further, what types of stories are best suited for interactive fiction?

I hesitate about questions like this because they would seem to imply that some stories are bad for IF, and I don’t like to tell people what cannot be done. It may be that there’s a good way of doing something, and I just haven’t thought of it or seen it pulled off before.

I can say, though, that there are some story types that I like much better in interactive form than in other forms. Horror, for instance: when I’m watching horror and watching some other fool stumble into the dark basement, I tend to feel exasperation at the character (why are you so stupid?) or detachment (okay, I know what’s about to happen, so I’m going to brace myself). In interactive horror, I’m the one choosing to uncover the next bit of the horrible mystery, drawn forward by my own curiosity, and I find that tension really productive.

I also really enjoy interactive pieces — text IF or video games — that offer a lot of deep optional world building. In a novel, too much extra stuff about the backstory can really get in the way when you want the plot to keep moving forward, but the exploratory nature of an interactive medium means that you can fold in a whole bunch of additional information about your world and let the player engage with the aspects that interest her.

Why use it, as opposed to traditional prose, or video games, or something else that perhaps has a stronger platform and broader audience?

There’s probably an argument that it’s easier to sell and get feedback on some kinds of IF than on some kinds of conventional fiction, and indie video games are facing severe discoverability issues right now, so it’s not really clear that “write a video game instead” is going to get you a broader audience in any particular case. The maximum reach is higher, but the minimum reach may be just as low, and the time/energy investment is bigger too.

But assuming you’re asking about artistic rather than practical motives:

interactive text can compel attention and offer exploration, challenge, constraint, complicity, etc. in a way that non-interactive prose does not.

Maybe useful, if you haven’t run into it yet, is this article on Inform 7 for fiction authors. It was written at a time when we were still mostly talking about IF as a descendant of the text adventure, with puzzles and the parser as typical features, but it does delve some into what might appeal to writers in general.

In particular, it mentions challenge/complicity/exploration as advantages of interactive media. I sometimes add other things to that list, but those three always stay in place.

— interactive text is able to convey interiority, jumps in time, interwoven backstory, and other elements that are harder to get into non-textual interactive media.

• I’ve noticed that quite a few of your works are adaptations of myths and fairy tales. Is there a particular reason for this? Is adaptation somewhere where interactive fiction can shine?

Two reasons.

From a storytelling point of view, I’m often interested in exploring the experience and perceptions of characters who appear in a well-known story but who aren’t the point of view character in the original. The story of Pygmalion and Galatea as originally told is all about what Pygmalion feels and thinks.

Then there’s also the huge gain you get in player knowledge if you cast them as a character they’re already aware of. You don’t have to spend the first several scenes of the game establishing their backstory and motivation; instead you can let them step right into playing.

But I don’t think of this as adaptation exactly — these are all new works.

Sorry to come at you will all of these questions out of the blue! All of these things and more have been stewing in my mind for a while now, and from what I have heard from other creators, you are something of an authority, haha. I really enjoy your work and have gotten a lot of value from your blog, and I would absolutely love to hear your thoughts.

There you go!

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Hello Emily Short, 

[Identifying information removed.] I am doing research in order to formulate my thesis question. My thesis is going to be on the current state of narrative in games, how it is told, and how we can improve on what we know (about narrative in games) – based on what we see in creative writing methods. Unfortunately, I don’t have a much more specific explanation than that, because that’s what I’m trying to find!

It appears you are an ideal person to ask this question to, seeing as if you have loads of experience in the interactive fiction field, and are a very knowledgeable role model for someone like me, trying to break into the narrative design field. I see that you also follow Event[0], the newly-released indie game, on twitter, which would be more of the direction I would like to go in as far as interactive fiction goes. 

TLDR: I was wondering if you might be able to point out any possible directions I could go, as far as storytelling and game theory goes, or point me in the direction of any current projects, papers, or methods (theory) that I could possible test. I would like to contribute to the field of knowledge for narrative in games, but don’t really know where to begin.

If you have any time at all, I would love to discuss this with you.

It feels like there are several possible thesis ideas suggested in this letter, and they would lead in quite different directions:

  1. What kind of craft is taught to games writers vs. what is taught to writers in other spaces? What practical constraints and freedoms apply to games writing that do not apply to other forms of writing? Are there lessons from elsewhere that can be trivially imported into the games space that no one has yet thought of?
  2. Are there academic models of narrative in games available to test or explore more deeply?
  3. What storytelling techniques are common in games? What is available in independent games that we don’t see much in console games? Are there promising directions for new game development that would touch on these topics?

So to look at those separately, both as proposed projects and in terms of possible resources:

Assessing game writing craft relative to other creative writing craft (point 1)

I’m inclined to be a bit wary about this approach because I worry there’s an implicit assumption game writers don’t really know what they’re doing, and that things would improve a lot if only they would pay attention to traditional writing craft.

Games writers are not unaware of traditional creative writing methods, but both the institutional and the formal constraints on games writing affect what can be done there — as well as provide some new opportunities that don’t exist in conventional fiction. Writing for games is genuinely a different skill from writing traditional fiction, and proficiency in the one doesn’t guarantee proficiency in the other.

Still, one way in might be to study the transmission of game writing craft through the instruction materials that are widely available.

There are lots of books written to teach people how to write for games. As always, some of these are better than others. A search like “writing for video games” on Amazon will turn up many recommendations. If your thesis is about what craft and technique is explicitly taught to game writers vs. what is explicitly taught to creative writing students, you might want to make a thorough survey of these.

You could also look at syllabi for courses about writing for games, workshops and content offered in venues such as the GDC Narrative Summit. You could then compare these with ways that writing craft is taught in other media.

An alternate approach might be to look at crossover points: authors who have worked in both games and traditional fiction, or reviewers who read and review both, and what they say about the two media. Spooky action at a distance is a review blog that looks at both interactive fiction and speculative fiction; Max Gladstone is a published SFF author who has written about his choice-based game creation; Tom Bissell comes from a traditional journalism/writing background and written for AAA, and has a New Yorker interview about the topic. (I don’t completely agree with his conclusions, but that’s fine.)

Finally, if you’re looking at the craft and experience of game writers, I recommend playing The Writer Will Do Something: it will only take a few minutes; and though it’s satirical, it contains a lot of truth.

Testing academic models about game narrative (point 2)

There are indeed lots of models of narrative in games. Again, I would be a little wary here: in particular, I tend to look sideways at articles where the writer argues from first principles about a new different way games ought to be written, without themselves having written any games themselves, let alone tested their new theory. But that’s not to say that these models have no analytic power.

  • Interactive Digital Narrative is a recent, heavily academic book about interactive storytelling in games, hypertext and other forms of new media. I’ve written it up in three posts starting here. Many of the articles are about attempts to build systems that will tell stories, but there are some that look more at formal approaches to understanding what is going on in game narrative; these articles will in turn have bibliography that might suggest further courses of research.
  • Narrativity of Computer Games is a post summarizing a lot of academic discourse on this topic and providing a number of onward links.

You likely also won’t get very far researching this topic without running into a discussion of narratology vs. ludology: mercifully less of a hot argument now than it used to be, this concerns the question of whether games really can or should focus on story, or whether they should be considered purely as rule systems and collections of mechanics.

Then there are a handful of older books that I continue to find useful because they have fundamental things to say about the game/narrative connection:

Exploring the canon of games and narrative techniques therein (point 3)

Obviously, because so many new games are coming out every year and because there is story in games of every level from AAA console games to indie IF, it is impossible to keep fully up to date on what is narratively interesting, or to be familiar with every possible technique.

So trying to fully cover what is going on in game narrative would be massively out of scope for an academic thesis, but you could select some particular trends or areas of interest to dive into.

If you wanted to start assembling a list of games that were regarded as narratively effective (recently or in the past), you might consider:

I’d also recommend

Once you’ve played some games that interest you, you might want to read reviews about what was new/interesting in their narrative approaches. Critical Distance is a site that collates links to game criticism, and focuses on longer and more thoughtful writeups, so a good way to find criticism about a particular game is just to search the Critical Distance archives and see what comes up.

So that’s three sets of suggestions, but they’re really just initial approaches, and a few hints about where to look. Any of these would need a lot of refinement and selection to turn into a real thesis topic with a well-defined question.

One thought on “Mailbag: Studying IF and Narrative

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