Interactive Fiction (ML Ronn)

Screen Shot 2017-06-03 at 8.36.21 PM.pngThe full title of this is Interactive Fiction: How to Engage Readers and Push the Boundaries of Storytelling (ML Ronn), and I read it as part of the same research that led me to read Deb Potter’s guide.

(Throughout the below, I’ll refer to Ronn as “he” because Ronn mentions using the pen name Michael in places, despite the gender non-specific initials on the cover.)

Ronn’s book makes an entertaining diptych to Deb Potter’s piece, since he starts out in the introduction by vehemently rejecting a lot of the things Potter embraces: writing for children, leaving protagonists blank, deploying frequent deaths, and the use of the second person POV in general.

Ronn claims it’s flatly impossible to tell a good or characterful story in 2nd person POV; there are plenty of counter-examples in the IF canon but instead I’ll take the opportunity to recommend some Jennifer Egan. To be fair, however, I think he’s really railing against AFGNCAAPs rather than second person.

Like Potter, Ronn is talking about how to write CYOA ebooks as a primary reference point; like Potter, he suggests a conventional linear writers’ tool for the purpose, in this case Scrivener. (I flinch less than I did at the Microsoft Word suggestion, but still, it wouldn’t exactly be my go-to solution here.) Both books refer to a feature — the “catch” page or “stop” page — that most computer-based IF doesn’t need: a page in an ebook that’s meant to tell the reader to stop paging forward and go back and make a choice. To my mind, the requirement for this at all helps demonstrate why Kindle ebooks aren’t the world’s most natural form for interactive fiction, but there we are.

Ronn’s style, like Potter’s, is quite chatty and not particularly technical, but he’s more given to large generalizations, including prescriptive instructions about how to structure a plot. Then there are the ones that assign motives to other people:

False endings are the author trying to show the reader how smart he or she is.

…when I think it’s fair to say there are a wide variety of ways and reasons to deploy early deaths in IF. I found myself starting to mentally snark back a bit.

However, Ronn also speaks out against left/right-style pointless decisions and (a personal peeve of mine) choices that let the reader decline to participate in the story at all. And he gives a long argument for “story logic” which sounds reminiscent of some of my own pleas for systematic mechanics — though what he’s outlining here is rather simpler and more streamlined than your average parser game with a complex verb-set, and more or less boils down to suggesting a way to score the reader. And he spends several pages describing a maze scenario which would have the IF community ca. 1997 howling about its tedious retro nature. All that’s old is new again.

I suspect that if you really for some reason want to assemble an interactive ebook with old-school writing tools, Ronn’s Scrivener advice is going to work out better than Potter’s suggestions about Microsoft Word — though I personally would strenuously avoid either of those methods. (inklewriter used to compile Kindle interactive books; I don’t know if that’s still an option; but there must be better ways than this excruciating accounting process and having to write every single one of your own “catch pages.” For pity’s sake.)

Elsewhere — where it comes to matters of characterization, voice, mechanics, and choice design — Ronn seems often to be rediscovering conclusions reached elsewhere quite a while ago. But it’s interesting to see this happening, nonetheless. The book ends with an impassioned plea for writers who take the possibilities of interactive fiction seriously as a medium for adult readers — and a worthy recommendation of Pretty Little Mistakes.

(As mentioned on the review of Potter’s book: if you are interested in writing interactive fiction commercially and are in the London area, our next IF Meetup, July 19, will be on that topic. You may also be interested in This Dungeon is a Book.)

7 thoughts on “Interactive Fiction (ML Ronn)”

  1. I’ve written IF in Scrivener! …but it was strictly CYOA style, with exactly one looping point, and nothing more coded than basic HTML links to the page associated with each choice. God, it was a nightmare of folders and numbered tabs and obsessive double-checking, and I still caught an error right before the whole thing went live. Never again.

  2. What tool would you recommend for writing IF in EPUB/Kindle form anyway? There is no commercial distribution channel for Twine works, is there, or Inform, really? The actual software path takes a lot work, skill, and graphics, and competing with real games… well, your text based, low-interactive work is not going to shine in comparison.

    1. I’m not quite sure whether your question is “I specifically want to do an interactive Kindle book; how can I achieve that?” or whether it’s “which IF tools provide the best path to commercial publication?”

      1. Actually I’m not thinking either. I’m thinking about an EPUB 2 book. The interactivity in it is limited to internal links and there are no variables. I think you can still do a lot with just that but as Fade Manley noted, it’s very cumbersome to write even basic CYOA, not to mention some more complex structures. I’ve turned to Scrivener as it has at least some support for this kind of ventures. Why EPUB 2? It has good distribution and support, it has established. And there you have the context literature, not games. But sure, “Which IF tools provide the best path to commercial publication” is a good topic. I’d love to know although I don’t write or publish in English myself which really limits possibilities.

    2. Have you considered maybe something like LaTeX (there’s a “gamebook” library) and pandoc to convert?

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