Interacting with Fiction

This essay may be disorganized. Treat it as a brain dump on the material, rather than a serious analysis.

I’d like to discuss a few different kinds of interactive fiction, coming from different traditions and with different attributes. I’d like to discuss how the forms themselves play with ideas about constraint and agency, and how treating them seriously might change the way we think about fiction and fictional worlds. I’d also like to discuss how each of these subverts certain ideas about interactive fiction taken from non-interactive fiction, and make connections between these forms and other related forms that I haven’t seen made due to accidents of history and geneology.

Dramatis Personae

Classic IF: Also called the ‘text adventure’ genre, Classic IF (which I will use interchangably with ‘IF’ in this essay) is written fiction in the form of a computer program that can be interacted with via free-form text input. The exemplar I choose is Collosal Cave Adventure. Usually, when people talk about ‘interactive fiction’, they mean this. Most of the attributes of classic IF carry over into the ‘point and click adventure’ genre, because historically, most creators of point and click adventures started out in text adventures; I am treating the ability to click on any object in a crowded scene to be of the same class of player agency as free-form text input for the purposes of this essay and using IF to refer to both forms, for reasons that will become clear in the next section. Genre conventions in classic IF include difficult puzzles and a stance of habitual contempt for the player. Player habits developed by this form include exhaustive searches of possibility space (picking up all objects, trying all verbs, clicking everywhere on the screen).

Visual Novels: Also called ‘VNs’, visual novels consist of sequences of scenes interspersed with player choices. Visual novels differ from classic IF in that player choices are strictly limited — typically no more than four options are ever given, these options are clearly presented to the user (no free-form text input), and the options chosen almost always cause meaningful narrative changes. If classic IF has a maze structure, VNs have a tree structure. I’ve chosen as an exemplar of the form Everlasting Summer, because it’s free & contains many of the genre-typical attributes and features. Genre conventions include plotted routes based on romantic pairings (being associated romantically with a particular character will give you a very different sequence of choices and events than with another character) and framing devices involving time travel. Player habits include re-playing in order to play through all possible routes (or at least, get all possible endings). Many recent twine games are similar in structure to visual novels, and so I would classify them the same way; while some FMV games are best classified as part of the point and click adventure genre, many are better grouped with VNs.

Wiki-based Choose Your Own Adventure stories: While these are not typically considered in essays like this, I think they add several interesting dimensions of possibility. My chosen exemplar is the Infictive Research Wiki Adventure. Wiki adventures have a primary method of play similar to visual novels, but differ in that players can modify scenes and options.

Fan work: Here is where we get a bit meta. Fan work, also called doujinshi, is the blanket term for any creative work related to a franchise not made by the franchise license holders. If we include fanon in this definition, we can classify it as a genuine interaction with a static fictional world that can result in apparent mutations to that fictional world. My exemplar is the fan theories subreddit.

A note on our characters: I have avoided classifying the behemoth of triple-a games as part of interactive fiction because in modern high-budget games, gameplay mechanics and visual sophistication often take priority over storytelling, and to the extent that storytelling is done it is entirely non-interactive. Unless the player character can meaningfully change the story being told (in a more complex way than winning or losing) and the story being told takes a prominent role in the experience, I would not classify it as interactive fiction. As far as I’m aware, the only recent triple-a game franchise to meet these criteria as well as the least suitable VN has been Mass Effect; however, that franchise also struggled with a percieved betrayal of the fanbase’s expectation for meaningful interaction with the fictional world during the end of the final game. Because our focus is on agency and constraint in interactive storytelling, my position is that games that allow the player character free and detailed movement in 3d space (or indeed 2d space) are, generally speaking, providing levels of agency superfluous to the goal of storytelling and potentially directly counter to it. The fact that these games often mimic the styles of non-interactive forms of storytelling like film for their storytelling elements while having primary gameplay mechanics be of no use during designated storytelling portions indicates that storytelling and gameplay are considered to be separate domains potentially at odds in this kind of game, while the genres I am focusing on have gameplay elements that directly interact with the structure of narrative.

Agency and meta-agency

In a VN, the player is also in control of a player character. However, the player’s decisions are much more limited. Rather than being able to try whatever obscure sequence of words he can imagine, the set of possible options is laid out. The responsibility for enumerating the possibilities of the world has moved from player to developer, which makes for easier play — no rules are hidden. Classic IF will appear more mysterious than a VN of similar complexity, and it is possible to have options in a VN that in classic IF would make it unplayable because the player could not reasonably be expected to guess them. In both IF and VNs, the world is crystallized and all possible narrative paths through the world have been predetermined; however, in a VN, because of the requirement that these options be enumerated, we have limited the player’s agency to actions that have meaningful narrative effects. I call this narrative agency: the player’s actions directly select which path to take through the story tree.

In a wiki adventure, we have both narrative agency and meta-agency. A player can take whatever choices he likes, but can also create new narrative paths. The story is crystallized until the user decides to change it. Furthermore, there is a social element: stories are being mutated by a group, and feedback loops cause strange attractors in the group’s psychology to manifest in the fiction.

Finally, in fan work, we have only meta-agency. Fan work itself has no protagonist; the player navigates his own mental model of a narrative and creates new narratives from it. Once these narratives are released into the world they are crystallized; but, their mutability is ensured because new versions can be created by other fans. Occasionally, fan work creates a culture significantly divorced from the original and invents a very independent narrative universe, based more on trends and patterns in the fanbase than on any genuine attributes of the supposed source material — an extreme form of the feedback loops found in wiki adventure, generating narrative simulacra.


However, our mutable forms (fan work and wiki adventures) are incompletable on yet another order of magnitude. They change along the axis of real time as well as fictional time. While you can take a snapshot of a wiki adventure at any given time and play it to 100% completion, it can be modified the next time you play it — at any point along its timeline. Fan work is even more extreme; by its nature it forks, so any given fanwork is at any given time geneologically connected to several others that differ and are themselves mutable in real time. Fan work is the most amorpous — combining the flexibility of language with mutation along time and geographic axes, yet still operating directly upon narrative without the use of a player-character intermediary. Nevertheless, fan work is a game — a game with no author and no end, created entirely by the players.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software.

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