December 1, 2003

Twisty Little Passages

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 12:01 am

Recently I’ve been reading Nick’s new book, Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. Of course, I liked it right off (how can you not like a scholarly book with the spoilers marked?). But today, reading further, I realized that I’ve been waiting for a book like this.

I think Twisty Little Passages is the first book I’ve read that comes to electronic writing on its own terms — that, in a sense, takes electronic writing for granted, as the starting place. TLP isn’t trying to explain how interactive fiction is just like good print literature, but computerized. It’s not trying to present IF as just like your favorite computer game, but with bonus literary qualities. TLP doesn’t ignore IF’s relatives in other areas of literature and computational media. But it presents IF as itself, a type of electronic writing from which discussion can begin, and without a feeling of worry behind the words — worry that the reader must be convinced that computer literature is a topic worthy of consideration.

And, beyond this, it’s well written and informative and convincing. I’m certainly going to be recommending it. I know many folks may be thinking of picking up Twisty Little Passages for the memories, for a nostalgia kick. My advice: that won’t make it come to the top of your list fast enough. Think of it as the next book to read if you’re interested in electronic writing, in the relationship between narrative and play, or even in what it is we’re trying to think through when we talk about interactive media. Given the folks who frequent this site, I’m guessing we’re going to see a lot of references to it in future conversations here.

4 Responses to “Twisty Little Passages”

  1. nick Says:

    Noah, your comments are very kind. I’m glad the book is proving interesting.

    If mine is the first book that comes to electronic writing on its own terms – and I wouldn’t claim that, but it’s certainly nice to hear you say that – I think it would have to be because the process of coming to terms with electronic writing has taken a long time. Historically, electronic writing, and specifically hypertext, tended to be defined as something like the concrete realization of critical theory (and thus a reification, rather than something truly new); or something that is “serious” (as in “serious hypertext”) to the exclusion of being a game or having any features of a game; or something like an extension of the book (“expanded books”). But these sorts of ideas, although they were limiting, were also a start – and at least hey found an audience or readership, whereas a more advanced approach that was literary, “born digital,” and not embarassed about something being a game as well would have been difficult to offer to a 1980s English department, however progressive, or to a computer science department of that era.

    MIT Press now has a new media catalog (which was not the case three years ago); Georgia Tech is now starting a digital media PhD program. Those who don’t believe in coincidence are right: a publication doesn’t make sense without a public willing to read it, willing to consider the ideas that it puts forth.

  2. noah Says:

    Nick, I agree with what you say. I didn’t mean to criticize past authors by saying yours was the first book I’d read that was without anxiety about electronic writing as a subject. More, I realized I’d been waiting for a book like this because it signals the beginning of a new era for our field. And TLP is a great book with which to inaugurate it.

    That said, and having heaped lots of (I think appropriate) praise on the book whenever I’ve discussed it, there is one thing that’s bothered me in my reading so far. On the third page, early in your wooing of the reader, you write, “Roland Barthes offered, in The Pleasure of the Text, an erotic concept of the reading experience. The text reveals itself in a sort of striptease, according to Barthes (1975), and the reader who skips boring passages resembles ‘a spectator in a nightclub who climbs onto the stage and speeds up the dancer’s striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order’ as the author would have (11). . . . Not only does the ‘reader’ of a work of interactive fiction metaphorically climb up onto the stage and start ripping off clothing — this time in an order he or she chooses — this person also figures out how to do so in order to proceed.”

    Reading this, I wanted to say aloud, “Oh, come on now, Nick.” This doesn’t sound like something anyone (myself, my students, you yourself) would want to do. It certainly doesn’t sound like a good metaphor for “The Pleasure of the Text Adventure” (the chapter’s title). It sounds more like a metaphor for figuring out how to pry open the IF’s file and rifle through its contents. As you write later, IF is more like a riddle. In my experience with IF (much more limited than yours) it can also be like the best kind of guessing game. For me, if there’s an interactive striptease happening in IF, the interaction isn’t ripping off clothes. The interaction is trying to figure out what the system’s author was hoping I would say, what it’s desired for me to say in order to entice the dropping of one of the next possible veils.

    I realize I’ve given this one small metaphor a perhaps over-large weight. But it bothered me more than it should have, coming so early in the book. Luckily, all the pages that followed it have served to give examples of things I like, leaving me with a very positive impression. I’m amazed that you were able to do things such as explicate the different structures and types of utterance in IF interaction in a manner that’s stimulating in both literary and critical ways (rather than simply a dry laying out of your terms). It’s really a well written book.

  3. nick Says:

    Noah, thanks again for the praise and for the criticsm. In this of the Barthes reference I was on the one hand making a joke, while also trying to suggest a serious approach to IF – one that I didn’t take, but which someone might in the future.

    My point was that if you think it’s interesting to discuss literature in terms of erotics, seduction, surprise, and so forth – concepts which no one thinks are limited to popular genres, unlike the more commonly invoked “game” and “mystery” – it would actually be fairly natural to extend these in an attempt to understand interactive fiction. One could explain the interactor as participating in his or her own seduction, for instance, in a new way that isn’t allowed in traditional unilinear texts. That would be more interesting that just claiming that IF provides a seductive text/machine whereas the novel provides a seductive text.

    I didn’t do that, choosing to focus on the riddle and on an extension of narratology, but I thought it was worth hinting at the idea and drawing a connection to some of the things readers and critics find nice about, say, the novel. I don’t the riddle is the only useful figure for IF, after all. Although I mentioned the idea of seduction in a way that may have been wacky and may have made it sound a bit silly, it is another possible avenue of approach.

  4. richtfilz Says:
    Montfort: Twisty Little Passages
    Ich habe eine erste Rezension außerhalb der IF-Szene gefunden. Wer schenkt mir dieses Buch? TLP isn’t trying to explain how interactive fiction is just like good print literature, but computerized. It’s not trying to present IF as just like your…

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