September 19, 2006
Mara Meijers’s post and three linked blog posts (1 2 3) were mentioned to me, so I thought I’d write a bit about defining IF, and about how a definition of IF (or some other new media form) can help.
I consider “interactive fiction” (or at least “text-based interactive fiction”) to indicate a computer program that accepts natural language input, provides natural output, and simulates a world. An IF system is a conversational system, like a chatterbot – but it simulates a whole environment, incidents, and so on rather than just one personality. So:
- Interactive fiction, considered from this perspective, is a form (like the sonnet or the sestina) and not a genre (like the mystery).
- According to this definition, whether something is IF or not has nothing to do with whether it is any good, how much choice it offers, or any other matters of taste or quality.
- This definition doesn’t rule out that some digital work might have qualities of IF and other forms as well, for instance, the chatterbot (Emily Short’s Galatea), arcade games, or hypertext. It’s possible to build a hypertext with an IF development system; Andrew Plotkin did this with A Space Under the Window. (This piece gets called interactive fiction, for the reason given in the next paragraph.) It’s also possible to combine some IF aspects, like a simulated world, with hypertext, as Stuart Moulthrop did in Reagan Library. There are also ways to provide an interface that lets the user either type an IF-style command or do the equivalent of clicking on a word; this is what Aaron Reed did in Whom the Telling Changed. Generally, the adventure game and hypertext overlap. Jakob Nielson’s Multimedia and Hypertext includes screenshots from Spaceship Warlock, Myst, and Dèjá Vu II as examples of hypertext systems.
- Beyond the form itself, interactive fiction is a tradition and a community of practice, the definition of which is made by publications, tools, forums for discussion, and so on.
- The idea of a continuous spectrum can be appealing, but forms, traditions, and communities of practice are rather cleanly divided from each other in the real world in many ways. There might be a spectrum between “art” and “not art,” but only a certain set of things get into the museum. There may be blurring between “fiction” and “poetry,” but it’s clear where the shelves begin and end for each of these in Barnes and Noble. In the case of recent work in IF, the institutional way that things are defined as IF generally involves (with a few commercial exceptions) their showing up on the Interactive Fiction Archive.
- Distinctions matter in terms of our understanding. Distinguishing “data” and “program” is extremely helpful to understanding what computers do with files. To understand what a Word macro virus is, it’s important to see the Word document as something that has the qualities of both and to understand what both things are, and how they are different, rather than just labeling it as something in between.
September 20th, 2006 at 2:21 pm
I wonder if you might expand a bit on how you distinguish form and genre? Does it really have to be an either/or proposition?
September 20th, 2006 at 2:56 pm
I’ve put some thought into this, too. Here’s my take on things: though IF is a literary form, when categorized among modern computer games, it is often considered a (classical) genre in its own right.
September 20th, 2006 at 4:19 pm
In Literature, poetry and novel are forms. Comedy and drama are genres. IF and graphic adventures are some of the forms that computer games can take, but they are not genres (not even clasical genres). I would say that “form” is a means of expression, while “genre” is a storytelling tool. At least that´s how I see it. (Also, I disagree with Nick´s 4th and 5th points: A definition can be fine-tuned, of course, but IF can´t be a different thing through time depending on what´s in fashion that week. What art is can´t be defined in terms of “what is in a museum” or in the IF archive. IF, like Popeye, is what it is, and nothing else.)
September 20th, 2006 at 4:33 pm
Is Facade an interactive fiction? It accepts natural language input, provides natural language output (among other kinds of output, including movement and body language of the characters), and simulates a (apartment-sized) world.
Michael views Facade as an interactive drama. Are interactive fictions and interactive dramas the same thing? The play experience is certainly different in many respects.
September 20th, 2006 at 5:00 pm
Is Facade an interactive fiction?
In the past I’ve preferred the general definition of “fiction”, as an “imagined story”, not tied to form. In this sense, interactive fiction is pretty much equivalent to the general term “interactive story”. Using this definition for fiction then, interactive drama, e.g. Facade, is a form of interactive fiction; Photopia would be text-based interactive fiction.
But most consider fiction to specifically be a text-based form, the way the term is used in a bookstore, e.g. novels and short stories in the “fiction” section.
At the same time, somewhat inconsistently I suppose, I considered the term “drama” to in fact be tied to form: an enacted story with actors, e.g. theater or movies. (But, I suppose you could make the argument that “drama” shouldn’t be tied to form; while not quite a genre, it’s a story with certain properties, such as building tension, about serious subjects with heavy emotion, etc. It’s not a genre itself because you can have sci-fi dramas, western dramas, etc.)
If you use the form-specific definition of fiction (text) and the form-specific definition of drama (enacted), interactive drama is complementary to IF: Facade is not interactive fiction, but interactive drama; Photopia would be just interactive fiction. In this case, what is the umbrella term for both — interactive story? Interactive narrative? Sigh.
September 20th, 2006 at 5:36 pm
I tend to use interactive narrative as the umbrella term, interactive fiction to mean textual interactive narrative (that also has a simulated world, natural-language interaction, etc.), and interactive drama to mean enacted interactive narrative. Though interactive fiction could mean something more general (akin to interactive narrative), the term has already been co-opted by the folk who create Inform and TADS-based work, and I’m happy to give them the term.
I believe Nick does consider Facade to be an interactive fiction, but I’m not sure if the rest of the IF community would. For instance, I doubt we’d be allowed in the IF competitions, or hosted in the IF archive.
Noah has argued for “hypertext” (as originally conceived by Nelson) to mean something much broader than the term hypertext has come to mean as defined by a community of practice. In Noah’s broader definition, a hypertext can include significant computation, including a simulated world, so IF might be subsumed by hypertext. But I think Noah is fighting an uphill battle here; the communities of practice have already spoken.
Terminology keeps coming back to haunt us.
September 20th, 2006 at 5:53 pm
Another datapoint: Jesper Juul prefers the general definition of fiction.
Given this, though, there’s no good shorthand term for text-based interactive fiction, a cumbersome set of words…
btw, to be clear, the term “interactive drama” was used in the context of digital interactive entertainment at least as early as 1986 in Brenda Laurel’s thesis, and later her 1991 book Computers as Theater, and by Joe Bates and the original Oz project folk in the early 1990’s; we created Facade within that vision of the term.
September 20th, 2006 at 6:19 pm
Andrew, thanks for the clarification regarding interactive drama. And, in fact, that’s precisely the reason why I prefer “interactive drama” as the term for enacted interactive narrative; it has historical continuity and precedence.
September 20th, 2006 at 11:24 pm
It’s great to read this discussion. First off, I do find that form and genre are well-defined and distinct: The sestina is not a genre, and it really isn’t useful to imagine that it is. josemanuel has the right idea about the form/genre distinction, I believe. There is no contradiction in talking about IF conventions or traditions, however. Just as there is a sonnet tradition as well as a sonnet form, IF has conventions in addition to being a form. I began my post by explaining that the definition I offered (the first “perspective” I mentioned) is formal, but I elaborated to explain that this formal perspective is only one valid view.
Jim, I’ve been asked recently through other channels if Facade was interactive fiction. It’s a complex question. I’d say that it has most or all of the formal elements, as SHRDLU and the blocks world does, but, similarly, it is not participating mainly in the IF tradition. The emphasis is on interpersonal relationships rather than figuring out a systematic world or riddle, so “interactive drama” (as Michael and Andrew explain) makes for a more meaningful framework. Nevertheless, people interested in IF would be well advised to learn about Facade, which is extremely relevant to what goes on in IF. That’s why I reviewed it as IF for the SPAG Newsletter.
September 21st, 2006 at 2:16 am
Earlier today I posted a blog entry entitled Text Adventure Evolution. You’ll find a link to an interesting text-adventure engine that incorporates computational linguistics and theorem proving. You might find it interesting.
If fiction is an “untruth that is not a lie,” what is it in a work of fiction that one might claim is not a lie? And, what is the relation between ‘it’ and drama??
September 21st, 2006 at 10:45 am
FrOZ is a great project, and it’s particularly admirable that they’ve made it available for general use. Unfortunately the Racer theorem prover is now payware, encumbering the system.
September 25th, 2006 at 1:45 pm
Mara, I would extend your point even one step further, which is to say that IF can take *many* forms (e.g., depending on whether one uses TADs, Inform, etc.), but the group of IF text games as a whole stands as its own genre.
josemanuel & nick – while the form v. genre is a nice and useful binary, it strikes me as unsatisfactory. In poetry, the delineation of form outside of genre certainly may often be a bit easier (the sestina, the sonnet, the villanelle), although not always: what of the dramatic monologue (which may come in a variety of lyric forms)? But lyric poetry is surely a genre, just as surely as prose fiction is a genre.
And it is with prose that genre distinctions become even blurrier. Is the epistolary novel a form, a genre, or both? And let’s ignore the equally complicating case of so-called “genre fiction,” designating those so-often maligned realms of “sub-par, non-literary” fiction (judgments in quotes for hopefully obvious reasons). But of course, just as we may have genres of medium, so too we might have genres between media (mystery, comedy, and so on), and the overlap causes additional confusion.
In any case, comparing IF to other prose fiction traditions seems more genuine than aligning it with poetic formal traditions. And it is this alignment with fiction, and its distinguishing itself as ‘interactive’ (as opposed to merely ‘prose fiction’) that suggests to me a genre built from many potential forms, and distinguishable from other computer programs (just as epic is distinguished from lyric, and lyric from dramatic, though all can be poetic).
Sorry for rambling; I find it a compelling question, and one too-often overlooked in new media and computer game studies…