September 19, 2006
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.