Definitions of Interactive Fiction

I am interested in working definitions of “Interactive Fiction” and would love to find bits of writing that set out to define it in a critical way. I would be grateful for links, but summary will do, too. If you have a definition of your own, I’d like to hear it!

I ask because I need ideas (and secondary sources) for a piece I’m writing.

I might be intellectually interested in excessively narrow or exclusive definitions, but to be clear I consider IF a big tent and welcome variation and innovation. Whatever I write will be in that spirit.

There is a lot of variety out there in terms of usage. “IF” in the “IF Community Forum” sense means one thing while the Steam tag “Interactive Fiction” seems to mean something different.

As a preemptive comment: I recognize that it is generally good not to get too hung up on definitions and categorization, but my purposes are not general.

I welcome your thoughts/comments!


I consider it a really broad tent: fiction I can interact with. I just started playing Joel McDonald’s new game Hindsight, which is a graphics-based game (and what graphics!). I am considering it interactive fiction because of the narrated (and readable) storyline in the same way I considered What Remains of Edith Finch to be IF. And oof, it’s emotional, like Edith Finch.

If I can do something to it (type, swipe, click, choose, etc), and it has a textual story, even if there are bells and whistles, it’s IF.

** For anyone interested, Joel McDonald made the jaw-droppingly gorgeous and fun Prune, which was not IF, but was one of the best games I played that year.


There are hundreds of posts on this forum about “what is IF”, and I’ve gotten heated about it before, but I think it’s easier to define IF for each person personally than for the whole field.

For me, there are certain traits of IF that make me like playing it, and my internal definition is based on those traits:
-no live gameplay/timers
-easy accessibility on different platforms
-able to be windowed/set aside/multitasking
-no graphics, or required window size
-no sound
-text output for convenient skimming
-intellectually stimulating in some way

Most of that is because I play around my family or in the background when studying or working, and I need to be able to stop at any second and pick it up again, and to not distract those around me.

But this is entirely selfish; it has nothing to do with the definition of the genre. Price doesn’t determine genre, and sound shouldn’t either. But I really don’t like playing timed commercial games with slow text and sound (I owned Heavens Vault for a year before I could make myself play through it).

But I wonder if all of us have our own personal preferences like this, and if this accounts for the heated arguments about genre.

For overarching, “platonic” definitions of IF, I think Infocom helped popularize “Interactive Fiction” as a term implying parser text entry and, explicitly, the use of text instead of graphics as a way of having a more vivid and beautiful world. Later, I think many people used the phrase Interactive Fiction to mean visual novels, text dating simulators, Choicescript Games and other games where the bulk of gameplay is reading text and selecting between pre-made choices.

I think both fit the definitions of “interactive” and “fiction”.


I don’t mean to deep-cut so soon, but could something like House of Leaves be considered interactive fiction? I certainly felt lost and potentially trapped during the maze of footnotes.

Or S which is a printed book with parallel timelines and stories happening - which also includes feelies. S presents itself as a much-read and margin-annotated unreturned library book you have come across called Ship of Theseus that several people in different timelines have written notes to each other and left various bookmarks in. It includes a diner napkin and a codewheel.

It might help to also consider ergodic literature:

In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.

Does “interactive” require that choices made by the reader/player can alter the plot or the ending? The remarkable What Remains of Edith Finch definitely feels interactive - there may be optional side discoveries, but that story does not change. And I must say it definitely does include interactive text! I’d venture Edith Finch is not ergodic, since it is played with a game controller and is very much a first-person video game. I would also say video games are exclusively interactive where most fiction is not.

Perhaps there are two variations of “interaction” in IF: a player can interact within an unchanging narrative basically as a tourist in a linear museum of discoverable story, or the player can have agency to bend a plot in pre-conceived directions. Is it interactive to decide the order of a wide but linear plot (do you go left to Adventureland, or right to Tomorrowland first, even though you will visit both before the end of the day?) Or is that just map traversal? I guess it’s possible an experience can be “open world” but not necessarily interactive - like exploring an art museum with no buttons. Amusingly, a real-world art museum does have an EXAMINE command if you take time to look at the plaque next to each exhibit!

We also have the somewhat settled-upon definition for our local purposes: a narrative whose primary conveyance is text which can be affected somehow by the reader, often hyperlinks, menus, or typed commands interpreted by a parser.


I’d definitely agree with Amanda and Brian (shocking) – actually Brian’s bit about IF ideally having no sound and being easy to put up and put down due to usually playing it around family or in the background, and as a result having Heaven’s Vault languishing unplayed on my hard drive, resonates very closely with my own situation!

If I were to try to put out my own working understanding of what counts as IF, I’d probably just say it’s an interactive piece that has textual input (understood broadly to include choice-based and hypertext-based input) and output as the primary mode of engagement. And then add on a genealogical approach to understand what’s at the core vs. the periphery for my personal enjoyment – like, visual novels are 100% IF, but I don’t tend to play them that much or find they resonate that much with me, but I think that’s largely because they’re coming from a tradition that’s quite distinct from the one deriving from Infocom.

(By this definition, it’s arguably the case that Planescape: Torment and Disco Elysium are IF, since text is the primary form of engagement for both – at least as I understand it, I’ve never played the latter – though they primarily draw on Western CRPG traditions and just hyper-elaborate the standard branching dialogue mechanics. But I think that’s right!)


Funnily enough, when I first got into IF and was vainly trying to teach myself Inform (6, at that point), the example game I started banging on was a House of Leaves pastiche… but I think you’re absolutely right that there can be printed IF, obviously including Choose Your Own Adventure books and gamebooks as well as things like the Usborne Puzzle Adventure books but extended to literary puzzleboxes too (does Pale Fire count?) I think there’s just usually an unstated “digital” when using the term…

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That’s probably a very good distinction as well: the books I’ve mentioned do not accept reader input, but can be “traversed” in nonlinear fashion by jumping around via references and footnotes and flipping pages - manual hyperlinks, if you will, although there is no overtly narrated “turn to page 41 if you want to examine the closet” convention like classic Choose Your Own AdventureTM books.

Perhaps IF as we think of it might also benefit from the distinction “involves a computer to interpret the player’s input to get more text” as opposed to the more broad “fiction that is interactive” that includes physical books with footnotes and CYOA which fall more on the ergodic side and any video game with an interactive plot.

People understand the difference between “games” and “computer games” and all of those are “interactive fictions” generally - IF could perhaps more squarely be defined as “computer interactive fiction” using text primarily instead of graphics (unlike like Edith Finch and Disco Elysium) and a computing device.

Just because a game includes text menu conversations (like Mass Effect) doesn’t make it IF where text is the primary narrative vehicle.


One silly further wrinkle: none of the IF definitions I’ve heard hinge at all on the second word. There’s lots of nonfiction IF (largely but not exclusively autobiography/memoir) and I don’t think that fact gives anyone pause though you’d sort of think it should!

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For my work as a professor, I like to give my students 3 of them (for the question, what is interactive fiction?):

  1. Commercial brand. Popularized by companies, and widely used because of nostalgia.
  2. Academic definition, (the Nick Monfort one). "It is a computer software that accepts text as input and also produces text as output. etc.
  3. Interactive fiction is defined by the community.

And I finish the lesson telling them:

“Interactive Fiction is an umbrella that encompasses all genres and types of narrative work within the community.”


James Frey aside, all autobiography/memoir IS fiction, I think, because our memories are so unreliable and they are our interpretations of events. If I were to write a memoir about my family when I was growing up (which you would definitely not want to read), my sister would not recognize that family, even though she was there. Her experience was totally different, and she would find most of it to be pure fiction.

And on a related note, back when I was a research scientist slaving away at a PhD that I ultimately abandoned, my PI (that’s principal investigator for you non-lab types) used to carp at us to “get the fiction out” of the write-ups of our experiments. And it was impossible to get the fiction out completely, because even when you’re describing a molecular pathway, you’re telling a story.


I’ve never read House of Leaves. But I’ve never read a book (other than the choose-your-own-adventure books I had as a kid) that I feel is interactive in the way I think games are. Which is not a ding on books. Straight fiction is better than anything.

But I don’t think your choices need to alter the ending for something to be IF, or most parser games wouldn’t count. Most games of any type are shepherding you toward an ending and hoping that you feel the illusion of freedom enough to forget you’re on the rails.


I feel like if humans as a species have to be stereotyped for one singular trait, I think it’s our all-consuming focus for stories. We build friendships with stories, we explain molecular pathways with stories, we record history with stories. Our brains are optimized for taking in a social structure, a series of events, and calculating a final end state. If we are explaining something that isn’t a social situation, we describe it using metaphors to create a social-situation interface, and then plug it back into our brain for processing.

In fact, our brains are so wired for stories, that we make up fictional situations and share them with each other for enjoyment, even if it has nothing to do with our real-life relationships. I imagine an alien species might find that genuinely confusing. We would have to justify it to them as “practice and refinement” of our problem-solving skills.

Sorry if this is off-topic, but it’s something I think about a lot.

More to what @AmandaB was saying, I had a middle school science teacher who would get cross with us if we explained anything as if molecules had motive. To explain osmosis, we could not say “each side of the membrane wants to be in equilibrium” because fluids are not capable of motive. The class would sit in silence for ten minutes while a student would try to think of an explanation that was devoid of anthropomorphic mechanics. Like, she would get actually cross and annoyed with us about it.


Ultimately, this is very close to my position.

I think S qualifies. Perhaps it is the closest that a game book can come to a parser experience. CIF (computerized interactive fiction) is probably a useful designation for this and other reasons. Ah! I see you’ve said as much in a later post.

I’ll now tip my hand, or at least reveal my intent: in researching an essay on Infocom’s Cornerstone, I noted (as I have on many occasions) that most readily available writing (i.e., free) about Infocom focuses on nostalgia and history. There is not a lot out there, for instance, about the influence of Deadline. It is discussed as historically noteworthy for a number of reasons, and those are often enumerated: the introduction/popularization of feelies, or metatext; technical innovations via simulation; qualitatively, it is an interesting attempt to gamify a police procedural. And so forth.

What I don’t see is a lot of conversation about the influence of early text adventures on the evolution of video games. To go back to Deadline—can later games with complex NPC conversations, influenced by in-world actions—point to it as an ur-text or model of gameplay? I am wondering how and if 80s text games converse (heh) with one another? Is there a thread running from Deadline to Disco Elysium?

I tweeted this exact thing this past weekend!

I think IF makes a better tag than it does a genre. I’ve always liked “text game” or “text adventure” as a term to signify text in/text out experiences. I’m fond of the term “agentic reading,” too, as a participant-focused term that is characterized by action rather than by abstraction. I think those ships have sailed. I’m not arguing that anyone should change their terminologies, nor do I think that anyone is using these terms “wrongly.”

Perhaps IF is a design or authorial practice in which the primary unit of player progress is text. This assumes a working definition of “player” and “play” that I haven’t arrived at, unfortunately (and since I am not a game studies person, I probably won’t). I think it also must assume a broad definition of text (cultural object suitable for analysis).

As a critic/reader/writer, I am interested in terms and concepts that treat 80s and contemporary narrative games as intertextual in some way.


(I’ve written some of this already in other posts; apologies for the repetition.)

I’m possibly in favour of a slightly more restrictive concept of IF than some others on the board.

The more all-encompassing the term becomes, the less useful it will be for purposes of criticism, discussion, taxonomy, and just finding games. Similar to how nearly everything on Steam seems to be tagged “adventure”, making that tag basically useless.

But I don’t really aim to attempt a watertight definition with necessary and sufficient conditions; there will be exceptions and edge cases which are difficult to classify.

With that said, I consider IF to be a form of game (or work of interactive literature) where the primary means of communication and interaction with the players is text. The players get a textual description of a situation, and they interact by typing in commands (in parser-based IF) or by choosing one of several options expressed in words (in choice-based/CYOA-style IF). The medium is essentially written language in both input and output.

When I say “textual description”, I mean that the situation is described by words as it would be in a novel, for example.
This is in contrast to being “depicted”, for lack of a better word, which is what the typical ASCII roguelikes do: they depict a situation by means of text in lieu of graphical symbols - usually even single letters, not words. So this is the reason (or one of them) why roguelikes don’t count.

There might be graphics for embellishment, but they are not essential and do not form a very important part of the experience.

This excludes graphical games, or at least the vast majority of them, especially graphical point-and-click adventures, which are in other respects quite close to IF, both in gameplay mechanics and the narrative aspects.

It’s also the main reason why I personally wouldn’t count Planescape: Torment or Disco Elysium as IF. The gameplay in them involves moving around a graphically represented world, interacting with it and being immersed in it, and it would be quite a different experience without all that.

The fact that text plays an important role in some graphical games, and that some of them could probably be adapted to a textual format with good results, does not count as a decisive criterion, in my view.

To use an analogy, it would be like the difference between a movie and a radio play. Some movies could be adapted very easily into radio plays, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same.

To be clear: not being IF doesn’t make a game less worthwhile or less interesting, just not IF. Not everything needs to be IF to be fun, engaging, and narratively engrossing.


There’s a ridiculous ongoing argument in the art fair world about what is art and what is craft, with the perception that if your work is seen as “craft” it is somehow inferior to “art.” Everybody has their opinions about what “art” is, and the whole thing usually devolves into snittiness. Yet for me, it’s not a pointless discussion, as per my personal definitions of each, both are extremely important and I like analyzing my own work for what is art and what is craft. Yet of course it has managed to become some kind of hierarchical judgment call on the value of a given work, and of the maker. Sigh.


I’ll add that I don’t consider genre classifications or tagging to be an indicator of merit. Whether something is or is not IF does not speak to its quality. I hope I haven’t given that idea.

I think it has to be acknowledged that, in terms of raw numbers, the term’s usage on Steam may have a larger footprint, and probably by several factors. That may mean that it isn’t useful there anymore. It may be too inclusive.

The primary philosophical distinction seems to be between broadly (vaguely?) conceived end results/experiences vs more narrowly construed input mechanisms


I’ll point out that we all use multiple definitions of “IF”, even within this forum.

Disco Elysium has an IFDB entry. Disco Elysium is not the kind of game you expect to see entered in IFComp. (As a matter of game genre, I mean – leaving aside the fact that it’s a very large commercial product.)

We have some understanding that “games worth an IFDB entry” is a larger set than “games you’d expect to see if IFComp”. People get into discussions of what should be in each of those groups, but the idea that these are different groups evolved without much notice. It just seemed natural.


I would say no, they are cousins. There’s a thread running from, Disco Elysium back to, say, Ultima. (Perhaps detouring through Final Fantasy on the way.) There’s another thread running from Deadline back through Zork to Adventure. Those threads converge in the 1970s moment of “Holy crap, we have to put D&D on a computer” – the Cambrian explosion of narrative gaming.


Yeah, I can imagine that.
In German, there’s a distinction between “Kunst” (art), “Kunsthandwerk” (artisan craftwork, or arts and crafts), and “Handwerk” (craft)… although this doesn’t necessarily clear up things, either. :slight_smile:

My (rough) thinking is that both are worthwhile goals in themselves, and also that craft is often (usually?) a necessary or at least very helpful factor in creating art, in the sense that if one wants to convey important ideas, or insights into the human condition, or intense emotions, or any other feature that’s typically associated with art, then usually a certain level of craft is needed to achieve that. Can’t really make people laugh, or cry, or wonder, or reflect on themselves, or question society, if one doesn’t have the tools of the trade at one’s disposal.

But as usual, this stuff hinges on the definitions of the concepts involved. Sometimes there’s substantial disagreement, sometimes it’s only terminological.


Thanks for pointing this out! I had no idea it received an XYZZY nomination. Well deserved, IMO.

I like this metaphor. I am just a little too young to authoritatively recall Ultima’s early years, but I think there was a period where a game could do (relatively) complex NPC interaction (Deadline 1982) or RPG stuff (for 1982 let’s say Wizardry 2 or Ultima 2), but not both. Ultima IV (1985) was the first in the series to support conversation topics rather than a simple “talk” command. I picture there being a murky time where all the composite parts of 1970’s ideal “D&D game” were scattered in different games/genres. Later, a convergence of sorts in the RPG genre.

I appreciate the thoughtful reply.

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Yeah, this is what I meant by “genealogical”. Like there are sequences in the two recent Pillars of Eternity RPGs which are straight choice-based IF - the usual interface slides away and the player is presented with a paragraph or two of description and numbered choices of what to do until you resolve the situation. Usually the choices are impacted by your character’s skills and inventory, and they often involve stuff like trying to solve a puzzle (the second one even has an entire - quite bad - naval combat mini game rendered entirely in text).

But these sequences aren’t derived from the main trunks of IF development - they’re elaborations of Fallout/Baldur’s Gate style dialogue options, given more focus because these games had a limited budget and these text sequences allowed them to reduce the number of expensive bespoke graphical set-piece sequences they needed. It’s more or less carcinisation, which I think is relevant to understanding how they work.