Interactive elements in static fiction

Last week, I read an incredible short story that seemed to have many elements of interactive fiction. I have also recently read Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages as a source for a research paper on digital storytelling that I wrote for a mass media course. Montfort’s argument for riddles as a literary ancestor of IF got me thinking about levels of interactivity in traditional linear or “static” literary works, and I think that short story displays interactive forms of immersion and problem-solving.

First, the story. It’s called “Shell”, written by G.L. Francis, published in a freely-available online periodical called The Cross and the Cosmos. It can be downloaded from (click on the thumbnail of the cover image of Issue 7). “Shell” is the last of three stories found in the PDF document, starting on page 12. The actual plot of this story is simple and would be boring if it were the whole point. It’s written in present tense, alternating between second and first person. It calls attention to different levels of narration by always italicizing the sections in second person, separating them from those in first person.

The Cross and the Cosmos owns the publication rights to the short story, but I thought the form was so notable from the perspective of IF that I received permission from its author and the publishers to post the first few paragraphs here:

The immediate similarity with IF is that imperative sentences (which look a great deal like IF commands in the last of the quoted paragraphs) seem to control, or at least indicate, the actions of the reader-protagonist. Notice how the first paragraph is a “command” to walk on the beach, and then the second paragraph is a description of that beach, almost like walking from one room to another in IF, resulting in a room description.

In IF, the human player issues the commands, but who is doing the commanding in this static short story? There has to be some implied first-person presence, both telling the reader-protagonist what to do and reporting on what has happened. IF has an implied first-person voice too, which in the older games was more than implied (“I don’t know the word ‘…’”). The omniscient IF narrator does not have direct control of the protagonist, while here the implied narrator is doing all the commanding, in the absence of a parser. So, these first four paragraphs contain at least three IF-like elements – the immediacy and immersion of second person, present-tense prose; imperative commands guiding the actions of the reader-protagonist; and an implied omniscient first-person narrator.

“Shell” goes on to tell the stories of these voices trapped in the shell that the protagonist picked up. While the protagonist is listening to the voices in the shell, the prose switches to first-person (still present tense), and the text becomes non-italic, indicating a jump to a different level of narrative. The second-person “frame story” reappears four more times to describe the top-level story of the protagonist, including the last paragraphs of the story.

The first-person voices of the Sea present another IF-like characteristic – puzzles, or at least problem-solving. Many of them are intentionally obscure references to Greek mythology, the Bible, and historical events. I didn’t know anything at all about some of them and had only a vague understanding of the situations surrounding many, I was able to decipher many others by careful reading. A large part of the pleasure of the story comes from the challenge of figuring out who the narrators of the individual voices are. Thus, at least many of these short segments of the story could be called riddles, and as riddles, puzzles.

I was pretty excited to see the similarities that this amazing short story seems to share with IF. Does anyone else see anything in this? It looks like static fiction can actually be a lot more interactive than it would appear at a glance. We can probably learn more about IF through studying interactive techniques in static fiction.

While I see the IF-reminiscent elements, I don’t think you can call something “interactive” unless the reader is does something besides just reading.

In one very important sense of interactivity, that’s definitely true. However, in a broader sense of reader participation, some forms of static fiction are more interactive than others. For instance, novels are more interactive than movies, because you ultimately have to participate by filling in the details of the narrative in your mind. I got this from an interview of the thriller novelist Tedd Dekker by the website Goodreads (see Dekker’s answer to the second question): … ent=dekker

Generally, I think the more interactive a form of fiction, the harder it is to appreciate, but the greater the potential reward. Consider how difficult poetry can be, but also its powerful potential when done right. And one of the most difficult forms of poetry is the riddle, which according to Twisty Little Passages is part of the literary tradition of IF.

Movies require (and invite) different types of filling-in, but both movies and novels (and, indeed, all forms of fiction, static and otherwise) require (and invite) filling-in on the part of the audience. The question of which requires “more” (or which requires details which are more immersive) is a question that can only be answered on a work-by-work and audience-by-audience basis.

Okay, I think I understand. Movies also require the viewer to piece together the narrative between the specified details – in this case, shots. Watching a movie, you might see a medium-distance shot of an actor walking toward a door, and then a close-up of that actor’s hand pulling the doorknob to open the door. The viewer “fills in” that the person on-screen has walked all the way to the door and opened it, even though he or she didn’t see all that in one sequence. The movie watcher must figure out the relationship between shots that are cut together and imagine a narrative to connect them, following the story as it develops from shot to shot and from scene to scene. So, I can agree that movies also require audience participation. I stand corrected.

It is also the case that movies show exteriority – they don’t show the characters’ thoughts or points of view. (There are of course a bag of cinematic tricks and conventions to work around that.) Novels, on the other hand, are good at showing interiority, and leaving the physical details of the world undescribed. (Again, a novel can go to effort to overcome that bias.)

Each form gives you room to tell a sneaky story that requires the reader-viewer to put things together from incomplete evidence – or be misled by their assumptions about what’s in the gaps. The techniques will differ, because they’re different sorts of gaps.

One genre of traditional fiction which certainly has interactive elements is the classic murder mystery. The reader of such a work is not expected to read passively, letting the detective-protagonist do all the work of figuring out whodunnit. Rather, it is assumed that the reader will compete with the fictional detective, trying to solve the case in his own mind before he gets to the dramatic final scene where the detective calls all of the suspects into the drawing room and reveals who did the dastardly deed. It is for this very reason that the author of a classic mystery is viewed as having been “unfair” if the solution depends on facts which were not revealed, or at least hinted at, to the reader in advance of the big reveal – just as an IF puzzle can legitimately be viewed as “unfair” if it requires knowledge unavailable to the player.

Robert Rothman

Even if you’re not into comics you’ll find Scott MCloud’s Understanding Comics an interesting piece of research, as it digs a lot into that “filling the gaps” subject, beeing comics a medium in which ellipsis is just everywhere you look at and the reader is expected to be constantly filling the details from panel to panel. No one has ever suggested, though, that this feature make comics qualify as an interactive medium at all. Incidentally, I recently aquired (but haven’t found the time to read yet) Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile, sort of a cleverly implemented CYOA graphic novel whith tons of diferent endings which looks fun!

Denis Wheatley anyone? :slight_smile: I mean, both quotes from zarf and Robert reminded me inmediately of this popular British author of both mystery novels and board games who mixed those interests in his 1930’s series “The Crime Dossiers”. They are considered as a variant of “murder mystery novels” even when they consisted of an actual dossier in a folder filled with evidence of the crime (photos, interviews, reports, items as cigarettes ends, pills…) and a sealed envelope with the mystery solution the reader could open and check when she thought she had figured out who the real suspect was. Quotting the web linked before:

Sounds familiar? Of course the “There’s no narrative as such” bit is quite a challenging statement, as suggesting that a suppossed static antecedent of interactive fiction is to be considered as that due to its lack of narrative is likely to open a vivid debate :slight_smile: . Anyway, the relation between these Wheatly’s Crime Dossiers and IF goes as afr as the first of them “Murder Off Miami” beeing adapted in 1986 to an actual IF work by the people of Delta 4. Not to mention that the very first thing the people at Infocom did right after releasing their version of an “explore-the-cave” game was a murder mystery game packaged in a folder with tons of feelies in form of crime evidence. I’m not sure right now wether Infocom’s Deadline was Wheatly inspired or not, but the concept has quite a few similarities.


This is a weird concidence. I was just talking about this article in a completely different context:

I still think that “interactive” is a misleading term to use in cases where the only energy the reader/viewer applies is mental, but I can’t think of a better one-word term for works that encourage mental engagement; perhaps the closest term is simply “interesting.” It seems to me that there’s a big difference between those crime dossiers and an ordinary murder mystery: If the box described the former as “an interactive mystery,” I would probably accept it, since you’re actively handling objects and such, but I wouldn’t accept the same description of the latter. (You can construct even more of a continuum if you include things like those books of five-minute mysteries where you look up the answer in the back.)

Still, all these examples are quite different from the OP’s example, which doesn’t invite mental engagement in the form of problem-solving or predicting what will happen at all. In that case, “immersive” is probably the most accurate term for what it has in common with IF (making it feel like it’s happening to you).

Sometimes “interesting.” Sometimes “engaging.” Sometimes “immersive.” Sometimes “thought-provoking.” Sometimes “inspiring.” Sometimes “so annoying I want to throttle the writer,” which would be the closest thing to real interaction … :slight_smile:

Or their non-identical-twin sibling, Encyclopedia Brown stories. Ah, memories.

I agree that what seems IF-like to me about the story “Shell” is that it uses some of the same techniques as IF to produce immersion. I suppose the IF-like immersiveness of the story made me read interactivity into it. However, the relationship between interactivity and immersion is something I’ve been thinking through quite a bit, and I keep coming up mostly dry.

Although I don’t know much about comics, this analogy helps clarify the role of interactivity in my mind. All narratives will have pre-written segments of story that convey the plot, whether these segments are called “frames” or “shots” or whatever the best equivalent is in IF (we had a big discussion about that a while ago; some people argued for the object as the fundamental unit of meaning in IF, others argued for the “chunk” of text). In every form, some degree of involvement (if not “interactivity”) takes place in the “gaps” between the fundamental segments, while the audience uses its imagination to construct the story from the bits of narrative.

Actual interactivity takes place when the audience has the ability to supply the gaps, or to input their formulations about what has happened in those gaps into the narrative itself. I think of commands in IF as the reader literally supplying the “gaps” in the pre-written story. It does not matter whether different frames/shots/segments are output depending on how a “gap” is formulated; what makes it interactive is that the audience’s conception of the gap becomes part of the narrative. By the definition I’m suggesting here, a CYOA is probably not interactive, because although it takes the reader’s conception of the gap into consideration to produce different sections of narrative, the reader’s conception of the gap never becomes part of the developing narrative. (On other threads on this forum, I used to refer to CYOAs as a form of IF; I think I’ve changed my mind about that.) On the other hand, a completely linear work that prompts its player to supply his or her ideas of how to connect the sections of plot is interactive, even with no alternate solutions or endings.

I think you’re looking at different levels of illusion, rather than different levels of anything that might reasonably be called “interactivity.” The CYOA illusion of interactivity is simpler, sturdier, with clearly-visible boundaries. The IF illusion of interactivity is more complex, brittle, and has uncertain (to the player) boundaries … but they’re both really pulling exactly the same rabbit out of very similar hats.

In both, I (as player) tend to imagine events, sensations, and thoughts that are not considered by the programmed experience … in one, I can type some of them in get a polite refusal or simple error message. That’s not really a greater contribution to the narrative, or any form of “interactivity.”

But this is all deep into the shadowy jungles of the purely semantic, so I’m not actually disagreeing with you, just trying to contrast the terms as I use them with the terms as you use them.

My take is different. Parser IF permits experimentation and engagement with game mechanics; CYOA generally does not. That’s the distinction I see between them. (The CYOA exercise I released a few weeks ago was fun to write, but it didn’t have any room for the kind of experience that I put in IF.)

Shiga’s Meanwhile is an interesting example because it works very hard to include a sort of interactivity, beyond the basic CYOA tree idiom. First, the story is about a time machine and a mind-probe – so it naturally includes many loops, “retries”, and glimpses of the past and future. Second, the comic panels are woven together, so that you often see other branches on the pages you’re traversing. And third, it’s a very cruel book with many failure endings! So you have to restart many times to “win”. It’s not the same as IF-style action-exploration, but your decisions are still informed by experience and experiment in a way not common to the CYOA genre.

None of this is really applicable to the original question. Static fiction can be very obscure, with multiple re-readings or even collaborative effort required to understand everything the author put in. But it’s not explorative effort – the book doesn’t respond informatively to experiment.

Or rather, a book that did that would have to use an interesting bag of tricks indeed.

That’s exactly the distinction I was referring to with the bit about uncertain boundaries. In CYOA, the experience is bound by clear, explicit choices. In IF, the experience is open to that kind of exploration (which is to say, it’s still bound … but it’s bound in ways that the player can’t entirely see, and has to explore to find … and furthermore, even after exploring in IF, you can never really be 100% sure you’ve found all the boundaries, which adds an illusion of tactical infinity to the illusion of interactivity).*

So I must disagree that your take is different. :slight_smile: Unless your take is (semantically) that such exploration literally adds interactivity rather than a more complex illusion of same.

  • Honestly this is my very favorite aspect of IF, which is why when people start talking about alternates to the parser it makes me sad inside. I love how I can play a game I’ve played dozens of times, type something slightly different, and find a whole new response that I never knew was there before … not only can you explore in IF, you can always imagine there’s a little bit more over the horizon.