Is interactive fiction art?

Ceci n’est pas un Wittgenstovian terrain de jeux linguistiques.

( @DeusIrae :wink: )


Spielplatz? Ist das vielleicht eine Projektion?


“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several colourful balls, having been originally thrown into the air; and that, whilst this playground-roundabout has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, juggled about.”



It appears that I have brought a knife to a gunfight. Humbly conceded.

With that said, I have to admit that I initially dismissed an element of the original prompt:

But the more I thought about it, the less sure I am that it wouldn’t have an impact. I know what brought me here was the low threshold. I don’t need a 10 person team of professionals and a pile of cash to bring something to life; an individual is plausibly viable here. With that said, simply writing itself has an even lower threshold. No coding or game design considerations needed, simply write.

With that said, I find myself here and not there. Why? Well, some of it is just love of the form, but, if I’m being honest with myself, some of it is a measure of intimidation and concern that I’m simply not “literary” or “writerly” or some bullshit like that. Where does this unease come from? I’d say some of it is probably from the popular notion of writing as an Art, capital A.

If IF were seen in the mainstream the same way, who am I to say it wouldn’t discourage folks from taking part?


I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating here. I think art and craft are 2 different things, and neither is better than the other. I consider that art has something something to say, some commentary on the world that is meaningful and helps you reflect on a bigger issue. Craft is there for its own sake. A painting of a beautiful bird, an escape room IF game, a pulpy mystery novel, a poem describing a flower. These are all valuable things that bring us joy, and we don’t always need or want our entertainment to be deep. You can use the tools of your trade (paint, words, code, voice, chisel) to make either.


^ This, plus also different people are going to put the fuzzy line dividing “art” from “craft” in radically different places, which a) you’re never going to argue folks off of or arrive at a satisfying, principled definition for why anyone’s picked that particular place, and b) is fine.


I would add that art can be used to evoke a feeling or emotion without containing an actual message.


To experience art is to experience the ineffable. In a cold-blooded sense, art is any wrought thing that, when experienced, becomes more than it objectively is. Unfortunately, the transcendent or ineffable is not a space where language lives, so this definition describes a failure in language rather than an experience with art.

We do not have good words for describing experiences that transcend words, which makes a great deal of sense, really.

I’ll say this of my own MFA coursework in literary writing: it was largely concerned with craft, which I came to understand as a possible participant in–rather than a condition of–the artistic, but craft does not itself guarantee that audiences will have subjective experiences of “art.” This is because craft is a rational framework that drives creator action rather than directly influence user experience.

This is ok. I cannot control the subjective experience of another human being, nor should I be able to! I can try to make art, even if nobody sees it that way. I can try not to make art, even if everyone experiences what I’ve done as art. Who is right in both cases? Well, since it is a subjective experience, the answerer will always place their own judgement above those of others. We are all experts when it comes to our experiences, after all. Hopefully, anyway.

You might say: if it’s all subjective, what’s the point? How do we even have conversations about art and IF? We have them quite easily most of the time, actually. People generally seem open to using terms of literary analysis, aesthetics, and, yes, craft to talk about IF. This kind of thing just happens as a matter of course. IF is, among other things, a discourse community, or a cluster of communities, and we have many shared ways of discussing IF. We have these discussions daily here and elsewhere.

Problems arise when one attempts to make a kind of algebra of things.


Art and Craft can overlap as well. A glassblower can turn out hundreds of regular drinking glasses for practical use and also an abstract beautiful piece that sits on a pedestal that encompasses the futility of existence. Those routine drinking glasses honed the craft that creates the art.

I like the quote from Sunday in the Park with George: “Work is what you do for others; Art is what you do for yourself.” - even if there’s an overlap. Nobody asked for a glass chunk representing futility of existence, and they may get the point or not.

I can write a documentation manual for work, and still use the same craft skills writing a Jungian choice-narrative exploration of the limitations of Fate. While I might hope for others to like it also, it’s not strictly for them. Or I can write fan service that I know will appeal and add different degrees of my own “art” into it. A pulp mystery writer knows that their series about a cat detective sells, so they write that. It’s still craft and art even if not their white whale “masterpiece”.

Art can be commissioned and there’s degrees of utility. An artist can do a good job putting a lot of meaning and their own interpretation into a seemingly weightless pile of iron beams in front of a building documenting a frozen moment of collapsing chaos, but the artistic arrangement of beams also has a utilitarian purpose to prevent vehicles from accidentally backing into the glass doors of the building.

It’s also personal with levels of involvement. Being on a writing team or the artist for a game design company can be a “job” as well as a way to fulfill artistic purpose even if the end goal isn’t solely the purpose of one artist.


I’ve yet to see a wholly satisfying definition of “art,” much less a consensus on such a definition. By the broadest definitions, IF is art. By the narrower definitions, IF has the potential to be art.

I don’t know whether we should keep that a secret, or just be encouraging and not expect every game to be a masterpiece. It’s totally okay to make media that you or others would consider trash. Sometimes trash is transcendent. Even when it’s not, it’s still okay to make it (see also: my published IF).

“Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.”

― Pauline Kael


Yes you should! And you could, if only you could find the weak synapse that could be nudged with a little entropic flick of the finger.

I won’t say anything about my personal definition of art. Your approach via the ineffable is valid and interesting to me. So is my father’s approach to modern art: “If someone says ‘I could do that too!’, then you’ve succeeded at making modern art.”


If I could, I’d be the world’s richest poet. Not that it’s a high mountain to climb, mind you.

And probably the villain of a six-episode limited series on Netflix.


My issue with most definitions of art (or, questions whether such-and-such is “art”) is that most definers start with their favorite examples and work backwards to a definition which includes those examples.

My other problem with definitions of art is that they’re too often used as a chalked line to delineate the high from the low and vulgar—to exclude both art and artists.

Even if the definer is well-intentioned, definitions of art inevitably are used for elitist goals. I’m not terribly patient with this sort of thing.

One definition of art I’ve discovered most everyone dislikes is Scott McCloud’s in Understanding Comics. He says any human activity that is not survival or reproduction is art. That’s overly broad for most tastes, but in a way I think it cuts to the core of what art really is, which is a creative activity produced by some set of decisions.

When definitions of art concern themselves with messages, the human condition / humanity, or imitation / technique, it muddies the water and—once again—offers a chalked line to exclude creations and creators. (Too often those lines hew suspiciously close to class and other factors related to social power. This is why I’m more sympathetic to McCloud’s than other definitions.)

If the question is, “What makes for great interactive fiction?” then certainly that discussion opens up to other matters, like subject and technique and so forth. But I’d rather use that discussion as a way to open up interpretation of IF (or, stories in general) beyond the subjective. Or, use that discussion to help other potential creators see the power of the medium and improve their work.

So: What makes for great art? I like Orwell’s question, used for a slightly different subject: “Does this make me more human or less human?” That’s how I know my time, money, and energies were well-spent.




That guy who wrote all the Shakespovian sonnets seems to make quite a living, judging by all the credits he gets. Well, probably because he got into film too…

( @DeusIrae :wink: )


If we feel like disregarding the philosophical/subjective trappings, “art” could be “something decorative or thought-provoking that does not add to the utility of a thing”.

If I apply a bird decal to the hood of my classic Thunderbird, that’s art. It doesn’t need to be there but hopefully inspires thoughts like “cool!” or “how tacky!”

You don’t need ornate glass doorknobs to open a door, nor a fancy chandelier to light a room, but it’s aesthetically pleasing to have them.

You don’t need a statue of a weary soldier overlooking a military cemetery but it inspires thought about the situation in those who see it.



I really think that if someone experiences something as art, that’s the truth of their experience. We have craft terms for talking about things, and that’s where everyone can meet, but there’s no art police that enforces subjectivities.

I think the only argument for belief is behavior. I can’t argue for something being art. I can just behave as if it is. At Gold Machine, I never made a case for Infocom games being art. I just wrote about them as if they were art. The behavior is the proof of the belief.

But even if I had never written anything, nobody has the authority to dictate what anyone experiences as art.


Copy-pasting a strip about the definition of art into a forum thread about the definition of art…

Brilliant! But is it Art?

In any case, thanks for reminding me that I need to spend a lazy sunday-afternoon with my stack of Calvin and Hobbes books.


on high and low art, well, being in a country on the top of fine arts in the last 2,000 years or so, I can say that even vulgar art can force a reassessment of History:

Long story short, a graffiti insulting an christian unhearted in Rome reveal that Christian was even inside the Imperial Court a full century before the first Costantine, forcing a reassessment of the Persecutions:

I don’t want to abuse my priviledged position, 2hrs north, Rome, 1/2 hr. south Pompeii, and actually living in Hercolaneum, so I’ll spare the details of the Lupanare of Pompeii’s graffiti, and their impact in understanding Roman society, but this other wikipedia link should suffice about my point:

and, objectively, what technical difference is between a murales and the renowned Italian Frescos ? Eye of beholder, I suppose…

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.