Looking for recommendations: IF theory and criticism

While I really ought to know better, in the course of my current A Mind Forever Voyaging efforts I find myself needing to say something about IF as a genre. Therefore, I am looking for sources about IF generally.

Now, I don’t believe there is a universally embraced definition of IF, so neither this thread nor my planned essay is about that (we already had a pretty good thread here). Still, I am interested in writers who have tried to define it, whether I agree with them or not. I currently have the IF Theory Reader as well as Twisty Little Passages. It’s all good stuff! However, they predate the emergence of Twine, etc. I’d like to see some more contemporary writing if possible.

Sources need not be scholarly as long as they are thoughtful and well-written. My own conception of IF is very broad, so don’t worry too much about whether something qualifies or not.

LInks are ideal! I appreciate any and all help.

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I’m a big fan of Emily Short’s blog. It’s easy to find a lot of insightful articles on game design, balance, organization, coming up with ideas, and even some reviews.

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I spent many hours reading the links on these two pages (There’s one for Craft as well):

https://www.ifwiki.org/Theory

https://www.ifwiki.org/Past_raif_topics:_IF_Theory:_part_1

https://www.ifwiki.org/Past_raif_topics:_IF_Theory:_part_2

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One thing I feel keenly when looking back at that old usenet stuff is a regret that I could not be a part of those conversations. The question of whether IF is a genre or a medium, for instance. That would have been a fun one. I was stuck doing decidedly less interesting things back then, unfortunately.

I appreciate the links, though it’s noteworthy that there isn’t a lot of IF theory named on the wiki page that’s from the last ten years. There’s Aaron’s project, and a bibliography by Emily Short (more on that in a second), as well as a link to Mathbrush’s author page. Jimmy Maher’s Infocom replay concluded in 2016. Each of those projects/resources (and my own less discussed one, too!) are concerned to some extent with history, with the past.

I think a question arises: where did all the lively theoretical and craft conversations and publications of the sort featured on the IFWiki go? Do they still happen with the same frequency, but are no longer indexed at the IFWiki? Has everyone moved on to greener commercial or academic pastures? Has the subject been exhausted? Or did howling dogs short circuit then-current assumptions in IF theory, thereby mandating its replacement with something else, someplace else?

Emily Short’s “Brief Bibliography about IF History” refers to the then-present (2016) epoch as a “Diaspora”:

Diaspora (now). IF is now being written by many types of people, for many reasons, as freeware or for sale, and distributed in a wide range of places. It is harder than ever to follow what is going on, and also there is a greater than ever variety to the works and players.

There are lots of implications to that: diversification and fragmentation of genre; removal of gatekeeping because there is no longer just one arena in which IF can succeed; the corresponding loss of a lot of community received wisdom, or a lot of people who simply haven’t picked up on it.

On the one hand I am really excited by the diversity of what is being created, and by the fact that I can barely keep up with releases in this field because they’re happening so fast; on the other hand, I find that there are fewer venues for the kinds of advanced craft discussions we used to have around IF in the New School period, because there just isn’t the common ground about what we’re even talking about to support that kind of conversation. (This again isn’t universal; it’s just a trend.)

I do think universities have become—just in the past 20 years—an increasingly excellent place to get into good conversations about games. I presume that there are a growing number of publications interested in featuring content about games. That’s probably a good thing in the long run, since preservation and institutional knowledge are complementary. Maybe IF has been or can be subsumed in the larger conversation about games and new media.

Anyway, sorry for a bit of a ramble. I say all this to say: it is hard to find IF theory from the past ten years. It may be a matter of finding it, or it may be that it’s changed into something else.

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It can be dangerous to say anything’s exhausted. But I remember one of the last times that I as part of a We (the We being users of this forum) was talking or arguing about differences between different kinds of IF in IFComp (2-3 years ago I’d say) – parser, link-based, etc. – Mathbrush pointed out there were ancient usenet posts where people had said exactly the same things we were saying in the thread, using exactly the same words in some cases. If I found my way to some of these thoughts by writing, that’s still valuable to me, and maybe some people who read them, but overall that moment certainly made me lose interest in adding any more to the thread!

You may find what I say next funny given how many reviews I’ve written, but I always felt IF via intfiction almost had too much critical/academic culture, probably because of its usenet core. (Side note: Probably don’t complain about too much of something like this.) In retrospect I may have confused this with it just having a strong authorial culture; that is, a very high author to player ratio. I mean things started to happen like there being long postmortems for every game in a competition, some of them longer than the games themselves. I know I can just not read them ('til later) but I started to get the feeling there were too many answers being given to questions I had yet to ask, or that had yet to be posed.

-Wade

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Most of my study on IF theory has been almost exclusively from the academic side of the house. However, I did find some interesting pockets of online discussion, but now that you mention it, those pockets did seem to taper off about ten years ago.

I’ll go through the bibliography of my notes (and my online bookmarks) to pull out everything from the last ten years, then I’ll update this post with whatever I can find. (I don’t expect too much, because I made a concentrated effort to branch out into disciplines seemingly unrelated to classical IF theory, but I know there is more than nothing.)

Sometimes, I feel like I’m the only person I know that’s trying to saying anything new about IF theory these days (but, that’s just my bias, of course).

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I’ve said—though not recently—that a lot of writing about IF is author-centered. I did not mean it as a put-down. A lot of Infocom discourse, for instance, shares features of auteur theory. That’s good in a lot of cases! A Mind Forever Voyaging could not have happened if Infocom had not allowed Meretzky to pursue and shape his personal vision as an individual artist. Still, as you suggest, it is good to let players have a hand in shaping conversations. One reason that I did interviews for ParserComp is that it is a joyous thing, to ask and to be asked.

By “classical” do you mean pre-Twine? While it could be some other factor, that is a possible cut-off point. In any case, I appreciate your help!

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UPDATE:

There are 51 publications on my reading list that I tag with “classical interactive storytelling”. I tried to cast a wide, but shallow net. (Assuming you are interested in a specific conglomeration of stateful media, my list is probably less interesting to you at this moment in time). However, of those publications, I’ve tagged 37 as post-2010 (i.e., 2011 and onward). I admit that I have biased my ratio of prior-to-current trends, but for that, I have to thank the highly effective academic runway that our predecessors paved around the turn of the millennium. The ICIDS annual conference is a great example.

Now, an academic approach is a problem if you’re not part of an institution with access to academic publications. The good news is that most post-2010 authors have their papers freely available on their website, or else might furnish you with a copy in exchange for a friendly email. Otherwise, the arXiv is an indispensable place to find papers — and entertain your mind, in general; I highly recommend the place!


Drew, I’m not sure how you feel about me spamming this post with the details of 37 publications, but I’d be happy to send you this copy (or anyone else) and you can do what you’d like with the list.


And regarding the term “classical,” I’ll have to reference my post about my ParserComp entry this year:

I’m not trying to use story-based agency. Okay. So, what’s that mean to you? Using a more familiar concept, this means that I’m also abandoning “agentic agency”; another synonym is “spaciotemporal agency”; elsewise and practically, stuff like branching plots or multiple endings, etc. My goal here — which eventually led me to ParserComp — is to seek (or invent) an approach to stateful media that reduces the authorial burden of “story-based agency”.

Turns out, as my own studies dragged out, I found overwhelming support that story-based agency itself might have “natural” limits, and so I began to branch out, using this as my guiding question: “How far can I go without the quintessential elements of story-based agency?” In all of the publications I’ve collected and read, both academically and from the community, nobody has discussed what stateful media would look like without story-based agency. (But I’m digressing here, so let me finish up.)

Now, I can finally answer your question of what I mean with the label “classical.” Simply put, “classical” means “stateful media with story-based agency”.

You can send me the list. My partner has access to scholarly databases, so I will see what I can get my hands on. Much appreciated!

What about adding them to IFWiki? You could add them to the existing Theory page that Mathbrush mentioned above, or start a new page and link to it from the existing page.

:sweat_smile: Whew! I’d love to, but at best, this list is a sliver of the total publications about interactive storytelling since 2010; and at worst, I’m afraid that I’d be doing a disservice to the hundreds of publications that I’m not aware of.

A good compromise could be an entry for ICIDS on the IFWiki? Would you be interested in that?

https://icids2022.ardin.online/

However, I feel like that might not be a good fit, since IFWiki is likely meant to have a specific focus of stateful media. Right? And if so, that’s a can of worms that I’d rather not open.

We have to start somewhere!

You could add that as an event. There’s an “Add event” link on the sidebar that’ll take you to a data entry form.

I don’t even know – yet! – what stateful media means. Originally the wiki probably was meant, at least mainly, to cover Infocom-type games but feel free to add anything.

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Yet another term to heap onto whatever it is that we call all of this — :vague_gesturing: — that we’re all doing around here.

I like to think “stateful” is less ambiguous than a label like “interactive” media. And “stateful” gives me a tidier label than “non-interactive” for stuff like a printed book; I can use the term “stateless” media for that. Another property of the term is that I don’t have to specifically talk towards the digital/analog divide of media.

I think it comes down to the differences between craft and theory.

Most of the topics I’ve read on IF theory skew toward craft. Even discussions on memesis, such a hot item twenty-plus years ago, tended to lean toward the pragmatic, such as “how to achieve and maintain memesis” or “does this break mimesis in my game?” Topics like fair puzzles, player’s bills of rights, dealing with “unnecessary” physical elements (“Should my house have a bathroom, even if it’s not important to the game?”) are all what I would call craft issues.

Some IF theory is more like “theory of operation,” in the sense of “Notice how players become involved in a second-person present-tense story where they chose the protagonist’s actions.” That’s theory, but it’s still focused on the mechanics of game play.

On the IF Wiki pages, there’s a handful of entries on gender and moral dilemmas in IF, but it’s pretty low-volume compared to craft and operation. Topics like creation of meaning and open vs. closed texts don’t seem as thoroughly discussed.

Here’s something I’ve noticed in traditional fiction: Craft tends to be discussed by writers. Theory tends to be discussed by critics. The IF community skews heavily toward writers. Maybe that’s why there’s more talk on craft than theory.

Without trying to minimize anything or anyone, there’s only so much that can be said about craft issues in any art. I suspect that’s why the talk dried up.

The criticism and theory side of things might heat up if there were more non-author players invested in the meaning of the games. It would probably help if IF had a larger cultural footprint.

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I’ve been busy today so haven’t had a chance to post, but have had some ideas rattling around in my head to write up – except Jim just pulled together everything I’d been thinking about and then some. All of this seems exactly right to me, and I think it’d be interesting to have a community conversation about what a broader level of critical engagement (beyond the traditional I-bashed-this-out-on-a-short-deadline comp/festival review) might look like and if there’s any interest in ways to foster that. The eve of IFComp is probably not an ideal time for that, but it would be interesting to come back to later on.

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Three words: IF Review Comp.

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All good points, Jim. When I started Gold Machine (I registered the domain one year ago today!), I declared that it would operate from a “death of the author” starting point. I wanted to focus on audiences experiencing Infocom games as cultural objects, as texts that reflect their cultural context. I also wanted to consider the ways in which Infocom games contributed to what I might call a “cultural history” of gaming. Or to a creative context that later developers drew upon.

The most well-received bits from golmac talk about these things (I’m mainly referring to pieces that get picked up at Critical Distance) and give me hope that text games can be part of wider gaming conversations that even people outside of IF circles might follow.

Of course, now I am writing a game, which puts a new spin on the whole “death of the author” thing

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Is that’s the case, you’re always welcome to join me with my “birth of the audience” bit. :wink:

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Seriously, I feel like people would be interested in this! (Though I’m unsure if it would reach a broader audience.) Would this happen after IFComp? Maybe critics would compete to write the best critical review of, say, one of the top three entries? This would certainly be an avenue to discover the elements of a critical review of IF.

This is a very interesting book on twine history and theory: Twining: Critical and Creative Approaches to Hypertext Narratives

I think some of the narrascope talks had interesting discussions on theory (and in 2020). Here’s a GDC talk from Jon Ingold (he’s had a bunch of other talks). This podcast has some IF creators who are not part of this community.

In the visual novel space, there are some talks here from an online conference (I have not watched most of them). This is a zine about visual novels and interactive fiction.

There are some craft discussions in the Choice of Games forums as well. The Writing and Content forum has good discussions. In particular are Mathbrush’s post about playing every choice of game, and data analytics of Hosted Game popularity.

There are also interesting conversations on discord, but they’re unfortunately ephemeral.

I also wish we had more in-depth discussions of IF theory in a place like this forum (in particular ones that don’t privilege the parser medium), in a space that’s more informal than academia, more permanent and in-depth than discord or twitter, and more social than a blog. I think some of the more interesting recent discussions on here have been in postmortems, which is part of why I wrote all those long posts (and why I’m a little disappointed they haven’t had much engagement, although I’m part of the problem here as I haven’t been engaging with others as much as I could). Here is a reblog of a tumblr post I may or may not have written on twine genres: games and words — This is not a taxonomy; most games (especially...

[edit: i use the word “interesting” way too much…]

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