Should we distinguish between games and literature in IF?

I’ve just returned to IF fandom after a lapse of more than a decade, and I’ve been surprised and pleased by the increase of submissions to the well-known contests. I was struck by how many of them involve works that lacked ‘puzzles’ or challenges, and were primarily or entirely works of fiction with heavy emphasis on interactivity and participation by the reader.

Lots of these works aren’t games at all, except maybe in a Wittgensteinian sense. Which isn’t a bad thing at all - I’ve enjoyed the examples I’ve encountered immensely. And of course the very best games also involve great stories and excellent writing as well as thought-provoking puzzles. But it does make we wonder if we need terminology to make the distinction between something that is a game, and something that is a fiction - because the metrics I use to judge the quality of IF vary greatly, depending on where I perceive its emphasis lying. A very atmospheric and emotionally engaging work might have little to no challenge involved, and a brilliantly-designed puzzle might have little narrative force, yet both would be excellent in different ways.

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Nearly every IF work is both, to one degree or another. “Pure” examples are a rare extreme. So no, I can’t see any use in trying to define two buckets and say that every game belongs in one of them.

We can of course – and do – talk about these two elements of any given game.

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I’ve been playing the competition submissions from the last few years, and quite a few of them AREN’T both. Quite a few of them aren’t games at all. That’s not a bad thing - they’re interactive short stories, and the best of them use the interactivity to achieve things static text can’t do. But games they are not.

The difficulty that usually comes up is—how do you draw a line between them? What amount of interactivity makes something a “game” rather than a “story”? Quite a lot of works try to tell an engaging story as well as being fun to play.

For a pathological example, see Carolyn van Eseltine’s This is a Real Thing that Happened, which was specifically designed to poke holes in various definitions of “game”, Diogenes-style.

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No, “literature” has no good meaning here other than to indicate class distinctions (by excluding genre fiction etc.)

(Other good senses of “literature” are “anything written” and “the body of pre-existing research on a topic”, but I’m pretty sure those weren’t the sense of literature you were using.)

You seem very definite about that.

If you’re talking to someone who says “oh, those are non-puzzle-oriented games”, do you have to stop and explain why they’re wrong, or can you go on to talk about the games/works/whatever themselves?

Let me put that less confrontationally.

Are you distinguishing between the kind of interactivity that forms a puzzle from the kind of interactivity that forms a choice-based narrative? In one case the player tries to find the option that gets them unstuck; in the other case the player tries to find the option that satisfies their goals for a narrative outcome.

You can obviously make this distinction – I just did! But (a) they surely fall on a spectrum with lots of intermediate cases; (b) they are constructed with the same tools and using a lot of the same design patterns. (There is no Inform 7 Literary Author group distinct from the Inform 7 Game Designer group. Those people want to be in the same discussion groups, if they want to be in discussion groups at all.)

That’s true! That makes IFComp judging really hard! You’re constantly having to compare very different works with very different goals.

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Well, single-player computer-based things where you type in text or click words or whatever other things we have are also only games in Wittgensteinian senses. If your idea of a game starts with something like Go or lacrosse or Moksha Patam/chutes and ladders, Colossal Cave Adventure isn’t going to look like a game, unless you think about the way it resembles things that resemble those things in the relevant way… part of the point of the Wittgensteinian discussion of games is that games are things that are like games that are like games etc., and puzzleless IF is like puzzly IF in many ways. While many kinds of puzzly IF are different from each other.

This seems like a very good summary of how different kinds of IF can have different strengths!

In case it’s not clear, the argument “X isn’t really a game at all” is (rightly) frowned upon here; it’s uncivil.

The forum guidelines say:

  • Intfiction.org promotes a broad definition of Interactive Fiction. Don’t claim a type or style of game already accepted by the community doesn’t belong. If in doubt, ask questions or see if it has been previously discussed.

It’s not articulated there, but the community takes a similar attitude toward the term “game.” We promote a broad definition of “game,” and ask that people not claim that certain works aren’t games.

We have this policy because a number of folks used to start flame wars arguing that, say, IF made in Twine wasn’t IF, or wasn’t a game, or that it wasn’t real IF or that it wasn’t a real game. These arguments were mostly from people who wanted to act as gatekeepers, to exclude Twine and Twine authors from the community.

Excluding people who think they’re writing IF games from the IF community creates hard feelings, to no one’s benefit, and that’s why it’s uncivil to say “lots of the works submitted to well-known contests aren’t games at all.”

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Come to think of it, would it be appropriate to amend the forum guidelines to mention that we also promote a broad definition of “game?” I have something like this in mind:

Intfiction.org promotes a broad definition of “Interactive Fiction” and “game.” Don’t claim a type or style of game already accepted by the community doesn’t belong. If in doubt, ask questions or see if it has been previously discussed.

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Usually when discussing IF, I tend to use the terms player and reader interchangeably.

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If I had to pick anything, I’d say all IF is full of story, and all IF has some game aspects.

On one end of the spectrum is the essay Queer in Public. This was entered in IFComp, and has about as little interactivity as possible while still being ‘IF’. It’s just thoughts about being queer and Christian, with each page having a link to the next (outside of a table of contents).

This is pure ‘story’, but even as minimal as it is it has some ‘game’ aspects. The choice of which section of words is highlighted to click on has meaning, and you can ponder why it was chosen as you play/read/click. The need to click to advance means you’re not aware of what the next page will be like, adding an element of surprise absent from books and all-on-one-page web stories. It’s ‘dynamic fiction’.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have Aaron Reed’s > by @, whose code is small enough to fit into a tweet and has no actual words in its program outside of Inform’s (sizable) standard commands and responses.

Even here, story is inescapable. Your mind can’t help but fill in meanings for the $ and ? and @. While it is almost ‘pure game’, it it undeniably story as well.

So I think the medium as a whole is slanted towards story.

A better distinction in my mind is ‘puzzly vs non-puzzly’. That’s a lot easier to quantify. “Can you reach an ending you’re happy with in this game without having to strategize?” Even then, though, you have a spectrum. Choice of Games makes stories that are halfway puzzly; any choices you make lead to a rewarding ending, but you can also strategize your stats for specific results.

tl;dr All IF is story and game but not all IF is puzzly.

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I strongly approve of having a widely-inclusive definition of “interactive fiction”. But I think that insisting on having a broad definition of “game” is a mistake - IF can include lots of valuable things that aren’t “games” as such. The overwhelming majority of books aren’t games, but that doesn’t make them any less (or more) valuable than the ones that are.

It can be important and useful to distinguish between types of IF, in the same way that we talk about the categories of comedy and tragedy in drama, without valuing one type above the other.

In just the most recent IFComp, even my incomplete pass through the entries reveals a whole lot of items that aren’t primarily games. Even a very broad definition of “puzzle” results in my finding at least seven entries that have no puzzle at all: Out, Rip Retold, Meeting Robb Sherwin, Heretic’s Hope, the good people, The Milgram Parable, and The Sweetest Honey. That’s what, 10% of the total entries? And there’s no lack of artistic quality in that list, although not all of them are especially notable in that way - just like the entries as a whole.

If we look at past years for examples, there are even more - and some of them are not only excellent, but submissions that I’d personally consider among the best not only of their year but of all IF. And looking at the ratings, the community seems to agree with me on that.

I don’t think we need to establish distinct award categories for different types - not least because the total number of entries isn’t great enough for that to be beneficial - but as a means of thinking about and evaluating IF, I do think that we need to at least have terminology to describe ways excellence can appear.

Polish the Glass is good in ways very different than Zozzled is. PtG has no puzzles, and no choices - a transcript of a session would be identical to any other. It’s a great short story that uses interactivity requirements to draw the reader in and affect the flow of their reading experience. Zozzled is very well-written and designed, with great descriptions and characterization, and puzzles that are both interesting and logical (within the premises of the game). They’re both wonderful. But they are not wonderful in the same ways. And it’s important to recognize that PtG is not a game, while Zozzled is not literature.

They’re both interactive fiction.

(edit: stupid fingers left out important words in places)

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I would hesitate several times before calling my Turandot an interactive fiction game. (There are certainly no puzzles in it, and you need no skill to get to the end.) So, yeah, I personally agree that it’s important to have a broad definition of IF, while not necessarily having a broad definition of game. On the other hand, I feel zero need to ‘correct’ people who use the game more indiscriminately.

There’s something extremely arbitrary about the terminology anyway. Suppose that Turandot had been implemented in a 3D engine. Then I would probably have called it a game? It’s just that for text, we have other words, like “story”. But this doesn’t make any real sense, it’s more a contingent historical fact about the terms. Which is another reason for not putting too much weight on the words.

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There’s a reason the term “interactive fiction” was adopted in the first place, no? As opposed to “text adventures” and other phrases that more strongly suggest a game-like experience. IF is and should be broader than just games. I don’t think that’s gatekeeping, but rather the opposite.

(I admit I’m glossing over the fraught history of some conflicts that have played out on this board. But it also seems to me - am I wrong about this? - that those conflicts are well in the past. Twine’s place within IF seems to be pretty universally acknowledged at this point.)

That said, it’s also true that relatively few IF works fall cleanly into one bucket or the other, so perhaps it’s not the most productive argument to have. I tend to use “games” and “stories” interchangeably in practice.

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How would your taxonomy of interactive fiction work when categorising IF that is not wonderful? A bad puzzle game, I suppose, is still a “game”. But is bad puzzleless IF still “literature”, or is there another word we should be using? How do we define “literature”?

I’d be interested to hear your reasons for defining Zozzled as “not literature”, especially since you’ve called it “very well-written” and praised its “great descriptions and characterization”. Is it because it contains puzzles, or perhaps because it’s a comedy?

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Just pointing out that Twine can handle puzzle games as well as storytelling. 2016’s “16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonald’s” is a fantastic example, if I’m not mistaken about the system used to create it.

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I tried searching for definitions of ‘literature’ and kept coming across ones that, in essence, said it’s writing that is good. Given how loaded the term seems to be, I think I understand why people object to describing written content as ‘not literature’. To my mind, it’s the intentional design aspect of writing, the presences of unifying themes and patterns, that distinguishes literature from sequential description. Our everyday lives are stories, but they tend not to have that kind of higher-level meaning.

It’s not hard to see the difference in writing quality between professionals with considerable experience and people attempting it casually, much the same way it’s not hard to distinguish someone trained and practiced in the production of a material art and someone merely dabbling in it. (There are of course exceptions.) The transcript of a well-written piece of interactive adventure gaming, however, isn’t necessarily a story, no matter how skillfully language was used - even in the classic professionally-designed works. Zork I doesn’t tell a story. There are no thematic arcs, no development of themes.

Zozzled has well-written descriptions and dialog that use language skillfully, rather than clumsily, to create an impression of a particular setting and particular characters. But I don’t think it tells a particularly strong story. What’s the narrative arc? What’s the greater theme it’s conveying through the events it’s describing? What important changes occur in the protagonist or are brought about by her?

Perhaps an even better example would be Andrew Plotkin’s “Wallpaper”, which creates a strong sense of character through choice of words and focus of description, but really tells no story at all. It has an avatar with a vivid and distinct personality, wandering through and solving a very large puzzle. Great writing, but that writing doesn’t form literature.

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I can follow your line of reasoning, and agree to an extent, but it seems that you are using a loaded term that usually means something else.

Instead of bending an existing term, perhaps it would be more fruitful to come up with a new term, like “thematically coherent” or “arcful” or something.

Aesthetic coherence, maybe?

It’s especially hard to tell a “story that is art” in old-school IF because the audience participates in constructing the story. Traditional narrative media, like plays and books and movies, have audiences that are passive receivers of a design created by the artist(s). Imagine trying to write an IF of “King Lear” that will tell a powerful story no matter what choices the audience makes along the way… The IF works with storytelling emphasis tend to severely limit ‘player’ choice for that very reason.