Thursday, December 18, 2008
Nick Montfort: Twisty Little Passages (2003)
"Interactive fiction, that type of computer program exemplified by the text adventure, was a significant part of the early computing experience and has been a major current in electronic literature. Works in this form became the first best-sellers on PCs during the early 1980s, and have clearly influenced software engineering, interface design, online communities such as MUDs and MOOs, and other forms of digital and nondigital media." Montfort's book is the first study of "interactive fiction," a specific type of electronic literature/cybertext that is distinguished by its requirement that "interactors" have to type language (that is, literally contribute to the writing of the text) in order to traverse the work (unlike, say, hypertext, in which navigation can occur through clicking links). The genre emerged in the mid-1970s with the famed Adventure game, became even more popular with Zork, became commercialized on the personal computer in the 1980s, and then (due to the commercial shift to graphic games) became the provenance of a small community of independent producers in the decades since. Montfort claims interactive fiction continues to be an important form of electronic literature, despite its commercial and popular eclipse and apparent obsolescence in an era of increasingly complex graphics. There isn't any argument in Montfort's book. He begins by clearly defining interactive fiction and provides a non-controversial vocabulary for discussing it. The bulk of the book is a chronological history of interactive fiction, largely consisting of descriptions and appreciations of the innovations of different works. I suppose interactive fiction is as worthy of book-length study as any other literary sub-genre, but it's unfortunate Montfort doesn't present a more compelling argument about how language works in interactive fiction (i.e., a discussion of "command words") or a closer examination of the software and databases used to create fictional worlds (the algorithmic suturing of different "rooms") or even a strong case for the value of non-graphic electronic literature (which should have an obvious appeal to traditional literary scholars).