August 27, 2004

Twisty Little Passages – [books]

Nick Montfort's book on interactive fiction, Twisty Little Passages, describes itself in two ways. The first description (p. 5) reads:

This book seeks to describe some of the intellectual history of the form and its relationship to other literary and gaming forms, and to computing and other computing programs, while critically examining a representative selection of important works and describing their interrelationships.

The second description (p. 14) reads:

Thus this book considers [interactive fiction] works from the standpoint of the narratives they can generate, the way they function as riddles, and their nature as computer programs.

Thus Montfort has promised to present two equally important perspectives on interactive fiction (IF), the first a critical history of the form's origins, the second a critical analysis of the form's operations, or to put it in even simpler terms, where IF operates and how IF operates. Given the meagre attention previously given to interactive fiction by scholars, it is this first perspective, the critical history, that is most needed, and that takes a more dominant role in the book.

The first four chapters are highly polished and make for stimulating reading. As a hint of the expressive power of the form, the first sample of interactive fiction is not taken from Adventure or Zork, but from Dan Schmidt's poetic For a Change (1999). This is a strong lure, as the history of IF then moves back a few centuries to explore the literary riddle.

Literary riddles and ... interactive fiction are related in four important ways: Both have a systematic world, are something to be solved, present challenge and appropriate difficulty, and join the literary and the puzzling.

A powerful argument, and one that promises to be a useful tool in the consideration of individual works.

Unfortunately, as the account returns to the modern day, the primacy of this historic thread, and the application of Riddle Analysis (enigmology?), becomes muddled by an extensive discussion of commercial IF works that succeeded Crowther's Adventure.

No company is more guilty of proliferating interactive fiction than Infocom, the subject of chapter five. It is here that Montfort's critical history begins to disintegrate, becoming for the most part a catalog of notable works from the 1980's, filled with marginalia (that are, alas, not properly relegated to footnotes) and lacking a cohesive structure. The low point is a watery discussion of gender roles that devolves into a screed against copy protection.

In the midst of this critically needed critical history, then, are 50 pages of factual history detailing the works of Infocom, followed by 24 more pages on commercial IF from the United Kingdom and the rest of the world.

All of this, one hopes, is leading us back to the development of Schmidt's For a Change -- alas, it does not. Chapter seven gives a loose rundown of the significant events and major players in independent IF from 1990 onward. Most of this information was culled directly from individuals who participate in the very active, and largely underground, online IF community.

In the end, I believe it was haste, more than a lack of thoroughness, which diminishes the second half of the book. This is unfortunate, because the independent works contribute so much to recent development of interactive fiction. A more explicit examination of these innovations is crucial to the second perspective promised by Montfort -- the critical examination of how these works operate as narratives, as riddles, and as programmatic entities.

One potential schema for analysis which recurs frequently in the text -- but is not discussed on its own or at sufficient length -- is the role of simulated characters in interactive fiction. The examination of Non-Player Characters (NPCs) must, according to Montfort's own argument, include a threefold analysis of NPCs: as narrative actors, as riddling signifiers, and as chunks of code.

It is possible to tease some of this analysis out of the historical exposition, specifically the more narrative-oriented (or non-narrative, as the case may be) operations of the pirate and the Thief, as presented in the early chapters. Lacking is a thorough discussion of NPCs in the later Infocom games, specifically in Steve Meretzky's work -- there are some highlights (p. 130, 150), but no sufficient treatment of the subject.

Perhaps the greatest lost opportunity presented by Twisty Little Passages is the scant discussion of IF as sanguine software. An introduction to declarative languages, and a discussion of the ways in which programmatic structures construct a narrative world (in this care, a predominantly textual world), however brief, is sorely needed. Such a technical framework would provide an access point for discussion of the semantic encodings shared by riddles, narratives, and IF.

Without this semantic consideration, I am not sure that Montfort's analysis can illuminate anything more than interactive fiction as a formless craft.

Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, Nick Montfort, The MIT Press, 2003. ISBN: 0262134365

Posted by B Rickman at August 27, 2004 07:39 PM | TrackBack

Brandon, thanks for your thoughtful review. I'm glad you liked the beginning of the book, and wish the rest of it had been of as much interest.

Although it's too late to offer you any solace, I'll at least explain one of my decisions: The coverage of chapter 5, about Infocom, is as broad as it is because I felt Infocom was very important as an institution. Such a wide range of interesting IF was developed at Infocom, by people talking to each other about ideas, sharing code, and all working with the same editor and testers. I could have picked out the usual suspects for literary discussion (Trinity, AMFV) or only talked about a few popular favorites (Planetfall, Hitchhiker's Guide), but I wanted to explain something about the context those games came from, so that more detailed discussion in the future would be informed by that. Otherwise, people who knew only about the four games mentioned previously might continue to think, for instance, that all Infocom games are either fantasy or science fiction of some sort.

For similar reasons, I looked at the rather brief history of IF in more detail than the "current era," and I tried to be fairly broad while zooming in on a few particularly interesting works. There are "close readings" of recent IF available elsewhere. Stuart Moulthrop and I wrote a paper about Varicella; you probably recall that I presented some details of how Bad Machine relates to the riddle at UCLA; and there is other work out and forthcoming from scholars, not to mention many papers written by students for classes.

I certainly agree with you that there are topics touched on in Twisty Little Passages that deserve further discussion: IF as software, the role of NPCs, the riddle as a way of deeply understanding specific recent interactive fiction works, and others. If the first academic book on interactive fiction didn't cover these adequately, it may be the author's fault, or it may be that IF is a complex topic that requires more discussion than can fit into a single, introductory book, written for readers who may not have played IF before. This seemed to me like the best book to write, though. My hope was that it would contextualize and justify approaches from textual and software studies, considerations of specific recent games, and more detailed applications of the riddle figure, helping to begin an academic discussion of IF.

Posted by: nick at August 28, 2004 10:36 AM