Interactive Stories

As paper gives way to electronic forms of information delivery, the potential audience for interactive fiction is going to grow. But for a potential audience to turn into an actual audience, we’re going to need some interactive stories that are seriously compelling.

Those who are already IF aficionados will, at this point, cry, “What about ‘Anchorhead’? That’s compelling! What about ‘Slouching Toward Bedlam’? What about ‘Spider & Web’? What about …” and so forth. But if “Anchorhead” was truly a compelling experience for a larger audience, wouldn’t it already have found a larger audience?

Fantasy about vampires and werewolves is huge right now. So where are the newly minted interactive stories that can go toe to toe with a book by Laurell K. Hamilton? Why do we have to keep talking about “Anchorhead” and “Photopia”?

I started thinking about this because the teen librarian at the local library isn’t excited about having me teach a class for kids in how to write interactive fiction. Okay, her budget has been cut; I understand that. Maybe I need to broaden my horizons. Maybe I should put together a class (privately, not through the library) and teach IF writing to adults.

This idea leads naturally to the question, why would a sensible adult — even one who was already writing fiction, or desiring to do so — want to write interactive fiction? This is not an easy question to answer. If there was a genuine market, the answer would be nearer to hand. As it is, though, I would have to pitch a class to aspiring writers not by pointing to the market (which doesn’t exist) but by helping them see the strengths of the medium.

What should I tell them?

IF is ideal if you want to write a story with multiple branching endings that your readers can savor. IF is well suited to stories of exploration and discovery in strange environments. IF is very good at giving readers a sense of personal involvement in the story. IF handles both dangers and rewards well when they’re concrete and physical, less well when they’re abstract. The setting of the story plays a large role in IF. IF has some advantages for science fiction and fantasy, because of the possibility of designing gadgets and/or spells that actually do things. It also has potential as a delivery system for humor.

Conversely, IF is not a very suitable medium for exploring the subtleties of human experience or human encounter. If you want to write a novel in which Jennifer wrestles, for 250 pages, with whether to ask Julian for a divorce, IF would be a poor choice. Also, IF is lousy at pacing; in sustained action sequences such as chases, the possibilities for meaningful interaction are blunted.

IF (writing it or playing it) can be a rewarding activity for anyone who likes having fun with tweaky intellectual stuff — especially if it involves computers. IF is less likely to be of interest to those who are serious-minded and “adult,” whatever that means.

If interactive fiction ever produces a Laurell Hamilton or a Dean Koontz, it will be because a talented writer figures out how to use the strengths of the medium in a way that electrifies readers. The market will come along afterward.

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