Cardinal Column #11: Interactive Fiction

(Editor’s note: Madly scrawled in a library computer a few hours before it was due, this column ranks as one of my favorites if not my favorite column I ever did for the Cardinal. Between real-world research and speculation on what I’d previously read, it was a joy to put together and see published – and also see reprinted on one or two websites. Definitely the head of the style I was putting together, and what I’d like to replicate in my future works.)

Literature and Internet collide, with interactive results

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, March 3, 2006

While I’d be the last person to say there is a problem with reading books, I will admit the activity can grow a little monotonous. Not in terms of excitement or detail, no—more in terms of the fact that reading is a generally passive activity, where you follow along on a given path and draw the same conclusions.

However, it doesn’t always have to be that way, thanks to a recent rediscovery of an old classic: interactive fiction. A synthesis of books and technology better known as text-based games, interactive fiction was hidden for years under the shadow of computer graphics but has enjoyed a revival in the depths of cyberspace.

For an example of interactive fiction, I’m sure we all remember “Choose Your Own Adventure,” those wonderful little paperbacks which are probably the only books left to use second-person voice. The plots were laughable with titles like “Space Vampire,” “War with the Mutant Spider Ants” and “You are Microscopic,” but the sheer volume of books written meant that there was always some new absurdity. You could experiment with multiple escape routes, move to different planets or send yourself on courses you knew were cheesy and suicidal.

Most of us have moved past those simple books, but that doesn’t mean that we should have outgrown interactive fiction—in fact, at this highpoint of personal creativity we call college we should be getting back into it. With all the time we waste on procrastination or on actual studying, we could be writing our own alternative story.

While interactive fiction hasn’t been commercially noteworthy since the days of “Myst” and other adventure games, it’s still alive and well on the Internet. Companies like Malinche offer a wide variety of in-depth adventures ranging from going undercover in a mental hospital, captain of a U.S. naval cruiser or stranded at a gas station being shot at by a maniac.

Every one of these stories is not only accurate but exquisitely detailed—Malinche’s grandmaster Howard Sherman researches every story firsthand, including travels to Central and South America for first-hand information on Aztec ruins. The titles are also accessible in all media, usable on personal computers, PDA’s, cell phones and even iPods.

Thanks to the Internet, there’s even the chance to create your own games. Programs such as Inform, Hugo and Olitext offer software that can put together text-based adventures with varying degrees of difficulty, and there are also online wikis that allow you to either progress through the story or add your own chapters. (One unusual twist: some wikis, when you lead your character into death, require you to come up with two new plot trails. Gives you a little incentive to watch your step.)

The Internet could even reawaken the concept of interactive fiction done by established authors, such as Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” text game which contradicts the original and confuses readers in true Adams spirit. Who’s to say that Terry Goodkind couldn’t pen a massive interactive “Sword of Truth” story, or Dan Brown couldn’t write a piece with enough plot twists to offend every religion out there?

And why should established authors have all the fun? If you get a dozen or talented people together online, each of them writing down different settings and amusing ways to die, the odds are in favor of one of those paths turning into something truly unique. If one chain of events receives enough feedback, editing and dedication from its users, there could be a fully published novel hiding behind text commands.

A lot of speculation, I know—but that speculation is the beauty of interactive fiction. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure about ninjas and/or Mardi Gras, you can take it anywhere you want to go.

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