Interactive Fiction and Transmedia

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

In some geek circles -- certainly the ones I seem to roll with -- these two sentences are as able to elicit a knowing smile or make for an easy joke as "I... I'm attacking the darkness!" They come from the 1979 text adventure game Zork.

Zork was one of the earliest examples of a kind of game in which an environment is described to the player via text, and the player types commands into a prompt to act ("go east"), often to explore an area, solve puzzles, and get points. Though most of these kinds of games stopped being commercially viable by the 90's, a strong community exists online, creating and supporting them. They are called Interactive Fiction (IF).

My knowledge of IF up until a couple months ago began and ended with Zork (besides a general acknowledgement that other IF was out there, I'd just never played it). I remember sitting in front of our old pre-Windows95 computer with my dad, trying to muddle through the puzzles (I was probably 7 at the time).

But IF has come a long way from the simple puzzle-based gameplay of Zork, and tehre are modern works of IF that are much more narrative than game, much more interesteed in the story than in bring-this-item-to-this-room puzzles. They experiment with form and convention, playing with narrative positioning and player agency. Some are used as a way to explore a historical place and time rather than tell a fictional story. Really, the possibilities involved with modern IF are kind of endless.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

In another demonstration that the ideas behind transmedia aren't really new, and we just have a new way* to think about them, the pillars of interactive fiction have a lot in common with transmedia. It's story and puzzles and gameplay, audience engagement and participation, innovative experiments and endless potential.

What really interests me is where the two can intersect. That is, where interactive fiction can be used as part of a transmedia project, as one of the media. It's not likely one of the commercially viable options, but it could be a great way to allow an audience member to paerhaps explore a location key to the story, or to take the role of one (or more) of the characters, to really get inside of them for awhile. It could be a way to introduce a puzzle to an ARG or a reward for engaged audience members.

To the end of trying it out, seeing what it can do, seeing what the potential is, I've been spending the last month learning to write and program IF, and creating a small game myself. We'll be releasing it as part of Azrael's Stop at the end of this month, as part of our ongoing effort to explore transmedia possibilities through that project. I hope you'll check it out when we do and let us know what you think.

Some Links

Wikipedia of course has a good overview of Interactive Fiction.

Inform 7 is the program/language I've been using to write IF.

The Interactive Fiction Database.