Novel Ties: An Interactive Fiction Primer

Novel Ties is a short series exploring text-heavy games.

In 2008, tech journalist Aleks Krotoski interviewed interactive fiction (IF) mainstay Emily Short for The Guardian. “Where do you think IF sits in the spectrum of computer games?” she asked (ahhh, “computer games,” that hip tech term!). Short’s answer is a helpful place to start talking about text-based and text-heavy games: “At the edge, near graphical adventures but also near Ren’Py and hypertext and short fiction. Some IF is not really a game at all.” To understand this answer, you must first understand her references.

Graphical Adventures

To me, 1993’s Myst is the quintessential graphical adventure game. You inhabit a character in first person and directly explore your surroundings. You read and move things to find clues and solve puzzles, and the game is very placid and deliberate. Myst is all chrono and no trigger. But this genre goes back way before Myst: as soon as home computers had graphics, people began making games with graphics.

Ren’Py

On June 12, Amy Hennig told the E3 Coliseum, “I’m looking forward to seeing more voices and more diversity because these [tools] are more democratized.” Ren’Py is one of the oldest and purest iterations: a free game engine that builds visual novels. Brianna Lei’s cherished 2017 visual novel Butterfly Soup is an example of the potential for diverse voices using democratized maker tools.

Hypertext

Keen-eyed observenerds know hypertext is what powers the internet. Both HTTP and HTML directly refer to hypertext, which is just the arrangement of text with images and links and other kinds of interest and interaction. Imagine a classic encyclopedia in book form, where you read in a linear way and look up specific topics. Then imagine Wikipedia, where it’s literally become a game to click around to find the wildest topic in the fewest number of jumps.

Interactive Fiction

What does it mean to be “at the edge,” among the other more fringe kinds of games and storytelling? IF dates back to the earliest home computers, when we navigated everything using keyboard prompts. Text adventures used the same familiar structure of prompting the user with specific questions or requests, and programmers used a set of universal commands so players of different IFs knew how to navigate within a new game.

Most IFs that I’ve played have a similar structure. The narrative uses second-person language to describe what “you” are doing. You explore to find clues and puzzles, which in turn unlock more clues and puzzles. You find things and pick them up; I usually pick everything up, because I can rarely guess if something is useful or just scenery-trash. And that’s one of the special things about an IF, compared with visual games where you see entire landscapes: Someone has to place every single thing into the environment. There’s no filler.

I love Emily Short’s work. She’s an immense talent who has also willingly taken on de facto ambassadorship for IF, and she’s helped to make both more accessible content and more accessible tools for others to create that content. And her games form a great stepping-stone path into the wider world of IF. How do you play IF? There are clients you can download, but the three Emily Short games I want to talk about are all playable in an internet browser.

Galatea

In Short’s first piece of standalone solo IF, you speak with a living statue named Galatea, inspired by the Greek myth of Pygmalion. Short includes thorough help, leading you to the right commands even if you’re new to the genre. You ask questions and learn more about Galatea, but even when you ask about something that isn’t part of the programming, Galatea shares more information. In the context of the story, her loquacity makes good character sense.

The whole thing takes maybe ten or fifteen minutes to finish the first time, but there are multiple endings and almost countless different paths to take to get to those endings. And what of Galatea’s creator? He’s the catalyst for the entire game. “He didn’t want me to be awake, you see,” Galatea tells you, sometimes. “He didn’t make me to be a live person. He told me he wanted something that belonged to him, and that if I could think and talk, I couldn’t belong to him any more.”

If you know the myth of Pygmalion, you’ll have insights into Galatea’s abstruse comments and her creator’s quixotic nature. If you aren’t familiar with the story, don’t spoil it for yourself. But probing the extent and nature of Galatea’s aliveness is the only purpose of the game. It’s a Socratic dialogue with an improbable companion, and the only puzzle is deciding what to ask next.

Bronze

In the early aughts, tools like Ren’Py and Inform opened visual novels and IF up to much larger pools of potential creators. Short wrote extensively about how to use Inform, how to begin imagining an IF game, and how to structure and plan puzzles. In the midst of that boom, as part of her suite of “fractured fairy tales,” Short loosely adapted Beauty and the Beast into a game filled with aristocratically veiled secrets and mementos.

The Disney version is, of course, oddly sterile, but Short’s castle setting is more like Bluebeard at first: a huge castle of locked or even magically cursed wings that you must find ways to open. I played this game before I’d read much of Short’s press coverage from over the years, and reading about her process makes it even more satisfying to work through the puzzles in Bronze. As with Galatea, Short fills Bronze with worldbuilding and character information that seeps out with even unsuccessful commands.

Bronze has multiple endings that depend on what you found in the castle and how you used each item or idea. Without the animated companions of the Disney version, Beauty is simply a detective. And through her running commentary of memories and opinions, she shows us a more personal and interior view of the traditional story. At the end of the game, I always long for more.

Counterfeit Monkey

Short is open about IF being a spare-time project for her and most other creators whose work is freely available, but her 2012 game Counterfeit Monkey is big, ambitious, and totally original. Short has envisioned an isolated island nation ruled by linguistics and orthography. First, she drops you into the body of a protagonist whose details I won’t spoil for you. The rest of the game is an exploration of the city map, which appears as a graphic alongside all the gameplay. (Technically, it’s also made of text. You’ll see.)

I can’t give away the key piece of the game’s mechanic, but it’s so clever that it still hurts my head a little bit. The game is funny and informal anyway, but Short’s central concept gives it the surreal high energy of a madcap adventure movie like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or The Amazing Race. And where Galatea is about an hour and Bronze is a few hours, Counterfeit Monkey is more like ten.

The Nitty Gritty

Short has worked hard to make her games approachable. Galatea has a status bar that shows you which direction the statue is facing. In Bronze, you see how many rooms you’ve opened and which directions are available for you to go. Because Counterfeit Monkey is so much longer, it has more features like a traditional game, including goals that update as you make progress through the world. These three games are all available to play in browsers, but you can also download IF files that run in standalone clients called interpreters. You can save progress and come back, and you can find walkthroughs and other help for these three games and most IF in general.

My fault tolerance for more immersive and graphical games is probably pretty high, the same way a fresh coat of paint hides a multitude of sins. In IF, there’s nowhere to hide: words not only power the story, they form everything you experience. The worlds that Short and the other stars of IF create are rich and vivid, all the more for the amount of planning and narrative that’s built behind the scenes. The backbone of Inform is a code language that’s nearly forty years old, giving IF a much more durable legacy than most kinds of digital games. Just the building blocks of IF date back further than the entire Trivial Pursuit franchise.

There are ways for any game to feel dated, but taking graphics away also removes the biggest telltale heart of any ugly past. Imagine the story of Final Fantasy VI without the pixel sprites: a sweeping epic with shipwrecks and family deaths and that heartwrenching opera. It could be a novel by itself. For players who love story, the art and mechanics of old games can become distracting, but with IF, there’s nothing to grow old.

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About Caroline Delbert

Caroline Delbert is a writer, book editor, grad student, researcher, and avid reader who lives in Chicago. She's also an enthusiast of just about everything.
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