Thursday, April 24, 2014

Interactive Fiction

Medium matters. You know this for a fact if you've ever met a great author who isn't such a great speaker, or a storyteller whose written work just doesn't have the same charm. You certainly know it if you're a storyteller yourself; maybe your idea for a graphic novel wouldn't work in prose, or your epic poem can only be appreciated when set to music. For every medium, there are stories that couldn’t be told in any other way. That's why I'm always eager to talk about Interactive Fiction to anyone who will listen. Interactive Fiction is a new way of crafting stories, barely out of its infancy, yet supremely accessible and delightfully diverse - what about that isn't exciting?
To call a work of fiction "interactive" merely means that some aspect of it may be determined by the reader. The Choose Your Own Adventure series of books is an obvious example. While that format lives on, the majority of Interactive Fiction being produced today is digital. Such works are often categorized as games. In fact, the earliest examples of what is now considered IF were designed to be computer games. I won't waste words trying to define categories. Suffice it to say that I have heard pieces of IF dismissed as "just games" and "not really games" with equal derision.
More satisfying than drawing borders around a medium is celebrating the spectacular variety within it. IF includes everything, from the highest fantasy to the most intimate memoir. Acclaimed works range from esoteric poetry to absolute smut. I can’t even begin to show just how wide-ranging IF really is. The first piece of interactive fiction, written in 1975, was about exploring a cave. Yesterday I read a western about trying to find one’s place in queer communities. Considering the youth of the medium, it’s incredible that it’s been explored in so many ways.
That diversity is largely due to the accessibility of digital IF. Digital media are inherently easier to share than physical ones, but the recent development of a tool called Twine has changed the landscape of digital fiction entirely. The nature of that change has been written about elsewhere by folks who know more about it than I do, but author and game designer Anna Anthropy summed it up best: “If you can write a story, you can make a Twine game.” Pieces of IF made in Twine are browser-based, and require no specialized software to read. Sites like allow an author to make their piece instantly available online. That’s about as accessible as it gets.
When a medium of expression becomes so widely available, lots of different folks get their hands on it, especially folks whose stories have been shut out of existing media. For example, some of the best pieces of IF were written by women. I mean trans women, women of colour, working-class women, women who are kinky, women who are living with chronic illnesses. What makes me really excited about the medium is that it’s a place where marginalized voices not only exist – they shine. They win awards. People whose stories are not being told anywhere else are telling them right now, in new ways, in a format you can get your hands on right now. What part of that isn’t exciting?
There’s something more than accessibility drawing oft-excluded voices to Interactive Fiction. Maybe it’s the second-person perspective, used so rarely outside of IF and so often within it. Maybe it’s that when you have a say in the outcome of a narrative, it becomes partially yours. When immersed in a good piece of IF, you can live someone else’s life. You can dream someone else’s dreams. For those whose experiences are ignored, whose dreams are denied, it’s a powerful opportunity to reach out to others.
I believe that people want to understand each other. Certainly we want to be understood. That’s why we communicate, and what is storytelling if not a form of communication? Now more than ever, Interactive Fiction is an abundant medium, rich with engaging stories from authors you might never otherwise have heard from. Jump in.
Alex Roberts is a writer of words and doer of stuff. You can follower on Twitter @muscularpikachu or find her website here.

Header Image by Brad Flickinger

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