Have you ever been reading a book and found yourself so engrossed in the plot that you want to reach in and become part of the story? With interactive fiction (IF) you can do just that. Part book and part game, interactive fiction uses an online book format that gives the reader a say in how plots develop. As people read these text games, they have the options of clicking (or tapping in the case of touchscreen devices) on certain words or passages that are interactive, indicating different points where the narrative can branch off into other directions. Depending on which selection a reader chooses, the story can take any number of interesting twists and turns.

Although IF is not exactly brand new—it’s been around since the 1970s, when the reader-to-text interface consisted of text commands—it has experienced a spike in popularity as of late. For those of us who remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books, interactive fiction is a somewhat similar concept. However, IF stories allow for an even greater variety of reader collaboration. For example, one newly released project by IF writer Emily Short allows the reader to direct the main character’s actions. Entitled Blood & Laurels, this text game features an “Act Now” button at various points throughout the storyline that, when clicked, presents the reader with a wide array of specific actions or reactions from which to choose. The reader is consequently transformed into an extension of the game’s protagonist, able to dictate how the character operates within the story. Reading (or playing?) this text game becomes an improvisational exercise of sorts and the storyline, a dialogue.

The genre has come a long way since the first interactive text game, Adventure, was created. A man named Will Crowther created the original game in the 1970s. The program eventually made its way into the hands of Don Woods, who—with Crowther’s permission—worked to fix bugs and modify the game for wider use. Thereafter, Adventure—and interactive fiction in general—gained greater commercial popularity until the late 1980s, at which time interest began to wane. However, improved IF development systems like TADS (Text Adventure Development System) and Inform managed to keep IF alive. Since then, the internet and new technology have helped bring IF even more recognition.

The possibilities for IF aren’t restricted to personal computers or laptops anymore. With e-readers now widely used, design agencies like IDEO are imagining new ways to transform the traditional reading experience. For instance, someday, readers could uncover clues in a mystery novel by shaking their iPads until most of the words “fall off” to show hidden codes. There is even talk of IF readers eventually receiving text messages or emails from characters.

Then there are games like Zombies, Run! that combine narrative and physical activity. Once the app is downloaded on their smartphones, players literally run while the game tracks their location and speed via GPS and an accelerometer. Meanwhile, the game directs players and conveys a storyline using audio clips. The game also supplements these clips with tracks of players’ own music. Depending on how well they follow and react to the action described in the game, players earn rewards in the form of games items. Thus, the readers themselves become characters within the narrative, propelling the action forward with their own movement.

With such compelling innovations currently being released and more prospects on the horizon, it will be interesting to see how IF will fare in the long run. Will it continue to catch on? Could it be the next frontier for reading and literature? Who knows—only time will tell which path this story will take.

Did You Know?

The inspiration behind the game that started the IF craze, Will Crowther’s Adventure, is quite heartwarming. Crowther developed the game for his two daughters as a way to reconnect with them after a divorce. As an avid caver, Crowther mapped some of his real-life cave explorations; in Adventure, he used some of these maps and added touches of fantasy to captivate his daughters. The game was a big hit with the girls. Eventually, the game began making its way around to friends and then spread via the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, which was a precursor to the internet), gaining what would become an impressive following.