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Twisty Little Passages Review

by Stephen Granade

As computers and technology have become a part of everyday life, literature has grown to embrace them. There is a burgeoning field of electronic literature—literature that employs technology to achieve effects beyond what is seen in traditional literature. Theorists such as Espen Aarseth, Janet Murray, and many others have worked to establish electronic literature within the wider academic community. Arguably the most prominent and accepted form of electronic literature is hypertext. Next to it, interactive fiction has often been the red-headed stepchild of the electronic literature community. Consider this passage from The End of Books—Or Books Without End?: Reading Interactive Narratives by Jane Douglas:

Digital narratives primarily follow the trajectory of Adventure, a work considered venerable only by the techies who first played it in the 1970s, cybergaming geeks, and the writers, theorists, and practitioners who deal with interactivity. Hypertext fiction, on the other hand, follows and furthers the trajectory of hallowed touchstones of print culture, especially the avant-garde novel.

Many aficionados of interactive fiction have taken the opposite tack, saying, "Hey, these are only games! Trying to make art out of them squeezes out the fun!" In some cases this is a response to interactive fiction authors attempting a more consciously artistic tone; in others, it is a reaction to the view (typified by the passage from Douglas's book) that interactive fiction is in no way literature.

Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, by Nick Montfort, attempts to straddle the divide between literary academicians and interactive fiction. It is an apologetic, arguing for interactive fiction's inclusion as literature in its own right, involving pleasures whose details are unique to interactive fiction yet whose effects are common to other forms of literature, electronic or otherwise. Twisty Little Passages manages to be accessible to interactive fiction enthusiasts and academicians. In it, Montfort argues for interactive fiction as literature, presents the theoretical tools and terminology necessary for analyzing works of interactive fiction, establishes the historical context for interactive fiction, and surveys the history of interactive fiction. That he does so in a scant 233 pages is remarkable; that the book remains eminently readible throughout is amazing.

Montfort is a product of both the academic literary and interactive fiction worlds. He has written scholarly articles about electronic literature. His own works of interactive fiction include the self-consciously artistic and the playful. Douglas's statements above appear early on in Twisty Little Passages, and Montfort uses them and others as the starting point for his argument that interactive fiction, though overlooked by many in the electronic literature community, is truly literature. He is the right man in the right place at the right time. Twisty Little Passages does a wonderful job of covering the territory and even breaking new ground.

The first chapter gives an overview of interactive fiction, using a carefully-generated transcript from Dan Schmidt's For a Change to explain how interactive fiction often works. The chapter also develops terminology and some theory for analyzing interactive fiction. Its most important contribution is in the view of interactive fiction as a source of potential narratives. A transcript of gameplay is often boring, though if prepared properly it can be used for instructive purposes, as Twisty Little Passages does. The magic is in the player communicating with the work and the work in turn responding. Reading a transcript instead of playing a game is like reading a reviewer's synopsis of a movie instead of seeing it.

Chapter two contains the book's largest theoretical leap. In it, Montfort relates interactive fiction to the riddle. His claim is that the riddle is both the most important early ancestor of interactive fiction and an excellent tool for understanding interactive fiction. This is an audacious and daring move, tying interactive fiction to a form that is often dismissed as not being literature.

Giving riddles as the ancestor of interactive fiction certainly allows for a fuller understanding than the traditional view. It is common for historians of the genre to see Adventure, the first work of interactive fiction, as either springing fully formed from Will Crowther's brow or being influenced at most by Dungeons & Dragons and Tolkein's works. In reading the chapter devoted to the riddle, I had several "aha!" moments, as when Montfort says,

Merely stating the answer to the riddle is not enough for a solution—this is worth emphasizing. The riddlee who has truly reached a solution should be able to completely explain the riddle-question and how each of the metaphorical clues operates.

This is exactly it. Even if players (or interactors, to use Montfort's terminology) don't completely know what's going on within the game world, knowing how a puzzle fits into that world and seeing how they moved past it is necessary for the puzzle to be well-constructed and satisfying.

Where the comparison starts to fail for me is in the explanation of how riddles create a systematic world through metaphor. The foremost element of an interactive fiction work is its world. We are invited to take part in it, manipulating it directly. Our actions change the simulated world. In comparison, whatever "world" might be created by a riddle is extremely limited in scope, so much so that I have trouble calling it a world, and we have no effect on it. Even after we have puzzled through the riddle, the riddle itself is unchanged. We haven't even explored the riddle's world, only understood it better, while exploring the world of an interactive fiction work is a primary pleasure of the genre.

Similarly, Montfort uses the riddle metaphor to reject Graham Nelson's statement that an interactive fiction work is "a crossword at war with a narrative." Rather, Montfort states that the puzzle and literary aspects of interactive fiction are "all different aspects of the same goal; they are not in competition." All elements should be employed to produce the creator's desired end effect, but that does not mean that they do not tug against each other. There has been much discussion about how puzzles can work against narrative and narrative against puzzles. To say that they should become some sort of Hegelian whole is a truism that ignores the inherent difficulties in doing so, and comparing interactive fiction to a riddle will not solve this problem.

I've spent a lot of time on this section not because I think it weak but because I think it one of the most fascinating parts of the book. I expect the riddle comparison to spark a lot of discussion in the years to come. If this sort of theorizing isn't really your speed, however, never fear: the majority of Twisty Little Passages covers the history of interactive fiction. Prior to this book, The Inform Designer's Manual gave an overview of interactive fiction's history, but Twisty Little Passages pokes into many heretofore-obscure corners of that history and in doing so gives the most comprehensive overview I've seen. Adventure and the mainframe version of Zork both receive their own chapters, while the following chapter summarizes the rest of Infocom's works. Another chapter summarizes other companies' works, and a final chapter covers the efforts of independent artists like Andrew Plotkin and Adam Cadre.

The book's strength is in how accessible it is to academicians, to those already involved in interactive fiction, and even to those who haven't played any interactive fiction since the early 1980s. Despite this, there are missteps. At times Montfort seems unsure of his audience. In one section the book assumes a lot of familiarity with theories of literary analysis, while in another it refers to XYZZYnews and TextFire without explanation.

I have quibbles with how Twisty Little Passages sometimes appears to bend over backwards to accomodate the academic point of view. This leads to such interesting circumlocutions as Montfort having to reject the term meta-commands to refer to commands that have an effect not contained by the work's world, such as SAVE and RESTORE. These are instead directives. The term "meta" cannot be used because Gérard Genette in 1980 used "meta" to refer to narratives contained within larger narratives in a reversal of the prefix's usual meaning. In the chapter on commercial interactive fiction works other than Infocom's, Robert Pinsky's Mindwheel receives far more attention than any other work. This may be because it is a rich subject of study, or it may be because Pinsky is a U.S. Poet Laureate and thus lends academic weight to interactive fiction.

These are perhaps unavoidable problems in a book as catholic in its scope as Twisty Little Passages, but they are nowhere near fatal ones. For every complaint I have about the book, I have twenty or thirty praises. I would have been thrilled to find one book that introduced interactive fiction, another that had a comprehensive history of it, and a third that laid the foundations for a literary theory of interactive fiction. How much better, then, to have a single book that does all three and is even a pleasure to read. Nick Montfort's book provides both overview and new insight, and is important enough that I expect it to be a canonical reference for years to come. I can think of no higher praise I can bestow on the book than to say, "Damn, I wish I had written that."

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