Archive for November, 2010

The Future (of Literature) Is Interactive Fiction, Part One

November 18, 2010

A few days ago, my friend helio girl wrote a post about living in the Future. Even more recently, my friend Max posted at the great Echo Bazaar Blog on interactive fiction, specifically, on games. These two posts got me thinking about what I see as living in the future: the future of literature, or interactive fiction.

At first glance, it is not immediately obvious why interactive fiction is the future of literature. I claim that is because interactive fiction is too often defined too narrowly: as “video games as literature,” as “hypertext as literature,” and so on. It’s easy to attack these narrow definitions. Roger Ebert, for example, wrote a now-famous post declaring video games can never be art (I also recommend his later post on the subject). But they miss the larger picture: interactive fiction is not about a particular medium, or a particular mode of interaction. It’s about freedom. And that freedom is what makes interactive fiction the future of literature.

Right now, literature is still very much not free. An author (let’s assume one author) writes a book. Edits the book. Sends the book to her agent. Her agent contacts publishers about publishing this book. The agent is very busy, and the publishers are very busy, so they will only really consider a book if it’s “sellable.” If people will buy it. How do they know what people will buy? They do market research. They find out what topics are popular. As Gabriel Rossman mentions in his excellent Sociology of Mass Communication class at UCLA, the popular is the familiar. The next set of bestsellers will be very similar, topic-, style- and genre-wise, to the current set of bestsellers. And so on, unto perpetuity.

Literature is not alone in this. Video games, movies, music all follow this pattern. For a more in-depth discussion of why this is the case, I refer the interested reader again to the Sociology of Mass Communication class. For my purposes I just want to draw attention to the fact that there is a definite, and pretty rigid pattern, at least in the mainstream. This pattern seems to be making a lot of people (though frequently not the content producers, and certainly not the content consumers) a lot of money. So why do I think it’s going to go away?

Well, it’s not making a whole lot of people really happy. It may make some people *think* they are happy, just as you are happy when you are hungry and given a meal. Even if it’s the same meal, over and over, you would rather eat it than starve. But if someone else comes along and gives you a different (equally or even slightly less delicious) meal, all of a sudden you might want to switch. For the sake of variety. Interactivity brings this variety to fiction, in a way that non-interactive fiction just can’t.

So what sorts of freedom does interactivity bring to fiction? First and foremost, the freedom for the reader to participate in the story. When you read a book, what do you do? You look at some words. Maybe these words are exciting. Maybe these words inspire you and touch your imagination! Now what? Well… you can daydream about something that no one else will see. Or you could write in your diary about it that very few other people will see. Or you could write a blog post about it, or tweet about it! Your blogs and tweets are much more accessible to many more people, including the writer of that original story. This is what I would call static interaction: a writer writes something, you read it, instantly react, the writer and other readers see your reactions, and can react all on their own. That’s already a huge step up from the original, non-interactive paradigm of fiction. But there is further to go: in a dynamic interaction paradigm, the story can instantly (or very quickly) adapt to the readers’ reactions. Here’s a scenario of what such a paradigm might look like.

Imagine you’re reading a book and a piece of dialogue, or a scene description, touches off a train of thought in your head. Next to the book is a collapsible wikispace where you can put your thoughts, like notes in the margin. The author (and the reader community) has set up a simple procedural language for such notes – with a few tags, you can put some structure on your thoughts, and add a new reader-generated scene to the narrative. A 3D rendering engine run on top of the book instantly transforms this scene into a new area in a persistent world built up around the book (with the procedural language from earlier governing character interactions). Instantly, fellow readers can read your chapter and participate in your part of the world. The author can focus on her story, and keep all this content marginal, or she can go in and browse, pick what she likes, and add it to the main story (with perhaps some edits), more fully integrating your content into the narrative.

This is a lot of content, and yet I’ve just scratched the surface of interactive fiction. Hopefully, this post provides an introduction to how I see interactive fiction and why it is the future. In later posts, I will resume this topic and go into more detail on the many freedoms interactivity brings to fiction. Stay tuned for more, same (bat)time, same (bat)channel!