The semantics of Interactive Fiction

Throughout the articles in this blog, I’ve used multiple words to refer to the same concept, for example: ‘game’, ‘story’, ‘work’ – when referring to a single example of Interactive Fiction.

Although this may seem like a confusing thing to do, there are 2 reasons why I’ve done this:

  •  it is not as straightforward as it might seem
  •  it gives a more complete idea of what IF is

When referring to 9:05 – do we say: “9:05 is an Interactive Fiction game” or “9:05 is a Interactive Fiction story” or “9:05 is a work of Interactive Fiction” or “9:05 is an Interactive Fiction (with the plural being Interactive Fictions). I have seen them all being used and I would agree that they are all perfectly acceptable. In the end, it may all come down to one’s personal preference. However, I have purposely interchanged these words because I think it is important to stress the different facets of IF, especially to those who are hearing about it for the first time. If I were to say to a teacher:

“Hey, you should try out this great IF game with your class”, it would generate a response ranging from “Fantastic, what’s it about and how do I play it” – from a teacher familiar with the principles digital game-based learning, to “I have adult students, they don’t like games” from a teacher who doesn’t know how a video game can be applied to a learning context .

We all know the popular saying: “work and play do not mix”.  When it comes to using video games for learning, Gee (2003) disagrees:

“When we think of games, we think of fun. When we think of learning we think of work. Games show us this is wrong. They trigger deep learning that is itself part and parcel of the fun. It is what makes games deep.”

For this reason, I have made a point of stressing that IF is indeed a ‘game’ – which will interest those looking for a ‘fun’ and challenging experience and that it is also a ‘story’ – for those who wish to concentrate on the more literary virtues of IF. I also personally like the word ‘work’ to describe an author’s effort at IF as it equates the game/story construct to that of an artistic endeavour. The expression ‘Interactive Fictions’ seems a bit confusing to me with all the possible references made to interaction and Interactive Fiction (as a genre).

Along similar lines, we have also run into the words: ‘read’ and ‘play’ when referring to the action that takes place while interacting with IF. Again, I have used both to indicate that each of these actions take place – all the time. I would say they are inseparable (otherwise, it wouldn’t be IF). However, to appease both camps -the game players and those looking for more serious stimulation, both can be used interchangeably.

This, naturally, has an effect on the word used to describe the person that interacts with IF: is she a ‘player’, a ‘reader‘, or something else?

Saying ‘player‘ again brings with it, for many people, the idea of ‘”not serious”. Saying ‘reader‘ also leaves out any indication that one does more than just read lines on a screen, and that there is therefore no interaction between the reader, the text and the simulated world within it. As an attempt to break free of this twisty maze, some IF scholars have suggested using the word ‘interactor’ instead (Montfort, 2003), which actually makes a great deal of sense. After all, we call it Interactive Fiction.

And that brings us to another age old question: ‘Text adventure’ or ‘Interactive Fiction’?

This, like all the other cases I’ve mentioned, comes down to personal opinion.

I like to think of the history of IF as divided into 3 parts:

Pre-Infocom (1975-1980) – 2 word parser

The Infocom Age (1980-1989) – the classics

The Modern Era of IF (1995- present) – experimentation/narrative focus

Infocom was the company that produced some of the most most loved and critically acclaimed IF of all time. It was also the first to produce works which tried to be more than simple treasure-hunts and dungeon crawls. Infocom produced IF in many different genres other than in the completely overdone Tolkien-esque fantasy setting, with quality writing and often, a great sense of humour. However, what really made Infocom initially stand out amongst other IF publishers was their superior parser – able to understand complex sentences compared to 2 word commands, which were still found in many text adventures throughout the 80s.

It is here that I make the grand distinction:

  •  text adventure – basic parser, weak narrative/sparse textual descriptions – essentially puzzles strung together in a fantasy or fantastical setting. And lots of mazes.
  •  Interactive Fiction – complex parser – an engrossing narrative – varied genres – experimental.

There are of course, those who are adamant that IF are just text adventures trying to be highbrow and something other than a mere game. So be it. I played text adventures when I was 10. I like to be surprised by the IF I play today. Things have come a long, long way since Colossal Cave.

It might be a good idea to mention here that IF can still mean different things to different people, especially in academic circles. The genre of games we are discussing evolved from Colossal Cave, released in 1975. In 1982, Robert LaFores coined the term ‘Interactive Fiction’ to stress the interactive element in his games (thanks to the Digital Antiquarian for this info). Infocom then borrowed the label and capitalised on it – so much so,  that Infocom and Interactive Ficiton are still synonomous to this day (at least for fans of old-school IF).

While IF was the first type of digital literature (and is still a unique form), it was followed by Hypertext Fiction, or Hyperfiction, which captivated the hearts of literary critics and academics who would shun IF for merely being a game, never taking it seriously as a new form of literature. To make matters worse, academics would later use the term ‘Interactive Fiction’ as an umbrella term for all types of cybertext (narrative-building machines; Aarseth, 1997) – while never giving real IF a chance to grow and evolve into something more literary. Don’t get me wrong – I can see the interest and value of Hyperfiction. It’s the electronic literature critics that disdain IF – eg. J. Yellowlees Douglas, that I am not particularly fond of. In her book “The End of Books or Books without End (Douglas, 2000)”, she states:

“Moreover, digital narratives primarily follow the trajectory of Adventure, a work considered venerable only by the techies who 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.”

Sure. And who exactly is publishing hyperfiction these days? I can name quite a few works of IF that seem to fit quite snuggly in that description. If this book was published in 2000, why is there only a reference to the first ever IF game – Adventure, written in 1975. Why not mention how IF had evolved in literariness since 1975 – eg. A Mind Forever Voyaging (Infocom, 1985), Trinity (Infocom, 1986), Photopia (Cadre, 1998), Spider and Web (Plotkin, 1998) and Anchorhead (Gentry, 1998). 1998 was a good year indeed!

My favourite example of Hyperfiction (although a much simplified and multimedia, not text-based example ) can be found here: It was created as publicity material to go along with the release of my favourite film – Memento. In fact I love the film and site so much, I made a language learning website about them: However, I must warn anyone who is curious enough to click on the link that it looks REALLY bad, but it was my first attempt at making courseware and I think there were some good ideas in it.

So, Interactive Fiction or text adventure? From a historical perspective, looking at what has been done in the last 10 years or so, I believe it is an injustice to consider these high quality literary and experimental works to be simple text adventures. Modern era IF is continually being pushed in new directions – as it has become more literary and video games have started being recognised as ‘serious’ learning tools, I believe that 35 years later, IF is finally being taken seriously as ‘game’ and ‘story’- and that it is finally going to get the attention it deserves from language teachers and learners.

In the meantime, what really matters is that whatever words we choose to describe it, IF continues to be played, read, and written.






About Joe Pereira

Joe Pereira is an English as a foreign language teacher in Portugal. He is interested in digital game-based learning, especially with Interactive Fiction.

Posted on December 8, 2011, in Interactive Fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hi Kristian. Thanks for your comments!
    I’ve registered for the competition – I only hope that I’ll find the time to create a worthwhile game by the deadline! From what I’ve seen of Quest 5, it certainly looks like an accessible tool for the creation of text adventures (or should that be Interactive Fiction :)). However, I have some reservations towards using it myself.
    Firstly, it hasn’t yet been ported to Mac OS. It really, really pains me to have use Windows for anything outside the workplace and I’m sure many other potential Quest users feel the same.
    Secondly, although I can clearly see the appeal to using it with students from the perspective of ease of use and learning curve, I really have my heart set on making a serious game attempt using Inform 7. I just think that using natural language to program a game that uses natural language is an obvious choice! And to get language learners to use language to make their own games is extremely appealing to me (despite the learning curve).
    Thirdly,I have played Things that go bump in the night on the iPhone and the story seems well-implemented and the user-interface is very intuitive. However, the problem that I have with this kind of interface (and with point-and-click adventure games as well) is that I personally feel there is less interaction and thus presence with the story because of the lack of textual input. Given my view of using IF for language learning, this textual input is the crucial element for immersion and situated cognition. Clicking on pre-set command buttons, while being extremely helpful in advancing the story and a good design choice for mobile devices just doesn’t do it for me – it kind of takes away that ‘co-creating the story’ feeling.
    Now, will the touch interface get more people playing the games – I’m sure it will and that is a good thing.
    With regards to Quest 5 itself, I’m anxious to give it a try, but would have liked to see a comparison at It also seems at a glance to be similar to ADRIFT. What are the advantages of using Quest 5?

    Congrats on your Midlands project – it looks like its going to be a major breakthrough! You can Skype me @creedpatton. I’m usually free on Mondays.


  2. I know we have spoken / connected online already, but the platform quest really has great potential and now it is on android and iOS the future is bright. In my opinion the touch interface really makes a big difference to the weather game is played and makes it more enjoyable this is also the view of the students that I know have tried it so far on their iTouches

    We really must get together on Skype at some point in the near future and look at how we could collaborate in the meantime perhaps you could play ‘things that go bump in the night’. Most info here

    There will soon be a focused projects in the Midlands in a group of 96 primary schools looking at it for reading development. Exciting times.

    Love the idea of the film as a learning resource. Inspired.


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