Understanding Video Games text-book
Review of Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages

Date posted: May 11, 2006
Updated: Jan 3, 2007

A Review by Julian K�cklich

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All fiction is to some degree interactive. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously noted, fiction requires the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. The same is true for theatrical performances, films, etc. But some forms of fiction are more interactive than others. While a film will keep running even if you fall asleep or leave the theatre, new media forms such as the computer game or hyperfiction require the user’s input. If you don’t move Pac-Man, the game is over before it has begun. The same principle applies to text-based adventure games such as Zork, also known as ‘interactive fiction’ (IF). This is why Espen Aarseth has included this form into the category of ‘ergodic text’: in interactive fiction, the player has to work for her pleasure.

Compared to other forms of cybertext, the user has to work rather hard in IF. It is not just a matter of clicking the right links or hitting the right buttons at the right time, but an often brain-wrenching effort that requires discipline, endurance and a penchant for lateral thinking. This reviewer possesses neither quality in sufficient quantity to ever have been an avid adventurer in these textual worlds. This makes Twisty Little Passages, Nick Montfort’s approach to interactive fiction, all the more impressive, as he has not only played all these games, but he has immersed himself deeply enough in them to actually inspire more than just a passing curiosity. Reading Montfort’s book will make you want to aim your browser at the Interactive Fiction Archive, fire up the old Z-machine, and go spelunking in the caves of Crowther and Woods’ Adventure.

The definition of IF Montfort provides in his preface is inconspicuous enough: “computer programs that display text, accept textual responses, and then display additional text in reaction to what has been typed” (1). What sets these programs apart from databases or web pages is the fact that the program’s parser is able to attribute meaning to the user’s input, an operation that is simplified by the world model that the program maintains. In effect, this means that unlike traditional text interactive fiction has a memory of the user’s interactions. While the same is true to a limited degree for databases and some web pages, interactive fiction is quite unique in using these features for the purpose of poiesis.

Montfort prefers the term ‘interactive fiction’ to the term ‘text adventure’ because of the pop-cultural connotations of the latter. He deplores the fact that some authors of hyperfiction sneer condescendingly at IF, but his careful avoidance of the term ‘game’ betrays a similar strategy. The aim is to establish interactive fiction as a serious genre of literature that has little in common with its degenerate relatives that dwell in arcade cabinets and gaming consoles. Montfort is careful to depict interactive fiction ‘works’ as authorial creations rather than cultural objects, and although he approves of the reader’s almost co-authorial role in IF, his approach is closer to new criticism than reader-response criticism. His interest lies not in explaining why and how interactive fiction is consumed, but in establishing a set of canonical works and an aesthetic that is based on formal characteristics.

As so many other works of new media criticism, Twisty Little Passages is concerned with establishing its subject as worthy of study by taking a decidedly conservative approach. It should come as no surprise, then, that Montfort first takes the reader for a terminological tour de force that introduces a plethora of expressions ranging from the useful (such as the differentiation between commands and directives) to the obscure (e.g. the introduction of the largely synonymous terms ‘cycle’ and ‘exchange’). Montfort’s use of the term ‘potential narrative’ is especially vexing: on the one hand it conveniently highlights the continuous state of non-closure that is characteristic of the real-time of cybertextual narration; on the other hand it evokes Iser’s concept of constituting the text through the act of reading. As Marie-Laure Ryan has pointed out, narrative is a form of virtual reality, which makes the term ‘potential narrative’ seem tautological, if not outright superfluous.

Of all the literary precursors of interactive fiction, Montfort sees the riddle as the oldest and most eminent. He points out that both forms have ‘a systematic world’, are something to be solved, present a challenge and join the literary and the puzzling. This is not entirely convincing, however, as this metaphorical use of the term ‘world’ (contrary to its use in, e.g., possible world theory) weakens the argument and blurs the boundary between traditional narrative and interactive fiction. The criterion of internal consistency that Montfort presents as the common denominator of riddles and interactive fiction is, after all, quite central to most dramatic and narrative forms of literature as well.

More to the point is his observation that “[t]he riddle, like an IF work, must express itself clearly enough to be solved, obliquely enough to be challenging and beautifully enough to be compelling.” (51) In trying to formulate a poetics of the riddle, Montfort further stipulates that, ideally, a riddle should become even more mysterious after it has been solved. As Montfort points out in regard to the riddle I am the greatest of teachers, but unfortunately, I kill all my students, “[t]o solve this riddle, is to uncover the disturbing nature of the world, leaving one with other worries and plenty to think about.” (62)

In turning to more recent ancestors of interactive fiction, Montfort discusses literary devices such as William Burroughs’ cut-up technique and the Choose Your Own Adventure series as well as Dungeons & Dragons and computer games. This path inevitably leads to the first real work of interactive fiction: Will Crowther’s Adventure, which was later enhanced by Don Woods of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL). Quoting Crowther, Montfort succinctly sums up the specific appeal of Adventure: “People enjoy it � Because it’s exactly the kind of thing that computer programmers do. They’re struggling with an obstinate system that can do what you want but only if you can figure out the right thing to say to it” (92). This seems to resonate with Ted Friedman’s observation that “the pleasures of a simulation game come from inhabiting an unfamiliar, alien mental state: from learning to think like a computer” (Friedman 1999).

Much better known and more widely distributed than Adventure is its successor Zork, which is why Montfort dedicates a whole chapter to this milestone in the history of IF. Although his approach is, for this reviewer’s taste at least, altogether too author-centric, his comparison of Adventure and Zork proves illuminating. Montfort analyzes the sub-cultural setting of Zork, as evidenced by allusions to its authors’ alma mater, MIT and technological puzzles, but fails to take into account what this might tell us about its audience. His analysis of the formal advances � such as the introduction of an aleatory element in the form of Zork’s gentlemanly thief � is deeply rooted in structuralist theory, but as IF is a highly codified genre this seems justified. Even the inevitable nod to Vladimir Propp is not entirely out of place here.

In 1979, some of Zork’s authors founded Infocom, the company whose name is almost synonymous with interactive fiction. While Montfort’s comparison of Infocom to William Shakespeare might go a little too far (not least of all because Infocom published only thirty-five interactive fiction works, while Shakespeare is attributed with seventeen comedies, ten histories and ten tragedies), it is certainly true that Infocom “devised practically all of the best-loved IF works in the history of the form” (119). It is at this point in the book that Montfort’s deep knowledge of IF’s classics really comes to shine, as he gives synopses of all the major works the company released from 1980 to 1989. This golden age of interactive fiction saw the publication of Mark Blank’s Deadline (1982), Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984) and Steve Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985), each of which, among others, is treated to a brief analysis by Montfort.

Montfort’s analysis of IF works from other publishers, both from the US and abroad, is equally knowledgeable and succinct, but in the end this merely serves to establish a canon of works that are deemed of literary value. While this is useful for novices of interactive fiction who feel overwhelmed by the size of the Interactive Fiction Archive’s FTP site, it necessarily marginalizes other forms of interactive fiction. It is to Montfort’s credit that he acknowledges this problem and alerts the reader to the fact that his perspective is that of an American and is not necessarily representative of other cultures within or outside the United States. And while Montfort briefly addresses the question of gender in IF, the reader is largely left in the dark as to the social diversity of IF authors and their readership.

The penultimate chapter is dedicated to independent IF authors, highlighting the fact that despite the end of commercial IF publishers in the 1990s, interactive fiction is not dead, but very much alive as the number of contributions to the annual Interactive Fiction Competition clearly demonstrates. Instrumental in keeping the genre alive are shareware and freeware authoring systems such as TADS and Inform, which are also discussed by Montfort. He introduces the work of contemporary interactive fiction authors like Graham Nelson, Adam Cadre and Andrew Plotkin and points towards important developments such as more engaging dialogue and collaborative works.

Finally, in trying to situate IF, Montfort points out that the form has left its traces almost everywhere in digital culture, from MUDs to the World Wide Web itself. His conclusion that IF is clearly more than a mere curiosity rings true, although it seems still uncertain whether it will ever be part of mainstream culture. However, as Montfort optimistically points out, IF’s position outside the marketplace allows for much more experimentation in both form and content than other genres, and it’s exactly because of this position that it can demonstrate “that the computer can be a device that challenges and enlarges us, a way of communicating powerful and disturbing and deeply necessary ideas” (233).

Montfort’s book provides an indispensable guide for a journey into the past of computer literature. Like any good travel guide it points out the roadside attractions, but it also teaches you to appreciate their often bizarre beauty. We are so used to the eye-candy that our graphics cards spew forth so abundantly, that the experience of interactive fiction threatens to be disorienting at first � but once our eyes have adjusted to the dark screen with its scarce spattering of bright alphanumerics, we are likely to feel like we are returning to a place we haven’t ever really left. The effect is exciting and soothing at the same time � like the wave of remembrance that washes over Marcel as he dips the Madeleine into his tea � and Montfort deserves praise for reviving this lost world for us.

Nick Montfort: Twisty Little Passages. An Approach to Interactive Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press 2003. 328 pp. 29.95 USD. ISBN 0-262-13436-5.

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