Mary Ann Buckles

Interactive Fiction as Literature

Adventure games have a literary lineage

When Willie Crowther and Don Woods wrote the narrative-based game Adventure, they most likely did not foresee that they were creating a new way of telling a story or that Adventure might some day be considered a work of literature.

The adventure game genre is now called interactive fiction (IF). In some ways, IF closely resembles the traditional literary genres of mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, and adventure tales. These types of popular literature are based on rules, games, and the creation of fantasy worlds. They all emphasize a step-by-step, action-consequence type of thinking and imagination.

Mystery Literature: Detection as a Game

Edgar Allen Poe would have loved IF; he was a master at solving cryptograms and thought problems, and he wrote the first detective story, “Murder in the Rue Morgue.” Ever since then, mystery literature has been compared to games. The Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, have been called “crossword puzzles.” Mystery novels like those of Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett are more like jigsaw puzzles, while James Bond novels and spy stories can be compared to games of chess.

Mysteries challenge the reader's powers of deduction; they are games in the form of stories, in which the reader competes with the author, matching wits in the game of “who done it” and how.

Some writers have even established mystery literature “rules” to make sure the competition between the reader and the characters, or the reader and the author, is fair. One set of rules that was set forth to give the reader a sporting chance requires that the author at least mention the criminal early on in the story, that there be no more than one secret passage per story, and that no secret twin brothers or sisters may suddenly appear to explain the crime. To promote such fair play with the reader, the famous Detection Club (founded by G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Cristie, Dorothy Sayers, and others) requires new members to swear to the following initiation oath (see reference 1):

Ruler: Do you solemly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?

Candidate: I do.

Ruler: Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Trap-Doors, Chinamen . . . and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to science?

Candidate: I do.

Of course, fair play in no way hinders an author from trying to fool the reader; trickery and the ability to manipulate the rules to one's own advantage are admired qualities in gamesmanship.

As in mystery literature, the fascination of the intellectual challenge in IF may make up for weaknesses in characterization and style, which often suffer from the all-consuming goal of making the plot as thick as possible. In both IF and in detective literature, events and characters' choices are often not explained psychologically. In many mystery stories, the author simply establishes that the crime is puzzling, without providing any plausible motivation for it.

However, the suspense in mysteries can evoke total involvement and escape from our real-world problems. Because the reader is the detective and unraveller of puzzles in IF, and therefore more actively and intensely involved in solving the problems, IF can become a more powerful type of suspense and escape literature than current mystery literature.

IF and Adventure Literature

Crowther and Woods' Adventure is a story of exploration, like Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. Both take place in caves, and many of the descriptions are similar. Perhaps surprisingly, the cave descriptions in Adventure are often more realistic and vivid than in Verne's story. Whereas Jules Verne explored only in his imagination, Willie Crowther is a real-life spelunker. Adventure began as a map, a computer model of an actual Colossal Cave in Kentucky, which Crowther explored and then accurately duplicated in the first few levels of Adventure's cave.

Similarly, Adventure is related to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. The desire for treasure motivates both stories, and both were inspired by maps. Location and physical setting dictate the process of action. Stevenson once explained how he got the idea for his famous story:

I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance 'Treasure Island' . . . as I paused upon my map of 'Treasure Island,' the future character [sic] of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was writing out a list of chapters . . . the map was most of the plot. (See reference 2.)

Chivalry is Alive

Adventure, which was made possible by technological advancements in computers, is similar to the first “novels,” which were also dependent upon a new technology, the printing press. These novels of chivalry were prose versions of medieval knightly verse epics that, with the introduction of the printing press, could be mass-produced for a wide audience.

Compare Irving Leonard's comments on the romances of chivalry to the reactions of Adventure lovers:

These tremendously popular works of fiction . . . stimulated the emotions and won the passionate devotion of all literate classes of Spain, from the great Emperor Charles V himself to the lowliest clerk in his service. . . . The pages of this chivalric fiction were thumbed with an enthusiasm amounting to a passion. . . . The aristocracy of every shade and degree, including its womenkind, and even the clergy, devoted much of their ample leisure to this diverting pastime.” (See reference 3.)

The prose novels of chivalry, which Cervantes satirized in Don Quixote, delight in childlike fantasies of overcoming all difficulties, vanquishing all foes, and being rewarded with treasure and success in the process. The hero and characters in the chivalry stories are basically cardboard figures without internal conflicts and can be said to have no psychology at all. The pop-up characters in Adventure are limited in the same way.

Adventure and the novels of chivalry are based on a story structure of more of less independent units that are strung together and can be expanded infinitely. Today, we do not usually consider plot profusion and complexity as positive literary attributes, but this was not always the case. In the Renaissance, entangledness and complexity of plot were regarded as admirable qualities; the novels of chivalry have been considered “vast, almost unreadable jumble(s) of episodes that stand as a fitting monument to sixteenth-century taste for the fantastic.” (See reference 4.)

Similarly, complexity in Adventure is achieved through the difficulty of remembering the layout of the cave and through the intricacies of the brainteasers you encounter. Such complexity seems to appeal to the computer enthusiast mentality. In The Second Self (see reference 5), Sherry Turkle comments on the worship in the computer subculture of the fantastic, the bizarre, and the intricate. This applies not only to a style of programming but also to tastes in literature (science fiction and fantasy) and music (baroque and jazz).

The loose structure in the prose novels of chivalry promoted joint or multiple authorship, another characteristic of text adventures. John O'Conner writes: “In general, the longer a chivalric prose narrative, the better and more influential it was. This kind of tale was written in such a way that, if popular response warranted, succeeding books could easily be added. Hence the number of volumes a romance finally attained is an approximate gauge of its popularity.” (See reference 4.)

The same can be said for text adventures as they get passed around on computer networks, modified, and expanded: the longer, the better.

IF and Fantasy/Science Fiction

In fantasy and science fiction, the author makes up an imaginary world and plays with the probable consequences of a set of rules that may be different from those governing our real lives. The author can set up the rules for the imaginary world in any way desired, but he or she must abide strictly by them.

This attitude toward rules is similar to that in computer programming, where the rules are arbitrary but absolutely binding. It is also an age-old literary technique. Around 330 B.C. Aristotle wrote:

The poet should choose probable impossibilities rather than incredible possibilities . . . if a poet does take such a[n impossible] plot and appears to have handled it with some appearance of probability, the absurdity may be pardoned. Even the improbabilities about putting Odysseus on shore in the Odyssey would clearly not be tolerable if treated by an inferior poet. As it is, the skill of Homer conceals the absurdity and makes it pleasing.” (See reference 6.)

Adventure's authors drew some of the content, characters, and motifs from science fiction and fantasy literature, especially from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Don Woods says that he had glanced at Tolkien's description of Orodruin (Mount Doom, the volcano in the Land of Mordor where the evil Sauron forged the One Ring of Power) before he wrote the “Breathtaking View” scene in Adventure. Tolkien says of Mount Doom,

. . . its ashen cone would grow hot and with a great surging and throbbing pour forth rivers of molten rock from chasms in its sides . . . some would wind their way into the stone plain, until they cooled and lay like twisted dragon-shapes vomited from the tormented earth. Sam beheld Mount Doom, and the light of it . . . now glared against the stark rock faces, so that they seemed to be drenched with blood.” (See reference 7.)

Compare this to the beginning of Wood's “Breathtaking View”:

Far below you is an active volcano, from which great gouts of molten lava come surging out, cascading back down into the depths. The glowing rock fills the farthest reaches of the cavern with a blood-red glare, giving everything an eerie, macabre appearance.

How is Interactive Fiction New?

Although the story content of Adventure and other interactive works is related to established forms of literature, IF also differs from them on a very basic level—the reader's participation in creating the story and text makes the reader both a character and, in some sense, the coauthor of the story.

In IF, the nature of the text is also changed. The fluid computerized text allows a personalization and individualization of a literary work. The reader can talk to the text, and the text, in the form of the story's narrator, can talk back to the reader.

An acquaintance has calculated that the 'battery maze' in Adventure can be experienced in 187 billion trillion unique ways.

In conventional literature, a “gap” occurs when readers must interpret for themselves what the text means; the story is told, but its meaning is not. IF, however, contains not only gaps in meaning, but physical gaps in the text that the reader must fill in. These physcial gaps in the interactive text allow such a wide range of explanations or interpretations of the fictional events taking place in Colossal Cave that it often seems as if different readers are not reading the same story. Some people play Adventure strictly as a game, while others read it as a straight story about exploring a cave and discovering the treasures.

Many, however, see Adventure as a story with deeper meanings. One player/reader believed the treasures in the cave were left by the good wizard of a long-vanished civilization, whose long-lost secrets would be revealed only when all of the puzzles in the cave were solved completely.

Another reader, a camper-backpacker, imagined that careless spelunkers had left the treasures in the cave. Yet another reader interpreted taking the treasures in the cave as stealing them.

The texts these three readers created were completely different because they read different stories into Adventure. This apparent drive to make context is a reflection in some ways of readers' psychological needs.

Some attempts have been made in more conventional literature to allow the reader choices about how a story unfolds, such as the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series. These books contain many story units; each lasts only a few pages and is complete in itself. At the end of a unit, either the story ends or you are given a choice and the story continues.

The artistic effects of these techniques fall far short of those in IF, due to the linear nature of text printed on paper. In IF, you make choices about each individual step and construct the story units for yourself; the choices are not predefined.

The quantitative difference between the number of possible stories in computer-based fluid text and the printed texts is also great. In one printed book, The Cave of Time (see reference 8), for example, there are 56 possible stories. In Adventure, the number of different stories must be, strictly speaking, infinite, since you can travel in repetitive loops within the cave and type in any comment and elicit at least some response. Even without resorting to loops and nonsense commands, though, the number of distinct possible texts is astronomical. A scientist acquaintance has calculated that the “battery maze” in Adventure alone (which has 12 different locations, 11 of them connected to 9 or 10 of the others) can be experienced in 187 billion trillion unique ways.

The fluid nature of interactive text and its computer medium explodes the traditional literary concept of the individual authorships of a printed text. In some ways, the authorship and transmission of the interactive text is similar to those of oral literature. With a printed text, we generally have the idea that there is a single author who “owns” the text; copyrighting reflects our views about this. But in oral literature and IF, single, joint, multiple, communal, unknown, and anonymous authorships are common. Adventure, for example, was first written and released by William Crowther, enlarged and improved by Don Woods, and released again. There are now many versions of Adventure, and programmers often personalize the programs so that the dwarves have the names of their friends, enemies, or despised professors, for example.

Bringing Beauty to the Beast

For those who would like to write interactive fiction, a few suggestions and observations follow. I have based them on the scripts of the texts readers created while playing Adventure and on the varying degrees of enthusiasm the readers expressed in interviews when they discussed Adventure's literary qualities.

  1. Provide a unified but open text. In traditional literature, almost everything of importance to the story itself is explained to the reader. If a cave bear were locked up in golden chains in a conventional story, the author would probably explain somewhere who locked it up and why. This doesn't happen in Adventure. You not only stumble in surprise upon the events; you never really find out what they mean. Unfortunately, in Adventure, they ususally don't mean anything.

    I would suggest that any text adventure writer make up a supra-story, that is, a story that explains every object and the behavior of every creature, even though you don't reveal this supra-story to the reader directly. The events will then have an inner coherence, but readers can project their own supra-story onto them, just as each person arrives at a personal meaning for a poem.

  2. Take advantage of step-by-step build-ups. “Breathtaking View” was the aesthetic highpoint of Adventure for many readers. From the first hint of rumbling in the distance, through the stifling passages with their trembling walls, to the stunning vision of the volcano, most readers were gripped with emotion. Not surprisingly, many readers felt let down when they found out that nothing happens at the viewpoint. This letdown was one of the aesthetic low points of the game. The lesson to be learned is, if you build up story tension, make sure something exciting happens!

  3. Give the puzzles a moral quality. For many people, merely winning points for gathering treasures is not as emotionally satisfying as doing good and overthrowing evil to win the points or treasures. Most readers preferred using the treasures and doing something with them later on, not dragging them back to the surface to win points. For example, several people told me they thought the hungry bear bound with the golden chains was the most enticing problem because they were emotionally involved with it. They didn't want to hurt the bear, yet they were mildly afraid of it. When the puzzles have a moral dimension, it gives them emotional depth.

    Although there is no moral basis to the text in Adventure or to the solutions of the narrative puzzles themselves, the reader practices reality testing as a principle of action, which can be useful when carried over into the real world. While playing Adventure, readers test their interpretation of the story and events many times over. If you can't solve a puzzle, you must face the fact that you don't have enough information, that you overlooked or misjudged the information you do have, or that your general view of the story might be wrong. You have to maintain a critical attitude toward yourself and the fictional situations you confront, even as you are making choices. Needless to say, this can be a useful philosophy of life.

  4. Create a narrator with a unified personality and vision. The narrator of a story is the one who tells the story in the text. Readers know that whoever or whatever they are talking to has a personality. Sometimes it is peevish, petulant, or whining; sometimes it seems to laugh at the reader. Make sure that your game has a personality that is consistent from the reader's point of view.

    You should also watch the narrator for consistency in what it does or doesn't know. For example, in Adventure, some readers seem confused as to whether the narrator knows the entire layout of the cave and is simply hiding it from them, or whether the narrator only knows about what it sees directly in front of it. They also are not quite clear about what the narrator is: a robot like R2D2, a computer like “HAL” in 2001, A Space Odyssey or some entity with feelings of its own. You don't need to explain the narrator to the readers directly, just make sure you've got a clear image of it in your own mind.

  5. Test your interactive story on other people. Get as many people as you can, in as many combinations as possible to play or read your story for you. Then watch them and ask them questions, during or after the game. (Some people are not able to explain what they are thinking or get frustrated if they get interrupted while they're playing.) The most revealing interviews or readings are often made by two or three people playing together at once. Group players often discuss and argue about whose interpretation of the fictional events is correct. This is an excellent way of finding out the various ways people interpret the events.

    Have the computer make a script of the game as it is being played, which includes both the game prompts and the reader's responses. After studying the scripts, you can modify your programs to deal with players' commands and vocabulary that you hadn't considered before. For example, one Adventure player assumed that “lamp” meant “flashlight,” while others thought of it as Aladdin's lamp. The authors were clever enough to prepare responses consistent with either meaning.

The Future of Interactive Fiction

The first interactive texts were written by programmers who thought of them mostly as games, and the literature they created is unsophisticated. The computer itself, however, does not limit IF to frivolous works. Consider the development of film. Early film was an unsophisticated medium, “so crude in its initial stages that it was considered to be beneath contempt” (see reference 9). Only with D. W. Griffith's “Birth of a Nation” and, later, Charlie Chaplin's films, did audiences become aware that film could transmit and aesthetically mature experiences.

Now interactive stories are being written by traditional authors with technical assistance from programmers. Perhaps it will take someone who is both a programmer and an author to explore the artistic promise of IF and create works of literature that rank with the classics of traditional literature. <


  1. Buchloh, P., and J. Becker. Der Detektivroman. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1973, page 70.
  2. Stevenson, R. L. Treasure Island. London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1955, pages xiv–xv.
  3. Leonard, I. Books of the Brave. New York: Gordian Press, 1964, pages 19–20.
  4. O'Conner, J. Amadis de Gaule and Its Influence on Elizabethan Literature. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970, page 4.
  5. Turkle, S. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1984, pages 175–193.
  6. Gilbert, A. (ed.). Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1962, page 107.
  7. Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Ballantine Books, 1954, page 214.
  8. Packard, E. The Cave of Time. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
  9. Deer, H. and Deer, I. The Popular Arts: A Critical Reader. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1967, page 9.

Mary Ann Buckles (9240-L Regents Rd., La Jolla, CA 92037) is co-owner and writing consultant of Transgalactic Software. This article is based on her doctoral dissertation written at University of California at San Diego.

MAY 1987  •  B Y T E     135–142