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A less obvious violation: the fatal trial-and-error puzzle. Consider four identical doors, one leading onwards, one concealing a lethal explosive. In the story that would result from solving this puzzle, it would be much more satisfying to the story reader and the game player if there was some way to tell which door hides the ticking bomb, rather than having success come only from a lucky guess. The clue may be difficult enough so that the player opts for the brute-force, save-restoreundo method who would think to listen to north door?

Even though real-life survival may often depend on dumb luck, fiction can only get away with so many strokes of fortune before suspicion sets in. Most jarringly, the game protagonist finds it useful to pick up all objects that the program indicates can be picked up, when the story protagonist might have no real reason to, say, take an apple peeler out of someones kitchen.

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Lets look at the two ends of this problem. On the picking-up end, there is the cue that the game author sends the game protagonist when presenting a room with a usable object in it: This is a well-stocked, modern and efficient kitchen, done up in an avocado-green color scheme. On the table you see a battery-powered flashlight. An apple peeler is lying on the counter. The well-trained game protagonist will, of course, pick up both these objects and take them along. But the story protagonist?

If he or she is anticipating doing some exploring, it would make sense to pick up the flashlightbut why the apple peeler? And in terms of the story, what is so darned attractive about the apple peeler, as opposed to all the other objects subsumed in the description of the well-stocked kitchen: the pots, pans, knives, can opener, oven gloves, and so forth?

On the putting-things-down end, there is the recent trend towards allowing near-infinite carrying capacity via a containerrucksack, purse, or what have you. Understandably so, since realistic constraints on inventory make for an annoying game where much of the action consists of running about trying to remember where you dropped that screwdriver. And yet, the person who is reading the story has to wonder occasionally at the verisimilitude of a character who casually totes around a portable yard-sale of forty-odd objects, as happens at the end of Jigsaw.

Whats even more annoying about Jigsaws cluttered rucksack is that only one or two of these objects have any use outside the episode in which they were found.

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Yet the faithful game-protagonist hangs on to the green cloth cap, the stale piece of corn bread, and the mandolin because you never know. Its a shame, because the time-travel theme could easily have provided some cosmological excuse to prevent the export of objects from their own time period. The challenge then could have been to find some way of getting around this rule in order to solve the later puzzles, as in the later stages of Uncle Zebulons Will where the protagonist has to smuggle objects past the watchful demon.

These challenges to the fictional integrity of the protagonists actions may not have an easy answer, and I dont think they should necessarily be answered at the expense of anyones convenience. In the kitchen, for example, I dont think the answer is to code up a whole lot of useless. Hiding the apple peeler is also futile, since the good game protagonist knows to search every nook and cranny before moving on.

The action to be simulated here is the protagonist coming across a Very Important Unpeeled Apple in the course of the adventure and thinking, Oooh. Cuing reminiscences explicitly would give away the solution to the puzzle, of course.

It might be possible to force the player to go back to the kitchen and explicitly type look for peeler in order for the apple peeler to appear or to forbid that the apple peeler be taken until the apple has been encountered, with messages to the effect of What on earth do you need that thing for? I suspect, though, that clever game players will figure their own way around these devices, commanding protagonists to search for every likely object in a location and looking for hints to a new puzzle by going back and trying to pick up every forbidden object theyve encountered.

Perhaps a workable compromise would be to design games so that most of what you need to solve a given problem is available relatively nearby, apart from obviously useful tools or strange artifacts that can be taken from scene to scene. Alternatively, you could place very realistic limits on what can be carried around but automate the process of remembering where objects are, as with the objects command in Inform. Even the process of going back and getting them could be automated, possibly with a walkto routine that checks to see if there is a free path from the current location to the known objects location and expending the requisite number of game turns to get the object, while taking only a second of the players time.

I hope Ill keep improving and revising my ideas, but Im also hopeful that I am finally revising this particular article for the last time.


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The essay has been linked to from blog posts, syllabi, and other pages and has been cited in academic writing several times. For this reason, I will describe the significant changes that I have made in each version. Thanks to comments from people on the newsgroup and in email about my first idea for an IF Theory article, I wrote the first draft of Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction and posted it for discussion on January 8, In version 1.

In version 2 of April 9, , I added discussion of different narrative, extranarrative, and metanarrative now called hyponarrative voices and the short discussion of IF via game theory. I made only minor revisions in version 2. My work on version 3 of December 29, , benefited from the many helpful comments, corrections, and suggestions made by Gerald Prince. I added discussion of the most common sense of story and an explanation of how interactive fiction can lack puzzles. I also added discussion of unfinished works, works without final replies, and repeating situations.

I aligned the IF concept of character not person with the narrative concept of character. I revised the discussion of Infidel to acknowledge that it can, in some sense, be won and also provided new examples of unwinnable works. I added the distinctions between puzzle and task and between the formal meaning of solution and the meaning in terms of the interactors understanding. The last major change for version 3 was the addition of the table of different input types.

In version 3. Finally, in , a revised version of this article became Steps toward a Potential Narratology, chapter 4 of my dissertation, Generating Narrative Variation in Interactive Fiction. As noted there, The only substantial changes involve the introduction of the concepts of unrecognized inputs and clarifications, some further development of the nature of puzzles as requiring non-obvious actions,. Theorizing Interactive Fiction Interactive fiction IF , a category that is typically represented by the text adventure or text game, has literary, gaming, and other important aspects.

In my book Twisty Little Passages Montfort a , I introduce interactive fiction in detail, discuss its important historical precursors and cultural contexts, and offer a figurative way to think about its poetics and aesthetics, with reference to the literary riddle. In this essay, my focus is on particular ways that the study of narrative, narratology, can inform a rigorous theory of interactive fiction that remains sensitive to its many-faceted nature.

Systematically relating interactive fiction to game and story requires more than the ad hoc application of terms and concepts from literary theory, narratology, and gaming. Although humanists and scientists can be prodded toward insight by offhand approaches, deeper insights and more substantial progress require a methodological framework, a way to evaluate results, and some sort of common language and understanding about the nature of the topic under consideration.


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To build a theory of interactive fiction that is useful in deeply understanding how interactive fiction is experienced, I have found it necessary to distinguish those elements of interactive fiction that result from it being. That section offers a nice example of how these theoretical distinctions can have practical value in this case, for developing a text generation system for IF. However, the discussion in that section is most meaningful in the context of my dissertation. Because of that, I am not including that addition in this version of the article.

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I have made other stylistic changes throughout to try to provide an essay that is more readable than the dissertation version but have not revised or expanded the underlying concepts. Interactive fiction was almost entirely neglected in academic discussion for decades. In the IF community, discussion has touched on many important aspects of interactive fiction but without developing a detailed theory.

Marnie Parkers An Iffy Theory is an attempt to categorize peoples taste in interactive fiction Parker but is not about aesthetics or poetics as it does not explain, for instance, how one auditory IF work might be better or worse than another or what the elements of such a work are. Graham Nelsons The Craft of Adventure Nelson is about how to write interactive fiction well, as its title suggests. It discusses many related topics in depth but offers mainly advice rather than the beginnings of a systematic theory. This report was an attempt to formulate interactive fiction in terms of cinema, based on an art-film text taken at random from the shelves at CMUs library Smith and Bates No distinction was made between techniques specifically tied to time-based and visual effects and those generic to narration in any medium Chatman While the paper is of practical use and does describe a series of techniques for interactive fiction that is inspired by cinema, the mappings between film and IF techniques are arbitrary and unsystematic.

Roger Carbols Locational Puzzle Theory is interesting in that it attempts a strict definition of certain elements of interactive fiction Carbol However, Carbol defines a game only as a collection of objects, in the object-oriented programming sense, which does not distinguish games from non-games, as any definition should. Furthermore, object is not defined by Carbol as it is in any thorough discussion of object-oriented programming but as simply a collection of properties.

The impulse to define puzzles precisely and examine their nature is a good one, but there is nevertheless confusion in this approachon the one hand between a software development methodology, objects in the IF world, and narration, for instance, and on the other hand between location in the space of the IF world, the awareness of the interactor, and the properties of programmatic objects.

The resulting distinctions between classes of puzzles are not clearly better than have already been devised in less principled classifications. Rees Emily Shorts essay Whats IF? The concept of the benchmark as an unique action that makes progress toward an ending is a useful one. The discussion in Whats IF? The discussion of puzzle has interesting aspects but does not conclude with a definition of puzzle that can be applied consistently by other theorists.

Shorts essay is a good effort to not only define qualities of a puzzle but also place puzzles in the overall context of an IF work.

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The approach also makes it clear that a theory that carefully distinguishes formal aspects from those related to interpretation will be valuable. Since a work of IF can be implemented in different ways and function identically, our theoretical discussion of a works function cannot rely on details of its implementation.

Definitions of the elements of an IF work from a theoretical perspective should be done without making reference to a programs specific data structures, functions, objects, and so forth, considering the program instead as a black box that accepts input and generates output. The clearest justification for this is seen in cases where two programs that are identical from the standpoint of the interactor are implemented in radically different waysfor instance, first using a functional programming language and then using a procedural one. Different objects can of course also be used in two different object-oriented implementations.

It may happen that sensible programmers developing IF works have found it convenient to encapsulate certain fundamental elements as discrete entities in code. This is worth knowing, but if our theory of the formal, interactive, and narrative nature of interactive fiction has to refer to this implementation level, we have not done a good enough job of understanding the level we are studying. Such analysis is essential for full understanding of digital media and can reveal aspects of practice and computing that would be difficult or impossible to see otherwise.

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The point here is simply that it is possible to consider how a work of interactive fiction functions separately from how it is implemented and that it is appropriate to do so when conducting an analysis at the level of form and function. Taking this view of a formal theory of IF, this essay considers the nature of interactive fiction as program, potential narrative, world, and game, describes how the perspective of the person interacting can be represented, and offers some thoughts on conceptualizing the puzzle.

Interactive Fiction and the Interactor A work of interactive fiction is, among other things, a computer program that accepts text input from a user and produces text output in reply. This user of an IF work is the interactor, following the terminology of the first major academic effort in interactive fiction, the Oz Project; that term has also been adopted by others Murray It is synonymous with player as that term is usually used in the IF community, but player has other meanings related to games and drama while interactor has a history of being used only to refer to the person who interacts with an IF work or similar program.

In the case of a work of IF that has no multimedia elements at all and uses only text for a medium, text simply refers to a string of words in the ordinary sense. However, text can also be considered semiotically to be any set of signifiers; thus IF works and perhaps other works as well that contain graphics, sound, or video can be accommodated in this way. Using text more specifically, to mean strings of words, interactive fiction indicates a category of text-based works, works that can contain other media elements but where text and textual exchange are central.

Computer program could also be generalized to include other sorts of text machines in the broader cybertextual sense Aarseth written-out instructions that a person could follow, for instance, or Scott Adams mimicking his Adventureland by uttering the output it would give in reply to someones spoken input Hoy and Jerz For the purposes of this essay, only computer programs in the usual sense need to be considered as interactive fiction, although, again, the theory presented here should be extensible to other types of systems.

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This is a work of hypertext implemented in Inform; instead of clicking on a word as would be typical on the Web, typing one of the words. Plotkin himself refers to this work as Not standard interactive fiction Plotkin None of the theoretical discussion that Short develops in her essay applies to this work, a work which clearly seems better considered as hypertext than as interactive fiction.

Considering the simulated world as essential does not mean that any particular code is required in a work of IF.