(Ditmaal in het Engels, omdat ik vermoed dat een aantal Engelstaligen interesse zullen hebben.)
Reading Twisty Little Passages: an approach to interactive fiction, I am surprised that I didn't remember how historical the book is: five of its eight chapters give a chronological overview of the medium from its pre-Adventure origins to the modern era of non-commercial authors. Most probably, I didn't remember this because the historical chapters were not what I found most interesting: I consider Adventure and Zork to be unplayable, I never played an Infocom game for longer than twenty minutes, and even Curses was never able to capture my heart.
Nick Montfort writes the book for "aficionados and first-time users" of interactive fiction, but he certainly also writes it for people into the academic study of "new media". This is a mixed blessing: on the one hand, it means that Montfort approaches the subject from various sides and gives us copious references of his sources; on the other hand, it also means that he spends a bit too much time developing new and not always evidently useful terminology, and that he sometimes goes out of his way to posit easily identifiable, easily quotable and controversial claims -- after all the best way to ensure that you are cited by those whom come after you. One example of this is his claim that SHRDLU was the first piece of interactive fiction.
Although it seems strange to classify it as such, SHRDLU is clearly a work of interactive fiction -- formally. (p. 85.)
Once you are making a claim that you have to classify as at the same time strange, clearly true, and formally (as opposed to materially?) true, you know something has gone wrong. On the whole, however, Twisty Little Passages avoids the splitting of hairs.
Montfort's definition of interactive fiction is what we would expect: they are "computer programs that display text, accept textual responses, and then display additional text in reaction to what has been typed" (p. vii), that parse the natural language input (and are thus sensitive to its meaning), and that simulate a world. The term text adventure is then reserved for an interactive fiction "in which the interactor controls a player character who sets out on out-of-the-ordinary undertakings involving risk or danger" (p. 6).
Most of the first chapter is then spent on (1) pointing out that IF has been little studies even by researches interested in electronic literature, (2) telling us from which angles the current book will approach the topic (it will look at IF as narratives, as riddles and as computer programs), (3) showing how IF works with an extended example from Dan Schmidt's For a Change, and (4) developing a terminology for describing IF. One important remark is made in the second part:
It is the effect of the narrative in the process of being generated that is important, after all, not the quality of the text that is output when the session is over, and not the effect of any post hoc reading of that output text. (p. 14)
I found the development of a terminology for IF a little underwhelming, not so much because it is a wrong terminology, but because it wasn't applied to any problems. I would like to hear first what we do not understand about IF; and then I want to see a terminology that is developed by thinking about these problems. This seems to me more fruitful than starting out by defining "exchange" as "one command and the reply that follows" and "traversal" as "a course extending from a prologue to a final reply". On the other hand, setting down some clear definitions can do no harm.
There are a couple of interesting discussions here, though. One is about the difference between a "command" and a "directive". According to Montfort, a command is an input that refers to an action in the IF world (p. 26), while everything else that the interactor types is classified as a "directive". Thus, "think" and "eat apple" are commands, because they are diegetic references to things done within the fictional world; whereas "quit" and the mistyped "eaf apple" are directives, extradiegetic because they have no meaning in the game world.
This distinction seems dubious to me. It is vague, but more importantly, it seems non-fundamental. What changes about a piece of IF when you replace the extradiegetic parser error message "I didn't understand that sentence." with the diegetic "You pronounce a string of meaningless sounds."? Nothing important. It doesn't change the experience of interacting. In fact, I would be tempted to say that nothing in an IF, except for unintended error messages produced by bugs and interpreter crashes, could be extra-diegetic: when we interact with an IF, we are constructing a fictional situation where we talk with a person telling us a story that we get to participate in. We fictionally pretend that the computer is a person, and we fictionally pretend that it understands us and that we can talk to it. Otherwise, why would the parser be consistently presented as a person, speaking about itself in the first person? No other type of computer program does this.
An interesting claim that I do agree with is this:
Being a part of the simulation, rather than being a part of the story that the generated narrative tells, is what is essential for a character in interactive fiction. (p. 33)
We need claims like that to make us really see how huge the difference is between static fiction and interactive fiction.
In the second chapter, Montfort explores the analogies between interactive fiction and the poetical form of the riddle. This is interesting, both as an introduction to this now mostly forgotten form, and as a new perspective on IF. (One wonders whether it really helps to call it "the most important early ancestor of interactive fiction" and "an extremely valuable figure for understanding [IF]", but I already commented on the use of hyperbolic claims earlier.) Montfort shows us several points of analogy between the riddle and puzzle-using IF: they both create a systematic world, the one through metaphor and the other through simulation; they are presented to be solved; they are meant to provide an appropriate challenge; they are literary and puzzling. But what I found perhaps most enlightening was a quote by Wilbur who explains why the riddle became less serious in the seventeenth century: at a time when Cartesianism and the scientific revolution were conquering men's minds, who could really believe in a world structured by metaphor? Montfort doesn't explicitly comment on this, but it points to a very important difference that lies at the heart of that first analogical point mentioned above. The riddle gives us a world of actors structured by metaphor: a magical world, the world of Renaissance science. Interactive fiction, on the other hand, gives us a world structured by causation and mechanical laws: the world of modern science. The implications of this fact, and its effect on the kind of experience that IF let's you have, are profound and worthy of sustained meditation. (To experience the gap between these two worlds, you only need to play Emily Short's Metamorphoses, where the Renaissance Platonism of the fiction and the Cartesianism of the game are constantly at war.)
Chapter 3 and 4 give a historical overview of the development of IF until (and excluding) the commercial era. They are well worth reading, but I have little to say about them. One thing that did strike me:
[T]he thief [in Zork] is important to the development of interactive fiction because he functions as a true villain, not simply an obstacle or opponent. (p. 110.)
Did we ever make use of this again? Time for an IFDB-poll!