Story Matters

Last week, The New York Times ran an article on the front page of the Arts section titled "Text Games in an Era of New Stories," which declared that interactive fiction is having a moment. As a longtime fan of interactive fiction, and a big believer that games can tell wonderful, compelling stories equal to those in any other medium, it's music to my ears.
July 14, 2014

Last week, The New York Times ran an article on the front page of the Arts section titled “Text Games in an Era of New Stories.” An overview of the innovations happening with new storytelling models and text-based games, it begins, “Interactive fiction, which once went by the name ‘text adventure,’ is having a moment.” Music to my ears, as a longtime fan of interactive fiction, and a big believer that games can tell wonderful, compelling stories equal to those in any other medium.

The article also resonated with a keynote Scot Osterweil, Creative Director of the MIT Education Arcade, gave at GLS (which I couldn’t fit into my post on the conference, but have been thinking about since). He urged game designers and developers to think more about narrative, and to make better stories that will help games rise above stereotypical hero-conquers-all cliches. Among other things, he encouraged designers to embrace conflict and ambiguity in game narrative. (Some games do this beautifully, including Papers Please, but it’s rarer than it should be to see games that value moral ambiguity.)

I found this discussion of the untapped potential of storytelling in games really compelling, and it’s something that interactive fiction can teach us a thing or two about. Interactive fiction is generally rich in text, light on images or animation, and more akin to a digitized choose-your-own adventure than an open-world console game (remember Zork?). Choices tend to be limited to navigational instructions (“go north”) or a selection between limited numbers of available options (“open the door” or “examine the box”). But despite its simplicity – or perhaps because of it – interactive fiction is where I’ve found some of the most compelling storytelling of my game-playing life. So here’s a round up of some of my favorite interactive fiction titles, with an eye to what makes them interesting and innovative.

1. A Dark Room


I mentioned this game recently in regards to how its creators optimized for different devices, but  what I didn’t get to say in that post is how gosh darn terrific of a story it tells. This deceptively simple game takes a while to make its narrative intentions known, but they’re much more ambitious than they initially appear (and, without giving too much away, speak to the compelling nature of moral ambiguity Scot was emphasizing in his talk). The spareness of its interface and interactions, its homage to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and the increasing unease one feels while playing it about your role in its world all add up to a truly unique experience.

2. Lost Pig


A traditional text adventure that flies in the face of the sometimes serious and gothic overtones of the genre, this gem from 2007 is stupid, engaging and funny as heck. Available online or through a text-game compendium called Frotz (well worth checking out if there’s an IF title from the past you’re longing to play again), the player takes on the role of a non-too savvy fellow named Grunk who needs to retrieve a pig that is — spoiler alert! — lost. That’s about it, but the way the puzzles keep you intrigued while making your way through this tight, humorous character study reminds me as a designer that simple and funny is sometimes more than enough.

3. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy


This was my interactive-fiction gateway drug, a classic in the genre based on the book by Douglas Adams (and co-designed by him). Available now in a 30th anniversary edition that was produced by the BBC – yes, the original was released in 1984! – the player takes on the role of Arthur Dent, a hapless fellow who hitches an intergalactic ride off Earth when it’s destroyed to make way for a new hyperspace bypass.

“Transmedia” before it was a buzzword, this game makes clever use of the narrative of the book while not hewing to it entirely, and the characters come to vivid life as you navigate this complicated and often ridiculous world. I loved this game dearly in my day, and it shaped my point of view of how stories could be told in different ways in interactive media, even when the puzzles had my young self, well, puzzled. (For the record, I did get super-frustrated when Zaphod, Ford, and Trillian kept disappearing into the sauna whenever I needed them most.)

4. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney


This game skirts the border of interactive fiction and adventure game, as it takes advantage of the visual opportunities of the Nintendo DS (and iOS, to which much of it has been ported), but I’m including it here because the experience entails a large amount of reading. It’s an odd idea for a game — the player takes on the role of a defense attorney and spends their time alternately collecting evidence/talking to witnesses, and having their “day in court,” arguing their points and discovering new clues through cross-examinations, all in the purpose of clearing their client of some heinous crime.

While the character art and animations are rich and reveal a lot about the characters, this game rewards reading in its own specific way. Characters drop clues as you talk to them that you have the opportunity to re-investigate in the courtroom, and remembering what’s been said or discovered previously is key. You also have the opportunity to examine the evidence and simple details, such as the time of death on an autopsy report, can be critical to successfully finding discrepancies in testimony. It’s like reading a mystery novel where periodically you’re called upon to choose the detective’s next move.

5. Surviving High School and Cause of Death


To end on a sad note, these two titles – some of my favorites ever –  have recently been cancelled by EA and their final episodes are being released right now. In both games, the player plays different roles, one of several diverse and eccentric high schoolers or members of a team of detectives chasing serial killers. With discreet sections issued as “chapters” of a larger narrative, both of these games tell tight, heavily plotted stories that give limited choice to the player, but nonetheless really make those choices feel impactful . (In Cause of Death, for instance, the wrong choice will often give a killer time to murder your character, at which point you have to go back and make a better choice.)

What makes the very limited decision-making in these titles work is the richness of their worlds, how well drawn their characters are, and how vital their relationships are with one another (if you remember my post from back when on character webs, you’ll know I’m into this big time). The vivid characters, unpredictable storylines, and great and efficient use of realistic art make the adventures addictive, and I admit to binge playing these episodes the way that some folks binge watch the new Netflix releases. Although these games clearly weren’t big moneymakers for the giant studio that spawned them (no one cancels a cash cow), I encourage you to go grab these titles from the app store while you can, because they’re truly terrific examples of a brand of storytelling you’re unlikely to encounter anywhere else.

These are just a few of the interactive fiction titles I’ve come to know and love over the years, but it’s safe to say they’re just the tippy top of the iceberg when it comes to text-based games. There are plenty of other examples I could cite, and that Times article also turned me on to several titles I didn’t know yet, like Blood & Laurels, which I’ve just begun playing and is intriguing so far. But, whatever the title, what I love about interactive fiction is the way I can both lose myself in the stories and also constantly examine my agency in them. Just like great fiction, movies, television, or other kinds of digital games, they spin great tales and leave me energized to seek out new stories and write more of my own.

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