Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 2 (Feb 2001)

Interactive fiction

By Diana Phillips Mahoney

Without knowing what it is, who's doing it, or how it's being done, interactive fiction just sounds like fun. It evokes mental images of stepping inside a favorite book or film, cavorting with all sorts of interesting characters, and somehow having an impact on the outcome, or at least the progress, of the story. Imagine your kids exploring Harry Potter's England, accompanying the young wizard on his mysterious adventures, or yourself traveling back to the roaring '20s to play a role in Jay Gatsby's fateful pursuit of his American Dream.

Until recently, opportunities to gain such entrance into fictional worlds had been limited to text-based, parser-driven interactive adventures. Often complex and well written, such prosaic journeys achieve a sense of immersion by interweaving clever puzzles into highly crafted storylines and relying heavily on participants' vivid imaginations.

In the wake of the digital explosion that has defined the past decade, a new breed of interactive fiction has emerged-one that relies less intensely on language and imagination and more on visuals and technological "props," including high-resolution 3D graphics and animation, audio, video, and a range of novel display and interface media.

The most familiar examples of this type of interactive fiction are commercial graphic adventures. Unlike the more prevalent shoot-em-up and chase-and-race variety of computer games, graphic adventures typically engage users by challenging them to solve increasingly difficult puzzles in order to gain broader access to the visual realm and bring them closer to a final solution.
A now-classic example of digital interactive fiction, Myst is on the drawing board for a real-time 3D sequel that will let users travel through complex worlds rendered on the fly. (copyright Cyan Inc.)

It would be a mistake to suggest that graphic adventures could or should be thought of as the modern incarnation of their text-based predecessors. In fact, to traditional interactive-fiction purists, such claims are fightin' words. At most, the text-based devotees contend, the graphical applications should be thought of as the new-media cousins of the "real thing." They argue that the technical bells and whistles detract from what should be a purely imaginative experience and often are a cover for less-than-stellar plots.

Fans of the newer techno-dense interactive fiction contend that sophisticated graphics and novel interface and display technologies enhance participants' ability to fully immerse themselves through multisensory stimulation-particularly as graphics acceleration and sheer compute power enable real-time navigation through complex environments. Also, the increasing availability of new technologies offers more opportunity for creative and artistic expression than do words alone. Proponents typically point to such graphics-adventure success stories as Myst and its sequel Riven to make their case.

Without a doubt, Myst, released in 1993, set the graphics-adventure ball rolling and is still considered the most enduring, renowned title in this genre. In the adventure, users are delivered to the beautiful islands of Myst-one of many alternate realms constructed by an ancient civilization named the D'ni-to help the protagonist uncover the greedy forces responsible for destroying his creations. The game offers no instructions and includes no living beings, but by moving through the space, users quickly realize their actions may help individuals who are somehow trapped in a parallel dimension.
Each character in the interactive film Uncompressed has a different story to tell. Actually, it's the same story told from each individual's perspective. A viewer's experience of the film will vary based on the choices made at interactive junc

Hailed for their visual realism, the detailed worlds into which Myst users are ushered consist of elaborate pre-rendered 3D environments, which is what the graphics engines of the day could support. As computer technology has become more sophisticated, so have the visuals and interactive capabilities in graphic adventures. In 1998, for example, LucasArts' Grim Fandango-a mythical story of crime and corruption inspired by Mexican folklore that takes players on a four-year search for redemption to the surreal Land of the Dead-was among the early titles to successfully combine both pre-rendered and real-time rendered scenes.

Real-time 3D rendering on a grand scale has since become the name of the game. For example, one of the most impressive adventure games released in 2000, Sega's Ecco The Dolphin: Defender of the Future for the Dreamcast game console integrates state-of-the-art 3D graphics, hundreds of oceanographic videos and National Geographic photographs, and advanced artificial intelligence technology to re create not only a realistic ocean environment, but also believable ocean-animal behaviors, communication, and interaction. Users' ability to interact in real time with the extraordinary 3D undersea world enables them to immerse themselves in the futuristic adventure, assuming the role of Ecco, a bottlenose dolphin, whose challenge is to end the destructive rampage of an evil foe and repair the damage it has inflicted on the environment.

Despite the impressive detail, however, Ecco The Dolphin and the other 3D graphics adventures are sustained not by their visuals, but by the stories the visuals help to tell. "You can have all the fancy graphics in the world, but without an underlying story that drives people to keep playing the game, they are worthless," says Sega Europe spokesperson Stuart Turner. Unfortunately, this is a lesson some developers learn only in hindsight. For example, the unprecedented success of Myst unleashed waves of forgettable clones. The often-breathtaking 3D environments of the follow-alongs served a purpose their developers hadn't envisioned: they made it made it abundantly (and, in some cases, embarrassingly) clear that flashy visuals might entice users to enter, but they won't keep them there, and they certainly won't compel them to invite their friends.

Stephen Granade, creator of the on-line Interactive Fiction Guide (, cites Douglas Adams' ill-fated Starship Titanic as one such example. "In the game, there is this beautiful art-deco ship, which is a wonder to behold, but then you spend your whole time in the game running around the ship dealing with nonsensical puzzles that require you to have a telepathic link with Adams if you're to have any hope of solving them. The puzzles are awkward and have next to nothing to do with the beautiful visuals of the game." Far too often, Granade continues, "de signers of graphic ad venture games spend a lot of time having a giant computer farm render stunning vistas but give no thought to what role those vistas should play in the game. There's a place for 'pretty for pretty's sake' in games, but it shouldn't be the driving force behind the graphics."
The realism of Myst's 3D worlds helps establish a sense of immersion, but it's the well crafted story line that maintains it. (copyright Cyan Inc.)

What differentiates adventures such as Myst and Riven, says Granade, is that while the graphics exist as an important aspect of the story, they are not expected to carry a story that can't bear its own weight. "Robyn and Rand Miller [the brothers who wrote the adventures] didn't write a story and then say, 'Okay, let's add graphics.' Instead, experiencing the graphics and the wonder of the different worlds became a significant part of the story," helping to bring the brothers' visions to life.

Unfortunately, says Granade, many interactive fiction purveyors have yet to take such a consideration to heart. "This is where a lot of interactive fiction goes wrong. The graphics can't be grafted on as an afterthought. We expect filmmakers to consider the visuals when creating a movie. Why should we expect any less from creators of graphical interactive fiction?"

In fact, this is a critical tenet to all forms of interactive fiction, above and beyond adventure games. Josephine Anstey, a creator of virtual reality based interactive fiction at the State University of New York at Buffalo believes graphic elements should be incorporated only to the degree in which they serve the core story.

This was the approach taken by Anstey, along with former University of Illinois colleague David Pape, in their development of an interactive virtual-reality narrative titled The Thing Growing. In this three-act drama, the user engages on an emotional level with the Thing, an autonomous, intelligent 3D creature, within the immersive environment of a CAVE virtual reality display system. In act one, the user enters the environment and discovers the Thing. In the second scene, the Thing entices the user into a dance. In the third scene the user and the Thing are caught by the Thing's cousins, who detest the inter-species relationship they perceive. The cousins beat the Thing, trap it and the user in a cage, and plot to kill them. The climax comes as the Thing provides the user with a gun, with which the user can, if he or she chooses, kill all of the cousins. A moment of confrontation follows when the Thing suddenly believes that the user will shoot it.
Though not graphically extraordinary, a collection of semi-transparent pyramids represent the main character in an interactive VR story called The Thing Growing. The deliberately simple graphics enhance, rather than detract from, a complex immersive exper

"By this time," says Anstey, "the user has been interested in the Thing and liked it, then felt overwhelmed and irritated by it, then felt sympathetic toward it. A sense of loyalty is aroused because the user and the Thing are on the same side. Finally the user has had a chance to wreak mayhem on the cousins and release tension and aggression." Whether the user shoots the Thing or not, he or she will not escape from it. The user who shoots it is returned to the very beginning of the application and told that he or she can stay alone in that rather empty world forever, or go and find the Thing. The user who doesn't shoot it is returned to the Thing directly, and once again be comes a partner in an interminable dance.

Although the Thing is the essential graphic element in the story, it is visually simplistic. "The piece is designed as an experience of a difficult relationship and is intended to engender emotions of interest, excitement, annoyance, frustration, powerlessness, and empowerment," says Anstey. "The subject matter is quite heavy, but the graphics style is very simple and cartoony. I made no attempt to make the Thing realistic."

In fact, the Thing is a collection of semi-transparent pyramids: one for the head, adorned with fly-like eyes, one for each arm, and several more for the body and dragon-like tail. The composite structure gets its "form" through the application of motion-captured movement, which also was a relatively low-tech achievement. "It was not done with complex motion-capture equipment. We simply attached sensors to my head, arms, and body. We put the position and orientation information of my movement in a file, then we fed that information to the Thing's body parts." The parts of the Thing's body don't touch each other. The motion cues enable the user's eyes to finish the form.
A CAVE VR display helps bring a motion-tracked user face to face with the main character in the interactive experience The Thing Growing.

In this application, the Thing's simplicity allows the user to be more fully tuned to the emotional engagement, which is achieved through careful design of the story and the interaction.

Unlike some interactive-fiction applications, the interaction in The Thing Growing is highly controlled and scripted, but even this departure from more "traditional" approaches enhances the overall experience of the narrative. This is evident in the dance-teaching relationship, says Anstey. "Because this is an immersive VR experience, the Thing is as big as the user and so has a physical presence and can quite literally get into the user's face. The user can dance well or badly, choose to dance or not dance, but all the choices center around the situation that the narrative sets up and are therefore controlled by it."

While there are those who might contend that this type of limited interaction puts the application outside of the "true" interaction fiction categorization, Anstey sees it differently. "I believe that people have idealized a form of interactive fiction in which the user is completely free and the system infinitely flexible-sort of real life, but better. I don't think interesting drama comes out of a situation of free choice. Instead, the drama is in dealing with a situation in which your choices may be very limited."

Anstey goes so far as to suggest that the illusion of interaction may be more important than the interaction itself. Such an illusion can be achieved through a strong narrative flow, she says, which adds to the user's sense of being "in" the story. "I believe that if the choices a user has can be constrained naturally by the narrative, they will appear more meaningful [than an infinite number of arbitrary choices]."
Real-time 3D graphics based on actual oceanographic data and artificial intelligence technology contribute to the realism of Sega's Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Universe game, in which users become the bottlenose dolphin trying to save his unders

Stuart Turner agrees. "This is what makes [interactive fiction] stand out. Rather than being shoved down a metaphorical alley, as you are with a book, users are gently guided down a wide path, where they can soak up as much or as little of the story as they like." When the interaction is well conceived, he says, "users can submerse themselves so deeply into the story that they actually feel like they are part of it. No other medium can do that."

In fact, achieving the ideal relationship between a compelling story and meaningful interaction is the single most critical make-or-break feature of all interactive fiction applications. It goes without saying that a user's experience of a fictional world-what he or she discovers, the effect of those discoveries on the final resolution, and, conceivably, the level of enjoyment garnered from the fictional journey-will vary based on the roads taken, doors opened. The more roads and doors offered, the more opportunities for the story to branch in different directions, and the less control the developer has on the outcome or the overall experience, ultimately increasing the challenge of developing a coherent, engaging story.

With Ecco the Dolphin, for example, "there was a lot of head-scratching after we had the initial plot, since we then had to decide how the interactive parts would fit it while progressing and maintaining the core story," says Turner. Character development was also a consideration. "There are several characters the user comes across when embarking on the story-all of which play a part in helping the user meet the end goal. The decision had to be made at the outset about how and where the characters would be met."

At its worst, interaction under these circumstances can be likened to the nightmare of being stuck in a conversation with someone who goes off on endless tangents and is never quite able to communicate a simple, direct message because of it. At its best, the interaction can make you a part of the story and compel you to come back for more, to see how other combinations of decisions affect the end result.

For an optimal experience, says interactive filmmaker Margi Szperling of the Art Center School of Design in Pasadena, California, "the story needs to be written with the interactive possibilities in mind. Creating a world where characters and events overlap is the basis of a strong interactive narrative." It's a mistake, she continues, to try to adapt an existing piece of fiction to an interactive environment. "The ideas of connectivity need to be considered and embedded into the story for the interactivity to function in a natural way."

This is the approach that Szperling took with her recent interactive film Uncompressed, in which six characters tell the same tale from their different perspectives. The interface allows the audience to view the tale from any of these viewpoints and to switch between them. "The narrative arc itself contributes to the interactivity of the material by intertwining the fates of the six characters," says Szperling. "The stories all interrelate and offer views of each other that help to illuminate the piece as a whole. By viewing all of the storylines, the viewer begins to get a sense of the subjectivity of the environment created within the storyline." Ultimately, she says, Uncompressed is a "reflection pool" in which the audience can appreciate aspects of themselves.
The choices in the interactive film Uncompressed are designed to enhance rather than overwhelm the narrative, letting the viewer decide whose story to follow and for how long.

The graphical interface design is critical to Uncompressed, says Szperling. It is based on a system of color-coding, whereby each character is given its own color that is used throughout the piece. The first scene in the film is a collage of the six characters together. As the viewer passes the mouse over the characters, they give a description of themselves. To begin the interactive experience, the viewer clicks on any of the characters. When a storyline is followed to the end, the viewer is brought back to the "launching pad" to pursue a different path.

"In the course of each character's timeline, he or she will encounter the other characters," says Szperling. "At these junctures [indicated by the appearance of another character flashing in his or her own color for five seconds], the audience can choose to select the other character and continue the story from that viewpoint [or stick with the same character]." The interface also includes a variety of control buttons, which allow the viewer to fast forward, rewind, pause, search by chapter, or quit.

The ability to interweave between storylines is what makes Uncompressed provocative, says Szperling. "Every storyline shows how different the same reality can appear; it shows perspectives as they intersect with each other. This is where the strength of the piece lies," she says. "With this vast amount of interactive content, much is learned by traveling in between the layers."

Moving "between the layers" as such is what lends digital interactive media on the whole its appeal, says Szperling. "It allows viewers to see from many points of view and enables them to proceed at their own pace from a unique advantage. The feelings brought into play by this kind of interaction become unpredictable; the choices and reactions created by these feelings are also untraceable." In effect, she says, the audience is given the role of stage director, actor, storywriter, and critic. "As the artwork is revealed, the story is carried along into an endless set of possibilities."

There is also an "endless set" of challenges involved in facilitating the stage for such infinite possibilities. The most daunting challenge in developing Uncompressed was assembling and educating a team to produce the film, says Szperling. "The project was constantly evolving, and we needed to be quick on our feet to adapt to new challenges. From pre-production [writing, storyboards] to shooting [lighting, sound, art direction, directing] to post production [editing, sound design, visual effects], elements were continually being adapted to fit new situations and relationships." This meant keeping all of those involved current with the status and aims of the project to realize the design goals. "Not only did we need a talented team, but we needed to teach them to think of everything that we were doing in context with the other elements that would be linked to them through the interactivity."

This challenge is universal to all interactive-fiction applications, says Stephen Granade. With adventure games, for example, "the team behind the game has to have a cohesive vision of what the game should be and convey that vision well through an interesting storyline and puzzles that draw users in." Unfortunately, real-world market demands hinder the ability to maintain a clear view of a thoughtful design objective. "These games are expensive to make, so pressure is placed on creative teams to get their product done quickly and to stick with 'what works,' which inevitably means [cloning] a successful game." In addition, he adds, "the large teams required to create modern graphic adventures make a cohesive vision hard to achieve."

Another challenge to the development of "meaningful" digital interactive fiction is the medium itself. "When it comes to entertainment, most of us want to be entertained. We don't want to go into the experience to to figure out what's working and what isn't, so we're often 'wowed' by surface impressions [such as flashy graphics and novel interface devices]," says Granade. "That makes it harder to get past whatever gee-whiz factor catches our attention and take a close look at the underlying mechanics."

This is an obstacle that only time and experience can overcome. "The [technology] has to be far more ubiquitous for this to occur," says Anstey. "We need practitioners and experimentalists, but we also need an increasingly sophisticated audience and the feedback between the two. No interactive fiction can be made without constant testing and feedback from users."

In addition, users have to become more comfortable with the possibilities of choices. "People are still acclimating themselves to this," says Szperling. "We're used to having content delivered to us without thought, now decisions have to be made." As the manifestation of these choices, the interface is frequently over-enhanced to entice users into touching it, she says. "The interface should use the language of the project to enhance the delivery of the narrative instead of distracting from it."

Most of the people toiling in the digital interactive fiction trenches are confident that these challenges are well within reach, and that the future of the medium looks bright. What it will take, says Anstey, is experimenters and practitioners willing to make mistakes to see what works. "I also think it can take and learn from many areas: from commercial video games, from the stage, from improv, from basic research in computer science, artificial life, and artificial intelligence, and from psychology and sociology experiments." In order to succeed, however, "people should not be taking films and novels as models and attempting some sort of holo-deck super-realism. As of now, the focus should be on the story and the interaction."

Although that sentiment probably puts the realistic 3D Harry Potter and The Great Gatsby adventures on hold, interactive fiction still sounds like fun.

Diana Phillips Mahoney is chief technology editor of Computer Graphics World.