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What’s The Deal With Interactive Storytelling?

What’s the deal with interactive storytelling?

Glad you asked.

If you know me, you’ll know that I’ve been making video games since I was a kid, banging away at the keyboard of my dad’s Commodore 64. If you don’t know me, well . . . surprise!

The Mystery of Chimney Rock (cover)One of my other favorite things since I was that wee lad? Choose Your Own Adventure books. I was like, “How awesome is this?!?” Not only is it a story with cool things like dragons and broadswords, but if you make different choices, the story can be different each time you read it! And you can win! In a book!

As you can imagine, the game developer in me has forever been interested in making these branching, twisting, looping stories. So, I set out to build a few of my own and quickly got lost in a wasteland of disorganization. I spent most of my time shuffling through cards and papers, trying to keep them in order. Overwhelmed, I always gave up after the first few scenes. Every few years, I’ll dig back in, trying my hand at crafting something super-sweet. Each time, failing. But, man. I’ll be honest. It wasn’t really my fault. Because, my overall conclusion? The tools have historically sucked.

But I’m here to tell you the tools are different now! In fact, the tools these days are . . . merely serviceable.

But! Don’t let that deter you! Because, while the tools are still kind of painful, man, the front end displays? The rendering of those majestically mutating stories is SO AWESOME! For example, what used to look like this:

Zork (screenshot)

Now looks more like this:

The City of Knives (screenshot)

Or even this:

Frankenstein (screenshot)


I hear you asking, in your head, wondering, “But aren’t they just video games?”

No! I say again, even more emphatically, “No!”


Never Judge A Book By Its Movie by BookFiendYou don’t tell everyone, “Meh, the movie was better because I could sit there and watch it, avoiding my imagination, and beholden to the director’s interpretation. I mean, they nailed that main character. He totally looks exactly like the image I had in my head after reading the book.”

*cough* Jack Reacher *cough*

(Yeah . . . not bitter about that one. Not at all.)

No, interactive fiction is the superset. Where video games are a small (but very popular!) subset in the larger world of dynamic storytelling. Think about it using that same books vs movies analogy. The general skeleton underneath is roughly the same in that there is a similar story to be told. It’s what the medium enables that’s different. Yes, there are branching paths through the story. And yes, depending on the specific piece of content, the consequences of your choices can be similarly affected. What’s different is the rendering. The vision and depth of your engagement.

Film vs Book IcebergJust like in a book, you have insight into the thoughts, feelings, point of view, and perceptions of the main character, it can be that way in a good piece of interactive fiction too. The scenes and characters and feelings aren’t just limited by what the 3D artists thought to model, it can instead be any of the amazing things a decent writer can convey. Using the power of words.

Besides, while many game studios certainly employ talented writers, they don’t employ all of the talented writers. By making the creation process easier, we can unleash the creativity of writers everywhere. With a good set of democratized tools, we can find the most talented writers and put them to work crafting not only amazing stories, but amazing experiences.

A good piece of interactive fiction can even make further inroads into depth and engagement than a traditional book or linear story. Sort of tickle the feet of gameplay. For example, a common tactic in many pieces of fantasy fiction is to avoid describing the main character’s physical appearance so the reader feels more inclined to view themselves in their place. Interactive fiction can take that a step even further. It can perch in that gap between the standard linear storytelling and getting lost in a sea of properties, attributes, and leveling-up-math that comes with complicated RPGs. By just adding a couple customizable traits to your main character, you can drive immersion while still keeping the complexity overhead at a minimum.

It can be simple things, like giving the character a wardrobe the reader can choose from. Or letting the reader name the characters as they’re introduced. Or their space ship. Or choose their type of sword. Or the make and model of their getaway car. Or how that magic spell manifests when it’s cast. And you can let the reader do these things freeform. Since it’s text, it doesn’t have to be multiple choice. And you’re not limited by any one artist’s rendition.

“Whirlygig, the wizard, put on his purple turban and walked down the ramp to his 1972 Ford Bronco. After making sure his rubber katana was in the back seat, he drove to meet his contact, Fingilliam Grumpybutt.”

. . . Um.

Well. Okay, so you probably don’t want to allow all that stuff at the same time. Otherwise, you’re in kooky Mad Libs Land, but I’m sure you get the point. Just remember to sprinkle in some subtlety every now and again.


There’s just one trick about reading interactive fiction — they’re all freakin’ different.


I know, right? I get you all excited, then point out exactly why it is the format hasn’t taken off. Historically, there’s not really a main standard or platform for the genre. To name the major ones, we’ve got: Agility, Alan, Frotz, Glulxe, Hugo, Level 9, Magnetic, Scare, and Tads. So, to play most interactive fiction, all you need is Jam 2.5, and then you download and compile Gargoyle. After that, you just hit up this online database of interactive stories, download the appropriate asset file, and fire up the interpreter.

You get all that?

Ha! Yeah, me neither.

Luckily, we’ve got this World Wide Web thing and it’s come a long way regarding “interactive” and “fiction”. There are a few tucked-away places where great stories are making their way to the web. In fact, here’s a fantastic list to get you started.

textadventures (logo)Now that you’re excited, have the right tools, and you have an idea what to expect, you can start combing through the thousands of works of interactive fiction at textadventures.co.uk. And once you’ve consumed every bit of existing interactive fiction, it’s your turn to start writing your own! Woo! Lucky for you, modern tools are better than they used to be. Especially at textadventures.co.uk. Unlike me, sitting there, struggling to climb out from under piles of cardstock, you have the web and a handful of digital writing tools!

If you’re looking to craft up an open-command-prompt Zork-style game, there’s the Quest engine. Or, if you’d rather write up something along the lines of a traditional Choose Your Own Adventure gamebook, textadventures.co.uk has the adorably-named Squiffy.

And, though you didn’t think it possibly could, it gets even better!

Once you’ve crafted your masterpiece, you can enter it into the annual Interactive Fiction Competition. Believe it or not, they’ve been handing out awards for amazing work for over twenty years. In fact, now that you’re comfortable with all this stuff, you should probably check out all the past IFComp winners. Some really incredible stuff to be unearthed over the last twenty-two years.


That should keep your thirst for interactive storytelling slaked until the future arrives.


I know, right? As crazy as all that seems, the future of interactive storytelling is totes off the hook! (Please, don’t tell my teenager I said that — I don’t know if they’ve found a cure for epic eye-rolling attacks yet.)

There are a few different directions folks are taking this whole interactive fiction thing. As a discerning consumer? I can definitely say, “They’re not all good.” So I’m going to help you out with this one, too.

cyberpunk_VR byTravis Brown

If you’re looking for a visually immersive fiction experience, the sudden proliferation of VR Headsets makes a pretty compelling argument. But the bummer parts they still have to work through include the typical VR roadblocks of costly visuals production, getting the player to focus on the correct action, and the distinct lack of mobility. That being said, they’re doing some pretty neat things in the space. (Dad pun-intended.) Like, say, scaring the kittens out of people.


For those of you not hip on the new lingo, “Machine Learning” is just another term for AI (as in, “artificial intelligence”). In the last five years or so, there have been huge advances in the technology (cloud-based architecture) that unlocks the ability to apply ridiculous amounts of computing horsepower to solving previously intractable problems. By opening this door and democratizing the computer, the world is now steaming down the path of stories that dynamically morph (rather than using a clever, pre-planned branching narrative) to a player’s reactions in order to create unscripted, custom, and unique experiences. It’s heady stuff.


Of course, in the middle of all this altruistic interactive love, they’ve got to pay the bills. That’s where “marketing” and “ad agencies” come into play. I mean, I suppose quality, interesting ads are better than lame, boring ones. *shrug*


Alexa Runescape

This is my favorite bit of storytelling futurism. With the advances in machine learning (see above), voice recognition software has seen extraordinary and ridiculous leaps in quality recently. That means, rather than click or type some jumble of half-remembered commands and keywords, you can just listen and speak normally. Think of it like an interactive version of those old radio programs.

If you want to experience the downright coolest thing in the world (I’m American — we like our superlatives), all you have to do is say, “Alexa, play Runescape.


Assuming you have an Amazon Echo, I guess.

If you don’t have one, you can always just scratch that interactive storytelling itch the old-fashioned way — by going on a Hella Awesome Pirate Adventure. So go get you some interactive booty, ye landlubbers!

Title image by randis.



  1. Avatar Lady Ty says:

    Great article and one guaranteed to chain me to the keyboard for days following up all those helpful links. I have long regretted I lack the motor skills and fast reactions for most fast online games, but this sounds like a whole new fun addiction – thanks for all the information and infectious enthusiasm. 🙂

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