September 19, 2006

Defining IF

by Nick Montfort · , 9:53 pm

Mara Meijers’s post and three linked blog posts (1 2 3) were mentioned to me, so I thought I’d write a bit about defining IF, and about how a definition of IF (or some other new media form) can help.

I consider “interactive fiction” (or at least “text-based interactive fiction”) to indicate a computer program that accepts natural language input, provides natural output, and simulates a world. An IF system is a conversational system, like a chatterbot – but it simulates a whole environment, incidents, and so on rather than just one personality. So:

12 Responses to “Defining IF”


  1. Jason R. Says:

    Nick,
    I wonder if you might expand a bit on how you distinguish form and genre? Does it really have to be an either/or proposition?

  2. Mara Says:

    I’ve put some thought into this, too. Here’s my take on things: though IF is a literary form, when categorized among modern computer games, it is often considered a (classical) genre in its own right.

  3. josemanuel Says:

    In Literature, poetry and novel are forms. Comedy and drama are genres. IF and graphic adventures are some of the forms that computer games can take, but they are not genres (not even clasical genres). I would say that “form” is a means of expression, while “genre” is a storytelling tool. At least that´s how I see it. (Also, I disagree with Nick´s 4th and 5th points: A definition can be fine-tuned, of course, but IF can´t be a different thing through time depending on what´s in fashion that week. What art is can´t be defined in terms of “what is in a museum” or in the IF archive. IF, like Popeye, is what it is, and nothing else.)

  4. Jim Whitehead Says:

    Is Facade an interactive fiction? It accepts natural language input, provides natural language output (among other kinds of output, including movement and body language of the characters), and simulates a (apartment-sized) world.

    Michael views Facade as an interactive drama. Are interactive fictions and interactive dramas the same thing? The play experience is certainly different in many respects.

  5. andrew Says:

    Is Facade an interactive fiction?

    In the past I’ve preferred the general definition of “fiction”, as an “imagined story”, not tied to form. In this sense, interactive fiction is pretty much equivalent to the general term “interactive story”. Using this definition for fiction then, interactive drama, e.g. Facade, is a form of interactive fiction; Photopia would be text-based interactive fiction.

    But most consider fiction to specifically be a text-based form, the way the term is used in a bookstore, e.g. novels and short stories in the “fiction” section.

    At the same time, somewhat inconsistently I suppose, I considered the term “drama” to in fact be tied to form: an enacted story with actors, e.g. theater or movies. (But, I suppose you could make the argument that “drama” shouldn’t be tied to form; while not quite a genre, it’s a story with certain properties, such as building tension, about serious subjects with heavy emotion, etc. It’s not a genre itself because you can have sci-fi dramas, western dramas, etc.)

    If you use the form-specific definition of fiction (text) and the form-specific definition of drama (enacted), interactive drama is complementary to IF: Facade is not interactive fiction, but interactive drama; Photopia would be just interactive fiction. In this case, what is the umbrella term for both — interactive story? Interactive narrative? Sigh.

  6. michael Says:

    I tend to use interactive narrative as the umbrella term, interactive fiction to mean textual interactive narrative (that also has a simulated world, natural-language interaction, etc.), and interactive drama to mean enacted interactive narrative. Though interactive fiction could mean something more general (akin to interactive narrative), the term has already been co-opted by the folk who create Inform and TADS-based work, and I’m happy to give them the term.

    I believe Nick does consider Facade to be an interactive fiction, but I’m not sure if the rest of the IF community would. For instance, I doubt we’d be allowed in the IF competitions, or hosted in the IF archive.

    Noah has argued for “hypertext” (as originally conceived by Nelson) to mean something much broader than the term hypertext has come to mean as defined by a community of practice. In Noah’s broader definition, a hypertext can include significant computation, including a simulated world, so IF might be subsumed by hypertext. But I think Noah is fighting an uphill battle here; the communities of practice have already spoken.

    Terminology keeps coming back to haunt us.

  7. andrew Says:

    Another datapoint: Jesper Juul prefers the general definition of fiction.

    Given this, though, there’s no good shorthand term for text-based interactive fiction, a cumbersome set of words…

    btw, to be clear, the term “interactive drama” was used in the context of digital interactive entertainment at least as early as 1986 in Brenda Laurel’s thesis, and later her 1991 book Computers as Theater, and by Joe Bates and the original Oz project folk in the early 1990′s; we created Facade within that vision of the term.

  8. michael Says:

    Andrew, thanks for the clarification regarding interactive drama. And, in fact, that’s precisely the reason why I prefer “interactive drama” as the term for enacted interactive narrative; it has historical continuity and precedence.

  9. nick Says:

    It’s great to read this discussion. First off, I do find that form and genre are well-defined and distinct: The sestina is not a genre, and it really isn’t useful to imagine that it is. josemanuel has the right idea about the form/genre distinction, I believe. There is no contradiction in talking about IF conventions or traditions, however. Just as there is a sonnet tradition as well as a sonnet form, IF has conventions in addition to being a form. I began my post by explaining that the definition I offered (the first “perspective” I mentioned) is formal, but I elaborated to explain that this formal perspective is only one valid view.

    Jim, I’ve been asked recently through other channels if Facade was interactive fiction. It’s a complex question. I’d say that it has most or all of the formal elements, as SHRDLU and the blocks world does, but, similarly, it is not participating mainly in the IF tradition. The emphasis is on interpersonal relationships rather than figuring out a systematic world or riddle, so “interactive drama” (as Michael and Andrew explain) makes for a more meaningful framework. Nevertheless, people interested in IF would be well advised to learn about Facade, which is extremely relevant to what goes on in IF. That’s why I reviewed it as IF for the SPAG Newsletter.

  10. Kenneth Stein Says:

    Earlier today I posted a blog entry entitled Text Adventure Evolution. You’ll find a link to an interesting text-adventure engine that incorporates computational linguistics and theorem proving. You might find it interesting.

    If fiction is an “untruth that is not a lie,” what is it in a work of fiction that one might claim is not a lie? And, what is the relation between ‘it’ and drama??

  11. nick Says:

    FrOZ is a great project, and it’s particularly admirable that they’ve made it available for general use. Unfortunately the Racer theorem prover is now payware, encumbering the system.

  12. Jason R. Says:

    Mara, I would extend your point even one step further, which is to say that IF can take *many* forms (e.g., depending on whether one uses TADs, Inform, etc.), but the group of IF text games as a whole stands as its own genre.

    josemanuel & nick – while the form v. genre is a nice and useful binary, it strikes me as unsatisfactory. In poetry, the delineation of form outside of genre certainly may often be a bit easier (the sestina, the sonnet, the villanelle), although not always: what of the dramatic monologue (which may come in a variety of lyric forms)? But lyric poetry is surely a genre, just as surely as prose fiction is a genre.

    And it is with prose that genre distinctions become even blurrier. Is the epistolary novel a form, a genre, or both? And let’s ignore the equally complicating case of so-called “genre fiction,” designating those so-often maligned realms of “sub-par, non-literary” fiction (judgments in quotes for hopefully obvious reasons). But of course, just as we may have genres of medium, so too we might have genres between media (mystery, comedy, and so on), and the overlap causes additional confusion.

    In any case, comparing IF to other prose fiction traditions seems more genuine than aligning it with poetic formal traditions. And it is this alignment with fiction, and its distinguishing itself as ‘interactive’ (as opposed to merely ‘prose fiction’) that suggests to me a genre built from many potential forms, and distinguishable from other computer programs (just as epic is distinguished from lyric, and lyric from dramatic, though all can be poetic).

    Sorry for rambling; I find it a compelling question, and one too-often overlooked in new media and computer game studies…

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