False Friends of Interactive Fiction

In lingustics, false friends are words in distinct languages that seem similar but have different meanings. [1] For example, if you’re learning Spanish as an English-speaker, you get an immediate vocabulary boost from words like elefante (elephant), universidad (university) and responsibilidad (responsibility). Then you run into embarazada which, to your chagrin, does not mean embarrassed but pregnant. ¡Que vergonzoso! [2] Embarazada is a false friend.

So let’s talk about false friends of IF—things which seem like interactive fiction but aren’t, or are conflated with IF though they shouldn’t be.

The objective here isn’t to gatekeep or to disparage anyone’s notion of what interactive fiction is—or could be, or should be—but to wrestle with the idea of IF to determine if it captures a satisfying, unified, practical concept. Note that I’m sticking to my definition for now—a digital story that requires active reader decisions to advance the narrative through a text-based interface.

This interactive episode of Black Mirror is typically the first thing people, who aren’t already immersed in IF, think of when the topic comes up. It made a pretty big splash on Netflix, so it’s got massive mindshare. And it feels like IF, with a complex, branching storyline and multiple endings. Choices are presented as text, but of course the rest of the “interface” is a movie, not text, making Bandersnatch as distinct from IF as a regular film is from a novel.

A second disqualifier is that Bandersnatch presents its choices with a countdown timer, and if you don’t make a selection before it expires, it chooses for you. That allows you to experience the movie completely passively. This is a brilliant bit of UI that educates viewers on their options even as it drives them through the story, but active reader participation may be the most important aspect of any definition of IF. It’s possible to watch the film on autopilot, never touching your remote or making an active choice.

DQ, Bandersnatch. DQ. [3]

Physical CYOA books and their ilk
Nope. Not digital. That might seem arbitrary, but it’s as profound as the distinction between novels and films that disqualifies Bandersnatch. Medium matters. On the other hand, if you recreated a Choose Your Adventure novel in Twine or CoiceScript or Ink [4], it would clearly qualify as IF. Having done that thought experiment, it’s not clear exactly what you lose if you transition back to the purely physical.

Visual novels
Visual novels dominate the Japanese game industry and are becoming increasingly popular around the world. If you’re not familiar, think of children’s picture books—a large illustration with a few lines of text beneath and possibly some dialog or onomatopoeia in the illustration itself. That’s not meant to be condescending or dismissive, just to give you a mental picture of the “interface” (as I’ve been calling it)—visual novels can be every bit as sophisticated as stories told in other media.

Because visual novels are digital, they may also include music, sound effects and voice acting in addition to choice-based branching narratives and puzzles.

I think there’s a case to be made that some visual novels qualify as IF. Most fare well on the interactivity criterion; the challenge is whether text is primary, which varies by title. As a point of comparison, when does an illustrated book veer into graphic novel territory? For me, it’s when the visuals take over the storytelling. If you can strip the illustrations from a book and have the same story, you’ve got a novel. Alice in Wonderland, despite the inclusion of the Tenniel illustrations, is still a novel. [5] Alan Moore’s Watchmen, on the other hand, was written to be illustrated and depends on Dave Gibbon’s art to tell the story [6], and all of the early Marvel comics were written in a house style where the visuals carry the narrative load and most text, especially dialog, is ornamentation added after the fact. [7]

Kinetic novels
Kinetic novels are a subset of visual novels with no interactivity beyond clicking through to the next screen, the equivalent of turning the page in a book. Interactive fiction should require the reader to engage with the narrative, not just the medium.

Griffin & Sabine and similar works
Speaking of engaging with the medium, there’s a wonderful “interactive” book from the 90s called Griffin & Sabine that contained physical postcards and letters in envelopes that told the partially epistolary story of the title characters. And there are folks who like to classify that as interactive fiction because, hey, you’re interacting with it, right? Which, yeah, you are, but is that interaction more meaningful than turning the pages of a conventional novel?

In this particular case, I don’t think so. The letters and postcards are attached to specific pages of the book. They’re more like sidebars in a magazine article. But what if they were just stuffed in a box along with a “diary” of the novel? You could read them in any order, and the order you chose to read them might well affect your perception of the story.

The more recent Building Stories from Chris Ware does exactly this, presenting a unified story across a variety of printed media—newspapers, tiny comics, hard-back books—that arrive in an over-sized box, and which the reader is free to pursue in any order. There are works of IF that are similarly structured. The story is set but the order you choose to reveal it, or experience it, can vary by play-through, unfolding like a flower as you bestow your attention.

 So, Griffin & Sabine, no; Building Stories, closer but still no. The sticking point again is the medium, but Ware’s work is a little more advanced in asking the reader to engage with the narrative.

Table-top RPGs
Role-playing games would seem to be the ultimate in interactive fiction. A good GM beats the pants off the limited parser of a text-adventure, and the action is driven entirely by the player’s choices. But before I knock RPGs off the list (not digital), I have to admit—I’ve never heard anyone refer to them as IF. Still, I’m including them because they raise an interesting dichotomy—the distinction between stories and sandboxes. While a lot of the better, modern adventures offer coherent but flexible stories, there are plenty more that are just worlds or situations to explore (this was especially true in the early days). A story might emerge (I’ll talk more about emergent narrative later), but isn’t necessarily built in. 

Story is an integral part of my definition of IF, so table-top RPGs, like visual novels, would fall on a spectrum, some qualifying, others not, depending on story. That is, they would, if they were digital. Which they’re not.

Computer RPGs
Very quickly because this is already long—yes, they’re digital; yes, they’re interactive; no, they’re typically not text-based. As for story, they’re on a continuum from strong narrative to open-world sandbox and everything in between, so all CRPGs are disqualified once and most twice. Computer RPGs deserve their own post, and I hope to return to them at some point in this series. [8]

This hasn’t been an exhaustive survey but I think it’s been broad enough to arrive at some interesting conclusions. The false friends I’ve presented fail according to one of two broad criteria—either they’re the wrong medium (not digital or not text-based) or they don’t have interactive stories (not truly interactive or no actual story).

The interactive fiction community is pretty dedicated to the notion that IF is a digital text format, but that’s an accident of history. The term originally referred exclusively to text adventures and later expanded to include choice-based IF; it could be expanded again to include other choice-based media. [9] Rather than dilute the term further, I think it’s more useful to come up with a new term that captures something interesting that these false friends have in common with IF and each other. I find I’m not particularly interested in the first criterion—I don’t care about the medium. The second, interactive stories, fascinates me. We’ll dive into that next time. [10]

Next time: If not IF then what?


1. Something I learned writing this post—cognates are words that share an etymological ancestry, not, as I believed, words that are similar in different languages. 

Some false friends are cognates whose meanings have drifted apart in their respective languages over time, but there are also false cognates—words that seem to be derived from a common ancestor but aren’t. Mama, is an example of this, a word that means “mother” in nearly every language but only as an artifact of the linguistic development of infants (m being one of the first consonants they’re capable of producing) and not evidence of a common, ancestral tongue.

2. How embarrassing!

3. Bandersnatch deserves a deeper examination than I’m willling to give it here. I found it fascinating and fantastically clever but ultimately unsatisfying as a story, largely because there was no story—there were stories, which had the rug pulled out from under them again and again, leading to a kind of narrative despair that put me in mind of Larry Niven’s “All the Myriad Ways.”


4. Twine, ChoiceScript and Ink are authoring systems for choice-based interactive fiction, but there are others.

5. And what is the use of a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversation?

6. Watchmen is a deconstruction—of comic books in general and the super hero genre in particular—and therefore inexorably tied to its medium (which is chief among reasons that the film adaptation failed).

7. In the Marvel Style, “a writer shares a synopsis of a comic with the artist, who is then responsible for expanding that plot into a fully drawn comic book. Upon receiving the finished art, the writer adds captions and dialogue to complete the process. To put it even more succinctly, the writer delivers the plot, the artist handles the story, and the writer adds the words.”

8. What constitutes a computer RPG is itself a contentious topic. Many tabletop gamers reject the idea that a system that doesn’t allow for actual, you know, role play can be an RPG, despite the inclusion of characters with stats, leveling and experience points. Games like Diablo (an “action” RPG), have more in common with first-person shooters than Dungeons & Dragons. And, of course, there are text-based, including rogue-likes and text adventures, bringing us full circle.

9. Personally, I think “interactive fiction,” for all it excludes, is already overloaded. Parser-based IF is as distinct from choice-based IF as screenplays are from stage plays.

10. I should point out, in case anyone outside my immediate circle of friends reads this, that I’m not the first to address this or to consider the possibility of other names for interactive stories. This blog is just my way about reasoning about these ideas for myself. (And this footnote is my imposter syndrome poking its head out because I linked to Emily Short’s blog …)

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