The image shows a visual representation of how interactive fiction uses branching pathways based on choices made by the reader.

Why Write Interactive Fiction?

Interactive fiction is no longer a ‘new’ concept. It’s been around for a while, though many people might have never even known about it due to the fact that it flew under the radar of mainstream media for so long. There are many forms and styles of interactive fiction, though some are easier to create and distribute than others. Two popular variants, visual novels and interactive chat fictions (where the reader is playing in a similar way to sending text messages), are quickly becoming more popular as interactive fiction is being created on a greater scale.

Since I’ve decided to start on a journey into interactive fiction, I thought it’d be a good idea to take a look at the good and the bad aspects that come with the territory. For a reader, interactive fiction can be fun and exciting. For a writer, it can either be a chore or a pleasure to produce.

The Good

It’s the Best of Both Worlds

Love video games? Love reading books? If you said yes to both, then you’re in luck; interactive fiction brings the best of both worlds together with an engaging, thrilling story that’s all dependent on your input. The best part? Most interactive fiction doesn’t need a gaming console or handheld device (other than a cell phone) to play, so you can do so from the comfort of your own computer, phone, or tablet.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible for a video game to have a compelling story line – I myself fell in love with the Mass Effect video game series by BioWare mainly because it had an engaging storyline that the player could influence. It went beyond what traditional video games normally provided for their players by allowing you to make decisions that would impact your characters relationship to others and how they viewed themselves. This can also be seen in the Fable gaming series, where your choices in the game determine how good or evil your character looks and acts.

Even so, interactive fiction is a comprable bridge between traditional story telling and modern video games that can make both crowds happy.

It’s a Way to Let the Reader Decide

Sure, books can transport a reader to far off lands and tell you stories of quests and journeys, but interactive fiction actually puts the reader in the driver’s seat and lets them live out that fantasy as if they were actually there in real time. Will they slay the dragon, or become friends with it? Will they rescue the princess, or decide to run off with the gold instead? It’s all up to the reader.

To be fair, many of us readers have often thought while reading a story, “Man, I wish the writer would have done this part differently!” I won’t even get into those who still hold grudges against famous authors (J.K., looking at you) for pairing off characters that many didn’t think went together. By giving the reader the choice of how the story goes, who interacts with who, and what the ultimate ending will be, it becomes a much more fun and personal experience that has a greater impact.

It’s Almost More Fun to Reread

Curious as to what would have happen if you chose differently? One of the best parts about interactive fiction is that readers can go back and try a different path. Maybe they follow a different love interest, or befriend someone else. Maybe they decide to be a rebel instead of a savior and see how that turns out. Sometimes going back and rereading a work of interactive fiction is more enjoyable than the first reading alone.

There are also times when the writer wants the reader to pick a certain path, and will place obstacles in the reader’s way to test their ingenuity. In order to get a better ending, perhaps they have to be both brave and kind to the villagers while also showing mercy to the monster that plagues them. Maybe by being the biggest, meanest, baddest person they can be, the ending they get is more enjoyable to them than the path of the noble warrior.

It’s a Great Way to Unleash Creativity

Most of the aspects above are for the reader’s benefit, but this last one is mainly for the writer. In order to have all these different plot lines and story paths for readers to enjoy, you have to write them first! Novels and stories are generally pretty straightforward, but interactive fiction is akin to writing the same novel a dozen different ways.

As said above, maybe the reader wants to be evil. This means that the writer has to write a series of choices that the reader can take to lead the main player on a more sinister path. Yet, the writer must also be able to write a concurrent series of choices to lead the reader on the path of good, and maybe also the path of neutrality. At the end of the day, an interactive story can have hundreds, thousands, or even millions of different stories to it! Your mind has to be sharp enough and creative enough to do the work, of course, for it to all come together in the end.

This daunting task leads to the first, and possibly even the most serious aspect of interactive fiction that stops many writers from ever attempting to make such a story: it’s a lot of writing.

The Bad

It’s A LOT of Writing

You thought a novel with 100,000 words was long – wait till you try and write a piece of interactive fiction that can be read and played for an hour. Many writers choose to cut down their interactive stories due to the fact that there’s just so much writing involved in making even short stories with multitudes of choices and options.

For an interactive story to be engaging, it has to have quite a few branches and paths for a reader to take to give them a unique experience almost every time they read through it. If one choice is around 1,000 words, a writer may end up with 3-4 choices per path, and 4-10 paths for the reader to take. That means that a single piece of interactive fiction can be anywhere from 12,000-40,000 words for just 15-30 minutes of gameplay.

It’s A LOT of Choices

From the example above, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed as a writer by the amount of choices and paths that will have to be written to make a compelling and engaging story. It’s great for the reader, of course, since the gameplay is personalized for everyone, but all choices have to be created by the writer to be played in the first place.

Choices also have to be significant. You can’t (technically you can, but you probably shouldn’t) simply write in silly choices for the player, like “Do you choose to wear a red shirt today, or blue?” all the time if they have no impact on the story and are just filler. It’s no fun to play through if your choices don’t have any actually meaning and are just fluff. If a red shirt means that they’ll be kidnapped by ninjas, and the blue shirt means that pirates will take them, then of course it’s an important choice to be made. If it never comes up again in the story, then why even have the choice?

Regardless, the amount of work a writer puts into a piece doesn’t always equate to an equal amount of enjoyment from the reader. If the choices are always obvious in their outcome, readers might not enjoy the story as much. The stories need to have a balance of mystery and intrigue for the reader to enjoy the twists and turns of the tale without being annoyed at any lack of free will or multitude of mundane choices.

It’s Time Consuming

There’s a lot to write, a lot of choices to come up with, and a lot of ideas that need to be fleshed out and polished to perfection to bring a work of interactive fiction to life. When writing novels and other works, there’s usually a few drafts that are edited to perfection before the final work is ready to be released. With interactive fiction, writers have to not only write a complex, multifaceted work, but also edit and proofread every single part and make sure it all works out when played together.

Imagine trying to write a novel. Now imagine you take that novel and break down the main character’s journey into every conceivable path they could take. Bam. That’s interactive fiction, and that’s why it takes so long (in most cases) to produce a good quality work. Now working with a team, however, that’s a great way to help speed up the process – but only just.

It’s Easy to Mess Up

Wait, how is the brave knight supposed to slay the dragon if the reader chose not to pick up the mighty sword in the first chapter? And how is the princess supposed to know he’s there to rescue her if he sold the king’s official seal for a bag of gold in the third chapter? And what happens if the dragon can still see the knight after he bought an invisibility shield from that peddler in the sixth chapter?

There’s a lot to keep track of when writing interactive fiction. One choice has the ability to carry over into another part of the story if the writer lets it; and let’s be honest, that’s half the fun, right? It’s no fun if the reader’s choices don’t have lasting effects or impact the ending of the story in any way, shape, or form. Yet, by giving readers such options, the writer can doom themself to missing a key component or creating a paradox.

And don’t even get me started on how many mistakes can be made when coding enters the picture.

It’s More Than Just Writing

If you’re working on an piece of interactive fiction, you have to wear more than one hat. In very rare cases can a writer solely be a writer when creating interactive fiction, as there’s generally a very specific way they need to write and format their work. This generally involves – drumroll please – coding.

No, not hardcore coding (in some cases, though, you might have to do so). There are plenty of software programs out there that allow writers to create interactive fiction without knowing any major coding language. To name a few, there’s Ren’py, Ink, Cloud Novel, Twine, Quest, Unity, TADS, and Squiffy. Some will do just basic text writing, while others can be used to create visual novels. So, in essence, you’ll likely have to learn a bit of coding or at least how to format your writing to work with a software that allows you to bypass traditional coding.

Even if you can get around coding your writing, you’ll still need to produce art for your cover, figure out somewhere to put your work (either a personal website or one that you can upload your files to in order to showcase/sell your work), and a way to tell your audience that your work is available. It’s a lot of work for one person, but isn’t entirely impossible.

Overall

Interactive fiction is a challenging, yet rewarding endeavor that many writers can easily choose to experience. I, myself, would have never thought about getting into such a genre before, but after learning about the growing trend I decided I would try my hand at it to see if I could create works that could entertain and delight more than my current and future series and novels.

Just as with everything else in life, there will always be positives and negatives to anything you pursue. If you let the negatives get in the way of achieving your goals, then you’ll never reap the rewards of your hard work. The first step is asking yourself if you’re ready – truly ready – to take on a genre that’s more than just telling a simple story.

If you’re interested in getting into the interactive fiction genre but are overwhelmed by the daunting amount of work that goes into it, don’t hesitate to contact me here if you’re feeling up to the task of collaboration. Writers, developers, programmers, coders, artists – sometimes you just can’t do it all by yourself.

Have you ever thought about getting into the interactive fiction genre, whether it be through writing or reading such stories? Have you already fallen in love with it, or do you see potential problems and setbacks? Let us know in the comments below!

Happy reading, writing, living, and working!

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