Interactive fiction and mainstream publishers (Part 1)

Interactive fiction and mainstream publishers (Part 1)

Interactive fiction may be too strongly associated with computer gaming and general geekery to interest mainstream publishers. In this two-part article I will be looking at what they can learn from the strong community engagement in the interactive fiction market, and how technologies like artificial intelligence could transform it.

Beginnings

In 1976, Will Crowther, a mainframe programmer, created a computer game for his daughters that would accept ‘natural language’ input (i.e. typed English) . His Colossal Cave Adventure became the ‘granddaddy of interactive fiction’. His dual interests in potholing and roleplaying infused it with the fantasy theme that is still associated with the genre. And the accompanying geek factor may in part explain why mainstream publishers have regarded interactive fiction, or ‘IF’ as its aficionados refer to it, as a commercial niche.

Colossal Cave Adventure

Colossal Cave and its many imitators, selling at upwards of £30 a copy, boomed on the back of the first home computing craze. Companies like Infocom churned out wittily-written text adventures and achieved huge sales, becoming acquisition targets for major publishers. But by the mid-1980s the boom was over, along with the concurrent craze for 'choose your own adventure' game books. The market was saturated, and consoles usurped the games market with high-resolutions graphics.

With shrinking sales, interactive fiction returned to its underground roots. Systems that Infocom and others had invested millions in to develop text adventures became public domain, whilst new ones, like Inform, were developed without overarching commercial ambitions. Simple tools developed for non-programmers removed all barriers to creating and distributing interactive fiction, besides imagination.

Twine, free-to-use and running in a web browser, is one of the best examples of a clutch of tools for this purpose. Work produced on Twine spans the gamut of commercial fiction, experimental writing and polemical work and some of this has attracted mass media attention. Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest, written in Twine, received global attention due to the explosive #gamergate controversy that followed its creation.

Depression Quest

The IF community evolved: a mix of enthusiasts, academics, experimental writers and entrepreneurs, researching and debating in depth the technical and stylistic challenges and possibilities of the form; developing an understanding of the specific craft for writing interactive fiction; and broadening the definition of what constitutes IF.

Mechanics and stylistics

Emily Short is a writer specialising in interactive narrative and narrative AI, and currently working as Product Manager for Spirit AI. When asked about the differences between interactive and traditional linear storytelling she reels off a series of questions.

“Mechanics: If you are giving the reader choices, how are you keeping track of those choices? How are decisions made early affecting outcomes and possibilities later in the story? Is your system easy or difficult to move through? Is success rare or common? Does it seem fair or unfair? How do we guarantee that, if the reader is not reading every word in your creation, they nonetheless see everything they must see, in order to understand the story?”

These are considerations which most non-IF authors will not be familiar with. Publishers similarly lack knowledge of the IF production process. In her view, “traditional publishers don’t have any of the skills or processes in house for building IF applications quickly and cheaply, testing them, or training authors to write for those applications. Even editing has slightly different requirements if you’re editing interactive stories vs traditional stories.”

With regard to the attitude of the writing community, she says:

"In literary spaces I often encounter the assumption that interactive writers must be less good at their craft than writers of novels, or that interactivity is a gimmick. It is not. Interaction provides different ways of communicating information and provoking a response in a reader. Writing well for interactivity is a complicated craft and art in its own right, and its best practitioners are very skilled... interactive fiction authors have spent decades developing their own vocabulary around choice and consequence, narrative structure, the amount of agency that can be given to the reader, methods of characterizing a protagonist, and a great deal else."

Sizing the market

On the other side of the equation, the lack of commitment might be mainstream publishers' perceived lack of consumer demand. Here Short believes: 

“Their audience is not demanding this and is quite possibly not the audience that most wants it. IF does have an audience, but it’s not necessarily the same audience as avid book readers.... when I have spoken with audiences who would describe themselves as readers, their response to an interactive fiction pitch is often very simply “I do not want to interact with my book.” Sitting forward, making choices, influencing the course of the story is not part of the activity they identify as reading and they feel no attraction to it".

However, a new audience has emerged, an audience that wants to make those choices, coinciding with the growth of the indie games market. Small independent game studios have been enabled through cross-platform development platforms like Unity, crowdfunding, and digital-only distribution through the Steam store, to cover development costs and minimise inventory risk. Early-access programs let consumers pay for work in development and nurtures a direct relationship with their makers. In this space a market has developed for products that are as close to fiction as they are to gameplay.  

Self-described 'small and scrappy developer' Campo Santo is a good example of where this approach can succeed in developing and promoting their first game Firewatch, a story following a forest ranger with a complicated personal life through one summer. It's a classic example of the 'walking simulator' subgenre of IF, where the player traverses a 3D world encountering the narrative in a series of semi-linear fragments - rather like a 21st century re-imagining of the epistolary novel. It sold half a million copies in its first month. Other successes in this genre are The Remains of Edith FinchEverybody's Gone To The Rapture and Oxenfree.

Firewatch

Jon Ingold is Narrative Director at inkle, publisher of the smash hit IF game 80 Days, and is convinced demand exists across IF's many subgenres: 

“There are a huge number of other interactive fiction titles published both on the App Store and on Steam, the PC/Mac gaming platform…Telltale Games have been producing "interactive television" adaptations of commercial franchises for about as long as inkle has been around, and their top titles have sold millions and millions.”

Ingold compares the commercial performance of the latest IF titles favourably with traditional hardbacks: “A successful debut novel sells, as I understand it, about 7-10k copies; a highly successful best-seller sells around 150k copies. At inkle, we produce one game at a time, carefully, and we'd consider 150k a respectable fail. The bulk of Choice of Games titles sell between 50k and 5k copies on Steam alone; 80 Days has sold around half a million copies to date, our Sorcery! series is probably at about 1.5 million copies.”

Admittedly 'walking simulators' are at the fringes of a definition for interactive fiction that becomes elastic to encompass any kind of digital entertainment with a strong narrative element. With their use of complex 3D graphics, minimal text and game controls, they look and feel like video games. This puts publishers off, with their association with high production costs, specialist skill requirements and a consumer base they don't understand and cannot easily reach through their brands.

Back to the text

However, much less 'gamey' forms of IF are also thriving, finding ways to monetise text-based platforms through the approach that gives away the tools to help build the community. Choice of Games publishes around eight full-length interactive novels per year, created using a simple markup language called Choicescript - the spec for which is freely available on their web site, along with details of their author submissions process. Inkle offers two free tools: a browser-based non-programmer development tool, Inklewriter for text IF, or a more complex and powerful scripting language, Ink. This is at the heart of inkle’s own games, including their latest project, an interactive graphic novel called Heaven’s Vault.

Ingold offers his rationale behind sharing these tools:

“We open-sourced Ink because we knew if we charged for it, we'd end up spending all our time supporting developers and fixing bugs, and not necessarily breaking even - but we didn't want to simply sit on it either. We've benefitted directly - a member of the community wrote a version of the ink language for javascript, which we use all the time internally for prototyping - and we've found and fixed several issues in the language."

To some degree, what they've shared is a form of manifesto:

"Ink is an expression of how we feel interactive fiction should be paced; how flexible language should be; how responsive it should be. Most interactive writing still thinks of "pages and links", but it's my view that isn't good enough. I want, entirely selfishly, to see people take our philosophy and make games that I want to play."

One purveyor of this publishing approach attracting attention and investment is Pocket Gems, with their Episode interactive fiction platform which publishes short-form interactive animated graphic novels, formatted for mobiles. Their app platform has over 5 million readers who pick what they want to read next from a Netflix-style menu of stories. Few dragons to be found here; the predominant story themes are dating, school bullies and pop stardom, with licensed properties like Mean Girls and Clueless directed at its teens-with-phones demographic.

Once again, Episode exposes the underlying narrative engine it uses to develop content in the form of a freely available writing tool with access to a library of visual assets. Work can be shared with friends or, if it meets various criteria, promoted within the app - and in some case rewarded via a writers’ programme.

Episode also adopts the ‘freemium’ monetisation approach common to mobile apps. There are two forms of in-story currency - 'gems' and 'passes' - that can be earned through play, but are more frequently purchased through the app, and then expended to unlock story paths and make specific choices. Emily Short sees this trend as one which is, "challenging to design for in a way that isn’t a bit disturbing or exploitative, but it’s so lucrative that it will certainly continue". She prefers an approach where publishers’ revenue can be augmented through serialisation in the form of paid for downloadable content, or through subscription.

Interactive fiction has gone on a long journey from its inception alongside home computing to ubiquitous mobile platforms. I hope I have demonstrated that developing communities around products and platforms has been consistently successful in this type of publishing. Next week, in part two, I will look at how new technology presents opportunities for new types of publishing which could interest an expanded audience.