Student Spotlight: The twisty passages of interactive fiction

Nick Montfort

Nick Montfort

Photo by Mark Stehle

Nick Montfort wants you to know about a world of fiction and computers intricately balanced to create an experience as old as literature and as new as the modern age. In his book, “Twisty Little Passages” (MIT, 2003), Montfort, a Ph.D. student in computer and information science, explores this esoteric realm known to its aficionados as interactive fiction.

Interactive fiction, which began in the 1980s with bestsellers “Adventure” and “Zork,” is basically a novel on a computer that creates a virtual world users can participate in. The user gives the computer commands to move through a simulated world and solve a series of riddles. As Montfort says, “It is something to be read, but it is also something that you can write to.”

Less well-known these days than much of its progeny—the popular role-playing and adventure titles that dominate the computer game market—interactive fiction tends to lack their heart-thumping graphics and overwhelming marketing power. Because it requires a substantial degree of thought, some critics think interactive fiction may seem foreign to the contemporary computer user. “Some of the most successful computer games can be easily interwoven with office tasks,” said Montfort. “That is one of the greatest untold benefits of the white-collar world. The French get Wednesday off and we get to play Solitaire and Minesweeper. Interactive fiction just doesn’t have the same sort of cultural acceptance as an altered video of George Bush giving a presidential address.”

According to Montfort, interactive fiction is much more than just a game. “Interactive fiction is too often construed as a game and not literature. If that were the case, some of the best Anglo-Saxon literature would also not be literature. It is something that unfolds new understandings just like Emily Dickinson’s ‘A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.’ You don’t just solve the riddle and move on.”

Fortunately, that conversation is still alive and well. “The commercial life of interactive fiction is over,” said Montfort, “but there is a very rich community enabled by the Internet.” Montfort not only wrote the book on this topic but is an interactive fiction author as well. Another Penn graduate student, Emily Short, is, according to Montfort, the world’s premier writer of interactive fiction.

A man of many media, Montfort has also helped to develop a weblog called Grand Text Auto (grandtextauto.gatech.edu), which serves as a forum for academic and critical discussions of creative media. In 2002 he drew on his dual passions for computers and literature to create a 2,002-word palindrome, with William Gillespie, centered on a hero aptly named Bob.

Nick Montfort will speak at the Slought Foundation, 4017 Walnut St., April 29 at 6:30 p.m. Check out his work, including the palindrome and his interactive fiction, at www.nickm.com. To see works of interactive fiction by Emily Short, go to emshort.home.mindspring.com.

Originally published on April 29, 2004