Essentially text-based, interactive fiction is a genre of games with roots that predate the internet. The player/reader makes choices that determine the outcome of the narrative. It’s like a digital version of Dungeons & Dragons, the paper-based role-playing game set in a medieval fantasy world. It’s also similar to choice-based fiction, like the Choose Your Own Adventure book series that began in the late 1970s.
Because player choice changes the narrative arc, interactive fiction can be used to teach empathy—what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. For example, Begscape (built with Twine, which I’ll discuss later), puts the reader in the role of a beggar. Another intriguing text-based game is A Dark Room, an addictive resource management game. In 2015, a text adventure adaptation of the film Interstellar was released at the same time as the DVD.
A Brief History of Text-Based Gaming
Computer-based interactive fiction began in 1975 with Infocom’s Adventure. Next came the Zork and Ultima series. In the mid-1980s, Douglas Adams adapted his best-selling book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as an interactive title. It’s still playable online today.
The 1990s introduced the world to text-based MUDs (multi-user dungeons) like Ultima Online. The web enabled multiple players to join together in online virtual worlds. Present day massive multiplayer online (MMO) games like World of Warcraft stem from MUDs.
In 1996, designer Richard Bartle published an influential paper titled Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs. According to Bartle, there are personality types (Bartle’s Player Types), each of which must be considered by a game’s designer. In other words, people play games for different reasons—some to socialize, others to collect objects, and others who compete to win. When designing virtual worlds, all player types should be considered. Similarly, when teachers design lessons, multiple modalities should be addressed.
Interactive Fiction Today
The descendents of text-based adventure games include games with threaded conversation trees. The story decisions are often presented as multiple-choice responses, which are coded as conditional loops, or “if-then statements.” (Incidentally, interactive fiction is often abbreviated as IF.) The Mission U.S. educational role-playing games rely on the choice-based mechanic.
One of the leaders in choice-based gaming today is Telltale Games. It adapted The Walking Dead (2013), The Wolf Among Us (2013)—based on the Fables comics—and Game of Thrones (2014). Each title features animations followed by dialogue choices. The direction of the story arc hinges on player decisions. Telltale Games is currently developing Minecraft: Storymode for Mojang (developer of Minecraft, the popular block-building game).
Interactive Fiction as a Teaching Tool
There are several free authoring tools to write interactive fiction. Some have an easier learning curve than others. One example is Inform, a “natural” programming language. Inform games are typically single-player—the player types after a command prompt. For example, one might read, “The door ahead of you is closed.” To advance the story, the player might decide to type, “Open door.”
In 2014, GlassLab’s lead designer, Erin Hoffman, and I used Inform to create Time Society Chronicles: Independence. The objective was to give students the feeling of living in British-occupied Boston during the American Revolution—interactive historical fiction. After playing, I asked students how it inspired them to create their own interactive stories. Here, my role was not just to have students play a game, but to contextualize their learning.
Twine is an increasingly popular application for creating stories with multiple endings. It’s available as a free download and features a vibrant community, as well as a story database showcasing best practices. Completed stories can be posted anywhere online. Twine is effective as a tool that teaches reading and writing. For more on games made with Twine, check out this recent New York Times Magazine article.
The authoring tool inklewriter works right in a computer’s browser and features a simple-to-follow tutorial for new learners. Aspiring writers can share links to stories or export to a Kindle device. Inklewriter won 2013’s Best Website for Teaching and Learning award from the American Association of School Librarians. The developer, inkle, had previously published 80 Days, a tablet game based on the classic Jules Verne novel. It was considered the top video game of 2014 by Time magazine. Inkle next adapted Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as interactive fiction. Future Voices is its online anthology of shared stories, used to celebrate exemplary works.
Using interactive fiction in the classroom sharpens close reading and writing, logical thinking, and other critical thinking competencies. It also reinforces systems thinking and design thinking skills—in which interconnections are mapped and user experiences are considered. The low barrier to entry makes interactive fiction a natural fit for any student-centered classroom.