This post first appeared as a Chick on the Draw Column at Luna Station Quarterly, January 9, 2015.
You may not know it when it happens, because it will sneak up on you in your browser or Kindle or mobile device. You were reading a thing, and then it gave you some kind of choice, and you clicked a link, and BAM: interactive fiction.
There may have been picture. There may have been sound. But mostly there was story that you, the reader, took a role in telling.
It may have already happened. You may have played some Professor Layton or Phoenix Wright… or both. You may have already read Michael Lutz’s My Father’s Long, Long Legs or Lydia Neon’s Reset. You may have picked up Dragon Age: Inquisition because Solasmance was all over your Tumblr.
Wherever you’re at or want to be, the party is ready for you.
What is interactive fiction? Is it a game? Is it a story? Is it the democratized, digital reincarnation of Edward Packard’s Choose Your Own Adventure novels?
Yes, yes, and yes, and it’s poised to explode this year.
The Demand is Massive
Want a main character with the gender, color, or other character traits that interest you? IF lets you choose.
Enjoy cities named Rha’athal? Can’t stand cities named Rha’athal? IF lets you name.
Prefer metric over US customary? Prefer US customary over metric? IF lets you decide.
Want to participate in the characters’ problem-solving? IF lets you solve the mysteries.
Want the The Princess Bride, but with the chance to romance Inigo? IF says “viva España.”
Romance will be a big part of the IF boom, and women will be the driving demographic. According to the International Business Times and The Daily Dot, 22 million women worldwide play otome apps–a dating sim for mobile devices–whose model offers the first chapter for free and the remainder for $5. BioWare’s been incorporating story, game and romance since 1998, with the combined sales of last year’s Dragon Age: Inquisition topping 2 million.
Obscurasoft‘s Kickstarter-funded sexy, funny gay dating sim “Coming Out On Top” raised over seven times its $5000 goal and was released to critical and consumer acclaim. Fiction, games, and dating sims on devices are expanding westward, and anyone can play.
The Devices are Ready
If you have a computer or a mobile device, you can read IF. According to the Pew Internet Project, as of this time last year:
- 58% of American adults have a smartphone, skewing strongly toward young people (83% of those age 18-29 vs. 49% of those age 50-64, moderately toward people of color (61% of Hispanic Americans, 59% African-Americans, 53% white), and slightly toward men (61% of men vs. 57% of women)
- 32% of American adults own an e-reader
- 42% of American adults own a tablet computer
Downloading text-based IF takes little bandwidth, and content can easily be stored on the device for offline reading. Fiction can go everywhere the reader does.
Interactive fiction combines the efficiency of the written word with the showmanship of film. You can make a big impact on a smaller budget.
- With Those We Love Alive by Porpentine and Brenda Neotenomie
- Ice-Bound by Aaron A. Reed and Jacob Garbe
- The Terror Aboard The Speedwell by Javy Gwaltney
If you’re a writer, you may not think of yourself as a programmer. You may see a semicolon or curly braces and run for the hills. Fortunately we’re in a golden age of tools to turn writers into programmers. The lists below are by no means comprehensive.
For text-based games:
- Twine: Flexible and powerful. Anything you can do in a browser, you can do with Twine. Open source, gratis and libre. No central publisher, but a robust community of creators and supporters.
- ChoiceScript: Simple and streamlined. Central publisher Choice of Games has interesting royalty- or commission-based payment options. Good choice for writing Choose Your Own Adventure-type stories for pay.
- Inform 7: Builds story environments via human-readable descriptions. I haven’t tangled with it too much, but Rock, Paper, Shotgun has.
- Failbetter Games is a studio that occasionally seeks contributors
For picture-based games (e.g. visual novels, the Professor Layton series), there’s Ren’Py.
If you’re feeling energized, you may even enjoy PuzzleScript for making Sokoban-type transportation games–you know, stuff like Rodent’s Revenge (90s PC game alongside Ski Free.) I mention PuzzleScript only because scripting with it is very, very fun.