Interactive Fiction: What Does it Want to Be, What Can it Be?

Scientific Essay, 1997

30 Pages



In an issue[1] of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC[2] the following was written: “Technological changes in books are part of a larger change in our aesthetic sensibilities and creativity ... The novel, which began as epic poems in Homer’s era, will also evolve. In an Internet story every reader can add new material. The traditional notion of ‘author’ and ‘original’ , which arrived when written books replaced oral folklore, disappears.”-

We must stop right here and ask: “New material”? What does that mean in this context? Is the discussion here truly about “new “ subject matter, unknown to the author, or can the reader only choose amongst various possibilities presented by the author? - Doesn’t ,in the first case, the quality of the story depend all too much on the level of creativity and sophistication of the reader? Would not the plot come to a standstill or end in banalities, if s/he lacked fantasy?

We have to differentiate from the very beginning between Internet Stories to which the reader can indeed contribute his own continuations (often in the form of the epistolary novel or the diary) and completed interactive novels (usually available on disks) in which the reader can only choose between many possibilities provided by the author. Only the latter are of interest here[3].

Let us also clarify the remaining related concepts, and their relationship to each other: Internet Story and Interactive Novel can together be called Hyperfiction. The latter may be counted - together with other forms of Hypertext (e.g. interactive travel guides or encyclopedias) - into the larger group of Hypermedia (which in turn includes Interactive Games and Films). The prefix “hyper” simply means: choice and flexibility in the sequence of reading/viewing , the opposite of “linear”[4]. “Interactive” obviously means that the reader/player/onlooker can actively participate in the process of reception, - to what degree, must be analyzed in each individual case.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Obviously, three previously separate spheres are being brought together by the medium of the screen and by their interactive character: film, game[5], and novel. Up to now, most of what has been produced for the first two must be counted as “trivial entertainment”. The interactive CD-Roms which have been published since about 1993 for adults either continue the tradition of tv-games[6] or they remain on the level of spy movies[7], action-thrillers, science fiction[8], horror movies[9] or “cyberpunc”[10]. The theme of “futurological challenge” (Save the world!)[11] is popular. One frequently encounters parallel productions for film and video[12] and the film version is not always the first.

Some of the most important innovators of the entertainment media[13] have recognized the possibilities lying within these interactive media and are busily developing computer programs of feature film quality. It is therefore not principally impossible that one day an artistically ambitioned film team will produce an interactive film of importance, maybe even a cinematographic master work. Would the same apply to the genre of the novel?

We have to return one more time to the text quoted : “At Brown University, students ... are learning how to integrate sound and visuals into stories.” (In other words: They learn how to produce “Hypermedia” in our understanding of the word.) “Novelist Robert Coover, who teaches the workshop, decries ‘the tyranny of the line’. He lauds the ‘hypertext novel’, in which a story has no predetermined beginning, middle, or end. Readers choose among pathways within plots that form a mosaic. “- (The decisive word here is “choose”, not “invent”.)

However, a reservation is being voiced: “Young people may find mosaic plots exciting, but for those schooled to think in a linear fashion, hypertext novels can be tedious and confusing. No hypertext novel can achieve what the brain does naturally. “

The quote as a whole poses several questions : 1. What kind of function does our brain perform “naturally” while we are reading novels[14] ? - At first, we will remember the terms coined by Roman Ingarden. He would have said: “While we are reading, we are “concretizing the points of indeterminacy” in the text.- 2. Is, what “hypertext novels” try to achieve, the same? Or (3) has probably a newer theory of literature, e.g. “Deconstructionalism” , stronger affinities to the possibility of choice in “interactive” genres[15] ?- 4. How is this possibility of choice related to the ambiguity of meaning found in large portions of contemporary literature?- Is the former an extreme form of the latter, or something principally different? 5. What is being gained in “interactive fiction”, and what has to forfeited? - And finally the most interesting question for us: 6. Does interactive fiction possibly find its limitations stemming from its interactive character?- Differently put: Will there be literary master works in interactive form in the future, and, if so, how will they look? - Or seen from another angle: Do our narrative genres in general and the novel in particular - as they have developed up to now - correspond to certain psychological needs of the reader and can the latter also be satisfied by interactive novels? Could it even be, that those psychological expectations (Jauss: our “horizon of expectations”) have changed in the younger generation of readers and that therefore the new genres are better meeting its needs? It is, after all, the associative mode of thinking, and not the “linear” one, which is supposed to “come natural” to us. Perhaps this new generation of readers is rebelling against the “security” of passive abandonment to the author’s authority, which has been taken for, granted by us for so long?[16]


Possibilities of choice in regard to the plot existed of course before the interactive revolution, if not technically realized, then at least as an exercise of imagination.[17] In the Japanese film “Rashomon”[18] a murder is shown several times over in different ways, depending on who tells the story. In Bertolt Brecht’s play “The Good Person of Sezuan”[19] a “narrator” discusses with the audience possible solutions to the problem posed by the plot. In her poem “Hiroshima”[20] Louise Kaschnitz confronts us at the beginning with three possible moral aftereffects of the pilot who dropped the first atomic bomb. Finally, we are shown the fourth one, which is supposed to correspond with reality and which is condemned by the authoress. We can speak of alternatives of plot in all of these examples, not, however, of an interactive audience participation. Alternative plots can also be observed wherever an author is reworking a piece, e.g. Goethe the ending of his drama “Stella” (1775).

Several authors[21] remind us that “ ... devices such as the story within a story, the flashback, and the subplot are precursors to hypertext” (Kendall, App.X). Howard S. Becker (App. IX) observes: “Footnotes are minimal hypertexts” and Kathleen Burnett (App.VI) even goes as far as to claim that “The entire history of oral communication ... might be characterized as interactive.” Jim Rosenberg (App.XI) alerts us to the affinity between diagrams and hypertext. In fact, many interactive novels are preceded by a diagram and also Robert Coover (App.II) mentions the frequent preoccupation of hypertext writers with “routing and mapping”.

First Attempts at Defining Interactive Novels

From a compilation of important attempts at defining hyperfiction and interactive novels (appendix) we can extract about 20 characteristics (depending on how we count them) which are partially mentioned by several authors and most of which agree with my personal experience. Of those features some do not require a commentary because they are obvious:

1. Hyperfiction can only be read with the help of a computer. - 2. The main instrument of text integration is its linking mechanism.- 3. A “linear reading” of these texts is impossible.-[22] 4. The texts can be enriched by other media and that way become “hypermedia”. - I have not encountered such “hypernovels” yet, but they may already exist. Each month, new products appear on the market. The development of new technology is racing ahead in leaps and bounds. The technical means for this kind of software have been tested, e.g. in computer games like “Myst”[23] or in hypermedia encyclopedias and travel guides. - 5. “Narrative time” is disappearing in hyper fiction. 6. In the same way other, related, narrative structures (e.g. characterization) are also being abandoned. 7. The “linear” narrative flow is being replaced by an unending expansion. 8. Therefore, narrative integration, direction and flow are being lost. 9. The episodes of hypertext are less clearly defined than the parts of printed texts. 10. All this endangers our customary standards of evaluation for narrative literature. 11. At the same time, these structural transformations correspond to the “open” character ( in Umberto Eco’s use of the concept [24] ). - The precise meaning of this popular concept would have to be defined more closely, however. - 12. Finally, a playful attitude of the reader is required for this kind of literature.- We shall comment on these first 12 characteristics , which we do not wish to question, later in context.

More problematic are the remaining features: 13. Several narrative planes are not an exclusive feature of interactive fiction. Complex novels always had them. “Victory Garden”[25] does not differ from “War and Peace”[26] in its technique of intertwining personal fate with world historical events. What is new in hyperfiction is that we can move at will between the narrative planes and in doing so are not being guided by the author. Whether this is an advantage can only be discussed in psychological terms.

14. In the same way, “multivocality” [27] (in the sense of a presentation of differing opinions and experience by the author) has existed before, e.g. in the “ironical novel”. The misguided impression that the reader can bring in his point of view (in case he/she has one) has to be avoided. The reader can only compare various perspectives, provided by the author, and identify with one or several of them.

This, however, remains sheer “theory” as long as we cannot find in any of the existing interactive novels truly contradictive points of view. Contrasting opinions (as voiced, e.g., by Marquis Posa and King Philip in Schiller’s “Don Carlos”[28] or by Naphta and Settembrini in Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain”[29] ) should not be expected in interactive novels. They require as a setting a dialectical plot-structure and do not fit into a loose sequence of (largely interchangeable) episodes.

15. Concerning the “freedom of choice” of the reader in linking portions of text: We said already that we have to examine in each individual case how far it can go. However, in no case is it unlimited.[30] Technically, it is determined by the “links” (words of the text that call up other portions of text) provided by the author within the “nodes” (chunks of text). Unrestricted possibilities of linking nodes must be impossible for psychological reasons. They would lead into absurdity.

However, in order to be able to provide as many “links” as possible, hyperfiction has a tendency towards episodic character and pseudo-profound vagueness, often also towards a quasi-lyrical discovering of “connections” in everything. “Patchwork Girl” [31] provides a good example for this. The titles of the text passages (in “Victory Garden” they are called “Story Spaces”) are so general in character (and often have so little inner connection with the text itself) that they hardly offer us any help in “navigating” through these passages.[32]


[1] First presented in German as a paper on May 11th 1996 at the yearly convention of the Japanese Society of German Scholars (Japanischer Germanistenverband) in Tokyo (Meiji-University); printed in : Acta Humanistica et Scientifica Universitatis Sangio Kyotiensis, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Humanities Series No. 24 (March 1997) 98-129.

[2] 188/4 (October 1995) 5-36, 8f. Joel L. Swerdlow: Information Revolution.

[3] A good description of aesthetic problems inherent in “Internet Stories” we owe to Gareth Rees (see Appendix XIV).

[4] See R. Coover (Appendix I), Ch. Deemer (App.V), and H.S.Becker (App.IX).

[5] See Jörg-Uwe Albig: Videospiele. Die Helden aus der Kiste. In: GEO 10 (Oktober 1995) 110-135; and Rüdiger Sturm: Silberrausch in Hollywood. In: SPIEGEL EXTRA 12 (Dezember 1995) 42-43.

[6] E.g. “Hollywood”, which permits a choice of voice timbres and decorations as well as alteration of scenes from real films.

[7] E.g. “Conspiracy” with Donald Sutherland.

[8] E.g. “Wing Commander” with Mark Hamill a.o.

[9] E.g. “Hell” with Dennis Hopper and Grace Jones, or the new Frankenstein-Version with Tim Curry.

[10] E.g. “Johnny Mnemonic” or “Tank Girl” (comp. Albig, see above. p.129).

[11] e.g. “Magic Carpet”, “Doom”, “SimCity” or in Germany “Aufschwung Ost”.

[12] e.g. “Demolition Man” with Sylvester Stallone, “Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis” by Georg Lukacs.

[13] Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen and Bill Gates in their project “Dreamworks Interactive”.

[14] About the question of biological foundations of our syntactical systems see Jim Rosenberg (App. XI).

[15] See Hilmar Schmundt (App.XII) and Robert Kendall (App.X).

[16] See Alon Bochman (App.VIII), Kathleen Burnett (App.VI), Charles Deemer (App.V), Hilmar Schmundt (App.XII), negative Nancy Lin (App.XIV) and Gareth Rees (App.XIV).

[17] See Burnett (App.VI).

[18] by Kurosawa, Akira (1950), from a novella by Akutagawa, Ryunosuke (1915).

[19] Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956): Der gute Mensch von Sezuan. In: Stücke VIII, Berlin: Suhrkamp 1962.

[20] In: Neue Gedichte. Hamburg: Claassen Verlag 1957.

[21] See: H.S. Becker (App.IX), Robert Kendall (App.X), Jim Rosenberg (App.XI).

[22] The term “linear” is best explained by H.S. Becker (App.IX).

[23] Myst (Broderbund)

[24] Umberto Eco: Opera Aperta. 1962. Das offene Kunstwerk. (Transl. G. Memmert) Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1973.

[25] Stuart Moulthrop: Victory Garden. Cambridge , MA: Eastgate Systems, Inc. 1991.

[26] Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910): War and Peace (1869) , novel. .

[27] See J.D. Bolter (App.VII).

[28] Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805): Don Carlos. Drama. (1787).

[29] Thomas Mann (1875-1955): Der Zauberberg. Roman (1924) The Magic Mountain. Novel.

[30] See Ch. Deemer (App.V) and R. Kendall (App.X)..

[31] Shelley Jackson: Patchwork Girl. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, Inc. 1995.

[32] See H. Schmundt (App.XII).

Excerpt out of 30 pages


Interactive Fiction: What Does it Want to Be, What Can it Be?
Kyoto Sangyo University  (Japanese Society for Germanistics)
Yearly Congress of the japanese german organization, Tokio, 11.5.1996
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
596 KB
Poetik, interactive novel, poetry, interaktiver Roman, Internet Story, Hyperfiction, interactive Interaktivitaet (Literatur), Simultaneitaet (Kunst), Computer, deconstruction, Dekonstruktion, Entwickl
Quote paper
Dr. Wolfgang Ruttkowski (Author), 1997, Interactive Fiction: What Does it Want to Be, What Can it Be?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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