What can digital fiction do?
The evolution of digital fiction
First, it isn’t new. And you’ve definitely already played/read some. Some of us (I’m aging myself here) grew up with it: Oregon Trail, Zork, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, all the Infocom games. It has spread through floppy discs and mobile apps and websites and even gaming platforms. Calling it “digital fiction” is just an umbrella term that covers a lot of different types of story-games.
Digital fiction (DF; I also frequently call it, rather chunkily, “interactive digital narrative”, or IDN) has a common ancestor with computer games: early 8-bit and text adventure games. These arose in the 1970s, as computers transitioned from enormous room-filling calculators to smaller, more affordable personal computers for home and school.
Oregon Trail (play it here) is arguably the first and most recognizable of these games, at least to Americans. Released in 1971, the player role-plays as a pioneer leading a wagon train west to 19th century Oregon. We played it in school as part of both history and digital literacy programs, and my favorite part was getting to name all the pioneers after my friends. Inevitably, someone would drown or break a leg, or die from dysentery, and we’d get to shout out what horrible thing had happened to them.
Like the Oregon Trail pioneers, a lot of early PC users traveled new ground in cyberspace, experimenting with digital capabilities. Will Crowther was one: a software engineer, avid spelunker, and tabletop role-player looking for a way to connect with his kids as he went through a divorce. In his spare time, he created the first text adventure game, Colossal Cave Adventure. Initially, it was shared just as most DF is now: freely, from friend to friend. Within a few years, however, its popularity and mass appeal led to the founding of Infocom.
Infocom games, and others like them, were also known as interactive fiction (IF) (and still are). They marketed themselves based on two factors: that the player was in “control” of the story, and the story was all text, no graphics. It pushed this literariness, going so far as to advertise with blank white spaces, perhaps in an appeal to those 1980s concerns about visual media such as TV, film, and games. Of course, it also benefitted them: text requires much less memory than graphics, so their games could be bigger and better as text only.
Once the memory capacity of computers expanded, however, this point became moot. In the late 1980s and ’90s, computer games became visual, placing more and more emphasis on graphics. And Infocom and other interactive fictions faded away almost entirely.
Almost. IF enthusiasts, including Graham Nelson and Emily Short, followed in Will Crowther’s footsteps and created open source platforms (Inform, TADS) in order to continue creating text adventure games outside the commercial sphere. IF remains one of the most popular forms of DF, with annual competitions and an active database for publishing, finding, and reviewing interactive fiction.
At around the same time, another convergent branch of DF was evolving: hypertext fiction. While academics point to Michael Joyce’s 1987 afternoon: a story as the first hypertext fiction, it’s an open secret that DF writers were sharing their experimental stories on floppy discs for years (remember, no World Wide Web for sharing till 1991!). A great many of these DF creators had space and privilege to experiment, thanks to their placements in universities.
When a platform for commercial publishing emerged, it was out of this academic space, and incorporated many of those academic establishment values. The dominant platform for hypertext fiction of this era (at least for surviving texts) was Storyspace, a proprietary and relatively expensive platform. Hypertexts written in Storyspace could be submitted to Eastgate Publishing, who focused on “serious hypertext”, an aim that reflects the desire to equate hypertext fiction to a cultural esteem equivalent to canonical literature — and perhaps to differentiate it from the more “commercial” (read: tawdry) interactive fiction games.
Even with all this innovation, however, it bubbled along just under the surface of most people’s awareness. These glorious stories and works of art were emerging, but because DF didn’t have a consistent method of distribution (most published on their own sites, or through a few start-stop journals), it was hard to be part of the community if you weren’t… already part of the community.
More recently, however, a platform emerged that brought these threads back together again: the aptly-named Twine. Chris Klimas created Twine specifically for hypertext fiction back in 2009; it nearly sank, however, until indie games developer Anna Anthropy embraced and promoted it as a useful tool for more personal and unique games outside the white cis/het male-dominated triple-A games industry. Many game developers use it to develop their portfolios, and its ethos has led to other DF successes such as the development of more graphics-based walking sims.
Conventions of digital fiction
The heart of DF is in the key technology that differentiates digital texts from all others: the hyperlink (we’ll leave parser-based IF for now). The hyperlink creates two things: reader agency (or the illusion thereof) and multi-linear narratives. As a DF writer, this opens up my storytelling in fascinating ways: I can explore multiple directions for my story rather than just one. I may always have my favorite, but I develop a relationship with the reader through these hyperlinks — the reader can choose another path from my “director’s cut”.
People new to DF have often asked me how I could give over power of my story to a reader, to have it possible that any given reader might never read my preferred version of the text. This is narrow-sighted, from my perspective. After all, all the pathways in a DF are my text. I wrote them. I designed them. I allowed the reader to choose one or another. Reader control of the story is always illusional on some level: unless they take my source code and rewrite it entirely (which, honestly, rad — do it), they’re still stuck with the options I’ve chosen to give them.
DF creators play a lot on that illusion of reader agency. Well, and illusions in general. No DF has “infinite” pathways, the way we sometimes sell it (each choice leading on to more choices, exponentially multiplying story pathways). We put two hyperlinks on the same page, but they both lead to the same place. Or three branches of the story all converge to a single story point. Hyperlinks may also just lead to pop-ups or new images or sounds that close out to the same passage you started on. A DF may seem unfathomably variable to a new reader, but behind the scenes it’s necessarily more limited.
We also build on reader agency through use of different narrative perspectives. Whereas prose fiction most commonly makes use of third-person (he/she/they) or first-person perspective (I), DF is far more likely to use second-person perspective (you). Third and first are used, but second-person places the reader in the role of the protagonist. It tells them their actions are worthy of effort, that they are directing the story. So, like most games, DF entices the reader/player into interactivity by using the “you” perspective to appeal to their ego.
Common themes of digital fiction
First, there is no right or wrong theme to incorporate in DF, as there is no right or wrong theme to incorporate in any art form. What we do find, however, is that DF often lends itself to certain themes because of its structures, the history of a given form or genre, or maybe even because of the type of people who come to create it.
For instance, hypertext fiction’s history is rooted in university literature departments. So many of these texts explore poetics, aesthetics, and cultural theory. They might be postmodern, in that they point out the way that they are playing with narrative and narrative structures (think about the film Stranger Than Fiction, and how it plays with the relationship of narrator to protagonist). They might be plays with words versus image, text versus sound, writer versus reader.
On the other hand, Twine games (as they are most commonly called, despite their many similarities to hypertexts) emerged from game developers, both current and hopeful. For the current developers like Anna Anthropy and Porpentine, Twine offered a chance to explore more personal topics that triple-A game development didn’t: identity, sexuality, personal experience, relationships, etc. So many Twine games build from this history, and center on topics and experiences appealing to marginalized voices in society.
Likewise, a lot of IFs and walking sims are nostalgic odes to their creators’ first forays into interactive media. Walking sims are often contemplative, personal, and a bit creepy: they are created as alternative, more personal stories than triple-A games, but they also have a much more limited budget — and creating dynamic characters, as opposed to static places and objects, is much more expensive.
Other themes emerge as well, such as plays on memory, aspects of fate and destiny, and dredging up history or the past. Some theorists relate these back to the mechanics of DF: for instance, that the branching, leap-frogging nature of hyperlinked passages mimics the function of memory (ever had a “train of thought” where you suddenly sort of wake up and wonder how in heckfire you got from a reminder about a thank you card to the life cycle of tapeworms?). Or that the choices create a little microcosm of destiny. Or that the hidden objects and stories in a walking sim create an “archive” of past events that the reader dives into.
Whatever it is that intrigues you about digital fiction, embrace it. Explore it. Circumnavigate it. You’ve come to it because you want to try something new, to experiment with your writing, or to reach readers in a new way.
If anyone tries to tell you you’re doing it wrong, do it anyway. DF is about choices, options, alternatives, layers — make your own path through it.