Interactive fiction has been around for decades, but the internet offers new ways to tell stories where readers shape the outcome. For IRL, Shanti Mathias explores how Aotearoa’s creatives explore the format.
You have the choice. You guide Māia, a warrior, who has just spotted a ferocious manga heading towards the pā she is protecting. Do you fight the monster or run to the village to warn them of what’s to come?
It is the first of many choices in Metia Interactiveit is Guardian Māia playbook. For the most part, the app feels like reading text, scrolling, and tapping your phone for the next part of the story. But as a reader, you constantly have to make choices for Māia: where she goes, who she talks to, and who she saves.
“You give the player a choice: whatever you do, you know there will be some form of consequence on the track,” says Meta founder Maru Nihoniho. “The interactivity is really exciting.”
Guardian Māia, the first episode of which is available on application stores (a second episode is coming soon), is intended as a prequel to a 3D adventure game the workshop is growing. But it’s also an example of the many possibilities of interactive fiction, a form that uses writing, reading, and playful elements to offer new ways of reading stories.
In Aotearoa, writers and artists are experimenting with interactive literature: are these game/story hybrids also the prequel to the digital future of literature?
This type of interactive writing has precedent: choose your path or choose your own adventure novels have been popular for years, whether children’s stories or adult memoirs. But ‘you can do less in a paper book format,’ says Wellington-based novelist Mr. Darusha Wehmwho writes both linear fiction and interactive stories. tools like Stringa widely used editing application for creating text-based, web-hosted story games, offers far greater complexity than is possible within the pages of a printed book.
David Ciccoricco, Associate Professor of English at the University of Otago, specializes in the study of digital literatures. His area of study is a combination of computer science, literature and psychology, examining how storytelling patterns influence and interact with thought patterns and the ability of computers. “Stories are a vital resource for making sense of our world,” he says.
The fluidity and distraction of online media cannot be addressed by traditional linear novels alone: this moment requires new narrative forms. “If science fiction makes the idea of alternative paths more palpable,” he adds, “[then] digitally networked narratives take it to another level.
The lines between mediums like games and written fiction have always been porous. Consider, for example, the Literature around the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game, which has been around since the 70s – hundreds of rulebooks and stories it’s supposed to interact with. Wehm thinks that the support of a work of fiction is only a “wrapping” serving the needs of the story. “Everything is narrative, everything is story – be it a book, a play, a comic, a website.”
And the packaging of the story can change. With Alexander Systemsa short story about virtual reality, they originally wrote a linear story, but it was “never what [they] wanted it to be” until Twine made digital stories easier to code.
Digital writing may just be a different way of telling stories. But to execute it, those working in these formats must, like any hero embarking on a journey, face practical challenges.
One is simply the technical execution. Te Whanganui-a-Tara-based illustrator Laya Mutton-Rogers is the author of Too developed, an online comic created for his honors college project in 2018. The story features various animated features and gives the reader a choice of the order in which the main character completes the tasks. “It’s a lot of work,” says Mutton-Rogers. “My coding skills are basic.” While there are plenty of tools you can use to add interactivity, Mutton-Rogers says the issues were tough to fix.
Wehm agrees that planning and executing interactive fiction can be much more difficult than writing for print. When they wrote Martian work, a 155,000 word interactive novel, they “had to write a plan, run through all the possible endings, figure out how a player gets from point A to the end – and make sense of it all. While description is a fairly normal part of writing, the complexity of adding player choices makes maintaining consistency much more complex.
Maru Nihoniho spoke to Business is Boring about Mehia Interactive’s journey in 2018. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcast provider.
For writers working in this space, the question of how to make these stories commercially viable is “vexed,” as Ciccoricco puts it. The fluidity of being between the mediums of play and literature makes interactive stories a tough sell: they are both a book and a game, and simultaneously neither. “Some players don’t like to read, some readers don’t like to play,” Nihoniho explains.
By creating a 3D game and a gamebook, the company can market to both groups. Without external funding – which Metia received from the New Zealand Film Commission – it’s a “great struggle” to bring interactive stories and new intellectual property to audiences, says Nihoniho.
Reaching readers and gamers separately is important because mainstream game platforms and book publishers are almost completely “commercially siloed,” Wehm says. Their interactive stories have mostly been published by companies that focus on form. “You cannot print [interactive webcomics] without changing too much,” says Mutton-Rogers; this makes stories much harder to sell and market to publishers and readers.
Given these challenges, what attracts creators to this form of storytelling? Interactivity is “empowering for the reader, but also for the author because it allows stories to be told that deal with [the] consequences of the choices that become part of the form of the work”, says Wehm. Watching a character die on a TV show is one thing; reading it in a story, and knowing that you are responsible for it, is another.
Interactive writing also modifies the act of reading. Instead of passively absorbing a story, watching a TV show just because Netflix automatically loads the next episode, the reader must both imagine the story and act within it. In Guardian Māia, the theme of choice isn’t just something that happens to a character; it is something in which the reader actively participates in choosing the actions taken by the character.
For a scholar like Ciccoricco, this is not only interesting on the level of an individual story: it is an indication of how our ways of thinking have been altered by the Internet. Online, information is perpetually accessible and interconnected, creating lines of thought that switch between an app, a message and an article. hypertext fictionan early form of interactive writing where you could click on other parts of the story, is perhaps the clearest example of fiction using Internet methods.
The form never really took off beyond a few edgy experiments, but according to Ciccoricco, that wasn’t necessary. You may have never read (or even heard of!) a hypertext novel, but you can still read a recipe on your phone instead of remembering it, and tell your friends about vacations using the poll feature. in Instagram Stories, and capture a glaring screenshot. post with your own comment.
IInteractive writing simulates these connected ways of thinking within what Ciccoricco calls “the greatest existing hypertext” in a way that printed books cannot. These forms of writing reflect the kinds of actions and choices – like or dislike – that everyone experiences online.
How do interactive elements actually shape the content of stories? In Guardian Māia, the story and setting are “intertwined with Maori cultural beliefs”, says Nihoniho, and the interactivity enhances this.. The text is paired with tense, tangled music, imagery of mythological creatures, and an eerie, unstable landscape – it’s Aotearoa, but not as we know it.
The ability to interact with the story is partly educational: tap an unfamiliar te reo Māori term and a glossary pops up. The interactivity also invites you to immerse yourself in te ao Māori: if your character loses mana, you are sent back to the kingdom of Hine-nui-i-te-pothe goddess of death, and have the ability to make different choices.
As a six-month college project, Mutton-Rogers’ Overgrown is necessarily much smaller in scope, with fewer choices to make – the reader/player decides the order in which to complete the magical tasks to free Bea, the main character, from fairy kingdom. Mutton-Rogers uses the interactive and animated elements to mark a transition from the real world (is it the hills behind Nelson, or perhaps a forest shortcut through the Aro Valley?) into a magical world. At the start of the story, Bea is frustrated and stressed, but in the magical world, she has clear choices to make – and so does the reader.
The potential of interactive fiction is immense and radiates beyond specialized publishers and the world of gaming. In 2018, for example, Netflix launched a special episode of Black Mirror, Bandersnatch, which allowed the viewer to make choices with their remote controls. Yet traditional books, games, and movies aren’t going anywhere. “People have been talking about interactive fiction disrupting traditional fiction ever since I’ve been in this space. I just don’t see that happening,” Wehm says.
When you want to immerse yourself in fiction, do you play a game, read a book, or do you do both at the same time? More than ever, you have a choice.