by Valentine Baldassari
Remember the scene in Hamlet when the late King’s ghost searches for a sunken ship? No? It might not be exactly what happens in the play, but aquatic exploration is one of the many choices you can make in the mobile game To Be or Not to Be.
This reimagining of Hamlet is a choose-your-own-adventure narrative that takes occasional creative liberties, such as the addition of pirates and time travel. To Be or Not To Be is a text-based game, unfolding through words and with minimal graphics.
The most famous examples of the genre, such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Zork, are from the 1970s and 1980s. Text-based games fell out of fashion long ago, as computer graphics became more sophisticated and less expensive.
But now they’re making a comeback. Under the umbrella term of “interactive fiction”, game developers have been releasing works ranging from poetic novellas to text-only adventure games. Some such as To Be or Not To Be are on sale, but the majority of works are available online for free.
Here are some highlights from the new wave of interactive fiction:
You can’t discuss the interactive fiction renaissance without mentioning Failbetter, the London-based studio behind browser game behemoth Fallen London. The game now comprises over a million words: that’s more than Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Users play as a new arrival in an alternative Victorian London, taking on various quests ranging from seducing rich heiresses to solving an irascible tobacconist’s bat problems (or some bats’ irascible tobacconist problem, depending on your point of view).
The other big name in commercial interactive fiction is also based in the UK – Inkle Studios, the creators of multi-part fantasy game Sorcery! and 80 Days, which is inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days.
Despite the decline of interactive fiction in the 1990s, the annual Interactive Fiction Competition has endured. It continues to encourage the creation of new works every year and is a useful resource for good interactive storytelling.
Of the 2017 entries, first place went to The Wizard Sniffer, a comedic game where you play as a pig who is supposed to sniff out evil wizards. It’s funny and full of clever puzzles, but doesn’t offer much beyond a farcical take on a traditional fantasy narrative.
A more interesting offering is Eat Me, where the main character interacts with his surroundings by eating just about anything he can get his hands on. It creates a rich, creepy world where eating your enemies and the occasional corpse is perfectly normal.
Another standout is Will Not Let Me Go, the story of a man with dementia that’s told out of sequence and where the protagonist loses his train of thought. The story is depressing, but it reveals just how affecting games can be and that they can be more than just entertainment.
Interactive fiction has also been a haven for poetic narratives that blur the line between games and art. A creative movement known as “the Twine revolution” has formed, named after the software used to create many of these works.
The California-based designer Porpentine is a typical example. Her 2012 Twine game Howling Dogs is among the best the genre offers. It tells the story of someone in a cell, with nothing to do except eat, drink, and put on a virtual reality headset that shows short vignettes of other worlds and other characters. At one point the player becomes a young empress preparing for her inevitable assassination. The result is a memorable reflection on trauma and escapism.