Interactive creative writing

Note this article was written in 1996 - it was only lightly and cosmetically updated in mid 2002

  1. Introduction
  2. Electronic poetry
  3. Interactive fiction of the "text adventure" kind
  4. Plot-based tree fictions
  5. Collaborative or multi-author tree fictions
  6. MUDs, MOOs & MUSHes
  7. Converging exploration hypertexts
  8. Conditional branching works
  9. Revelation and reflection hypertexts
  10. Computer/video games
  11. Interactive multimedia art
  12. Interactive film/video
  13. Status of the creative interactive art-form

What is interactive creative writing? A good question to start with.

Everyone knows what fiction is, and if you do you'll also understand why I'm glad I'm not trying to define it. Creative writing is broader still. In my world there are writings orientated to conveying factual information and writings orientated to other things like the emotions. As a starting point, creative writing is writing orientated towards other than simply conveying information, from poetry to TV scripts to short stories to computer game worlds to…

Interactivity adds the critical component of the reader being able to choose a path through a work rather than simply following the author's defined path from "a beginning" to "an end". There is a shift from being led through a story, a relatively author-controlled experience, towards one of a reader exploring a world created by an author, where the reading experience is more a joint project of writer and reader. The degree of the shift can of course vary sharply.

There can also be multimedia elements in interactive creative writing (which then becomes a type of hypermedia rather than hypertext) and this opens up the field to include interactive films, simulations and many other types of computer games, but in my mind multimedia, though of substantial impact, is perhaps less significant than interactivity, as far as its impact on the craft and form of creative writing. Film, for example, changed the way writers told or presented a story, but the story-form was still recognisable as such. This may not be the case with interactive creative writing as pointed out by Andy Cameron:

There is a contradiction at the heart of the idea of interactive narrative-that narrative form appears fundamentally non-interactive. The interactive story implies a form which is not that of narrative, within which the position, and authority of the narrator is dispersed among the readers, and in which the idea of cinema, or of literature, merges with that of the game, or of sport. (Source)

Interactive creative writing may well lose not only the plot but the idea of story itself. But this does not mean it is a fruitless effort or that interactivity brings no gains to the writers' arsenal. As Grahame Weinbren puts it:

The potential of interactivity is apparent - to a limited extent - in advanced video-games, but the investigation has hardly begun. There are countless possibilities. We are finding that we can, indeed, say things that there was no way to say before, that we can depict experience afresh, that I can come closer to showing you what it is like to be inside my mind rather than yours. (Source)

In the current state of experimentation with interactivity, it is not surprising that most of the innovations are first appearing in hypertext rather than hypermedia form - it is cheaper and faster to prototype (and then in most cases to move on).

In this new, broad and exciting categorisation of interactive creative writing, there are many different emerging forms that are each endeavouring to establish satisfying and sustainable art-forms. This article will endeavour to provide an overview of these many forms in transition. Obviously there is a high probability that I may miss or misunderstand what is going on. Back to Top

Electronic poetry

Some poets have taken advantage of the computer to time the display of words in different font styles and positions on the screen, as well as its ability to allow readers to affect the flow by choosing various options. This is perhaps only an extension of the shift from oral verse to poetry that relied on position on the printed page (as in the manner of E. Cummings) with the computer display allowing greater flexibility than the page. The computer can however simultaneously present aural as well as visual stimulus - one interesting example I have experienced in Australia is the work of Kominos (sorry no references at hand). But here at least and in this new genre as a whole the emphasis on interactivity is diminished in favour of performance. The dilemma between interrupting a stimulus flow to allow readers choices is clear - and as yet I have not found any satisfying works that transcend it. Back to Top

Interactive fiction of the "text adventure" kind

One group, from a computer programming background, sees interactive fiction as a word-based version of virtual reality, where a reader can interact with an author-created world of objects and computer-controlled characters. The reader types in actions like Open the door and the program parses and understands this instruction, checks to see if there is one and only one door in sight, checks if it is locked and if so whether the reader has obtained the key, and then might respond with The door is open and you see... and a description of the new part of the world with which the reader can interact. These text adventures are certainly interesting, and take the degree of interactivity (or reader control) a significant distance. Partly because of this, and partly because the developmental hurdles still being addressed the interactive fictions I've seen are a long way from the quality of literature that I am looking and hoping for in a new interactive art-form.

This may yet come with the rapidly expanding power of computing and a recognition by these programming writers of the need for greater depth in characterisation etc. The current leading edge seems to be testing the incorporation of emotions, intelligence and goal-orientation into the program's NPCs or "non-playing characters". There also seems to be a recognition of the lack of dramatic focus - I've even seen discussion of incorporating dramatic fragments, as per George Polti's classic "Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations", into the program.

But I gather there is some distance to go and some of the problems of programming an open story are huge. For example, one designer, Chris Crawford, spent a number of years working on Le Morte d'Arthur with programmed Arthurian characters (sorry no references), but found it difficult to prevent Lancelot from telling Arthur of his affair with Guinevere - after all the program suggested a character should share his feelings with his closest friend! Back to Top

Plot-based tree fictions

You may well be familiar with the print-based "Choose-your-own-adventure" style of children's book that emerged in the early 1980s. To fight the villain, go to page 74; to run for the door go to page 63. The use of computers allows these transfers to the selected options far more seamlessly than in print, but don't appear to do a great deal for the real problem I find - a dearth of satisfactory story-line. This plot-based "tree-fiction", as it has been called, suffers from exponential growth. As few as six decision points with only two choices at each implies sixty-four different story-lines. Rather hard to handle, without a lot of simple grisly endings, or by leading the divergent plot lines, somewhat artificially, back together again. A good analysis of the problems of tree-fictions has been provided by Gareth Rees (but the link has unfortunately disappeared).

Despite these problems the tree-fiction structure, with its branching between pages of author-controlled text retains fascination for authors (including this one) and provides the foundations for many of the other emerging genres covered below. One advantage of such interactive fiction, compared with that of say the text-adventure style interactive fiction, is that it is a relatively simple step for a writer (and a reader) to take. The writer can use tools that do not require heavy programming, and readers can just click on their choices without learning to constrain themselves to simple statements a program can understand. The author retains greater control on the flow, juxtaposition and complexity of his or her text and hence the effects each page might evoke. Back to Top

Collaborative or multi-author tree fictions

Some see "interaction" as a chance for collaborative authorship in the sense that readers are invited to add the next fragment or branch, with for some perhaps predictable results:

The City First Bank president is "pantsed" [sic] on a downtown street at noon by an old college buddy. His first spoken response is:

'Guess you wonder why I called you here…' He gets his pants back on and stands in front of Mason, who "pantsed" him.

He slugs him, which is a big mistake. The crowd attacks him, killing him.

He dies and goes to heaven.

He dies and goes to hell.

He dies and ends up in limbo.

He speaks…

'Someone call the police'

'Let me tell you about our new Savings Plan'"

(from Stories from Downtown Anywhere - link no longer working)

There are bound to be better examples (which I am still looking for), as some commentators see this as the real and important innovation in the art-form. Certainly there are tempting possibilities. Who hasn't seen interesting exchanges in electronic conferences and newsgroups which build on each other? And MUDs and MOOs seem to arouse interesting reactions - I have still to come to terms with these.

But my feeling is that the advantage of having a wider passion and experience in the authorial position is unlikely to offset the disadvantage of not having a single tight and even ruthless ego tailoring the material presented to the reader. Is it surprising that very little literature has been collaborative? Back to Top

Converging exploration hypertexts

By giving away emphasis on plot and shifting to a mode of delving and discovery some works, that might otherwise be problematic tree-fictions, have retained a sense of emotional depth and direction as well as providing the reader a sense of being involved. Alan Bochman's Bloch Boys (link no longer working) is a short work that I find fairly satisfying - using in Bochman's words "little temporal order, and limited cause-and-effect sequences. The plot must stay extremely loose… the 'beginning' and the 'endings' act as two poles of a magnet. The reader is continuously (imperceptibly) drawn to them…". Interestingly though, when I read Bloch Boys I found myself wanting to read all the alternative branches - either I as a reader or Bochman as author hadn't yet given away this legacy of linear fiction. Back to Top

Conditional branching

In some of the more satisfying works there is more than meets the eye. Many utilise conditional branching. The same reader action in the same place in the text might lead to a different result, depending on where the reader has already been. So the story might progress to a new level if a key prerequisite scene has been read. This allows the author far greater, but fairly imperceptible, control over the general path a reader must take. Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden (Eastgate Systems, 1993) gently controls the interleaving of plot threads using such tools provided by the StorySpace software. The result is a satisfying piece based on an exploration of an epoch's thinking (it is set during Desert Shield/Storm), as well as on discovered connections between the various characters and their settings.

Purists might complain that imposing conditions (especially hidden ones) on a reader's exploration of an interactive work is a retrograde step towards linearity. The balance of control between author and reader is certainly an interesting aspect to note in these new interactive genres - but it would be a brave person to require the complete abdication of authorial control at the expense of reader satisfaction. The fact that some of this authorial control may be hidden is a strength - art is about perception and the experience based on it, even if this is contributed to by illusion. It seems to me that such conditional branching is a key tool for writers wishing to retain any sense of plot in an interactive created work. Back to Top

Revelation and reflection hypertexts

One last category of works, still based on a tree-structure branching between pages of text, seems to me an exciting one. Based on discovery by delving, on revelation and authorial reflection, this type of work requires the author to create a world worth exploring in its own right. A world where the reader finds extra levels of meaning and juxtaposition, finds twists in understanding the commonplace rather than twists in plot, and can feel a thirst to discover driving motives in lieu of the thrill of a time-based chase. I would put Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden (Eastgate Systems, 1993) in this category, with its conditional branching contributing to the satisfaction of discovery.

The created world invites the reader in, to make a personal journey of discovery. It is perhaps in this area of almost dialogue between the reader and the text/author that interactive creative writing is claiming a territory of its own, such as in Justin Hall's Vita and hopefully in my Millennium. There are elements of "stream of consciousness" and "cinema verité" as well as mystery in the reader's exploration of a dilemma or a passion or whatever other hidden gems an author might choose to present. Back to Top

Interactive multimedia art

I am still looking for a name for these works. The works I am thinking of remind me of poetry except there is no text. Instead there is a reliance on sound and visual image to be the means of communication.

Toshio Iwai's Music Insects (1994) is a good example. Four computer animated "insects" are proceeding in random straight paths across a blank screen. With a mouse and a range of colour drawing tools (like any paint program) you can draw coloured and even multi-coloured lines on the screen. Whenever an insect crosses one of the coloured lines a sound is emitted with the note dependent on the colour. It is possible (though I have forgotten how) to turn the insects around - they bounce on some type of line. I've seen this twice now in museum type situations and it has proved very popular. Back to Top

Interactive film/video

Many consider this the likely pinnacle that interactive writers are striving towards. Others aren't so ready to acquiesce. I have not seen any mainstream interactive works yet. Experimental, low-budget works are emerging. Part of the problem is the still nascent state of the consumer electronics market and communications infrastructure that would allow a viewer to interact with a film or video he or she is watching. The experimental works I have seen have all been CD-ROM based for use on a standard computer equipped with a mouse or pen as a clicking device.

Not surprisingly the same type of issues that arose in creative hypertexts (such as exponential plot paths) arise here as well, though there is also a key difference.

This is the need to cope with and/or harness the power of the "real time" portrayed in the moving pictures. The sense of "seeing it unfold before you" is marred if it is broken by unlimited pauses waiting for your interaction or choice. In the words of Grahame Weinbren:

…the central issue in producing interactive works has been to achieve the right balance between continuity and interruption. Ideally, the interactive cinema should be seamless and continuous, a depiction of a complete world in which a narrative can unfold. On the other hand, to be truly interactive, it should respond to viewer input at any time, so that the viewer really feels that he or she is exploring the fictional universe. Can a work be at once seamless and continuously open to viewer input? (Source)

Mixed Emotions by Rosa Freitag applies time limits to the choices. One or more clickable bubbles appear briefly on the screen at appropriate moments - coloured blue or red to indicate the more or less moral thoughts going on in the actor's mind. Additionally when the actor speaking direct to camera asks you a question, for example "Do you believe in marriage?", an on-screen verbal prompt "Press y or n" moves down the screen, thus defining the limited time window for the keyboard response. Despite the perhaps clumsy use of both keyboard and mouse, my immediate impression of this lightly plotted piece was certainly favourable with the maintenance of the "time urgency" or film/video being a key element in its success.

The Twelve Loveliest Things I Know by Chris Hales is a relatively plot-less piece, that still uses time limits on its interaction. It is a moving pictures version of electronic poetry, utilising multiple video images, some of which are clickable while on screen. There are no instructions or obvious devices used - though one learns that patches of colour, particularly red, are likely to yield to selection. It is not plot-driven, so if the reader misses a choice there is no real cost. The piece cycles back through to the beginning for a second pass.

Jinxed also by Chris Hales, utilises a digital effect during editing of the video images, with a bulge in a relevant part of the image indicating a time-limited clickable zone. For example clicking on the soap on the basin when it "bulges" causes a relatively seamless plot switch to one where the soap falls to the floor (and the actor of course slips on it and falls flat on his face). Although this could be described as being plot-driven - the character is trying to get ready for a job interview - each of the possible viewer selected incidents is stand-alone. Once a "jinx" has occurred, the character is back at the same point as if it hadn't occurred. The limp from the fall does not seem to last.

Based on what I have seen I am optimistic about interactive film and video, but it may well be some time before an interactive treatment of full story appears, both in terms of the complexity of its writing demands and of there being an accessible market to support it. Back to Top

On balance...

So where is interactive creative writing? The answer - all over the place. There are some horrible examples masquerading as something new and beautiful, and there are ones that tentatively show the way new art-forms may be emerging. Art-forms with emphasis less on plot and more on exploration and mood, and on satisfaction from realisation, and perhaps from discovered synergy with the worlds being explored.

Jonathon Delacour also suggests a broadening of the notion of writing to ways of conveying meaning beyond those of traditional linear narratives:

Narrative strategies pose a problem for not only writers, filmmakers, and interactive storytellers, but for photographers, painters and musicians too. What can we learn from artists working in these latter forms? (Source)

What is involved is the fundamental issue, not of maintaining story in any narrow sense, but of creating meaning, of providing an experience for "readers" that affect them powerfully and memorably. Back to Top


Andy Cameron (????) Illusions of Interactivity - online paper, with extract quoted by Jonathon Delacour (1995) see below.

Jonathon Delacour (1995) It's only a game (but it's more important than life itself)... a keynote address at The Filmmaker and Multimedia Conference: Narrative & Interactivity in Melbourne, 9 March 1995, hosted by the Australian Film Commission, Melbourne.

Grahame Weinbren (1995) In the ocean of streams of story: towards an interactive cinema a presentation at The Filmmaker and Multimedia Conference: Narrative & Interactivity in Melbourne, 9 March 1995, hosted by the Australian Film Commission, Melbourne.