Interactive writing tools

Note this article was written in 1996 - I have kept it as an interesting view on how technology has changed...

So if you are interested in trying your hand at some form of interactive writing, where do you start?

The easiest and most interesting platform to use for both reading and publishing interactive writing is the World Wide Web. Probably by reading this you already have access to the web licked. But in case you don't then for this, as well as a reasonable computer, you need a fast modem (at least 9600bps and preferably 28.8kbps), a web browser and an account with an Internet Service Provider. If you are starting from scratch, find a friend who knows what they are doing and follow his or her advice.

The Netscape web browsers have dominated the market (supposedly more than 70% by usage) so it probably makes sense to start with their Navigator 2.0. This is widely available from "bulletin boards" and also from Netscape's hompage. Get your friend to download a copy. Alternately you may want to see a review of the different browsers available. The browser's purpose is to display web material on your screen and allow you to follow links by simply clicking on them.

To write for the web you need to code your writing with HTML (or "HyperText Mark-up Language") - in simple terms this is identifying or "marking up" for browsers the parts of your writing that represent titles, bullet points etc and most importantly links to other parts of your (or others') work. If this sounds scary, don't worry, it is not as bad as it seems - the tags look similar to the old WordPerfect codes. There are many HTML guides available on the web.

You can manually type in the HTML codes and simply use a text editor like NotePad or your normal word processor - just save the results as a text file. Some word processors have HTML add-ons - for example Internet Assistant for Microsoft Word 7, which I am currently using. This seems to be the trend - soon you will be able to use your favourite word processor and simply save the document as an HTML file - and all the HTML coding will be done behind the scenes. Alternately you can cheaply obtain a standalone HTML editor that puts the codes in for you one at a time as you request them.

Note that your web browser can display your own generated HTML pages while they are on your own computer. So you can check out how your work will look before it is published.

But current HTML and browsers have limitations. Until very recently it wasn't possible to use techniques like conditional branching on the web (and even now it requires programming in a language like Java) - the web doesn't remember where the reader has been, only where the reader is now. Creative interactive writing that uses any level of "memory" has so far been written using some suitable tool or programming language.

Some of the better examples of interactive creative writing have been written using StorySpace, a program that allows quick graphical linking between different "writing spaces" and allows conditions to be placed on when these links take place. This program was originally designed for publication of the interactive writing on floppy disk, and unfortunately its current level of export of HTML documents (for publishing on the web) is limited. Nonetheless it is the only tool I know of that provides non-programmers with the ability to control the flow of the material relatively easily.

In the programming domain there are a number of "authoring" programs, such as Inform and TADS (Text Adventure Development System), for generating text adventure type works. But if words like compilers, executables and debuggers do not roll easily off the tongue then this level of "writing tool" is probably not for you. If you are still interested then check out the comments on the various tools in the rec.arts.int-fiction FAQ.

I should note that there is a further range of tools to consider when adding in multimedia to the writing project. As well as software packages to handle the particular media used (for example for sound editing, photo manipulation or model animation), there are also the software tools such as Macromedia Director and Asymmetric Toolkit - interestingly called "authoring packages" - that bring all the pieces, the multimedia and the interactive control together. These are the tools needed for interactive video and film, but are beyond the scope of this note.