Nick Montfort
Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction
MIT Press, 2003
286 pages
ISBN 0-262-13436-5
Reviewed by Gary McGath
This review Copyright 2004 by Gary McGath

This isn't a book about which I can be impartial. It's very rare that I'm quoted in a book at all, and this one cites my 1984 book, Compute!'s Guide to Adventure Games, over a dozen times. Aside from the flattery of being quoted, and the frustration of having my erroneous predictions pointed out, the history presented in Twisty Little passages is one whose fringes I once lived on.

Interactive fiction -- otherwise known as computer text adventure games -- were quite popular in the early 1980's. (If you've never heard of them, here's a link to an introductory page.) Starting from Adventure, Infocom and a number of other companies produced these games, in which the user took the role of a character in a story had to type actions to make the story proceed. With Adventure, you were restricted to two-word commands such as "ATTACK TROLL." With the more sophisticated parsers, you could type commands such as "ATTACK THE UGLY TROLL WITH THE SINGING SWORD." But none of the games approach free English interaction; even the best games have vocabularies of just several hundred words.

I worked at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science at the time that Zork was created, so I'm familiar with the technology and knew the people who created it. Being an avid player, I wrote a book on the subject. But after Infocom fell and text games gave way to graphic games, I thought the field had dwindled to a few isolated efforts and then died. It wasn't until I read Montfort's book that I learned that interactive fiction (IF) is still being created, even though there's no longer a commercial market for it.

Montfort's book stresses the literary rather than the technical aspects of IF. There's an intriguing chapter on riddles, which he calls "the most important early ancestor of interactive fiction." I would say the riddle is a building block rather than an ancestor; riddles and riddle-like puzzles are frequent in these games, but they aren't the most important element. He comes closer to the mark when referring to "the nature of interactive fiction as computer program, simulated world, generator of narrative and game." He notes the clear connection to Dungeons and Dragons, which joined simulation with narrative without making use of a computer. Children's games such as "Cowboys and Indians" combine simulated adventures with impromptu narrative, and children have probably played similar games through all of history; I'd call these the real ancestor of interactive fiction.

In the part of the history with which I'm familiar, the chapters on the commercial era of IF, Montfort is on solid ground; I can't spot any important errors. (He does perpetuate the error, which my book also makes due to a clumsy editorial change, that the true name of the language in which Zork was first written was MDL rather than MUDDLE -- it was changed to MDL later for PR reasons.) He even corrects my garbled reference to Return of the Jedi instead of The Empire Strikes Back as an inspiration for one scene in an Infocom game. From there he goes on to the period which I hadn't been aware of, in which few text adventures are available commercially but many are being produced independently.

Montfort cites the Interactive Fiction Archive, which contains a great many freely available IF products (including my own Starship Columbus -- you can ignore the shareware fee at this late date). He tells us that "it is hard not to notice the formal, thematic, computational, and literary innovation that is happening today and that promises to continue." But from the small sampling of games I've tried from this archive, and from his descriptions, the advances appear to be mostly in the wide variety of approaches which you'd expect from a culture of independents who don't have to worry about sales figures; the technological advances have been less than the hopes I'd expressed in my book.

But it's good to see that a genre of computer games which stresses storytelling rather than frenetic action is still alive. Anyone who wonders what's been happening since Zork will find a lot of interesting information in this book.

This review last revised on December 18, 2004
MIT Press page for the book, with online ordering
Montfort's page for the book
Index of reviews