Twisty Little Passages

Just over ten years ago, I was holed up in the University of Colorado at Boulder's Norlin library, researching interactive fiction. I was a grad student in English, and had a final paper due in my Literary Theory class. Activision had recently released the Lost Treasures of Infocom bundle, reawakening my childhood love of IF, and I felt inspired to write a paper that connected reader-response theory to the actual reader-responsiveness of text adventures. I wanted to cite and to engage with previous academic work on IF, but unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, it had received very little serious critical attention. Sure, I found a few articles here and there, but what I really needed was something substantial, something that offered a critical vocabulary for talking about interactive fiction, that placed it in a literary context, and that presented a basic history of the form.

What I needed was Nick Montfort's Twisty Little Passages. How strange and funny that ten years later, the paper I wrote for that class finds itself cited in the first book-length academic treatment of interactive fiction. True, the citation only occurs in a passing (and correct) dismissal of reader-response theory as anything but a very limited way into talking about IF, but it makes me feel like part of history nonetheless. Montfort's book is just what IF needs to establish its rightful place in the scholarly discourse surrounding electronic literature, and indeed literature, full stop. It never fails to be informative, and frequently succeeds at being sharply insightful about the literary elements of IF.

However, Twisty Little Passages is quite suitable for readers outside the ivory tower as well. Though the book is clearly aimed at an academic audience, Montfort's prose is blessedly jargon-free, clear, and effective, with generous doses of humor thrown in for good measure. Even in its most theoretical moments, the book manages to balance impressive rigor with unfailing clarity, a feat all too rare in literary theory. Consequently, it's an entertaining read for general audiences and English professors alike. If you're an IF aficionado like me, you'll find Twisty Little Passages enlightening and fun, and if there's anyone in your life who genuinely wants to know what interactive fiction is and why they should care, hand them this book.

Just the bibliography alone is a noteworthy achievement; Montfort has synthesized the already extant body of formal IF scholarship and mainstream coverage with much of the important amateur IF theory produced by people like Graham Nelson and Emily Short. Also included are a range of other contributions from the IF community and pieces covering the book's other concerns, including riddles and computer science. In addition, there is a formidable collection of IF works cited, a list comprising much of the most influential interactive fiction of the past thirty years.

Something else that the bibliography makes clear is the value of Montfort's personal connections. It's peppered with references to emails and private conversations with some of the leading lights of IF history: Robert Pinsky, Graham Nelson, Steve Meretzky, and others. Montfort's ability to gather such firsthand information highlights one of the most important things about Twisty Little Passages: not only is it the first book-length treatment of interactive fiction, it is the first formal treatment I've seen that approaches IF from the inside out, rather than from the position of a quizzical spectator. Montfort's extensive experience in both the academic and IF communities lends him a brand of authority that previous commentators on IF lacked.

Of course, authority only gets you so far -- it's what you do with that authority that counts. That's what makes the first two chapters of Twisty Little Passages such a particular pleasure: Montfort not only knows what he's talking about when it comes to IF, he's got quite a bit of original insight to offer about its literary and theoretical contexts. As with many works of literary criticism that seek to approach an underscrutinized area, the project of this book's first chapter is not only to expose the topic's theoretical underpinnings but to define and delimit a specific vocabulary for use in discussing it. Montfort does an excellent job of providing a clear definition of IF (and indeed of making the case for the term "interactive fiction") and of defining a set of terms to identify the subcomponents of the IF experience. For example, according to the book, a session is "what happens during the execution of an IF program. [It] begins when an IF program starts running [and] ends when the program terminates", while a traversal is "a course extending from a prologue to a final reply, and from an initial situation to a final situation" -- thus a traversal can encompass many sessions (as frequently happens in the case of long, complex games), or a session can encompass many traversals (as happens with short games with high replay value.) Of course, at bottom the choice of terms is more or less arbitrary, but it is crucial that we be able to name the various parts of the IF experience -- they are our stepping stones to more sophisticated discussions. Twisty Little Passages lays this groundwork admirably.

On the whole, this book seems more interested in surveying the territory of IF than in making unified arguments about it, but the exception to this is chapter two, where Montfort makes the case that the most important literary progenitor of IF is the riddle, and takes a counterpoint to the most famous analogy and contextualization of IF from the last decade:

The riddle, like an IF work, must express itself clearly enough to be solved, obliquely enough to be challenging, and beautifully enough to be compelling. These are all different aspects of the same goal; they are not in competition. An excellent interactive fiction work is no more "a crossword at war with a narrative" (Nelson 1995a) than a poem is sound at war with sense.
This is a brilliant and entirely convincing comparison. Montfort gives us a brief history of the riddle, and draws the necessary parallels to demonstrate IF's similarities with it, leaving us with a new paradigm within which to view interactive fiction. Best of all, this angle of approach allows IF to be both story and game, both art and amusement, without detracting from the value of either.

Chapters three through seven, indeed the bulk of the book, are devoted to delineating the history of IF, from its mainframe beginnings to the current amateur renaissance. It's an entertaining journey, and Montfort's encapsulation of IF history is concise, approachable, and extremely informative. I found it a little frustrating, though, because it must of necessity skim over the ground rather quickly, especially as it moves into the Infocom era and beyond. Consequently, there are many moments of intriguing literary analysis of IF games, but they end almost as soon as they begin -- practically every page contains material that could make a full article in itself. By the time I reached the end of the book, a sort of epilogue that takes inventory of the various ways in which the tropes of interactive fiction have made their way into our culture, I was already wishing for a sequel, one that assayed a more in-depth discussion of games like Mindwheel and Photopia instead of the tantalizing tidbits we get here.

Montfort has already done some of this sort of work, such as an article written with Stuart Moulthrop for an Australian digital arts conference, analyzing the role of Princess Charlotte in Adam Cadre's Varicella. However, not much work of that sort could appear without Twisty Little Passages preceding it, just as in-depth conversations can rarely occur prior to introductions. This book creates a foundation for the inclusion of IF in literary discussions, and for further examination of specific IF works. Perhaps if we look back on IF criticism in another ten years, we'll see that introduction as the most important service Twisty Little Passages performs.

Paul O'Brian
11 January 2004

Twisty Little Passages review / Paul O'Brian / obrian at / Revised January 2004
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