Somewhere last month I had a bit of interactive fiction come out on sub-Q, a slip of a piece called Before The Storm Hits. It’s a story that takes the form of a to-do list before the world ends. If you haven’t played it through I suggest you do so now, because the blog post that follows contains SPOILERS. It’s a very quick playthrough– each round should only take a minute. (Although you might want multiple playthroughs because reasons.)
Right. Now that we’re all on the same page…
I’d promised to send sub-Q editor Tory Hoke something for the magazine about a year ago, because I was real keen to try out writing interactive fiction. My initial idea? To do a horror story in the style of a Duolingo language lesson.
When that didn’t pan out due to personal brain limitations, I got the idea of a story told by to-do list, where crossing out an item the list advances the plot. I came up with a story premise and things were falling into place.
In that semester I was taking a class on publishing for my Creative Writing MA. One of the things we could do for our final assignment was submit a creative-critical piece, which meant something to do with publishing, like a blog for example (a route which most students took).
I asked my tutor if I could submit a interactive fiction piece. It was something new to her, so she said yes. YES I CAN WRITE A SHORT STORY FOR PUBLISHING PURPOSES AND ALSO SUBMIT IT AS SCHOOLWORK, GOD I LOVED BEING A CREATIVE WRITING GRAD STUDENT
The thing about the creative-critical piece is that it’s a split: 3000 words of a creative piece, and a 2000-word critical essay about the creative piece.
Yes. I had to write an actual essay about my short story.
It was fun, though. I wrote a background on the history of interactive fiction, in which I got to quote Max Gladstone and figure out how to cite a tweet in an academic paper.
I ended the essay with a reflection on the process of writing the story, and the unique challenges therein. Since I’ve already written the bloody piece, I thought I MIGHT AS WELL share it with y’all!
When creating Before The Storm Hits, I set out to design a piece that demonstrates how the interactive elements of a work of fiction can be used to enhance its artistic merit. This was achieved through designing the piece so that there is no linear order to the narrative.
There is no single narrative: The reader comes away with only the information that their choices allow them. By limiting the number of choices the reader can make, it is entirely possible to have a playthrough of the text that never mentions the main crisis of the story—that Alex has taken the travel tickets meant for Camry and the protagonist. It is therefore possible that a reader only gains complete understanding of the events that unfold after multiple playthroughs.
Leaving aside metatexual analysis, the meaning of traditionally-published pieces comes primarily from the text of the work itself, which is largely immutable. The order of the text is fixed: A traditionally-published book would have a fixed beginning, middle and end. Even choose-your-own-adventure books, which employ branching narratives, have distinct beginning and ending points.
This is not so in Before The Storm Hits. The order of the text itself changes depending on reader choice, and the meaning of the text therefore changes depending on its position. I call this form of narrative a stacking narrative because, like a tower of toy blocks, each piece of the narrative may be placed at any position within the tower. In the examples given [in the , the same closing line “If that’s how it is, that’s how it’s going to be” takes on different implications and levels of tension depending on whether they lead on to the next segment in the story, or come at the end of the entire narrative. Thus, a large part of the story’s overall meaning is derived from the hypertexual elements of the piece.
While writing the piece, I ran into a bunch of technical intricacies that, in hindsight, I should have realised when I conceptualised the piece. But none of it occurred to me until I was actually in the process of laying down the words.
Creating such a narrative structure posed challenges. While writers strive towards specificity in meaning while constructing narratives, I had to tend towards ambiguity, knowing that enough had to be left open to reader interpretation based on what had come before, or would come after. This allows reader interaction to infuse meaning into the text of the narrative, something which was only made possible through electronic means. While writing, it was not enough to plan out the different scenarios that had to be available; I had to keep in mind the flexible order of the sequences while writing the text of each.
The piece was extremely short partly because of the word limit I had for my assignment: 3000 words had to include all the text for the various iterations, an explanation of concept and gameplay, and two complete runthroughs of the story to illustrate what I’m on about. It’s difficult when all you can submit is a bunch of paper! I had initially imagined something bigger– a longer list, with five choices, but the word limit didn’t allow for it.
Which was just as well– short as it was, the current story took an immense amount of planning and tweaking. It was about the right size for a first-time experiment in interactive fiction, I think. Now that I do have that experience, I feel more confident in tackling longer pieces! Interactivity is fun to play around with and there’s so much you can do with it, narratively.
Which is why I’m super-thrilled that Strange Horizons, one of my favourite SFF mags ever, is planning a regular feature for interactive fiction, working together with sub-Q’s editor, Tory! If their annual fund drive reaches $23,000, interactive fiction will Become A Thing in their mag. It’s one of the many great stretch goals along the way, which also includes Samovar, which will focus on translated fiction (<3!)
Strange Horizons has done incredible work for diversity over the years, including the recent Queer Planet special issue, and I got really excited when Vajra Chandrasekera joined them as fiction editor, as I have been a fan of Vajra’s work for a while. They also published Bogi’s incredible hypertext poem You Are Here. I can’t wait to see what they might cook up with interactive fiction– I’m sure it’s going to be worth it!