Nick Montfort. Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003.
I picked up Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (2003) on a complete whim from the McGill university library when I found myself between terms and wandering around looking for some light non-history-oriented reading. So of course I picked up a work that attempts to apply literary criticism and high-level narrative theory to early text-based adventure games.[*] Truth be told, I was quite sceptical to begin with. I mean, a scholarly monograph about text adventures? Yet Montfort won me over. Even subject matter that seems inherently silly can yield thoughtful and well-considered analysis. Insofar as Montfort’s goal is for scholars to take interactive fiction (IF)—that is, narratives mediated through a computer requiring direct interaction from a reader to take part in, and even construct, a story—seriously as an interesting and unprecedented development that requires thought and not automatic dismissal, then he’s succeeded admirably.
Montfort’s arguments work, in part, because he builds on a solid basis of narrative theory. Unlike certain articles on interactive fiction floating around the internet that indiscriminately use terms from the Poetics while the authors clearly never read, or perhaps never attempted to understand, the Poetics itself (see “Crimes Against Mimesis” for a glaring example), Montfort has clearly read his Aristotle. He also, intelligently, notes that the rules of Poetics for making a plot don’t really apply to text-adventures. The literary precedent for IF isn’t Greek drama but instead another ancient form of hammering words together (i.e. poiesis, “making”): the riddle. Chapter Two makes a compelling case for viewing the adventure game as an extended riddle requiring the reader/listener, who Montfort terms the interactor, to interact with the initial work and via presenting a solution thereby create a narrative. The infamous puzzles of IF are not obstacles to telling an interactive story but rather one with it, a complementary mechanism through which the interactor generates a story. The process of making in a riddle and an adventure game lies just as much with the interactor as with the author; therefore, the Montfort calls the game’s story a potential narrative. It produces narratives but isn’t in itself one (23). This idea, linked with Montfort’s relating IF to riddles, makes a brilliant framework for analysing IF using the wider tools of literary criticism instead of grappling with Zork as a mere toy. I can already think of ways to deepen this argument with a dash of Paul Ricoeur: the interactor takes part in the figuration of a narrative (what a writer usually does) and instantaneously refigures that narrative (what a reader usually does) by filtering it through their own experience. This is what makes IF unique and potentially powerful. To Montfort, the premodern view of riddles as profound experiences applies equally well to adventure games if placed in the hands of a skilled riddle-master or game designer. The reason we’ve overlooked this form in post-Enlightenment society is the same reason scholars have generally brushed off riddles: because our explanatory systems for the universe no longer admit the enigmatic and interactive nature of the riddle as a legitimate means of analysing, understanding, or “awakening to” new visions of the world (52, 60-63).
Twisty Little Passages is worth reading for the second chapter alone, but Montfort also delivers a thoughtful history of IF and in-depth explorations of all Infocom’s classic games from the 1980s, as well as IF works from other companies, before turning to more recent developments in the entirely hobby-oriented community that still creates text-adventures for free download today. Yet this core, I think, of riddle and potential narratives, makes Twisty Little Passages essential reading for anyone interested in computer games as a storytelling medium: Montfort’s ideas have the potential to apply well beyond his chosen framework of text-adventures to a much larger field of digital narratives.
And I’m also quite happy to say that Montfort has, at least, convinced me that IF has far more prospects for meaningful works than the link-spattered world of hypertext fiction. Game designers could learn a thing or two from Twisty Little Passages. A game-player like myself certainly did.
[*] One does not simply walk out of academia!