The Interactive Fiction Competition: An Indie Legacy

This is the last of four papers from a class I just finished taking, posted to fulfill a social media integration assignment.

The paper was written to complement a screencast video:

People interested in the storytelling potential of digital media are faced with a complicated array of art forms and interfaces. These diverse but related genres are self-defined and critiqued in the vacuum of established criticism (Van Dijk) by a nebulous conglomerate of websites, events, and communities. Running every year for the past twenty years from October 1 through November 15 (, the Interactive Fiction Competition has provided momentum for at least a large swatch of that conglomerate, encompassing both works that are identified strongly with indie games and those that are not.

Since the Interactive Fiction Competition was conceived on a USENET discussion board in 1995, it has been the most important event in the corresponding online community’s calendar. According to the competition’s current website, the success and the influence of the IF Comp were apparent from the very first year ( Furthermore, the original poster of the USENET thread that cites as the source of the idea behind the competition explicitly mentioned the benefit of increased publicity (Bowler).

Why Paul Bowler supposed that a competition run on a USENET board would attract widespread publicity is unclear. The immediate trend in the awareness of IF within other niche communities or among early adopters of the Internet in general has likely been forgotten by now. If it is capable of being rediscovered, many hours of studying a variety of Internet discussion boards from the 90s would probably be required to do so. However, it is certain that interactive fiction has always existed alongside other forms of digital literature and niche games, and there seems to have always been an uneasy mutual acknowledgement by fans and creators of the related forms (Montfort 2).

According to an academic paper, the interactive fiction community was in the midst of a period of self-definition at the time when the first IF Comp was held, discussing the subject of the relationship of IF to art more readily than the subject was broached after the 90s (Van Dijk). While it may be true that the subject of art became worn out on the USENET board, Van Dijk appears ignorant of the community’s long-standing identity crises regarding the status of choice-based forms of digital storytelling and regarding the adoption of interactive fiction development tools among wider indie gaming communities less interested in the text adventure tradition that the IF Comp grew out of. Having been published in April 2014, Van Dijk’s suggestion that the definition of interactive fiction had crystallized by the end of the millennium is particularly confusing, although she notes that she restrained her research to the USENET board. (In doing so, she may have unintentionally participated in the ongoing dialog regarding the definition of interactive fiction by selecting one community hub as the universal arbitrator of the term.)

The status and popularity of interactive fiction have varied over the years, along with the base audience of participants in online events. After the fabled golden age of the commercial era in the 1980s, the interactive fiction community has gone through several gradual shifts in emphasis. A recent New York Times article notes that interactive fiction has been gaining popularity again since at least 2012, due to the playability of text-based games on mobile devices and to the broad popularity of the HTML-native, link-driven system known as Twine (Suellentrop).

Twine seems to be a connecting factor in today’s digital literature landscape. Created by a writer of traditional parser-based interactive fiction who had placed second in the 2004 IF Comp (Klimas), Twine has likely introduced many writers to interactive fiction while causing the interactive fiction community to rub shoulders with other indie communities. Perhaps due to the simplicity by which they can be distributed, played, and created, Twine games seem to be conducive to media attention. Suellentrop reports both that videogame journalist Cara Ellison has written a Twine game and that the 2012 IF Comp entry howling dogs – whose author’s co-written 2014 entry With Those We Love Alive came in fifth place – was recognized by the grand prize winner of the Independent Games Festival (Suellentrop).

While the spectrum of interactive fiction, indie gaming, and digital literature is broad, it has also proven to be interconnected. For twenty years, the Interactive Fiction Competition has been a focal point of the conversation about digital media and storytelling. Recent developments have positioned this venerable event even more centrally and suggest that its relevance will only continue to rise as interactive fiction becomes more broadly defined and the various indie communities learn to collaborate.

Works Cited
Bowler, Paul. “Inform Competition ?!!” Usenet. 3 May 1995. Google Groups. Web. 10 December 2014.
History of the Competition.” The Interactive Fiction Competition, 2014. Web. 25 November 2014.
Klimas, Chris. “Games.”, 2014. Web. 10 December 2014.
Montfort, Nick. Twisty Little Passages. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003. Print.
Suellentrop, Chris. “Text Games in a New Era of Stories.” The New York Times. 07 July 2014: C1. National Newspapers Premier. ProQuest. Web. 10 December 2014.
Van Dijk, Yra. “Amateurs online: Creativity in a community.” Poetics 43 (2014): 86 - 101. ScienceDirect. Web. 10 December 2014.


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