Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort (book review) [Misc]

[I wrote this review when the book was released, and also posted an abbreviated version at Amazon.]

Book cover for 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

Erehwon by Rick Litherland as Josiah Pinkfoot [Comp99]

IFDB page: Erehwon
Final placement: 11th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Erehwon reminded me of a Saturday Night Live skit I saw years ago. I don’t remember the details very well, and no doubt somebody will step in to correct me, but the basic premise was something along the lines of a group of people who wrote a numbered joke catalog, and when they’d get together for their annual convention, they’d just sit around and say things to each other like “Hey, number 534!” and then roar with laughter. Wandering through Erehwon, I felt like an outsider at that convention. There were plenty of inside jokes, some of which seemed to be oriented towards residents of the U.K., though of course, I couldn’t tell. Even the walkthrough would occasionally say things like “If this doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry about it.” OK, whatever. But it wasn’t even so much the inside jokes that made me feel like an alien visitor as much as it was the heavy emphasis on mathematics and geometry. For me, a game that says “the dual of a Platonic solid!” means about as much as a game that says “Hey, number 534!”

Erehwon seems to make a basic assumption that the player will find things like dodecahedrons and Hamiltonian circuits interesting, and that assumption led me to suspect strongly that I’m not part of the target audience for this game. Am I confessing to some sort of failure to reach the proper heights of geekdom here? (And I mean “geek” in the positive sense, let me hasten to add.) I know a lot of IF devotees approach it from the Computer Science side, and could sit endlessly enraptured in discussions of, say, non-Euclidean geometry. I’m not one of them. I come more from the Lit. side, and could sit endlessly enraptured in discussions of, say, feminist theory and postmodernism. There is an appearance by Stanley Fish, the namesake of a prominent literary critic and advocate of a theory of reading which fits in particularly well with IF, but the game never gave much indication that it recognized the allegiance. Or if it did, it sailed over my head along with many of the other references. For these reasons, Erehwon underwhelmed me, not primarily through any specific fault of its own, I think, but just because we’re not a particularly good match.

However, I do have some complaints that stem specifically from my viewpoint as an IF player. Heading the list of these is a huge maze. Again, I recognize that this is probably my own prejudice, but I just don’t like mazes. I don’t care how mathematically cool they are — I still don’t like them. Now, in fairness, I must point out that the game does provide for a couple of solutions which obviate the need to map the maze. However, as a player I had no way of knowing that without reference to the walkthrough, and therefore ended up spending much of my first hour of Erehwon gritting my teeth and trying to map this giant maze. You might contend that I should have understood that mazes without alternate solutions are simply unacceptable in modern IF and looked harder for the alternate solution, taking it on faith that one existed. Maybe so, but I find that I can take very little on faith in comp games — after all, I would think that proper spelling and grammar would be de rigeur as well, but plenty of games lack those basic ingredients (not that Erehwon was one of them.)

Besides, the path to those solutions is blocked by the other problem puzzle in the game, a puzzle which echoes one that appears in Trinity, but enlarges it for no clear reason. The main problem with this puzzle is that it violates one of the basic tenets outlined in Graham Nelson‘s classic Player’s Bill of Rights: not to have to do boring things for the sake of it. Indeed, a winning session will involve several trips through this puzzle, each of which entails ten moves at the very least, and it’s not at all clear that the size of the puzzle adds anything positive to the game. Aggravating the situation, the puzzle also has a rather arbitrary solution, at least so far as I could tell, and following any other track will get you hopelessly lost, making the whole thing into the basic equivalent of yet another maze.

It’s clear that there is a crystalline and beautiful mathematical philosophy behind each of these puzzles, but for me as a player, the translation of those philosophies into interactive fiction was awkward and unsuccessful, an ambitious washout. Much the same could be said for an alternate mode of navigation with which the game experiments. I tried it for a bit, and indeed was forced to use it at a couple of points in order to solve puzzles (puzzles that seemed arbitrarily constructed to require the alternate navigation method), but avoided it much of the rest of the time. I did appreciate the irony, though: in most games, the objection to the compass rose approach to navigation is that you don’t have a compass. In Erehwon you actually do have a compass, but are nonetheless forced to abandon compass-rose navigation at several points. I thought that was pretty funny. Indeed, there are lots of funny moments in Erehwon, one of its main strengths being its humor. Most of the inside jokes were past me, but there were quite a few funny moments that required no special knowledge to enjoy. For instance, this exchange with the parser:

North Boulevard

On both sides of the so-called boulevard (more of a dirt track) is an
impenetrable ferret.

Did I say ferret? I meant forest. It's stoatally impenetrable.

As I laughed, I was reminded of some of the funnier moments in Hitchhiker’s Guide, where the parser momentarily rears up to take on a personality, using its trusted status as the reliable narrator to pull the rug out from under us and make us laugh at the same time. Those of you who’ve played Hitchhiker’s will know what I’m talking about. Those of you who haven’t: Hey, number 534!

Rating: 5.4