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Twisty Little Passages 150

John Miles writes "It's been almost thirty years since young Laura and Sandy Crowther sat down at a Teletype and took their first steps into the mysterious subterranean world their father, Will, created for them. Now, if Nick Montfort's Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction is any indication, Crowther and Woods's pioneering computer game Adventure and its descendants are finally beginning to garner the critical recognition they deserve. At only 286 pages, Twisty Little Passages is a small, accessible book that addresses a deep and complex subject. The author's stated intention is to bring us the first book-length consideration of interactive fiction (IF) as a legitimate literary field, and he has certainly succeeded." Read on for the rest of Miles' review.
Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction
author Nick Montfort
pages 286
publisher The MIT Press
rating 4 out of 5 grues agree: Montfort's one of them!
reviewer John Miles
ISBN 0262134365
summary The definitive survey of interactive fiction for the literati... and the rest of us

Eight chapters, arranged in roughly-chronological order, detail the lineage of interactive fiction from its origins in Delphic riddles to its newest and most intriguing forms.

Passion and precision

Among Montfort's first statements is one that demonstrates a commitment to careful scholarship that recurs throughout the book: "Text adventure and interactive fiction do not mean exactly the same thing." Infocom's Deadline and Emily Short's Galatea are cited as examples of IF that are not "adventures" in the pop-fiction tradition of exotic settings and perilous situations. These titles, among others, demonstrate that IF isn't just a delivery vehicle for the stereotyped themes of juvenile fiction with which it's often associated. Montfort proceeds to explain why he found it necessary to write Twisty Little Passages:

To see why a solid treatment of (IF) needs to be written, one need only consider this selection from the single page that mentions IF in Ilana Snyder's
Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth (1996):
The precedent was
Adventure, developed in the 1960s at Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL). The program was conceived of as an experimental game. A computerised version of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, Adventure comprises a series of descriptions of fictional locations inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy The Lord of the Rings (1954), and set in the surrounding Californian mountains.
These three sentences state six specific things about Adventure - when, where, and why it was developed, that it is a computerized version of Dungeons and Dragons, that its fictional locations are inspired by Tolkien, and that it is set in California. At least four of these six statements are clearly false, and the remaining two are misleading. (pages 9-10)
Essentially, previous authors and critics writing about interactive fiction just didn't care. In Chapter 1, "The Pleasures of the Text Adventure," Montfort shows that he does. Here, and in the following chapter ("Riddles"), he suggests that the IF art form has a much deeper history than we might think:
... the combination of an explicit challenge and a verbal literary work has a clear precedent (:) the riddle. By presenting a metaphorical system that the listener or reader must inhabit and figure out in order to fully experience, and in order to answer correctly, the riddle offers its way of thinking and engages its audience as no other work of literature does. (pages 3-4)
Recognizing that his audience is likely to include technical geeks as well as literary theorists, Montfort defines some lit-crit terms as they apply to interactive-fiction analysis. Towards the end of the first chapter, we're presented with terminology like "story," "narrative," and "plot," but the definitions Montfort offers could have been fleshed out without sending us to the library to brush up on our Russian formalism. The distinction between "diegetic" and "extradiegetic" exchanges (communication with the game world and the game engine, respectively) appears next, illustrated by Zork 's first few interactions with the user. "Metalepsis" comes next, defined as an intrusion or transgression between levels of story and narration -- sometimes unintentional, sometimes with fatal results. (Portions of Floyd's commentary in Planetfall are cited as an example of the former; the protagonist's robot-assisted suicide in Suspended exemplifies the latter). Happily, none of these intimidating-looking terms are prerequisites to an understanding of the book as a whole.

Naming the game

Assuming the art of interactive fiction began with the riddle, what constitutes a work of IF today? After a brief excerpt from LookingGlass Technologies veteran Dan Schmidt's For A Change gives us an example of description, interaction and puzzle-solving, Montfort goes on to establish four requisite aspects of IF:

  • A text-accepting, text-generating computer program;
  • A potential narrative (a system that produces narrative during interaction);
  • A simulation of an environment or world; and
  • A structure of rules within which an outcome is sought, also known as a game.

Works which do not include each of these elements are deliberately excluded, among them "hypertext fiction," most graphical computer games, and numerous experimental titles. In this respect, Montfort perhaps misses an opportunity to reflect upon the true extent of IF's influence over the rest of the entertainment software world. With a reported 30,000 lines of text in Deus Ex 2 - more than any Infocom game ever boasted - I'd argue that the historical text-only criterion is becoming more questionable all the time.

The rise of the smart machines

Much more than a theoretical treatise on IF, Twisty Little Passages is also the most complete chronicle of important IF titles, authors, and publishers assembled to date. Its middle four chapters focus largely on academic and commercial efforts at crafting and publishing interactive fiction. Chapter 3 begins with an introduction of the concept of generative literary machines ("ergodic literature"). Montfort cites the Turing machine-like nature of the I Ching , followed by a mention of Jonathan Swift's satirical machine from Gulliver's Travels, "made of equal parts of irony, sarcasm, and mockery, that would automatically write books on all the arts and sciences." Advancing to the modern era, we encounter Theodor Nelson's early hypertext experiments in 1970; the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books that appeared near the close of the decade; and the Dungeons and Dragons phenomenon that introduced a generation to the idea of participative fiction and inspired more IF and computer-game authors than even the most dedicated scholar could count.

The mother of all computer games, in Montfort's view, was Spanish engineer Leonardo Quevedo's 1912 chess-playing robot. Devised to attack a particular endgame problem on a vertically-oriented chessboard, Quevedo's machine was unique in that it represented the first so-called "chess automaton" that operated by legitimate electromechanical means rather than by fraudulently-concealed midgets. A subsequent refinement of Quevedo's machine would later catch the eye of famed computer scientist and AI researcher Norbert Wiener, achieving recognition as the first genuine attempt at artificial intelligence.

Mechanical curiosities aside, no discussion of human-computer interaction would be complete without inviting Joseph Weizenbaum's ELIZA (1966) to the party. As the first convincing conversation "bot", ELIZA accepted plain-English input from a human interlocutor, transforming it (albeit with no semantic understanding) into a sympathetic textual murmur geared to elicit further input:

Person: Men are all alike.
Computer: IN WHAT WAY?
Person: They're always bugging us about something or other.
Person: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.
Person: He says I'm depressed much of the time.
Even more impressive than ELIZA was fellow MIT researcher Terry Winograd's SHRDLU, the first computer program capable of modelling, rendering, and allowing a human to interact verbally with objects in a virtual world:
Computer: OK (does it)
Computer: YES, THE BLUE BLOCK. (page 84)
Prior to reading the transcript above in Montfort's book, I'd heard of SHRDLU only in passing. It deserves a lot more attention than it's received. SHRDLU was one hell of an impressive hack in 1970, and it wouldn't be trivial today, judging by the capabilities suggested. Like the incredulous audiences that must have attended the early chess robot demonstrations, I'd have been prying panels off Winograd's PDP-6 with a screwdriver, looking for midgets ex machina.

Worlds from Adventure to Zork

After bestowing the title "the first work of interactive fiction" upon a deserving SHRDLU, Montfort summons the spiritual grandfather of them all: William Crowther's Adventure . Released in 1975 for the benefit of his five- and seven-year-old daughters and any interested lurkers on the nascent ARPANet, Adventure combined ELIZA and SHRDLU's human-interaction capabilities with a primitive fictional setting:


Crowther is a contemporary of Zork co-author Dave Lebling, who, coincidentally, was a member of the same Dungeons and Dragons group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In one of Montfort's many personal communications with IF luminaries, Lebling says:

Eric Roberts . . . started running a D&D group a year or so before
Adventure was written. Eric had his own ideas about how D&D should be done, emphasizing storytelling and de-emphasizing the mechanical aspects of the game such as die- rolling. He tried to create a Tolkien-inspired world that was fun and consistent with Middle Earth... I think one strong component that carried over into Zork was to try to keep the mechanical workings of the game as hidden as possible, which to me enhanced the fun and immersiveness of the experience. (page 86)
With such similar roots, it's no surprise that Zork and Adventure play like long-lost brothers. In Chapter 4, Montfort details the evolution of Zork and other important IF titles that were created by multitalented college students with free mainframe access and seemingly-limitless time on their hands. Much has been written about Zork and its legendary Implementers, but seldom have we been given such a well-documented survey of the personalities and motivations behind the game's creation. One tongue-in-cheek room description from the mainframe version of Zork didn't make the cut for the commercial releases:
Tomb of the Unknown Implementer
This is the Tomb of the Unknown Implementer. A hollow voice says: "That's not a bug, it's a feature!"
In the north wall of the room is the Crypt of the Implementers. It is made of the finest marble, and apparently large enough for four headless corpses.
The crypt is closed.
There are four heads here, mounted securely on poles.
There is a large pile of empty Coke bottles here, evidently produced by the implementers during their long struggle to win totality.
There is a gigantic pile of line-printer output here. Although the paper once contained useful information, almost nothing can be distinguished now. (pages 102-103)
Zork accepted complex sentences with indirect-object phrases, offered a much-larger vocabulary than its predecessors, and broke significant new ground in multiplatform software development, predating UCSD Pascal as the first commercial application for virtual-machine technology. But it also advanced at least one purely-literary aspect of computer gaming by introducing its first complex interactive character: the wily Thief. One of Montfort's references offers an insightful Joseph Campbell-esque definition of "villain": "the symbolic representation of forces working to seemingly hinder, but actually promoting, the hero's or heroine's development." (pages 112-113) Since Adventure's dwarves and pirate are not representations of anything else ("parental figures or psychological drives"), their deeds are destructive without being truly "wicked." Zork's thief, on the other hand, serves as a foil for the player character's combat skills, as a reflection of the player's own rapacious treasure-lust, and, ultimately, as an unwitting assistant in the quest.

Zork's innovations over the state of the art established by Adventure are too numerous to count, although Montfort explicitly avoids the common mistake of canonizing Zork and Infocom games in general while giving short shrift to other important IF efforts. In Chapter 5, we learn what became of the Zork implementers in their post-MIT lives at Infocom.

Alas, poor Infocom. . .

In Montfort's words, Infocom, which was founded June 22, 1979 by Lebling, Blank, Anderson, and seven other MIT alumni, "began work on the foundation of IF while the plot of ground that it was to be built upon had not been completely surveyed." Chapter 5's opening paragraph is revealing:

Adventure is considered the great original epic of interactive fiction. Infocom's works call for a grandiose comparison made on a slightly-different metaphorical ground. Whoever the "Shakespeare" playwright actually was - common or noble, working largely alone or in close collaboration with a theater company - Shakespeare wrote, remarkably, not just the greatest English-language play, by critical consensus, but almost all of the great English-language plays. Similarly, the interactive fiction creators at Infocom devised practically all of the best-loved IF works in the history of the form. (page 119)
Although Scott Adams (no relation to Dilbert's creator) and his company, Adventure International , were the first to sell IF commercially in 1978, Infocom was the most successful IF publisher of its era. The company reached US $10 million in sales in 1985 with over 100 employees on the payroll. A quoted excerpt from the New Zork Times , the company's newsletter, illustrates how Infocom's marketing focused on their games' puzzle-centric design:
Although our games are interactive fiction, they are more than just stories: they are also a series of puzzles. It is these puzzles that transform our text from an hour's worth of reading to many, many hours' worth of thinking. . . . The value of our games is that they will provide many hours of stimulating mental exercise. (page 120)
Montfort subsequently comments:
The company's ... belief in the centrality of problem solving should explain ... why Infocom did not focus on creating what might more easily be seen as artistic and literary works that favored exploration, communication with characters, or alternate plot progressions. Yet Infocom did make some progress along these lines, and advanced the state of the literary art by coupling the textually described worlds and situations with carefully crafted puzzles in ways that great riddlers might, in provocative and affecting ways. (page 120)
Of the thirty-five games that Infocom published before its US $7.5 million sale to Activision in 1986, their earlier releases receive some of the most detailed analyses in Twisty Little Passages. In addition to discussion of the Zork and Enchanter trilogies, Montfort offers us insights on the unconventional, revelation-driven structure of Deadline, the Reagan-era sociopolitical commentary found in Infidel , and the tragic end of Floyd the Robot in Planetfall:
As a character who is also a technological artifact, Floyd is more important than his immediate function in the IF world suggests. He is a figure for the sometimes emotional relationships that people have with computers, or that are mediated through computers. (page 150)
Many other games, from Trinity to A Mind Forever Voyaging and the Douglas Adams- assisted adaptation of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are discussed extensively in Chapters 5 and 6. Private communications between Montfort and Adams's collaborator at Infocom, Steve Meretzky, lend a glimpse of what it was like to work with the late, lamented author:
Adams's "world-class procrastination abilities," as Meretzky called them, did cause some problems for the (
Hitchhiker's Guide) project, which began in February 1984 and was slated (ambitiously) to be completed by the following Christmas. Meretzky said of Adams that "being a successful person with tons of interesting acquaintances, he had an extremely distracting life. Plus, he wasn't fond of the actual task of writing. He loved coming up with ideas, but hated wrestling them into a properly-formed work." (page 173)
Montfort's 35-page bibliography is a treasure trove in its own right, with online and printed references given equal weight. Academic grognards may question the long-term utility of online citations, but the omission of sources such as Briceno et al.'s comprehensive Down from the Top of its Game: The Story of Infocom would have been a serious shortcoming. Throughout the book, Montfort's goal of preserving and documenting the great IF works remains clear, with a scholarly ethos that's just as relevant to fans of today's games. He praises Infocom's relatively-lax copy protection schemes, compared to those used by other game publishers whose heavily-protected works may be lost to posterity:
If any examples of heavily-copy-protected computer games survive through another two decades for study and discussion, it will be thanks to the loose, widespread network of teenagers and college students who assiduously cracked these programs, allowing the crippled disks to run freely both on systems at the time and on compatible computers today. (page 159)
Activision, in particular, earns well-deserved props in the book for opening earlier Infocom works and encouraging independent development.

... and other commercial efforts

Although Infocom's oeuvre receives the lion's share of attention in Twisty Little Passages, the book does not neglect the many other commercial IF publishing efforts on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s and 1990s. Chapter 6 ("Different Visions Worldwide") opens with a quick drive-by tour of Roberta Williams's 1980 Mystery House , recognized as the first graphical adventure game. A number of IF book adaptations were undertaken in the early 1980s as well, among them The Hobbit from Melbourne House and the classics Fahrenheit 451, Rendezvous with Rama, and Nine Princes in Amber from Tellarium. Along with the aforementioned Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy released by Infocom in 1984, Montfort gives favorable attention to US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's Mindwheel , published in the same year by Synapse Software.

Brief histories of British IF publishers Level 9 and Magnetic Scrolls round out the chapter, along with an even-briefer mention of Legend Entertainment, written before Legend's shutdown in early 2004. The latter constitutes one of the few weak spots in Twisty Little Passages's coverage of the classics. Legend's integration of music, artwork, graphical navigation, and other interface enhancements in the Spellcasting 101 series went far beyond Infocom's efforts to modernize their own IF engines, and the company deserves more than a single paragraph.

At the end of Chapter 6, Montfort recounts the 2000 failure of former Infocom author Mike Berlyn's Cascade Mountain Publishing, one of the last commercial publishers of pure text-based IF. He proceeds to draw a sheet over the commercial market for interactive fiction in general, pronouncing it as dead as Graham Chapman's parrot:

A few individuals have since sought to sell their IF works, and the occasional company like Activision has re-released older works. The main market for interactive fiction today, however, is on eBay and other auction sites, where packaged disks from the 1980s are bought and sold by collectors and IF enthusiasts. Fortunately, the end of the interactive fiction market is not the end of the story for this form. (page 191)
I don't agree with this proclamation of commercial doom, which is a recurring theme in Twisty Little Passages. It's unreasonable to look at the failure of a single company which released two IF products in two years -- one of them a recycled effort from the mid-1980s -- and draw the conclusion that future IF games will only be offered for sale alongside Beanie Babies, assorted stolen laptops, and someone's spare kidney. Unlike modern PC and console games with multimillion-dollar budgets, a killer IF title can still be written by one guy or girl working the graveyard shift at home. Success is arguably a matter of recalibrating one's expectations -- and business model -- to match contemporary market conditions. (Did it ever make sense for Infocom to employ 100 people in some of the most expensive commercial real estate in Boston, working on a handful of all-text games that fit on 140KB floppies? Montfort stops short of considering this question, but in the post-Ion Storm era we live in, the answer should be pretty obvious.)

Fortunately, as the last two chapters reveal, a healthy independent IF community has sprung up to take the place of the commercial publishers who are no longer with us.

IF's independent authors: the once and future scene

In April 1993, at the culmination of a long reverse-engineering effort by "a group of programmers called the InfoTaskForce" (page 202), Graham Nelson released an object-oriented programming language capable of creating story files for the Infocom Z-machine interpreter. Along with a commercially-available text-adventure authoring system known as TADS, Nelson's language, Inform, sparked an indy IF revolution.

The (growing) community of IF authors really began to demonstrate the vitality of the form in the 1990s, innovating in ways that early hackers and later game companies did not. Their IF works are usually even more widely available today than the most successful commercial software of the 1980s, since they are typically free for download and, thanks to the Internet, widely available. ... A relevant FAQ notes that ... there were five IF games in the 1996 Year-End Download Top 40, making these games some of the most popular non-commercial computer games in the world. (page 193)
As Montfort writes, Nelson also fired the first shot of that revolution:
Nelson's most famous piece of interactive fiction - and likely the most well-known IF work since the demise of Infocom - is the first fruit of Inform, the 1993
Curses . This large, complex, and difficult adventure is set in an English country home and in certain other spaces that are linked in fantastic ways to it. Nelson (2002) said he "consciously wrote it in an Infocom-esque spirit, aiming at the same epigrammatic style of wit." (page 203)
Ten years after the first release of Inform, hundreds of independent IF authors and fans congregate on Web boards and Usenet newsgroups to discuss new titles released using Inform, TADS, and a host of other IF platforms. In particular, the annual Interactive Fiction Competition, begun by the denizens of and, celebrates its own tenth anniversary in 2004. Past Competitions have spawned groundbreaking titles like Adam Cadre's Photopia , released in 1998 and still much-discussed today, and Andrew Plotkin's unsettling Shade . These, and many other indy releases, are reviewed extensively in Chapter 7. It would have been good to see more pointers toward longstanding IF fan sites such as Eileen Mullin's XYZZYNews in this chapter, but for the most part, Montfort's latter two chapters do a great job of summarizing the state of interactive fiction's art and culture. His enthusiasm as an observer of the modern IF scene is infectious.

Two tentacles up

I can wholeheartedly recommend Twisty Little Passages not only to IF fans and amateur historians, but to anyone serious about the foundations and culture of computer gaming. Infocom and Legend Entertainment auteur Steve Meretzky's back-cover blurb says it all: "(Twisty Little Passages) is a thoroughly-researched history of interactive fiction, as well as a brilliant analysis of the genre. Reading it makes me itch to fire up that old DEC-20 and start writing interactive fiction again!" As a fan of Meretzky's many IF works, I should be so lucky. As a fan of the IF art form as a whole, I'm indeed lucky to have run across Nick Montfort's excellent book.

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Twisty Little Passages

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  • by vrTeach ( 37458 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:31PM (#8885850)
    Maybe too detailed, but thanks for the effort. Brings me back to adventure on a Prime 750, and I'll look forward to seeing (and buying) the book in a remainder bin in a year or so. I probably just missed it, but are the graphic mysteries such as Myst and such also to be considered IF as Montfort defines it? The game doesn't really react to what the player is doing, but then neither did adventure as I remember it. eks
  • request denied (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ( 745183 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:33PM (#8885879) Homepage
    The author's stated intention is to [present] interactive fiction (IF) as a legitimate literary field.

    Obviously, some of these games are better than others ...which makes them fair game (so to speak) for comparison and critique. But, trying to rank them alongside legitimate literature seems mighty presumptuous.

    Legitimate authors struggle to perfect their reader's experience, and would never deliberately abandon it to dice-throws. If it happens that some interactive game is found to harbor a deep and worthwhile intellectual point, then a "real" author, rather than writing that game, will tell the story of a character who plays it.

  • Montfort (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ectoman ( 594315 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:37PM (#8885924) Homepage
    I saw Montfort speak at the Princeton ludology conference on March 6. If his lecture there about the Combat can be considered any indicator, his book must be fabulous.
  • by snStarter ( 212765 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:50PM (#8886066)
    The first place I ran into Adventure was on a floppy disk based LSI-11/03 (maybe a /23) running RT-11 down in the plasma physics lab. The version of Adventure was a HEAVILY overlayed FORTRAN version.

    And I was totally hooked.

    The worlds built by these games make them a hot medium. They exist in your mind. The Hall of the Mountain King is still there.

    I guess everyone wants to blast car-jackers or aliens. I'd rather play a great Adventure game.
  • Re:request denied (Score:2, Interesting)

    by UrgleHoth ( 50415 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @04:52PM (#8886087) Homepage
    putting aside elitism of what is "real" authorship or not, consider definitive criteria for literature, games and toys:

    A piece of literature, fiction interpretive or escapist is a single state story. It can be in hypertext or not, but there is a single state.
    A toy is a multi state device. Either random effects or readers/players choice changes the state of the activity/interaction.
    A game is a toy with an end state built into the system that defines winners/losers (or draws).
    Let's hear the rebuttals...
  • by WillAdams ( 45638 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @05:19PM (#8886413) Homepage
    The ``Literate Programming'' ( ) re-written source to the the original Colossal Caves Adventure re-written for CWEB by Dr. Donald E. Knuth (the guy who wrote my word processor ;) see for what I mean):

    or get the source from l

  • by clacour ( 621903 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @06:27PM (#8887181)
    I found a copy of the Fortran code for Adventure where I worked in the early 80s. I was learning PL/1 at the time, and needed a project of some sort to learn it with, so I ported Adventure over to it.

    Time went by (about 8 years) and I changed jobs a couple of times. One day, I was talking with a daughter site in Boston, and somehow the subject of Adventure came up. He was trying to do something with it, and happened to mention the name of the userid that created it.

    It was DTSO403, which was my old userid at the original company.

    I have no CLUE how it made its way from Dallas to Boston...

  • by ben_matthews ( 772000 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @07:08PM (#8887518)
    Try sending a message on AOL-IM to infocombot

    [18:05] infocombot: Welcome back!
    To continue your saved game, choose your game and type 'restore' after it starts.
    For help and more info, go to

    Type a game to play: adventure, deadline, enchanter, hitchhikers_guide, leather_goddesses, lurking_horror, planetfall, quake, shade, wishbringer, zork1, zork2, zork3

  • Re:Why wasn't? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by kriston ( 7886 ) on Friday April 16, 2004 @11:55PM (#8889193) Homepage Journal
    The command you're looking for is:
    M-x psychoanalyze-pinhead


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