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Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to…

Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (2003)

by Nick Montfort

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While I found the first two chapters to be a bit tedious, this book turned out to be a comprehensive and inspired platform for bringing interactive fiction to a large audience. Montfort is well informed from a technical standpoint and takes a historical approach; he cites just enough literary theory to provide insight without losing focus. I could have done without his little attempts to be cute, but otherwise he writes in an accessible and polished tone that lives up to academic standards. This is certainly a work of scholarship, but it also functions as effective IF evangelism: I found myself wanting to play the games covered in the book as well as to explore developments occurring in the near-decade since its publication. I'm now interested in Montfort's career, and I'm especially excited to experience this collaboration with Ian Bogost. ( )
  breadhat | Jul 23, 2013 |
A little heavy, but an important read nonetheless. ( )
  morbusiff | May 9, 2013 |
Within the first ten pages of Twisty Little Passages, Montfort remarks on the need for "a book-sized resource on interactive fiction's history and implications—one that considers how the form came into being and how it developed through the decades, with basic theoretical discussions of the nature of the form and at least an introductory critical discussion of important works," and it is apparent that the rest of the book intends to fill that need. To quibble with the book's subtitle, one could argue that the different strands in that list do not really constitute a single "approach," but rather several different approaches: there's really enough there to fill a couple of different books. By attempting to tackle each of them in a single concise volume, a certain scantiness ensues (I had no trouble completing the book in a day), but Montfort deserves credit for ambitiously staking out the territory: other scholars of electronic literature will undoubtedly see this book as a valuable starting point to branch off from.

The most successful chapters, to me, are the ones that consider "how the form came into being and how it developed through the decades." The history of Zork and Adventure's development is especially interesting reading, as is the overview of the contemporary IF scene, which has apparently thrived as a non-commercial subculture in the years following the decline of Infocom and other commercial IF publishers. Montfort's critical overview of the major IF works (of the both the commercial and post-commercial era) is pretty condensed—only the most important works get more than a page or two—but valuable nevertheless: I'm hard-pressed to say that I'd trade it for a deeper read into a smaller handful of works. That can come later.

The weaker chapters are the ones that attempt a theory of the form. The first chapter does some decent work establishing a useful terminology with which to discuss IF works: distinguishing between replies and reports, for instance, or distinguishing between which commands are digetic and which are extradigetic. This material, however, is dispensed with in under ten pages, and is forced to share space in this first chapter with the standard "what is interactive fiction?" boilerplate.

The second chapter, probably the book's weakest, unconvincingly attempts to situate the text adventure within the literary tradition of the riddle. Some of the parallels that Montfort attempts to draw have numerous exceptions: for instance, although it is true that riddles are "presented for solution," it is less true that all interactive fiction can (or should) be thought of as doing the same: for instance, notice that many of the IF works available through Adam Cadre's IF page are said to contain "almost no gamelike elements." ("If stuck, just keep exploring," Cadre writes of his latest work, and, in the release notes, he writes "even if you get to an ending, you may have only seen a small fraction of what's possible," neither of which seem like statements that usefully apply to any riddle I know of.)

I take less issue (at least initially) with Montfort's statement that interactive fiction creates a systematic world, but again, the parallel flags for me: is it accurate to say that a riddle also creates this sort of world? Perhaps technically, but the experience of solving a riddle feels to me substantially different from the far more immersive and ludic experience of exploring the world of a work of interactive fiction.

I think Montfort is more on the mark when he touches on the idea of IF as a "literary machine" or what Espen Aarseth would call "ergodic literature." The literary tradition there dates back at least as far as that of the riddle: the I Ching is commonly cited (including by Montfort) as a "literary machine" that dates back to antiquity.

Quibbles aside, I'd highly recommend this book to anyone studying electronic writing, and I even think that most of it is accessible enough to be of interest to people who remember the old Infocom games fondly and might have an interest in seeing what's new in the field.

Permanent URL for this review: http://raccoonbooks.blogspot.com/2004/01/twisty-little-passages.html ( )
2 vote jbushnell | Sep 1, 2007 |
Sadly, I found this rather dull. It's literary criticism about Infocom-style text adventure games. Because this is a pretty new field (the games have been around for decades, but apparently nobody has given them a serious critical reading), the author spends a good deal of time just defining terms and providing a history of the genre.

Montfort spends an early chapter arguing that text adventure games are descendants of riddles, a more established literary form. This seems to be the meaty idea in the book, but I felt it wasn't very well-developed. Perhaps I'm just not used to reading criticism, but it seemed like he was constantly telling the reader about the point he was about to make, rather than making the point.

I'm tempted to play a bunch of the recent works he describes. I didn't get much more out of the book than that, though. ( )
  aneel | May 10, 2007 |
At best, this is a mediocre history of interactive fiction games. But the writing is often disorganized, and rarely interesting. It has the leaden feel of a grad student dutifully chugging through all the essential points of a research summary paper. The early chapter on riddles seems tacked on and disconnected from the rest of the book, and generally quite poor; it makes me think that the inclusion of that chapter was at the behest of the author's supervisor. ( )
  tjd | Aug 5, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0262633183, Paperback)

Interactive fiction -- the best-known form of which is the text game or text adventure -- has not received as much critical attention as have such other forms of electronic literature as hypertext fiction and the conversational programs known as chatterbots. Twisty Little Passages (the title refers to a maze in Adventure, the first interactive fiction) is the first book-length consideration of this form, examining it from gaming and literary perspectives. Nick Montfort, an interactive fiction author himself, offers both aficionados and first-time users a way to approach interactive fiction that will lead to a more pleasurable and meaningful experience of it.Twisty Little Passages looks at interactive fiction beginning with its most important literary ancestor, the riddle. Montfort then discusses Adventure and its precursors (including the I Ching and Dungeons and Dragons), and follows this with an examination of mainframe text games developed in response, focusing on the most influential work of that era, Zork. He then considers the introduction of commercial interactive fiction for home computers, particularly that produced by Infocom. Commercial works inspired an independent reaction, and Montfort describes the emergence of independent creators and the development of an online interactive fiction community in the 1990s. Finally, he considers the influence of interactive fiction on other literary and gaming forms. With Twisty Little Passages, Nick Montfort places interactive fiction in its computational and literary contexts, opening up this still-developing form to new consideration.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:37 -0400)

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