The Dreamhold, Andrew Plotkin’s interactive fiction game released in 2004, and still available as a free app in the Apple Store, relies upon relative simplicity that belies its status as a complex go-between both as an historical artifact positioned between eras of this particular mode of storytelling, and as a point of entry for newcomers to the genre and its rich history. The game itself serves as an extended tutorial, a meta-commentary on the genre that acquaints new players (and already there is some difficulty describing the user) with the mechanics of interactive fiction while telling a story of its own. Interactive fiction thrived most prominently in the early days of the personal computer (from the mid- to late-1970s to the mid-1980s, say), promoting narrative engagement even as computers had not yet evolved a more or less coherent graphic interface, and much less an advanced graphic capability. The genre’s puzzles are solved and explored as the user inputs text commands, an outgrowth of choose-your-own-adventure stories and a precursor to more broadly engrossing games. The games occupy an interesting place in between narrative fiction and computer games, between, even, table-top role playing games and their virtual successors, a place that has changed, yet remained a vibrant niche market as it has drawn from the culture of fan-fiction and accessible, mobile gaming.
Everything in The Dreamhold is, in its own way, foretold and delimited. What is on its face a daunting imaginative ask—to create, through a mode of suspicious and exploratory reading, a mental map that is not only necessary to comprehension as it is in traditional fiction, but in fact to the very element of “success” and completion or progress—is curbed by the real demands of the form. Possible inputs are limited in a way that points to the boundaries of code even more clearly than is done in, for example, an open-world sandbox game with an unreachable horizon. Despite these limits, however, the fan cultures that crop up around interactive fiction—Harry Potter, Star Trek, and other popular fan fiction brands—gesture toward a more open environment for the consumer, not walled off by problems of access or discrimination. Interactive fiction, existing in part as an extension of fan fiction in cyberspace, circumvents the old problems of analog and early internet fandom, where, as Henry Jenkins argues (echoing Sue Clerc), the “early Internet’s predominantly male population” presented a problem for women who “lacked computer access and lacked technical literacy” (Jenkins). Moreover, fandom as what Jenkins calls a “knowledge culture” is accentuated by the acts of discovery at the core of interactive fiction, where epistemological process is foregrounded.
The suggestiveness of The Dreamhold’s content—tapping into the unconscious, a mysterious, uncanny dream space with overwrought prose in the vein of, but not quite up to snuff with, Gaiman’s various fantasy worlds—furthers its cause as meta-narrative. Because the game situates itself as a mediator in a history of games, interactivity, and fiction, it compellingly pushes against conventions in a manner that has since gone stale in the world of interactive fiction. Embedded in and constituting a history (in the general sense, then in its own right), The Dreamhold features comparatively easy puzzles. Other games ask more of the participant, or provide more distinct or cohesive content. Some games include graphics, incorporating a comic book style in some cases (the visual novel, a variation on the theme, is considerably more popular in Japan). Interactive fiction is also not restricted to this basic format. Addventure games create vast, hypertext-based worlds that evoke the Exquisite Corpse of Surrealism in their sometime multiplicity and non-linearity. As a collaborative genre, these games have resonances with collaborative documentaries and other forms of democratizing art, questioning the role of the author, user, and other participants.
Interactive fiction is still very much a niche market in the United States, all the more so since its peak and subsequent decline, a decline not wholly tempered by the rise of mobile gaming. With that being said, this post has only been able to provide a rough overview of the concept channeled through one particular game, an overview that neglects to describe the corners of the market taken up by genres of fiction like erotica that combine the sterility of text-based interaction with the sensory apparatus of the body in more provocative ways. That, however, is a matter for another day, an even richer body of material worthy of explication, but more deeply embedded in, for example, the mores and attitudes of Japanese culture or the cultural history of the dime novel in the US. For now it’s enough to point in the direction of the field in broader terms, mediating, as The Dreamhold does, between history, form, and user.
Henry Jenkins- “Interactive Audiences: The ‘Collective Intelligence’ of Media Fans”