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The "Why?"s Have It

For a nation of strangers, the simplest questions can help bridge the widest distances.

Dances With Words

Experiments in "information choreography."

Non-virtual Communities

Competing visions of post-suburban life give new meaning to the "global village."

Gothic Gardening

Martha Stewart it's not.

Pay Day

Slate's big gamble.

Banking on Bright Ideas

What do lost-pet ads, dentist-office ceilings, and in-flight recordings have in common?


Techno-savvy kids.

Mapping Cyberspace

Is there a "there" there?


Sometimes the Web can be its own best antidote.


Investigating rumors of a vast conspiracy.

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.
April 16, 1998

Until recently, many enthusiasts of interactive fiction -- or "text adventure games" -- believed the genre reached its greatest glory in the mid-1980s, when a software company known as Infocom produced then-state-of-the-art text-based works for a public not yet accustomed to eye-popping graphics and digital sound. Thanks to the Web, however, the decades-old form is enjoying something of a renaissance, as it is rediscovered by a generation raised on Myst and looking for more. One site, the home page for the interactive fiction-authoring tool Inform, is hoping to lead people across the critical divide between consumer and producer. Indeed, the site may be fascinating even to those who never intend to try their hand at writing a work of interactive fiction, which still has more in common with programming in C++ than producing a manuscript.

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Unlike hyperfiction, in which the reader navigates through a nonlinear story that has already been written, interactive fiction relies on the "reader" to advance the plot by deciding what to do at every juncture. No choices are given, merely a blank line reminiscent of a DOS prompt, at which one might type "GO WEST," "HIDE IN THE CLOSET THEN READ THE RANSOM NOTE," or "EDWINA, TELL ME ABOUT YOUR MOTHER."

Because so many possible outcomes and responses must be built into the story, creating a work of interactive fiction can be a daunting prospect. Fortunately, Graham Nelson, the main force behind Inform, has eased the path somewhat, filling the site with style guides, tutorials, and essays on design. Reading -- or experiencing -- a work of interactive fiction has been simplified too: what used to require buying and installing a new program can be done with the click of a mouse, now that a Web browser with Java can serve as the interface between you and the work.

If the technology necessary to create and experience these interactive narratives becomes increasingly accessible and easy-to-use, one can't help wondering if a new do-it-yourself ethos among gamers could spark a cottage industry and undermine the market for the expensive multimedia extravaganzas that fill our retail software outlets. To be sure, simple text-based games and stories are not likely to displace the demand for ever-more realistic 3-D wizardry. And yet it's not inconceivable that the next groundbreaking interactive experience will be had on the Web rather than the CD-ROM -- and that it may seem a lot more like a novel you're helping to write than a plotless movie from which you cannot escape.

—Eric Westby

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