> Twisty Little Passages

Pequeños Pasadizos Retorcidos

An Interview with Nick Montfort

English version of the interview published in SPAC (Sociedad para la Preservación de las Aventuras) #33, January 2004. [*] dhan is the editor of SPAC.

(See the main Twisty Little Passages page for other information about the book.)

We normally begin our adventurous interviews with a little questionnaire so we can get to know our guest better; in this case we will summarize it so as not to overwhelm Nick...

dhan: Nick, above all, thank you for taking the time to meet with Spanish adventurers. Can you tell us, so that we know you better as a player, which are your favorite interactive fictions?

nm: Of Infocom interactive fiction, the Zork trilogy, Suspended, and A Mind Forever Voyaging are some of my favorites. Robert Pinsky's Mindwheel was very influential and is certainly among my favorites, also. More recently, I've enjoyed the work of Adam Cadre, Andrew Plotkin, and Emily Short. I've written about all of the above in my book, so perhaps I should mention some other IF that didn't get discussed in Twisty Little Passages. Recently, I've been playing Dangerous Curves, and I have enjoyed that a great deal. I think Bad Machine is really great, also -- it has a beautiful concept that is realized very well.

dhan: Let's assume your American buddies won't read this ... which games have been less enjoyable, or, I should say, which types of IF appeal to you less?

nm: No one is safe in the age of the babelfish! [**] Nevertheless, I will mention a few pieces of IF that disappointed me. Perhaps I'm unusual, but -- speaking of the babelfish -- I didn't like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy very much. It offers a series of interactive jokes, sometimes playing on the book (and the earlier radio show) in a nice way, but it really seems to be a "rail game" without an interesting world to explore and understand. More recently, I found the 1999 IF Comp winner Winter Wonderland rather disappointing. The puzzles were well-implemented, yes, but the way they fit into the world, and the writing in that work, just didn't suit me.

dhan: Who are you, what do you do, and how did you encounter IF?

nm: Currently I'm studying for a Ph.D. in computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania. I hope that when I finish I will be able to join the faculty of a university and work with new media, interactive fiction, and other types of computer literature officially. I encountered IF on my family's home computer when I was fairly young. I wrote my undergraduate thesis about IF and other computer literature when I was at the University of Texas. I was part of the "IF Community," or at least lurking on the newsgroups of that community, since the early 1990s. But I didn't learn to write interactive fiction until later, when I was doing a master's degree at MIT.

dhan: After reading part of your book, I'm afraid to say "game" when talking about IF. Are we definitely facing a new kind of art?

nm: Don't be afraid to say "game"! Games can be very interesting, and they can be art as well. The problem is that some people are quick to reject interactive fiction as being "just a game." If you look at something like Varicella, or Olvido Mortal, for that matter, it's not just a coincidence that these are both literary works (with literary characters in them) and are *also* games that you can win. That's what makes them so enjoyable; that's why they work so well. The two aspects work together. So, I think IF is even more exciting than a new type of literature or art -- it's art-and-game, and other things as well, something we haven't seen very often in the past.

dhan: On your website, we can read that you are passionate about narrative and new forms of communication that have the possibilities of hyperlinks. How are these similar to interactive fiction? Perhaps in the English community this idea is more developed than in Spanish. Your newsgroup has "art" in its name, and your book advocates a body of theory ... but to what extent does IF have art in it, and to what extent does it have fun and gaming?

nm: It is almost an accident that "" has "arts" in it. It seems the newsgroup was for hypertext originally! Hypertext fiction can be very interesting and compelling. (I think there is a strong argument that this form was developed on paper by Spanish-speakers, by the way, namely Borges and Cortázar.) But I don't think hypertext and interactive fiction have exactly the same relationship to gaming or narrative, so I think we will need new theories to understand IF. We can't just take the ones that hypertext theorists have developed. I have tried to develop the beginning of an IF theory in my article Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction, now available in English online. It's possible that this article will be translated into Spanish and published in a South American book. I will be sure to let you and SPAC know what happens with that.

dhan: Let's talk about your book ... Twisty Little Passages (a reference to the maze in Adventure, called "Pequeños Pasadizos Retorcidos" in Zak's translation, Aventura) has been published by MIT Press in December 2003 and is available for purchase online. Why did you decide to write it? What difficulties did you have in creating it?

nm: I first thought about writing a book for an academic and popular readership late in 1999, when I was working as a writer in New York City, mostly writing magazine articles. I thought I would enjoy doing the more extensive thinking and research that was involved in writing a book, and I managed to convince myself that I could write one. Then, I did a thought experiment: of all the topics that I might write about, what would be the most fun and rewarding? The topic I thought of was interactive fiction. (I did a similar thought experiment and imagined that MIT Press would be the ideal publisher, so I was very lucky that the press was interested in a book on this topic.) As I mentioned, I wrote about the topic in my undergraduate thesis, so I had been thinking about and writing about interactive fiction since 1994, but I actually began writing Twisty Little Passages many years later.

The most difficult part of writing the book was deciding what not to discuss. I was writing about the whole history of interactive fiction, so I had to choose only a few things from each "era." So there are plenty of interesting and worthwhile contemporary interactive fiction works, for instance, that I didn't even mention. It was also difficult to write a serious book about IF that would be understandable to a reader who had never played IF. But, I wanted to introduce the form to people, so I wanted to include this group.

Hopefully this will not be the last work about interactive fiction; I hope other authors will make up for omissions by offering other books.

dhan: I liked your parallel to Plato, your invitation to come back to the shadowy cavern. I think this is a very valid metaphor, recalling Adventure ... Twisty Little Passages has been published by MIT and MIT was part of the birth of interactive fiction. How was your research work, going back to the original sources?

nm: I did not do a lot of interviews for the book, although I did talk to Zork creator Tim Anderson. I did try to read everything that has been published in print about IF, and I tried to revisit a lot of old IF and study it in some detail. One thing I learned is that the creation story is usually not as simple as it seems. MIT alumnus Will Crowther created Adventure for his young daughters, not for a bunch of engineers and programmers. The Zork Implementors were pretty widely read, saw a variety of films (not just Star Wars and such) and really weren't "classic nerds" (as Tim Anderson said). Now, none of these people were part of the New York School of poets or anything, but do I think they took the writing seriously, not just the programming.

dhan: The second chapter is entirely dedicated to riddles, something that many theorists of IF have overlooked up to now. Can you provide a summary of this chapter for readers who don't have the book? Is this idea also applicable to puzzleless IF?

nm: Excellent question. When I wrote about riddles in the book I focused on puzzle-based IF, but I believe the riddle is also a good way of understanding other IF. When I mention riddles, I'm talking about literary riddles, poems that have a particular answer, such as Lorca's "Adivinanza de la guitarra." In prose, "El hacedor" by Borges is a good example. I think interactive fiction is like a riddle in that it offers a strange world that can be explored. The world doesn't seem to make sense, but everything is there to allow you to understand it, if you think about it. In interactive fiction, "thinking about it" usually involves having the player character move around and do things. In puzzle-based IF, you can explicitly offer a solution to the overall "riddle" and learn whether or not you are right. In other IF you may never get to test the answer explicitly and have the game tell you are right (Schrödinger's Cat) or you may learn the answer, perhaps in part, without having to actually show your understanding of the system (Shade). So, even when there aren't the usual puzzles, the riddle still can help us understand how IF functions.

dhan: The chapters after this talk about Adventure, Zork, Level 9, etc. up to the present, analyzing the trends that have followed. Although there is a chapter about it, can you tell us what can we expect in the future of the genre?

nm: I can tell you my hope. I hope that what we English-speakers call "the IF Community" will continue and grow stronger, and I hope there will be other IF communities, not only communities for Spanish and Italian and German IF but also different communities of English-speakers. Some, I hope, will fostered by universities, as interactive fiction has been since the beginning. Some communities may be interested in the mystery genre or in more esoteric things. Ultimately, I hope that these communities -- although they will always be separate to some degree -- will also be able to communicate and learn from one another.

Imagine if there were no literature at all -- no poems, novels, or plays -- translated into Spanish from other languages! Well, that's pretty much the situation with English and interactive fiction. Of course, we have had plays and novels and poems for a long time, and interactive fiction is a much more recent form. Still, I hope there will be more translation of IF because this type of exchange among different communities is vital, especially when we are experimenting with a new form.

dhan: How has your book been received? Have you gotten much feedback? Any from people who didn't know about interactive fiction?

nm: It is still early, but I think some academics who haven't considered interactive fiction are starting to see that there must be something interesting there. I suspect some professors who deal with new media and electronic writing used to think I was just this one crazy interactive fiction guy, because there really wasn't anyone else going to conferences and talking about IF. Now at least they'll have to think that MIT Press is crazy, too.

dhan: You spent a very short time as a programmer and author. In 1999 we had Winchester's Nightmare and the next year you created Ad Verbum, which won the best puzzles prize in the XYZZY Awards. Later came the translation of Olvido Mortal (Dead Reckoning). But it seems you have left your work as an interactive fiction creator. Why is that? Do you have any project in mind now?

nm: Your question is painful but appropriate. Allow me to offer some excuses for not writing IF recently. Since I wrote Ad Verbum I have been working on three books: 2002: A Palindrome Story (with William Gillespie, Spineless Books, 2002), The New Media Reader (co-editor, with Noah Wardrip-Fruin, MIT Press, 2003), and of course Twisty Little Passages. Also, I taught university classes for the first time, and taught full-time for one semester, and then I moved to a new city and started a difficult Ph.D. program. Finally, it took me a long time to translate Dead Reckoning. I have some reading ability in Spanish, of course, and have studied literary translation and done some translation from Spanish, but I'm not fluent; translating wasn't easy. I wouldn't allow myself to work on my own interactive fiction until I finished the translation, because otherwise I knew I would end up putting aside the translation forever. Also, most of my friends and colleagues in new media don't really take the time to look at interactive fiction, and they certainly don't review it in the established places, so that was another small force that pushed me away from IF and towards other creative writing projects for the computer.

However, I do plan to write more interactive fiction in the future, hopefully after I complete the writing project that I am working on this year, a collaboration with Scott Rettberg. I have several IF projects in mind, and one seems more likely to work out than others. But I am still not even in the early stages of working on it.

dhan: Why did you decide to translate Olvido Mortal? Did you play the original translation, Shattered Memory?

nm: No, actually at first I only read the reactions to it online, and read about how it was disqualified from the IF Competition. Then I went and played Olvido Mortal. I looked at Shattered Memory only briefly; I think I finished a draft of my translation before I played Shattered Memory all the way through. I thought Olvido Mortal was pretty interesting, and I was disappointed in two things: First, that Shattered Memory was disqualified from the IF Comp -- come on, do we really need to do even more to discourage the translation of IF? Second, that, based on newsgroup discussion, Shattered Memory didn't give the best impression of Spanish IF to English players.

I thought that a good literary translation into English could accomplish several things: make people aware that interesting IF was being done in other languages; make people aware that the quality of translation, and the quality of writing and implementation, is important; and of course actually provide a nice piece of interactive fiction to English-speaking players. Of course, some people were puzzled about the appearance of a new translation when there was one to begin with, which I thought would happen. But I was very pleased to read Emily Short's review of Dead Reckoning, which gives some idea of why I did the translation. At least Emily (who had only played Shattered Memory briefly) finally got to experience Olvido Mortal more completely as a result of my translation; I hope some others did, also.

dhan: Have you played any other Spanish IF?

nm: I played "Aventura"! Now if I ever find myself in a Spanish-speaking cave, I should be well prepared. I have not played anything else, but I would love some recommendations. I suspect that there are many English-speaking IF players with a little knowledge of Spanish who are eager to improve their Spanish and would be also interested in knowing what games would be best to play.

We wish Nick good luck with his book and IF projects, and we hope that someday it becomes a reality for IF to be considered an art and not a minor genre. See you, Nick!

[*] I suggest that you disable JavaScript before visiting SPAC if you would like to read the magazine rather than the hosting company's advertisements. -nm

[**] The free translation service offered online at Altavista. And, obviously, I'm not safe if I make a translation of the interview available. -nm

(See the main Twisty Little Passages page for other information about the book.)