Twisty Little Passages

by Nick Montfort

Cover image

Publisher: MIT Press
Copyright: 2003
Printing: 2005
ISBN: 0-262-63318-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 233

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"You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building."

For many of my friends who took a more traditional path to computing through home computers, their first memories of video games are early home graphical systems, or perhaps typed in to an early Commodore. Because of my dad's job, my first experience with computers was connecting to a VMS mainframe through a terminal. The mainframe was used for Serious Work, but it also had copies of the DECUS tapes, including the freely available games. I have fond (if sometimes frustrating) memories of Star Trek and Moria, but the text adventure games were the most memorable, some of the earliest, and the games into which I put the most time. I'm not sure if Adventure was the first computer game I ever played, but if not it was close.

I ran across Twisty Little Passages while following links from a review of Montfort and Ian Bogost's Racing the Beam and immediately bought a copy. Text adventure games, or interactive fiction to use the more inclusive term, used to be huge in the commercial game market in the 1980s during the heyday of Infocom but have died completely except as the inspiration of a few graphical exploration games in the style of Myst. With that commercial death, they've dropped out of public awareness as well. Graphical exploration games, while sharing some properties with interactive fiction, have replaced text input and the challenges and surprises of a text parser with a graphical interface, gaining predictability and simplicity but limiting the available actions to essentially object manipulation. Montfort discusses that evolution briefly, but Twisty Little Passages concentrates on games with a text parser, which still survive and thrive among hobbyists despite their disappearance from the commercial marketplace.

Twisty Little Passages attempts to be three things: a formal introduction to interactive fiction that defines terminology and places it in both a literary and computing context, an argument for a particular critical approach to interactive fiction based on similarities to riddles, and a history of the field from the precursors of Adventure through the Infocom games and concluding with the state of the hobbyist field in 2002. Of those, the history was the most successful. The introduction and argument are worthwhile but flawed.

Montfort opens with terminology and a general introduction, which is unfortunate for pacing if probably necessary. Much of the introduction is formal and academic, introducing a lot of words with very precise definitions of the type that can feel nit-picking. Included are somewhat uninteresting terminology arguments. Montfort makes good use of a transcript from For a Change (a freely-available work of interactive fiction from 1999), but otherwise as someone already familiar with the basics of interactive fiction, I found the introduction a bit of a slog.

The next chapter, which discusses the history of riddles and makes the case for riddles as the traditional literary form closest to interactive fiction, can also be slow going. The argument was interesting and seemed natural to me — many of the text adventure games I played made direct use of riddles, reinforcing the connection — but there was a bit too much about riddles that wasn't directly related to interactive fiction. I would have preferred material better mixed with discussion of IF works, ideally with more specific examples.

After those two chapters, though, Montfort hits his stride. The history of interactive fiction starting with chapter three was fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable. I played a great deal of Adventure and Dungeon (a modified version of the original Zork, as distinct from the sometimes quite-different Zork I, Zork II, and Zork III for smaller computers), so I expected to enjoy those chapters for the nostalgia and background on games that I loved. However, not only were those as good as expected, but so were later chapters on Infocom and the more recent independent interactive fiction creations such as Galatea and Curses.

Twisty Little Passages is very specifically focused on interactive fiction with textual input and an English parser. Montfort obviously has to draw the line somewhere, and 230 pages is only enough room to give a cursory history of the post-Infocom days of the field. But the line is drawn very sharply and works straying outside that focus are discussed briefly at best. This unfortunately neglects some of the influence that interactive fiction has had on the current games market, the commercial evolution of interactive fiction into the Sierra games and Myst, and connections with aspects of modern computer RPGs (which often include puzzles). I was particularly disappointed by the lack of deep discussion of the early Sierra games. They had a text parser and textual commands, but used a graphical depiction of the world, making them a sort of boundary form. Montfort does well within his scope, but I would have loved to read more exploration of the tradeoffs in world design and interactivity between graphical adventures, interactive fiction, and hybrids such as the early Sierra games.

With that caveat, and with some reservations about the slow first couple of chapters, I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in interactive fiction or fond memories of text adventure games. Montfort does more than recount lists of games. He analyzes the evolving nature of the interaction with the world, relates the parser and world model to work in AI, and shows how far the form has expanded beyond exploration and treasure collecting. It's a good overview and the beginning of an analysis and discussion that I hope will be continued.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-06-25

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21