The World is Your Playground: Interactive Fiction, Place, and the Internet of Things

Photograph of the PDP-10 Mainframe By Retro-Computing Society of Rhode Island - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Photograph of the PDP-10 Mainframe By Retro-Computing Society of Rhode Island - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Some of the most interesting developments in storytelling have come from co-opting technologies that were never intended for creative use – twisting their functionality to serve more imaginative purposes. One of the very first interactive fictions, for instance, the 1976 text adventure game Adventure, was originally written for the PDP-10 mainframe computer whose full installation occupied an entire room. In addition to the vast amounts of electrical power this computer required to run, it needed heavy-duty air-conditioning to ensure that it didn’t overheat.

Taking advantage of the fact that the PDP-10 was controlled by means of instructions entered on a keyboard, programmer Will Crowther wrote a story that required the reader (or player) to type in commands (‘enter building’ or ‘get keys’ for example) to move the narrative forward. Essentially a technology-enabled solo version of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game first published two years earlier, Adventure was the precursor to all the text adventure games which became so popular amongst a generation of ZX Spectrum users in the 1980s, from The Hobbit through to Hampstead (recently rereleased in an iPhone version) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; ultimately, it led to today’s generation of action role-playing games such as Horizon Zero Dawn and the Witcher series.

The computing power of our smartphones and tablets now far exceeds that of the PDP-10 (though overheating can still be a problem) and storytelling has become one of their most popular usages. Smartphones are increasingly replacing dedicated e-readers as the preferred device for reading eBooks; moreover, audiobook sales have doubled in only five years as digital downloads replace heavy box-sets of CDs.

Few of the fictions that readers enjoy on their smartphones, however, make much use of the myriad possibilities such devices offer for interactivity, multimedia and geo-location; the vast majority are simply digital re-renderings of stories written for print. Narratives such as Iain Pears’s Arcadia – which allows readers to choose strands of storyline to follow, reordering the tale according to their particular interest – and Faber’s Malcolm Tucker: The Missing Phone, in which the reader’s phone takes the place of the potty-mouthed political adviser’s, are very much the exception.

Screenshot of the Heart and Bottle App

Screenshot of the Heart and Bottle App

The apparent commercial failure of many of the early attempts to take advantage of the affordances of smartphones and tablets has seen some of the most interesting and innovative apps disappear from app stores as their publishers decide that the cost of updating them for new operating systems is not worth the expected poor return. The app versions of Oliver Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, both published in 2011, for instance, have long since vanished from the Apple appstore, existing only in broken versions on buyers’ devices and on promotional websites long since abandoned by their publishers.

This seems a wasted opportunity. And yet innovative forms of narrative have a habit of recovering from such apparent setbacks to find new audiences. Though the type of interactive fiction exemplified by the text adventures that followed Adventure has long since declined from the commercial peak it enjoyed during the 1980s, it has nevertheless evolved and still retains a devoted and participatory community that congregates around websites such as the IF Archive and the annual Interactive Fiction Competition. Free tools like Twine and inklewriter allow enthusiasts to create their own fictions without needing to be able to code and the form also still spawns the occasional commercial hit. Inkle’s 80 Days, one of the most acclaimed games of recent years, available across a range of platforms, is, after all, essentially a hypertext fiction in which readers click links to advance the story, a format pioneered by Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story, back in 1987.

Meanwhile, new opportunities are emerging to appropriate technologies never intended for creative use, allowing for the development of new kinds of stories. Wearable technology, in the form of Fitbit’s and Jawbone’s fitness trackers or smart watches like Apple’s, has become widely adopted over the past few years, as we become increasingly keen to know just how many steps we have taken, or calories we have expended, every day. Simultaneously, the idea of the smart home is moving closer to becoming an everyday reality as Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot devices gain in popularity.

A world in which wearable technology is increasingly prevalent and many heating/lighting devices are smartphone-controlled generates new opportunities for writers. Imagine listening to a ghost story on your phone one dark winter evening in your smart home, where that phone can not only flash your lights on and off, and drop the temperature at appropriate moments, but can also monitor the effect that this has on your pulse rate, and tailor the story accordingly. These might seem like gimmicks, but they’re just a few of the opening steps towards a new type of interactivity that goes far beyond that offered by conventional interactive fictions.

Five years ago, I was one of the mentors on ReactHub’s Books and Print Sandbox projects, which explored interesting ways of bringing books and print together with newer technologies to create new kinds of reader experience. One of those projects, called Jekyll 2.0, sought to rework Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel into an interactive experience, bringing back to centre stage the body horror that is so much a part of the original story. I remember its creators describing a scenario in which the participant would be eavesdropping on a conversation, and how what happened next would depend on the volume of their breathing: breathe quietly enough and they would hear some vital information; but if they were too loud, then they’d be discovered and the narrative would take a different turn.

Smart devices make it much easier to create such fictions, where readers’ own bodies and environments become part of the story. I’m fascinated by the work currently being done by the Ambient Literature project, including several alumni from the Books and Print Sandbox, which explores “what it means when the place where you’re reading becomes the stage for the story”. (The first of their three experimental fictions is expected later this year.) My own doctoral research – exploring how mobile devices are changing the relationship between author, text, and reader – includes a creative component designed to be experienced on a walk through Brompton Cemetery, which allows participants to engage with fictionalised versions of the cemetery’s permanent residents. Such location-based, technology-enabled stories are perhaps unlikely to replace traditional fictions in the public’s affections, but they offer fertile ground for experimentation that may yet yield results.