Nick Montfort on Interactive Fiction

Nick Montfort is an interactive fiction writer, author of Twisty Little Passages and Phd candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.

For more information on Nick Montfort, please visit his site:

Excerpt from: Outside the Box: New Cinematic Experiences (2005)



While some writers dream of creating the next best selling paper back novel, others seek to push the boundaries of the written word by creating new forms of writing.

In Interactive Fiction, the reader takes an active role in the outcome of the story. The plot can change based on what the participant types, which helps determine the ending of the story.

Nick Montfort, author of Twisty Little Passages and interactive fiction writer, on IF.


Interactive fiction has made a lot of interesting progress in the past almost thirty years. And the idea of the riddle provides a unified view of what it is that interactive fiction work could aspire to… a way that all the pieces of it could come together and be more than what they were to begin with. So that just having good writing, just having a good puzzle doesn’t really make a good interactive fiction work. But when it’s unified, into an overall powerful riddle, the work is something much greater.

Ad Verbum is a work of interactive fiction that I put together in 2000. It’s typical interactive fiction in its form in that one gives it commands, one wanders around in a house in a sort of treasure hunt. The plot, characters and the basic setting of it aren’t particularly spectacular. But if I did achieve something there, I think what it was to create an experience that combined gaming with literary experience. So that when one was solving a puzzle, the interacter had to do the same type of thing that I was doing when I was writing ad verbum. The types of constrained writing that I had to do are essentially what’s required of a person going through that environment and solving puzzles.


A prelude to interactive fiction is Mark Saporta’s 1961 book Composition no. 1. It is a story about X, a gambler who among other things serves in the French Army during World War II, has a disastrous marriage and is involved in a car accident. Nevertheles, the events do not necessarily happen is this order because the book contains 150 loose, unnumbered pages in a box which the reader is instructed to shuffle and then begin reading


Mark Saporta’s Composition #1, a box of pages that’s to be shuffled and read in any order, is an intriguing book because for the first time, it seems, someone conceived of a novel not as a sequence of pages that would always be presented in the same way, but as something that the reader could come to and arrange any way they wanted. And that in some sense, it would still make sense.

So, as an author, Mark Saporta was showing how you could provide many text fragments that didn’t have to sit in one particular order, that could be reconfigured. And of course, if we want users to be able to choose their own paths, either directly by determining the plot or indirectly by influencing some other effect, this is exactly the type of writing we need to do.


According to Montfort the idea of the riddle is the core to success of creating an interactive fiction piece


The riddle concept in interactive fiction is, I think, a very central way to understand why it is good interactive fiction works succeed. So, when you look at a piece of interactive fiction it may be the case that the text is good reading, that there are some nice puzzles, but if it doesn’t all fit together, if it doesn’t serve an overall purpose, the whole game doesn’t really work. And the reason that some games do work is because they follow this idea of the literary riddle. By this I don’t mean a knock knock joke, but rather the powerful sort of poem that presents a transformed object or a transformed place and asks that the person who’s listening to the poem actually guess what it is.

Now, whether the riddle itself is something that is particularly useful for interactive cinema, and it may be because graphical adventure games have used this concept with some very good success. But whether or not the riddle is actually something that, by itself, is a good figure, there has to be something like that in interactive cinema and all sorts of new media types of exploits that provides a way to understand how all of the pieces are going to fit together. It’s not enough in an interactive cinema piece to have a good scene or a clever interactive trick. But rather, the way the whole thing works must fit in some particular way. So, one of the things that interactive fiction can show is that there are unifying figures that provide an idea how the poetics of this form; how it is that the making of interactive fiction can look at something as a model.