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Interactive Fiction on the Web

Modern Storytelling: The Digital Tradition

By Susan Dumett

On Friday April 11, 1958, two members of the Izard family were found murdered in their home. The couple's children disappeared the same day. Forty years later, Doris Hammack, age 42, has come forward, claiming to be one of the missing children.

Sound like a case for Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot? In fact, this is just one of several unsolved mysteries the Law Enforcement Division of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi (U.S.A.), hopes you will help it solve.

Fans of William Faulkner will recognize Yoknapatawpha County as the fictional location in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning author set most of his stories. But it's Tom Arriola, an actor and Web site developer -- not Faulkner -- who is the mastermind behind the Izard story and others like it on the Crime Scene Web site. Arriola constructs cases based on factual information, and then admittedly makes them a "little more dramatic at times" to engage readers' interest.

While readers of most paperback mystery stories are led down a single plot line, Crime Scene readers actively create a story line and participate in solving cases by asking questions of the detective (who is Arriola), by offering observations, and even by providing leads. In addition to crafting a central story, Arriola creates detailed "evidence" -- newspaper clippings, photographs, even audio and video interviews with witnesses and suspects -- that visitors to the site use to piece together the case.

The Internet as Theater

"I see a lot of parallels between the Internet and theater," says Arriola, who views Crime Scene as an experiment in theater. "It used to be people went to the theater to be totally drawn in, to love the characters, and be swept away by the story."

Arriola's intention is to make people think the investigations are real -- at least at first. "People view these files and have nightmares or break down into tears -- [it] seems so real, so immediate, that you can't look away," he says. In fact, he recently received e-mail from a forensics teacher congratulating him on fooling her into believing the Crime Scene investigations were true.

Crime Scene is just one example of a growing form of online entertainment: interactive fiction. Across the Internet, authors and Web designers who share a love of storytelling and technology are combining their passions to create a type of entertainment that requires the audience to participate and dictate the course of the story. Arriola thinks there is great future for interactive fiction -- and for people interested in pushing the boundaries of a new form of entertainment -- on the Internet. "I expect the Web to become a new staging ground," he says.

Readers As Authors

The course of interactive fiction is based on hypertext -- a body of text connected to other bodies of text. (The journal Telecine contains an interesting essay on the use of hypertext in interactive fiction.) While books, television shows, movies, and traditional theater are considered linear -- the author and characters guide the audience down a specific path to the end of the story -- interactive fiction usually has no single direct path through a story, and the course of the story is driven by each reader's choices.

Each reader's choice and its corresponding story line often is based on a series of preceding options and often is followed by several forks in the road. Readers of books who generally put themselves in the shoes of one or more characters, get to take that experience one step further and make decisions for that character. "Interactive fiction is popular because it's new and exploratory," says Stephen Linhart, creator of Button Talk, software that translates stories with multiple plot lines into HTML format. "But also because when it's done right, it gives great freedom to the reader."

For instance, Linhart's story, The Luminous Dome, begins with the following text:


First moon of autumn is waning. But still it weaves a path on the swift and noisy waters. Beyond the river, a strange luminous dome hangs in the night. Its glittering surface isn't the work of your own people. But surely it cannot be the crude work of mortals.

The fragrant woodland beckons to you with night secrets. But none could be more wondrous than the glowing dome across the river.

Which is followed by these five options:

Return most swift to report your discovery to the Queen.

Drink of the dark noisy waters.

Attend the voices of the night.

Cross the shimmering path of moon beams.

Delve into the secret places of the forest.

What lies across the moon beams? What happens if you drink the dark, noisy water? Each option creates a different story line and subsequently poses more choices and experiences. In a sense, readers write their own stories using the information and materials provided by the interactive author.

Endless Possibilities

Interactive fiction comes in many shapes, sizes, and genres. In addition to mysteries and science fiction fantasy story lines, online audiences can tune into the adventures of Adventurer Al, a crass, bungling superhero created by Jason Puckett, a high school student from Moraga, California (U.S.A.). "I thought up the idea for Adventurer Al because there are so many creative directions in which to develop the character," he says. "And people love it."

There's also Amnesia, an interactive novel created by readers making choices about the main characters; The Lord Mayor's Yacht, a mystery set in 1596 in Cardiff, Wales; Virtual Nashville, a story in which readers try to land a virtual country music contract; Escape from Westfield, which gives readers the choice of becoming one of four characters trying to escape suburbia; Dream Cruise, a story about a not-so-relaxing ocean cruise; and, which features daily mini-mysteries that engage readers on the Web site and via e-mail.

While some interactive stories are supplemented by graphics and multimedia elements including audio and video, many are simply text with no added frills. There are usually no special technical requirements for getting access to the latter category, and like a good book, users can enjoy the medium alone or with friends and family, reading the stories aloud and making group decisions about how to progress.

The Economics of Interactive Fiction

Steve Schaffer of San Francisco-based Newfront Productions, which creates, says that more than 200,000 registered users currently receive clues by e-mail each week. In addition to mysteries for adults, the site offers special cases for kids to solve. Unlike Crime Scene, whose plots develop over several weeks and can take time for readers to solve, TheCase.Com provides a quick daily dose of entertainment. " appeals to a wide audience," Schaffer says. "We think there is a huge market opportunity for quality online fiction and interactive stories." Puckett agrees and says corporate Web sites that feature regularly updated interactive stories -- such as online serial soap operas -- could see an increase in repeat visitors.

So what about the economics of online storytelling? Currently, while some material is free, other interactive content is available only on a subscriber basis. Linhart thinks interactive storytelling can be sustained by advertising -- either through corporate sponsorship or simple banner ads. Arriola, for his part, has been offered deals to license his Crime Scene content with America Online and New Line Cinema for one year, with an agreement to sell the Japanese language rights to a major Asian publisher.

Susan Dumett is a writer for PreText, Inc., a Seattle-based Web design and content company. PreText publishes PreText Magazine, an online publication that explores the issues shaping cyberspace and the digital media.


Crime Scene:

Essay, "What is Hypertext?" by Charles Deemer:

Button Talk Software:

Adventurer Al:


The Lord Mayor's Yacht:

Virtual Nashville:

Escape from Westfield:

Dream Cruise:

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