Recently, a close friend of mine found herself at a crossroads in her writing journey. She had been primarily focused on crafting short stories, but a growing desire to delve into longform storytelling led her to question which format would be better suited for her creative aspirations. Recognizing the distinct differences between interactive fiction and traditional novels, she sought advice from me and even though i had my personal take on it, i wanted to know the opinions of the writers on here that have tackled both mediums.
I can only go with my own experience, but I found the process of writing interactive fiction far harder than a standalone novel. For starters: it’s much larger. Vampire’s Kiss currently weighs in at 169,000 words, which to put into context is 2 1/2 times the length of Treasure Island, and not too far off American Gods. That is a lot to write, particularly to deadline.
The other issue is how you have to maintain continuity and account for major differences, from a character’s status and standing, to the general world state. This means you end up getting larger and larger chapters as you go on, and it becomes even more important to control those threads. You’ve also got to come up with three or four fun options for each decision, and sometimes that’s not easy. As an author, you can’t play favorites and you have to make each path as engaging and valid as the others.
Finally, a major challenge is that the protagonist has to be, well, anyone. The whole aim is to never feel you are making a choice about how a protagonist feels or will react, as it’s the audience’s journey. This is in direct contradiction to a novel, where the protagonist usually has a clear voice, and a clear personality. Writing a character that deliberately avoids that, and personality is instead dictated by the action (rather than action resulting from it) is something tough to get to grips with.
The plus side? You can play out how different scenarios go, and see how your world works. The world-building is far greater, as you can really dive off into interesting directions. I think it also gives readers a greater sense of ownership and connection to the work: I want my players to feel this is their adventure, and I’m merely creating the sandbox, rather than dictating the story as you would in a traditional novel format.
As someone who writes not just traditional novels and IF, but also visual novels, I can tell you that all three mediums are entirely different beasts with some things in common.
The first two are heavily dependent on the reader’s imagination, while the third relies heavily on visuals (obviously from the name itself). And I can say that IF is a step beyond traditional novels, but are behind VNs in terms of overall presentation.
Interactive is so much harder, in my opinion. There’s a… level of relinquishing control, so to speak, that isn’t there with traditional novels. The character arc you had for MC may not be possible with an IF MC, or the love story you wanted to do is now technically a love story between MC and 4 other characters.
Not only that, but there’s the choices themselves. Instead of doing one scene, one conversation, now you’re writing an additional 3, or 4, etc. for different personalities and such. Instead of MC going with Sean for coffee, it’s MC can have coffee with Sean, or Marie, etc.
They’re different animals for sure. I personally find interactive narrative easier, after having written a few unpublished and many more unfinished novels when I was younger but having spent the last decade mostly doing interactive work. I like the changeable nature of interactive narrative. Focusing on player experience and agency gives me a clearer built-in structure than with a novel, which feels a lot more “free” to me in an intimidating way.
I think that’s why I’ve always found IF easier as well.
I think writing a novel easier because there is less worry about what your reader wants. The story will only go where I as the author wants to. It makes the story easier to write and streamlines it.
With IF you have to tell the same story multiple times with variations which can have huge effects on the story and you have to be more aware what your readers might want and accommodate that which makes it more difficult. However I find myself enjoying writing IF more because it makes me approach a scene in multiple ways and ask myself questions I wouldn’t have asked.
Let me do a quick example. Let’s say we have a story called “Generic Demon Hunter Dave”.
In a novel we as the author decide everything that happens to Dave, his actions and the actions of the characters around him. So we can make him forgive Bob his mentor figure and together they defeat the big demon boss.
Now in a IF we have to take into account what the reader might want. They might not want to forgive Bob so now we have to offer that option and then see how it affects the story. Without forgiving Bob, Dave won’t team up with him at the end so he will either be alone or he would have to find someone else to help. (Sure we can introduce Canon events but we do still need to offer choices that can have further reaching effects).
So the novel version of “Generic Demon Hunter Dave” would be easier to write but I think the IF version would be more interesting/fun to write.
I enjoy writing interactive fiction more, probably because I like crafting stories that depend on the reader. Writing a book is nice, but it always felt slightly empty to me. I keep second-guessing myself on what would be good pacing, and how to keep the reader engaged. I think it’s because I’ve always loved roleplaying and gamemastering as well, the interaction with the reader is a kick for me. And protagonist in IFs can be just as strong as in books, no blank slate needed.
I’d argue that this isn’t always the case. Some of the best regarded games here are the recent I, the Forgotten One and the Fallen Hero series, and the heroes in them are fairly preset with what I would consider distinct voices and personalities. Sure, there are differences between, say, an envious MC and a supportive one and things of that nature, but they’re still far from a blank slate progatonist. They’ve got beliefs and convictions and they will act on them in ways that you don’t get to dictate.
As a game writer (both of mod material and of game content) of traditional games and IF games, I find the pressures from both to be different.
Writing interactive fiction has an added pressure to make sure that all the variable narratives I write provide a consistency and a uniformity throughout. It isn’t a matter of having exact words or the same events… it is more of a need to make sure that the reader’s/player’s experience is comparable no matter which particular version they end up pursuing.
I’ll give an example: When I wrote material for a Holy Roman Empire player in a strategy game, I did not care if a player of Persia experienced the game in a totally different manner. The two experiences were meant to be different from the get-go, and that is the attraction and the source of the gameplay for both. There can be multiple narratives that conflict, contradict and even rewrite the entire experience without worry.
On the other hand, when a reader/player makes a choice in my interactive fiction, I have to make sure that each possible choice fits within the singular narrative being told. Each reader/player should experience different possibilities of the same narrative, with a common narrative thread remaining with each person reading/playing.
I find both traditional game writing and interactive fiction game writing fulfilling for different reasons, but at this moment in my writing evolution, I find writing IF to be more challenging and thus more exhilarating for me.
I feel similarly. Player choice, reactivity, and agency spark ideas about plots and character nuances that I might not have even thought of if I were writing non interactive work. On a personal level, I’m always thinking about players when I’m making interactive work in a way that I wasn’t always thinking about readers when writing novels, and I find player response to my games more rewarding and less stressful (perhaps partly because my novels were a hobby rather than seriously looking to publish).
In general I find thinking about the big picture/shape of an IF easier than for a novel, though I think for both it’s a matter of practice and skill development.
In general, interactive fiction is absolutely harder and (often) less fun to write. I don’t care how much of an IF nut you are, nobody enjoys writing 4+ branches deep into an optional conversation with an optional secondary character. At that point you’re desperately trying to hook the branch back to the main one, all while keeping in mind any piece of information or details you mention will be missed by a vast majority of players.
You’ll either have to create a variable to track that or just carry on assuming that the detail itself is optional (and therefore won’t be brought up again). And that’s just one ball in this juggling act.
Everything has an opportunity cost. When you create a protagonist who can have ten different personalities, you’ll have ten protagonists with weaker personalities than any set protagonist would have in their place. That’s a trade-off. When you create gender-flippable romance options, or have romances optional in general, you weaken those characters and those romances. That’s also a trade-off.
For most readers here, they’re willing to make those trades in order to customize their experience, or self-insert into the story, and so on. It’s important to keep in mind that the “interactive” part of interactive fiction is on a spectrum, and choicegames lean heavily on the more interactive side (whereas visual novels tend to be less interactive).
For your friend, I think it really comes down to what sort of goals she has with her writing. If it’s solely for enjoyment or if she wants to write the best prose she possibly can (without worrying about branches and variables), then I’d go the traditional novel route. But if she’s up for more of a challenge and unique experience–even at the cost of some control over characters and scenes–then writing a choicegame is a great way to go.
I do! I am admittedly an IF nut though
I think I’d find a regular novel harder, actually. For an IF I get to write a narrative landscape that the reader gets to explore; all the ways through need to be fun, but no single one needs to be perfect. In a non-interactive novel, I’d need to be confident that the route I’ve picked through the potential landscape is the single best one – not just that the prose is the best it possibly can be, but the plot and characters too. That would be a lot more stress-inducing for me. And I’d end up scrapping so much good written material that gets to stay reader-accessible in an IF.
And sure, IF is longer, but I’d be long-winded in long-form no matter what. I’d be like Raymond Feist or Terry Brooks, spinning out endless sequel series exploring different corners of my world, or Marilynne Robinson falling so in love with my characters that I rewrite the same (great) novel four times. With XoR, the “alternative perspective” sequels are part of the original.
I’m not enough of an IF nut to claim that I don’t sometimes get tired of wrapping up an extended choice block – not because I ever think “no one will read this” (because after a decade on the forum having people quote my stuff back to me, it’s clear that someone’s going to find every obscure corner) but because in any fiction, there are going to be some bits that are more of a slog to finish. My unfinished novels had plenty of stretches that were a drag to write.
I think this is absolutely right. If your friend wants to create an experience where she as author is fully in control of the way the story rolls out, then a novel’s the better way to go. If she likes the idea of a story that she co-creates with the reader, or an explorable story that has no single best way through, then go with IF.
Re: the 4+ pieces of side-narrative, actually… that’s one of the fun things for me, too. I don’t usually go that deep (typically, I try and keep conversations branching back to the main branch, if not the main narrative - I prefer to have different major paths that are wildly different and have major implications on the game), but sometimes I have because I get to drop in, at the bottom of a conversation path 3, 4, even 5 branches deep, a single line that changes the entire context of a character, a relationship, or the dynamic of the plot.
Part of the fun is hoping players will seek out these routes, and discover exciting secrets or childish Easter eggs. No spoilers for the main game - there are much bigger secrets that are hidden under multiple choices - but early on, I did create one path (and one path only) that results in the player discovering one of the characters has an ardent hatred of a particular band. That kind of silly stuff is immensely fun to weave into a story, and while you can do it in a traditional narrative, it would ruin the pace.
I guess I go back to old school gaming. Remember Metal Gear Solid? Where you could either just complete the mission, or you could phone up one of his team and have a chat with them about really specific things? I like that approach. It means you can play it your way.
Torn here, because I can definitely find this sort of thing an absolute slog - but my determination is guided by the knowledge that I’m now writing a special little treat that only one out of every hundred or so people will ever see.
“Yes, you have delved off the beaten track on your fourth play-through, and your reward shall be a tiny snippet of dialogue, backstory or lore that helps inform the broader themes of the world! Or maybe it’s a description of a cat.”
And I know they’ll love it because they’re exactly the same type of weirdo player as me.