Oh boy boy-o, I take a break from editing an essay on this very subject to come here and now it’s time to rewrite my essay on this very subject once more. But I’ll condense it from seven pages to a couple of paragraphs because I doubt any of you want to read a full seven pages about the benefits of interactive fiction and how it’s evolved since ye ole days of hypertext fiction.
For me one of the most interesting things about interactive fiction is the way it effects immersion and the way, as an author, I think about plot and character.
In linear fiction the reader relies on the narrator for their story and, thusly, their immersion. The narrator functions as a conduit, allowing reader to experience a story not as a bystander but as a participant in the plot itself. However, the reader can still never truly be fully immersed. For the narrator is not them, such is made clear by the distinct point of view (in first person, it makes it clear you are seeing it through someone else’s eyes, in third you float above the crowd watching) and the fact that the reader has no real affect on the story’s progression that they are not really a part of it. They are experiencing it along with the characters in the book but they are still not a part of the book itself. Even those written in second person such as Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (which is a fantastic book by the way, definitely recommend it) it’s made clear that you are not the protagonist because the protagonist will act according to his own will and wants and wishes with no input from you. The protagonist still has his own identity that separates reader from the reality of the fiction. And while this gap can be shortened if you line up with the identity of the protagonist, if even the smallest part of you is different, or if even the smallest part of you disagrees with one action that the protagonist takes, it puts a block between the ‘you’ dictated in second person of the book, and the you reading about the ‘you’ of the book.
Now take interactive fiction. You can first of all take away the conduit of a narrator and shove the reader in there as the narrator- an evolved form of If on a winter’s night a traveller’s narrative styling. You are the narrator- the one who has the thoughts and emotions and actions on the story. This is almost as close to a full immersion as a solely text-based form can get. The more your actions effect the story, and the more your thoughts effect the ‘you’ of the book, the more the reader becomes a character themself- no longer separated by the imposed view of the narrator.
And that’s where the reader begins to even have an effect on the author and the way stories are composed. In a way, the reader- or at least the disembodied idea of ‘a reader’- will now have an effect on how the story progresses. Plot, choices, characters, you name it and what could have been written in a static, self-contained bubble of existence in linear fiction must now become at least somewhat flexible and branching in order to accommodate for this new layer of immersion. Because the deeper the immersion runs- the higher the risk it has of being broken. The more a reader falls into the place of the narrator the more that those small moments where they think ‘Well, I wouldn’t do that’ become all the more jarring. Before, in linear fiction, these could be brushed aside as silly actions of the narrator, of someone not you. But now that the goal is to make you in the story those small immersion hiccups can be reality-breaking for the imposed narrative. Therefore, it forces the author writing an immersive interactive fiction to think more about the different kinds of actions a person might make in any given situation, and how many multiple personalities might respond to the same situation. How must the plot change to accommodate for a pessimist? An optimist? A do-gooder or a villain? How must the reactions of the characters change? These thoughts are unique to interactive fiction because interactive fiction does not have the static narrator that linear fiction, or really almost any other type of media, does. This can lead to stories of people who never would have had the spotlight beforehand. But now the author must account for the reader’s continual presence in the fiction of their world.
I compared it once when trying to explain the thing I was writing to a friend to basically giving the author a stronger tool, but at the same time adding on the caveat that in order for that tool to be used effectively the reader has to use the tool in the same way at the same time. You can do whatever it is you want to do, get across whatever it is you want to get across, and bring the player into the text with more effectiveness than ever before- but if the reader doesn’t want to use the tool in the specific way you’ve set out, the tool will break and crumble. It forces you to get creative and think about the situation you want to use the tool for in many different ways- see just how many different angles you can use the tool at. But if you do use it correctly, then the effect will be stronger than just about any other tool out there.
EDIT; Whew, that was wordy. Sorry. I should probably add on an:
TL;DR - The most unique thing about interactive fiction to me is the fact that it can put the reader in the story, instead of just watching it go by, and how that effects how the story is written itself.