What is interactive fiction?
A lot of choice-based interactive fiction is similar to Choose Your Own Adventure novels, except modern interactive fiction is usually 100% digital and released as an app rather than an e-book. This has led to a culture in which a lot of IF lets the reader choose their own name, gender, and even sexuality. Suddenly every character is a strong female hero!
How is it different to writing straight novels?
It’s all about choices, and there is an expectation that the reader has a lot of control. That means shorter, punchier scenes and often writing in second person and/or present tense. The more choice the reader has over the personality of the main character, the more the character feels like a blank slate at the beginning of the story. There’s also an innate frustration for both the writer and the reader, because interactive fiction gives the illusion of total freedom… but the only true freedom is a blank page. An interactive fiction story should also be able to be “replayed” meaning that a reader should be able to get a completely different experience of the book by making different choices. That means that most or all of the possible endings leave the reader thinking, “But what if I’d done such-and-such? Was it really worth prioritising my marriage over my career?”
I finished Attack of the Clockwork Army, and Choice of Games put it on their Hosted Games label, meaning that I’d get royalties only. No-one had heard of me and I’d never sold an interactive story before, but it earned me about $2000 anyway. I was stunned that there was such a market for interactive books, and I had an excuse to write more. I now work for Tin Man Games, which is a truly fantastic and internationally-famous Australian game company. They’re also a lot of fun to work with.
I like Brendan Patrick Henessy (Birdland), Eric Moser (Community College Hero 1), Kevin Gold, (Choice of Robots), and anything by Emily Short (except for Galatea, which is probably her most famous work).
What advice would you give beginners to interactive fiction?
If you’ve written a few novels and you want to earn money, start by sending your writing credits to Choice of Games. If you’re fascinated by the form, jump into Twine and have a play (Birdland was written in Twine). It’s free and takes about ten minutes to get started. If you’d like to test the waters, try entering a contest: The Windhammer Prize entries have to be both short and printable rather than digital. Introcomp is specifically designed for unfinished games. The Spring Thing welcomes beginners (they even have a “Back Garden” so critics know to mind their manners and be gentle with new people). The IF Comp is so huge a large number of reviewing blogs organise their year around it.
If you want to learn about the world of IF, then read blogs and games (most of the competitions above are publicly judged, so go play!)
Could you tell us a bit about your latest book?
The main character has the magical ability to carry the souls of the deceased (a form of magical last rites). They have a duty to face dangerous training, which they’ve avoided for some years. The story begins when the main character is on the cusp of adulthood. A powerful woman guesses they have magical talent, and demands their help. At the same time, an immortal white bear is stalking them. One way or another, they have to face their fears. Their life changes forever as a result.
They’re soon swept up in an international war between the living and the dead.
It’s a steampunk story set in the same magical steampunk universe as my novel Heart of Brass, but without any overlapping characters or plot (so no spoilers). Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten is set in a steampunk 1830s Europe, when Queen Victoria was a teenage princess and the power of steam was changing everyday life forever.
Is it a deliberate marketing strategy to have a novel and an interactive fiction app that use the same fantasy steampunk world?
Yes and no! People usually stick to what they like best—people who like novels are often bewildered by interactive fiction, and people who like interactive fiction often have a specific style or platform they’re addicted to. So technically, writing in the same universe on different platforms is a terrible idea.
At the same time, it amuses me—and I think I’m doing the interactive fiction world and the world of novel readers a favour by spreading the world about interactive fiction.
In fact, I have five different stories set in my magical steampunk world, and all of them are on wildly different platforms!
In chronological order by setting:
Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten – subscription story app on itunes or android.
Heart of Brass – novel
After the Flag Fell – short interactive story (a printable document)
Stuff and Nonsense – currently a Live Action Role Play; will be converted and entered in the 2016 IF Comp.
Attack of the Clockwork Army – interactive novel that has an option to play as a character from the novel