Interactive Fiction: Now You’re the Detective

Deadline by Marc Blank is a cornerstone of the interactive fiction mystery genre
I’m one of those people who shouts at a book when a character does something stupid or ignores a vital clue. I will smack the page with a “No, you idiot, the lamp. Look at the lamp. Don’t waste time with the knife.”

This can be awkward when I shout it at the TV or in the movie theater.

There are times, of course, when I’m absolutely wrong, but I still wish for the character to follow my instructions. I wish for the ability take over and control the action myself. This is more the case with crime and mystery stories. I want to solve the case rather than wait for it to be revealed to me. I want to interact more with the story.

Mystery and crime fiction, more than any other genre, invites the reader to take part in the story. It presents a puzzle and delivers clues to the reader. Then it stands up in a loud voice and says “I dare you to solve this. Can you figure it out before I tell you the answer? Go ahead. Give it your best shot.” Picking up the novel is the same as taking up the gauntlet. We pit ourselves against the story, struggling to navigate the red herrings and to gather the vital clues necessary to solve the crime before the big reveal.

The puzzle is the thing. We escape by becoming involved not only with the characters but also with the logical puzzle. Instead of simply riding along, we’re able to change our identities by putting on the hat of a detective, whether it’s Sherlock’s famous deerstalker or hard-boiled fedora worn by the likes of Spade and Marlowe. While we’re not able to literally walk around a crime scene—just as we’re not allowed to step onto the bridge of a starship, ride into a magical battle, or enjoy a kiss with a love interest—the puzzle itself is very real. We can take part in it. We’re privy to the same clues that the detective is, and we have a chance to make the same deductions based on the same evidence. We can truly interact with the story on this level. We can even revisit sections for clarification, much as a detective character might review notes.

An Act of Murder by Christopher Huang is an old-style country house murder mystery
Modern technology can take us a step further into this interactivity.

Ereaders, tablets, and smartphones have allowed for a resurgence in an interesting tangent of fiction. The reader can now take on a more interactive role in the reading of a novel. This technology takes two forms.

The first, and more widely known, is in the style of “Choose Your Own Adventure” texts. These texts consist of select pages in which the reader is presented with a multiple choice selection of how to proceed. This style of mystery first appeared in paperback books in which the reader was instructed to make a choice and then turn to a certain page to see how his choice played out. With modern hyperlinks this becomes a seamless experience in which the reader clicks on the desired choice and is taken to the result.

The second type of interactive fiction is more popularly known as a text adventure. Fiction of this sort follows the style of some of the earliest computer games such as Adventure and the more widely known Zork. In this case, the reader is presented with information and a cursor essentially asking “What do you want to do now?” From there, the reader takes control.

Instead of watching a detective character direct the action, the reader directs the action. If you, as the reader, want to know more about the vase on the mantle, you can pick it up and look at it. Take it with you. Break it. Question a suspect. Leave the crime scene. The reader becomes responsible for unearthing the clues and must decide where to spend time in the investigation.

Fiction of this type tends to be shorter than a full-length novel. Instead of a long, straightforward journey from beginning to end, the story has to accommodate multiple paths (some of them very grisly) to simulate a real experience. So the length of the story is somewhere between a short story and novella, but with branched endings to different results.

Make It Good by Jon Ingold is a complex, noirish detective story
The reader, though, because of the interactive nature, might spend more time immersed in this fictional world. Rereading the book suddenly has more appeal because it can literally turn out differently each time you read it. You might, for example, discover that breaking the vase does not reveal the key to the locked door, but instead releases cyanide. Next time you'll know: don’t break the vase.

New technology has reopened the door for this older technology. While graphical games long ago replaced interactive fiction, interactive fiction did not disappear. Thriving communities on the outskirts of the Internet have always been around, and are becoming more popular.

If you want to learn more about interactive fiction, check out the Interactive Fiction Database, the Interactive Fiction Wiki, or the Interactive Fiction Archive.

Click the links for details from the Interactive Fiction Database on Deadline by Marc Blank, An Act of Murder by Christopher Huang and Make it Good by Jon Ingold.

Tip of the hat to Emily Short’s Interactive Storytelling blog.

Andy Adams is an adjunct professor of English at various colleges in the Phoenix area. He has an affectation for fedoras as they complement his villainous goatee. He’s been known to poke his head onto Twitter @A3Writer, but he’s never been big into birds. He blogs at about writing, teaching, and the conquest of fictional worlds—they’re more fun than the real world.

Read all posts by Andy Adams for Criminal Element.


  1. ZUrlocker

    Great post. Deadline, Witness and the other infocom games are really classics and definitely an homage to Chandler and others.

  2. Sandie White

    This sounds like a fun read…and reread! I love the idea that it can change every time you reread it! How intuitive…

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