Criticism of Interactive Fiction

Gareth Rees, July 1995

Every artistic pursuit, from poetry to architecture, gives rise to a body of criticism and analysis. This performs a service for the consumers of that art form - it tells them what's interesting, what's enjoyable, what's new (and what isn't) - helping them to be more discriminating in their choice, and helping them to waste less time searching for things that satisfy their taste. SPAG serves this purpose well.

But criticism also has a function for the artists. It explains their art form to them, makes sense of old work and puts new work into context. It tells them what works, what doesn't; it gives them an understanding of the field so that they know what to react against and where the opportunities for new work are.

It seems to me that the interactive fiction genre lacks good criticism of the latter type, and that this is an unfortunate consequence of the nature of the genre. Because adventure games are puzzle-oriented and because the kinds of people who play the games tend not to want the puzzles spoiled for them, extant reviews (such as those in SPAG) and serious discussions (such as Graham Nelson's The Craft of the Adventure) have tended to be very coy about saying anything specific about the games under consideration.

I think this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs; I think criticism of adventure games needs to get beyond the generalities and into specifics. At the moment we have a state of affairs where we all have our own ideas about which games are good and why, but we have no effective means of communicating our separate understandings to each other.

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Andrew Clover