Just over ten years ago, I was holed up in the University of Colorado at Boulder's Norlin library, researching interactive fiction. I was a grad student in English, and had a final paper due in my Literary Theory class. Activision had recently released the Lost Treasures of Infocom bundle, reawakening my childhood love of IF, and I felt inspired to write a paper that connected reader-response theory to the actual reader-responsiveness of text adventures. I wanted to cite and to engage with previous academic work on IF, but unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, it had received very little serious critical attention. Sure, I found a few articles here and there, but what I really needed was something substantial, something that offered a critical vocabulary for talking about interactive fiction, that placed it in a literary context, and that presented a basic history of the form.
What I needed was Nick Montfort's TWISTY LITTLE PASSAGES. How strange and funny that ten years later, the paper I wrote for that class finds itself cited in the first book-length academic treatment of interactive fiction. Sure, the citation only occurs in a passing (and correct) dismissal of reader-response theory as anything but a very limited way into talking about IF, but it makes me feel like part of history nonetheless. Montfort's book is just what IF needs to establish its rightful place the scholarly discourse surrounding electronic literature, and indeed literature, full stop. It never fails to be informative, and frequently succeeds at being sharply insightful about the literary elements of IF.
However, TWISTY LITTLE PASSAGES is quite suitable for readers outside the ivory tower as well. Though the book is clearly aimed at an academic audience, Montfort's prose is blessedly jargon-free, clear, and effective, with generous doses of humor thrown in for good measure. Even in its most theoretical moments, the book manages to balance impressive rigor with unfailing clarity, a feat all too rare in literary theory. Consequently, it's an entertaining read for general audiences and English professors alike.
Just the bibliography alone is a noteworthy achievement; Montfort has synthesized the already extant body of formal IF scholarship and mainstream coverage with much of the important amateur IF theory produced by people like Graham Nelson and Emily Short, along with a range of other contributions from the IF community and pieces covering the book's other concerns, including riddles and computer science. In addition, there is a formidable collection of IF works cited, a list comprising much of the most influential IF of the past thirty years.
Something else that the bibliography makes clear is the value of Montfort's personal connections. It's peppered with references to emails and personal conversations with some of the leading lights of IF history: Robert Pinsky, Graham Nelson, Steve Meretzky, and others. Montfort's ability to gather such firsthand information highlights one of the most important things about TWISTY LITTLE PASSAGES: not only is it the first book-length treatment of interactive fiction, is the first formal treatment I've seen that approaches IF from the inside out, rather than from the position of a quizzical spectator. Montfort's extensive experience in both the academic and IF communities lend him a brand of authority that previous commentators on IF lacked.
If you're an IF aficionado like me, you'll find TWISTY LITTLE PASSAGES enlightening and fun, and if there's anyone in your life who genuinely wants to know what interactive fiction is and why they should care, hand them this book.