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Interview with Lauren O'Donoghue about Interactive Fiction
I was instantly intrigued when I heard Lauren O’Donoghue had written stories in the form of interactive fiction (where you make choices as the main character that affect the outcome of the story). I love her short fiction, and I wanted to see what it was like to participate in the world of a story.
When I played/experienced Ataraxia: a folk tale, I was hooked, compelled to follow the different threads of the story she created. This is a world where you can enjoy Lauren’s lovely descriptions of sparsely populated natural environments, solve mysteries, and decide what kind of person you want to be. She agreed to answer some of my questions about this story and interactive fiction in general.
I don’t want to spoil the storyline too much, so I recommend clicking the link and playing around in the world that Lauren has created: https://laurenodonoghue.itch.io/ataraxia.
Where did you get the idea to write interactive fiction?
I started writing interactive fiction over a decade ago, when I first stumbled across a bunch of solo indie creators doing really interesting stuff with the form. I’d always played videogames, and had some experience with traditionally distributed parser-based text games, but this was the first time I’d encountered games made by single authors in software that was open-source and accessible to people with no coding experience. While I was always interested in creating games, I never felt that I had the necessary technical skills to make that a reality. Playing works by creators like Anna Anthropy, Porpentine and Christine Love really opened my eyes to the possibilities of IF—Love’s game Digital: A Love Story (2010) in particular. After that I started playing around with tools like Twine and Failbetter’s (sadly discontinued) StoryNexus.
What is the difference between interactive fiction and a video game?
Oh God, this is such a huge question! I work at the UK’s National Videogame Museum and we spend so much time discussing how to define what games even are in the first place. Wikipedia defines interactive fiction as ‘software simulating environments in which players use text commands to control characters and influence the environment’, but I can immediately think of examples that don’t neatly fit that mold—take Orteil’s Nested (2011), where you explore infinite procedurally-generated universes through expanding folders, or the wiki-based mystery Neurocracy (2021). I personally would define interactive fiction as any primarily text-based narrative—usually, but not always, digital—where the reader takes an active role in exploring, progressing and/or affecting the story. That’s a clumsy and imperfect definition, but it’s the best one I’ve got! Videogames (including text games) tend to involve more of a challenge element (via mechanics like puzzle solving, resource management, combat, etc.), whereas these aren’t a necessary component of interactive fiction. Perhaps because I come from a games background as well as a writing background, my interactive fiction usually tends to incorporate at least a few game mechanics alongside the narrative. Finding the places where story and mechanics can intersect—what’s sometimes called ‘ludonarrative’—is what I’m really interested in as a gamemaker.
What software/tech do you use to create interactive fiction?
I primarily work in Twine, which is a free, open-source, visual-interface tool for creating interactive fiction and text games. It’s incredibly accessible and easy to learn, even if you’ve never done anything technical before, but there’s also loads of ways to add complexity once you’re confident with the different story formats. Twine games are compiled into .html files so it’s simple to host and distribute them once you’re finished. I’m really evangelical about Twine. Making games is something that is often perceived as impossible to achieve without advanced technical knowledge, but Twine makes it so easy. There’s also tons of free documentation and tutorials available online, and really active forums where Twine users help each other out when they get stuck. It’s got such a lovely community around it.
Ataraxia offers the reader choices about how the story will play out, and it makes rereading (or replaying) fun when you can see how different choices would have led to different outcomes. Compared to your experience with writing traditional short stories, was it difficult to devise these different plotlines?
That’s such a good question—I actually think I find it easier to plan branching narratives than linear ones, because as a writer you can explore different outcomes without committing yourself to a single path or ending. The most difficult part, for me, is pacing. In Ataraxia, for example, one player might diligently complete ten sections of a storyline one after the other in the space of an hour, while another might do two sections, then go foraging for an hour, then play three sections of another plotline, then come back and finish the first plotline two days later. The challenge as a gamemaker is how to make sure that both of those experiences feel naturalistic, and not to privilege one ‘correct’ way of moving through the game world over another.
In Ataraxia, you find yourself on a strange pastoral island, a place full of potential friends as well as mysteries. What inspired you to create this setting?
As anyone who has read my short stories can probably tell, I love writing about place and landscape. I grew up in a fairly rural environment, the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, and feel slightly awed by nature—it both comforts and disquiets me. I always feel that there’s something inherently unknowable about the non-human world. When I’m out hiking in the woods, or visiting the more rugged parts of the coast, I often feel like my presence is something just barely tolerated by the world around me. So, when it came to fleshing out the world of Ataraxia, drawing on the eerie beauty of those natural spaces was a really instinctive direction for me. I wanted the island to be somewhere that had the potential to feel like home, but only once you accept that there are aspects of it that you will never fully understand.
You live in London now, right? Do you think you'll ever move to the countryside like the main character in your story does?
(NB - I actually live in Sheffield but it’s an urban area so the above question still stands!)
In theory I’d love to move somewhere more rural one day. I grew up in the country and I do miss it sometimes. In practice, though, there’s a load of factors in play that would probably prevent me doing so. The cost of living in rural beauty spots is extortionate, which often means younger people can’t afford to settle down there, and especially in places near to the coast there are whole towns that have been more or less entirely bought out for holiday homes. Having a sense of community wherever I live is important to me, and I worry that I’d struggle to find that in the country compared to the city these days. Sheffield really offers the best of both worlds, though—it’s one of the greenest cities in Europe, and we’re a stone’s throw from the Peak District National Park.
The medieval idea of the four humors is relevant to this story. What are your thoughts about this way of sorting personalities? Where do you think you fall? What are your favorite temperaments to hang out with?
Ataraxia is actually a (very loose) remake of a game I started making in StoryNexus when I was about twenty, and the four humours stats are leftover from that first iteration. Honestly it was probably a case of stumbling across a Wikipedia page, thinking ‘that’s cool’, and sticking in a game. Often my creative process is no more sophisticated than that! I am quite fond of them as personality stats, though. I like the fact that their definitions are a bit obscure at times—I hope that it encourages players to follow their instincts rather than deliberately or consciously playing to type. Personally, I’m definitely Choleric. Ambitious, short-tempered, pragmatic. All of the types definitely have their appeal, but I probably gravitate towards more Phlegmatic people—thoughtful and loyal and chilled out.
Why did you name this interactive fiction “Ataraxia”?
Another hangover from the first version. ‘Ataraxia’ is a term from Ancient Greek philosophy meaning something like ‘a state free from emotional distress’—so pretentious, right? I was using it as a placeholder at first but it ended up sort of fitting. I like the idea of striving towards, not riches or fame or conquering some great evil, but of finding a place for yourself in the world. That calm and community could be a goal worth working towards in a game.
Is there other work of yours that you’d like to point readers to?
Absolutely! Over the past few years I’ve been working on a fairly eclectic mix of short fiction, text games and community projects, details and links for which can be found on my website at laurenodonoghue.neocities.org
For readers who enjoy Ataraxia and are interested in exploring more works of interactive fiction, do you have any suggestions?
As well as the games I mentioned earlier, here’s a selection of a few that I really love (all are free to play in-browser)
Human Errors - Katherine Morayati (2018)
Tonight Dies The Moon - Tom McHenry (2015)
Erostasis (NSFW) - System Slut Software (2022)
Myriad - Porpentine (2012)
Arcadia - Jonas Kyratzes (2012)
Lucid - Caliban’s Revenge (2022)
A Man Outside - Litrouke (2020)
Heat From Fire/Fire From Heat (NSFW) - Anna Anthropy (2021)
Anything else you’d like to say?
Go out and make a Twine game! Make something small and not very good and share it with your friends! Interactive fiction is an artform for literally everyone, including you!
My PDF guide to making a simple Twine game (suitable for complete beginners, children, your grandma, etc.)
Thank you for your answers and these resources, Lauren!