8325/6 W/Th 20/21 November 1996Ha! Triumph! [...] I blew off Sass, leaving a good 160 pages unread, and now Mudimbe's class is cancelled till 11 December! I saved myself hours of unnecessary work! Whee!
When I wrote the above lines in my journal, I could not have guessed that the last quoted line would turn out to be a hugely pivotal event in my life. For I did wind up playing the Masterpieces of Infocom CD, mostly just to get another peek at A Mind Forever Voyaging, which I'd played in 1992... and that's when I discovered A Change in the Weather on the disc and learned about the free tools people were using to write Infocom-style interactive fiction. I was never a big Infocom fan. Would it ever have occurred to me to look into the modern IF scene had I not seen that CD in Best Buy's cheap games display? Unlikely. And good heavens but my life would be different if I hadn't. For several years now I have been happily shacked up with someone I met through IF. Most of my friends I have met through IF. And now there is a book, not a vanity press dealie but a real book from MIT Press, with a section about my IF. I can thus credit the manager of the Durham, North Carolina, Best Buy franchise with my love life, my social life, and my raging ego trip.
I started reading Nick Montfort's Twisty Little Passages without taking notes, but soon found that there was a lot I wanted to respond to. So what follows is way more extensive than my usual remarks on books I've read. (If all you want to know is whether it's any good, the answer is yes.)
It was strange enough that a reading of "electronic literature" was going on at the Boston Public Library that evening of April 25, 2001. [...] But was something wrong with the screen as the first reader looked up to introduce his work?
Actually, yes. We weren't supplied with a monitor to read from, and the picture on the huge screen in the front of the auditorium was dim and out of focus, and so I couldn't actually read it: I had to go from memory. It's nice to be cast as being at the center of some sort of seminal event in IF history, but it does feel a little revisionist to me — I mainly remember flubbing my reading because I couldn't make out the words on the screen behind me, pissing off one of the organizers by being shy, and hearing a few days later that some media critic had found my segment rather painful. I guess that wouldn't have made a very good intro for the book, though.
Roland Barthes offered, in The Pleasure of the Text, an erotic concept of the reading experience. The text reveals itself in a sort of striptease [...] Not only does the "reader" of a work of interactive fiction metaphorically climb on stage and start ripping off clothing [...] this person also figures out how to do so in order to proceed.
Here's my take on the striptease metaphor. There is definitely something to be said both for the literal and figurative aspects of it. That is, it really is sexier to watch someone undress than it is to watch the same person just walk into the room naked. I recall famous movie critic and nudity enthusiast Roger Ebert talking about how this is due to "the fall from civilization to the state of nature" or something, but I don't think it has to be that grandiose. The basic idea, it seems to me, is that starting off with the stripper dressed creates desire (hey, you're not naked yet! c'mon, get naked!) and so the act of undressing provides both the pleasure of the sight of the stripper's body and of getting what you want. Like the old story of the guy who hits himself in the head with a hammer for fun, we like it when the strippers start off wearing clothes, because it feels so good when they stop.
This isn't anything new. But what is often forgotten in this observation is that while producing and then relieving anticipation is a complementary pleasure in striptease, it's still only complementary. The primary pleasure is still the beauty of the stripper's body. What does this mean on the figurative level, applied to your classic puzzle-based text adventures? If, following Barthes, we declare turning the pages of a book to be like sitting and watching a stripper removing her own clothes, there's a certain amount of anticipation that builds up — we don't know how long it'll take for the stripper to finish her routine, or for the murderer to be revealed or the protagonists to kiss or whatever in a book we're reading, but if we just sit and watch (or flip pages) the reward will come. If, following Montfort, we take interactive fiction to be like removing the stripper's clothes ourselves, and puzzles to be like a really tricky bra clasp or something, we find that IF offers the added frustration of putting the responsibility for advancing the narrative on the player... but the key thing is that, again, relieving anticipation is only an ancillary pleasure. The primary pleasure is still the actual text itself. If you're going to make someone do work for the privilege of seeing your text, that text had better damn well be worth the effort. Do not put a corset and chastity belt on a warthog.
At best, if we take the perspective of a unilinear narrative, the interactor can use such commands only to control how small-scale episodes play out; determining whole new plots not imagined at all by the author or designer is seldom possible in interactive fiction as it now exists. Even when taking this limited view of interactive fiction, the ability to vary certain episodes in this way is important. Different Greek tragedies that tell the same mythological story demonstrate this. Although the underlying stories are well known and what happens is fixed by convention, the episodic variation and the nuances and excellence of narration provided Greek dramatists with the ability to innovate within boundaries, even without control over what the important incidents of the drama would be. Determining the arrangement of the incidents was enough.
This is a brilliant parallel... good luck getting your typical text adventure fan to buy it, though. I think I have a pretty good idea why this idea struck a chord with me and why similar observations vis-à-vis the supposed lack of interactivity in certain IF works have been met with scorn.
Nowadays, when a household buys its first computer, there are certain things the members of that household do with it. They sign up with an ISP. They learn how to read and send email. They surf the web. Maybe they do some word processing, or play some games. The computer is an appliance, like a television set or a microwave.
But when I was a kid, in the heyday of the commercial text adventure, computers booted to BASIC, and when you bought one, you learned to program. If you used a computer, even if you were seven years old, you were a programmer. Most IF fans come out of this milieu. And what do programmers do? They've got some task they want to accomplish (make the computer say I rule!); they've got a handful of directives to work with (PRINT and GOTO!); they figure out what sequence of commands will accomplish the task (10 PRINT "YOU RULE! " 20 GOTO 10!) And most of the time their programs don't work right, and they have to spend time debugging them — no wonder so many games revolve around puzzles, and around fixing robots and spaceships and toasters and things. It's entertainment for programmers.
But I'm not a programmer. I'm a writer. And here's what I do. I get an idea for a story. I don't consciously work them out, not the stories themselves; they have to gestate on their own. Once I know the story, that's when I go to work, translating it into something concrete. The arrangement of the incidents, the perspective from which a certain scene is told, the tone of the dialogue, all that stuff... that's the craft. If I let you play around with that stuff in a piece of IF, damn straight it's interactive — you're making all those calls! True, you don't get to come up with your own plot points — but neither do I. In writing Ready, Okay!, I played around for years with things like the order in which incidents are related (April and Siren's chapters take place over the same two weeks, for instance, and it wasn't until a relatively late draft that I decided to separate the two plot threads instead of bouncing back and forth) and which characters to include and which to leave out... but the actual story, well, that was what it was. (Of course, sometimes certain bits were contradictory, or just stupid... and in those cases I'd eventually realize what the real story must have been. Ah, misunderstandings.)
Text adventure and interactive fiction do not mean exactly the same thing. [...] the term text adventure suggests to some people a popular and less literary work, since adventures have been, in contemporary writing, the domain of popular fiction.
While it is assumed by most critics that IF works are games, [...] [t]here has been little discussion of whether "game" and "puzzle" are truly essential to the form. [...] Because it is misleading to characterize interactive fiction only as a game, the term IF works is used in this book to refer to specific computer programs that are interactive fiction."
These excerpts remind me of a newsgroup post from 1998: "I am not a big fan of interactive-fiction. I AM a big fan of text adventure games. I keep thinking of that IF newbie out there who has laid out money for a CD. [...] If that were me, if I had paid money, when I played the game(s) on the CD, I would expect them to be GAMES. I wouldn't be expecting stories or things so far 'out there' I didn't 'get' it. [...] I am not interested when playing 'games' in exploring an author's 'vision', I can do that with reading."
Or take some of the Photopia reviews on the IF Ratings site: "If one were to abuse an IF system to make a game of pac-man, even if its an excellent game of pac-man, it just shouldn't rate well as interactive fiction. This is similar." Or: "Ok, beautiful, 'artistic', well built, and interesting for its originality. But puzzleless, so not what I look for in IF."
These sorts of comments strike me as akin to calling Maus or U.S. or Beanworld or something "an abuse of the comics medium" because everyone knows that the only stories you're supposed to write in that medium are about musclebound men in spandex punching one another in the mouth. Seriously, between Photopia and the old-school text adventures where you're wandering around a dark underground maze gobbling up treasures and trying to avoid monsters, which sounds more like Pac-Man to you?
Interactive fiction and American comics are both caught in a trap described by Scott McCloud in Reinventing Comics. There was a time (the 1940s) that a diverse lineup of comics, while not of very high quality, sold very well to a wide demographic: boys and girls, and men (GIs read millions of 'em). Then came the hammers: first, censorship (largely thanks to one Fredric Wertham) killed American comics for adults. The surviving companies managed to hang on thanks to the success of one genre, superheroes — and responded by ditching the rest of their output, maximizing their short-term profit at the expense of the health of the industry (not to mention the artform). Comics were now just for boys. And then came the day that other media (eg, video games) proved superior at entertaining boys, and in order to survive comics companies had to hang on to their existing audience, the last generation to get hooked on comics when they were ubiquitous. Today, American comic books are written for a cult of a hundred thousand men in their 30s. Some of those books are really good! Some of today's best writers are working in superhero comics, turning out fare that's sophisticated, intelligent and entertaining. But it's all tailored to the initiated, an increasingly tiny group. (At this point it looks like if the medium ever returns to the mainstream it'll be because of Japan, where for decades comics have been enjoyed by both sexes and all age groups. Sales of translated book-size Japanese comics (manga) at mainstream bookstores have exploded in the US over the last year or two.)
IF's history didn't follow exactly the same track, but there are some parallels. The last chapter of Twisty Little Passages looks at the mark IF has made in our culture: it did have its moment in the sun, after all, and most computery people recognize it when they see it. But just as comics are tied in the popular imagination to Batman punching the Riddler in the nose accompanied by a "POW!" sound effect, those who've heard of IF tend to associate it with grabbing treasures and hitting trolls with swords — or, if they're slightly more familiar with it, they associate it with figuring out the fifteen steps to get out of the Babel Fish room. Mazes. Finding keys. Puzzles. The miscue here wasn't genre, the way it was with comics — Infocom was pretty good about diversifying the genres it offered — but about positioning IF as a form of gaming. Yeah, Infocom gave lip service to the storytelling angle, but seeing the gray boxes wedged between Karateka and Ultima IV said a lot more than the press releases. Customers at Software Etc. had a different set of priorities from those next door at the B. Dalton. They weren't looking for literary pleasures; they wanted to play a game, and graphics were primitive enough that a screenful of text was more pleasant to look at. And then came the day that graphical games proved superior at entertaining gamers, and IF's audience evaporated down to a cult of a hundred men in their 30s. Most of those who might enjoy a Shade or a Galatea are put off by the interface, having been blissfully unaware of IF as it came and went, and not feeling particularly motivated to learn about it now; meanwhile, those who aren't put off by the interface are disappointed because Photopia doesn't make them fix a toaster.
As of this writing, the link to my own IF on the main page of my site says "IF games". That will be changing, I think. I'd thought that the word "game" had become an empty placeholder — you know, like the Supreme Court says "God" is on American currency — but it's clearly not, and I reckon I should warn people that if they're looking for a "You have won" message, my IF isn't the place to find it.
These three sentences state six specific things about Adventure [...] At least four of these six statements are clearly false, and the remaining two are misleading.
Nick really makes Ilana Snyder look like the tool of the decade here — man! so much error packed into such a small space! — but I must admit I found some errors of fact later on in Twisty Little Passages... it reminded me of the time I read The Comic Book Heroes by Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs and found myself wincing at error after error: "What? The Wasp didn't die in Secret Wars! What are these guys on?" The thing is, I know a bit about superhero comics, and I know a bit about IF, so I can spot the bits that are wrong. When I read a book about, I dunno, the history of the Aztecs, is there an error on every page and I just don't know it? Hrm.
It is the effect of the narrative in the process of being generated that is important, after all, not the quality of the text that is output when the session is over, and not the effect of any post hoc reading of that output text.
Yes, yes, and again yes. This is so important. IF is performance art. Even in cases where it follows a linear script — especially in cases where it follows a linear script — the player's participation, the call-and-response nature of the work, is crucial. So many great moments in IF only work because you typed the command that generated that response. You're not supposed to read a transcript any more than you're supposed to read a screenplay. (I have no idea how people who aren't involved in a production can read screenplays to things they haven't seen. Certainly my Academy X scripts are packed with instructions like, "Make sure you draw Norbert looking worried in this panel, since two issues from now we find out he's actually a double agent" and suchlike. I see people on comics bulletin boards saying, "Spoil every page of issue #7 for me so I can decide whether I want it or not." I can understand not liking surprises in real life — they can be humiliating — but people who deliberately short-circuit them in narrative baffle me. Anyway, digression.)
I had a professor, Stephen Booth, who argued that all literature worked this way, that it had to be considered from the perspective of the readers who don't know how the line in front of them ends. Once he read the opening of a Shakespearian sonnet to our class, a few words at a time, and had us shout out "good!" or "bad!" to indicate how we felt about the subject of the sonnet. "They!" (Mumbling. Too early to say.) "They that have power!" "Bad!" (Hey, it's Berkeley.) "They that have power to hurt!" "BAD!" "They that have power to hurt but will do none!" "GOOD!" The moral: it is not just the final assessment that counts. For a while, that sonnet was provoking anxiety; even reading is a sort of performance that cannot be considered entirely from a post hoc perspective.
That the top-level world can be breached by a robot in the second-level world, who can be commanded to open the cylinder, ripping wires from and killing the player character in the frame world, can be seen as an instance of fatal metalepsis, [...] a transgression between different levels of story or between story and narration.
I suspect metalepsis is so common in IF because a certain sort of mimesis is so difficult to achieve: one can get so lost in a book as to become unaware that one is turning pages, or so lost in a film as to become unaware that one is sitting in a theater seat (at least until the guy a few rows up starts talking on his cellphone)... but IF, well, every other command an error message pops up. The limits of the work are so obvious, so much in your face, that it's hard not to play with them.
The riddle, almost never invoked in discussions about interactive fiction until now, has more explanatory power than any of those other often referenced figures.
For the purposes of this chapter, the focus is on interactive fiction works that are structured with puzzles (or challenges, or obstacles) rather than to those that are "puzzleless."
One thing I really liked about Twisty Little Passages was that it discussed IF as an extension of the riddle, and of D&D, and of early AI model worlds, and so forth, rather than pretending that Will Crowther summoned it out of the ether. However, my interest in IF has largely been (and is now almost entirely) in its puzzleless possibilities, so what I found interesting about the riddle parallel was less what it said about "how do I defeat the dragon?" games than how it suggests that the soul of IF, or at least one stripe of it, is the question, "What is going on here?"
The I Ching does not offer a unilinear text; it is actually a literary machine, a set of procedures for generating texts.
When I read this a big exclamation point appeared over my head. Yes! The I Ching! That is much closer to the sort of thing I'm interested in than is puzzle-IF. This is an odd time to write about this for me, since the game that represents my first stab at the direction I want my IF to take for the next long while is currently finished but not yet released; it is a bit crude in its branching, and very frivolous in its subject matter, but it's the sort of experience I wanted to offer players with Pantheon in 1997 before shelving that project and then releasing six totally different things instead over the subsequent five years. Right now I have three major IF projects in mind — which I will not be starting until after the second book is done, so help me! — that are of this type. It'll be interesting to see what people think.
an MIT-specific interpretation can help us understand Zork
Zork as roman à clef, eh? Very interesting.
I've written before about in-jokes, though Google seems not to have archived my comments for some reason, only the replies, but the basic idea was that there are three different phenomena that all get classed as "in-jokes" by various people: there's the "possibly funny if you get it, utterly meaningless if you don't" in-joke (eg, a "set at my junior high" game with lines like "Oh no! You are attacked by Mr. Fenters! 'Put your homework in the brown box!' he screams."); there's the "funny to outsiders, extra funny to insiders" in-joke (people have enjoyed the Wildfire the Magic Pony bit in Academy X without knowing it was a running joke on ifMUD many years ago); and then there's the postmodern "text acknowledges that it is a text" move, which some have classed as an in-joke. The MIT references Nick delineates in Twisty Little Passages tend to straddle categories one and two; certainly if you're not an engineer of some sort they'll fit into category one and are thus damned forever.
A few observations here. First of all, IF can get away with category-one easter eggs better than other sorts of writing. In non-interactive fiction, the author is sort of escorting the readers through the text — "first look at this, now this, now this" — and so everything ought to have some sort of value to those readers or the author's wasting their time. But in IF, players decide what to look at and where to go, and thus little nooks and crannies that only have meaning to a few people are more forgivable. If you went to a friend's house for a dinner party, you'd probably be irked if there were crap strewn all over the floor, but only the truly neurotic would insist that the closets and cupboards be as presentable as the living room.
Secondly, the stuff of a narrative has to come from somewhere. Random example: a character in Ready, Okay! needed a name. She was based in part on someone I knew in high school named Kerry; I had once read someone remark that "Kerry" and "Hayley" were the two girls' names that became popular out of nowhere in the 1970s; et voilà, Hayley got her name. Is that an in-joke? If so, then everything is.
Finally, Nick discusses the appearance of the number 69,105 in IF, pointing out that 69 hexadecimal is 105 decimal and that 69 decimal is 105 octal, and that that (in addition to the oral sex joke) is why the Zork writers used that as the number of leaves in the forest leaf pile. First, a question. Was this a matter of the implementors saying, "Ha, check out this wacky number! Let's try to work it in somewhere!" or did a tester try to count the leaves, report that the game didn't know the word "count," and leave one of the writers with the task of providing an answer... and the properties of 69,105 had just happened to come up in conversation earlier, so...?
Either way, what I find interesting is how this number has become a case of in-joke inheritance. Nick cites the use of the number in such IF works as I-0 and Pass the Banana: but in those games, or at least in the first one (since I have privileged information in that instance), it is not the properties of the number that are supposed to be funny — it's the fact that it's a Zork reference. (On top of the more overt humor of the number's sheer hyperbole.) To the extent that people like in-jokes less for their actual comedic value than for the way they reinforce the sense of being part of a community, it is interesting how which community that is can be so mutable.
Zork II contains the Oddly-Angled Room, a particularly confounding pseudomaze. In order to get through it, the player character must move through the rooms in a diamond pattern, as if playing baseball. This puzzle has been rightly decried as involving a confusing intrusion of contemporary culture into a subterranean fantasy world. Similar complaints are not often made about the anachronistic placement of contemporary machinery [...] The baseball pseudomaze is different in that it relies on rules that are not a part of physics, engineering, or logic.
I recall this coming up on ifMUD early on in its existence — the idea that it was considered perfectly fine to include a puzzle requiring the player to fix a communications satellite but totally out of bounds to require the player to know the location of Ebbets Field. Why privilege engineering knowledge over cultural knowledge? You can argue that cultural knowledge is arbitrary and specific, whereas physics and logic are universal and accessible to all... but that's not actually true. Admittedly, you can't derive the location of Ebbets Field from first principles, but that's not how people learn physics or logic either. They are every bit as much products of education as a knowledge of baseball and geography. I can certainly understand a European player of Zork II getting pissed off upon discovering that solving this puzzle pretty much requires one to be American (or Dominican, or Japanese, or...) But it is equally irksome that so much IF requires one to be a techie.
Some of the best replies that Mindwheel produced were unanticipated [...] While this experience is a pleasing one, the implications of such an interaction for the poetics of interactive fiction seem troubling, at least at first. If the most powerful moments of an interaction occur because of configurations of text that were not in any way anticipated by the author, how can authors hope to intentionally create better works?
That's a good question, but I've found that a lot of what people seize on as the most powerful aspects of any sort of creative work are often unintended. After Photopia came out I read a wonderful discussion of the symbolism of the seed pod which would have convinced me the author was brilliant... if not for the fact that I knew that none of that symbolism had been consciously intended. And some of what I have consciously put into stuff I've written has been the product of happy coincidence. I was quite stunned when I went to look up a quote from Ecclesiastes for "A Winner Is You," which has some World Trade Center overtones to it, and discovered that the chapter and verse in question were 9:11.
Here's one more example of this:
I-0 [...] places Tracy directly between two stereotypical IF environments: the college campus and one's own house.
That's awesome — and something I never for a moment thought of.
To blithely mention the riddle of a hypothetical IF work effectively ruins the work for any future interactors who read such a prognostication. The supposedly hypothetical work that is so ruined may in fact already be in development, and babbling about what form a future work might take would be the most painful sort of spoiler for an author who is already trying to realize that work.
This is, of course, something I'm notorious for complaining about... and I think framing certain types of IF as elaborations of the riddle concept is an excellent way of explaining why. Surprise about the very nature of the work lies closer to the heart of IF, at least at the moment (though this moment may be coming to a close), than to that of most other media.
And lying at the heart of the medium of the Calendar article is exhaustion, so I think I'll wrap it up here.
Return to the Calendar page!