Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1957
"You are standing in an open field west of a white house with a boarded
front door." So begins Zork I, at least after you remove the
extraneous comma. Let's consider this.
- "You are standing in an open field": Okay, I can imagine that. The open
field in my head probably doesn't look much like anyone else's open field,
and in fact I don't really have a very good mental picture of it: I can
get glimpses, as if I were trying to take in my surroundings while moving
my head around very fast, and I can get a fix on one closeup of a patch of
long grass. I have a sense of the field's color and of the presence of
- "a white house": It's even less likely that my house looks like what the
authors intended, but okay, I can imagine a white house. I can't picture
the whole thing, but I have a pretty good fix on what a representative
piece of the siding would look like, and a vague impression of a few of
- "with a boarded front door": All right, check — two criss-crossing,
splintery, unfinished boards nailed across the entrance.
But what about that "west of"? What does that do? Well, it helps me
imagine what the scene would look like from overhead if I were watching it
on Google Earth. And it might help me place the sun, if I knew what time of
day it was, which I don't. Descriptively, it is useless. But Zork I
is interactive, and since using compass directions obviates the need to track
the direction the player character is facing, most interactive fiction is
liberally peppered with descriptions full of words like "north" and "south"
Now compare the opening sentence of the English translation of La Jalousie
by Alain Robbe-Grillet: "Now the shadow of the column — the column which
supports the southwest corner of the roof — divides the corresponding
corner of the veranda into two equal parts." This novel is not interactive.
I will not need to type >NE in order to make the player character
enter the house. So why specify that we are observing the southwest corner
of the house? It does establish that our scene is set in the Northern
Hemisphere near sunset. But really it's just the reader's first taste of
Jealousy's bizarrely misplaced obsession with spatial relations.
This veranda is a wide, covered gallery surrounding the house on three
sides. Since its width is the same for the central portion as for the
sides, the line of shadow cast by the column extends precisely to the
corner of the house; but it stops there, for only the veranda flagstones
are reached by the sun, which is still too high in the sky. The wooden
walls of the house — that is, front and west gable-end —
are still protected from the sun by the roof (common to the house proper
and the terrace). So at this moment the shadow of the outer edge of the
roof coincides exactly with the right-angle formed by the terrace and
the two vertical surfaces of the corner of the house.
This paragraph is interesting insofar as it is a completely ludicrous
way to start a novel. My eyes just slide right off it. Nothing is
happening, so why read it? It's not as though carefully considering
each of those words in turn is going to appreciably add to my mental
picture of this place. Now, you might say that this is simply my own
shortcoming and that you consider the above a perfectly legitimate
opening paragraph. Yes? Then let's keep going. A few pages into the
novel, we encounter this:
From the bottom to the upper edge of the highest sectors, on the hillside
facing the one the house is built on, it is relatively easy to count the
In the second row, starting from the far left, there would be
twenty-two trees (because of the alternate arrangement) in the case of a
rectangular patch. There would also be twenty-two for a patch that was
precisely trapezoidal, the reduction being scarcely noticeable at such a
short distance from its base. And, in fact, there are twenty-two trees
But the third row too has only twenty-two trees, instead of twenty-three
which the alternately-arranged rectangle would have. No additional difference
is introduced, at this level, by the bulge in the lower edge. The same is
true for the fourth row, which includes twenty-one boles, that is, one less
than an even row of the imaginary rectangle.
The bulge of the bank also begins to take effect starting from the fifth
row: this row, as a matter of fact, also possesses only twenty-one trees,
whereas it should have twenty-two for a true trapezoid and twenty-three for
a rectangle (uneven row).
And for the following rows: twenty-three, twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one.
Twenty-two, twenty-one, twenty, twenty. Twenty-three, twenty-one, twenty,
Note: this is just an excerpt. He actually spends a much larger chunk of
the novel counting banana trees. It's a truly colossal waste of space. So
even those who gamely tried to imagine the opening paragraph must get the
point here: no one is really going to wade through this.
It's a great satire of the sort of long descriptive passages I had in mind
when I wrote Pattern 4. The fact that it seems
not to have been intended as satire makes it no less effective.
|Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1922-2008|
So what did Robbe-Grillet intend? On the surface, this seems like
a Pattern 16 book, attempting to show that
literature doesn't work by deliberately writing bad literature, but I
did a little bit of poking around and discovered that he had a somewhat
less inane agenda. Robbe-Grillet seems to have sought to remove psychology
from narrative — to let objects be what they are, rather than what
they mean to us. The results show that this is a total disaster, which is
a useful thing to know. In fact, while Jealousy is completely,
utterly, laughably unreadable, I can't get angry at it, because I feel
that it actually taught me quite a lot.
For one, I feel as though for the first time in my life I understand
impressionism. When I first learned about impressionism, I was told
that the impressionists painted things, not the way they were, but they
way they felt. My response, upon seeing highlights of the
impressionist canon: "So things feel... blurry?" But I shouldn't have
been so dismissive — as my Zork I exercise above shows,
things do feel blurry, at least to me! So why did impressionism
fail to resonate with me? I think John Searle nailed it in a lecture
I went to a couple of weeks ago:
When you look at a landscape, your
mental recreation of it is blurry and fragmentary, like an impressionist
painting... but when you look at an impressionist painting, your mental
recreation of it is a blurrier and more fragmentary version of something
that is already blurry and fragmentary, and so it feels wrong! There's
too much degradation of the signal!
Impressionism in painting, therefore, is interesting insofar as it doesn't
work. But impressionism in writing, Jealousy demonstrates, is
absolutely vital! Prose cannot convey a picture of the way things truly
are even a fraction of a percent as well as photography or painting —
when you try, you end up with the word salad that makes up Robbe-Grillet's
novel. What prose can do is offer a telling fragment that suggests the
whole, a comparison that conveys the feeling of the place. It can't really
do spatial relations. And that brings me back to interactive fiction.
There's an IF game by Rob Wheeler called Being Andrew Plotkin that
presents the same room through the eyes of Andrew Plotkin, aka "Zarf," one
of the most acclaimed writers of modern interactive fiction, and through
those of Peter, some schlub. Here's Peter's version:
This bleak room with its short, slumping ceiling does nothing to
brighten your morale. Short file cabinets, marked in reverse
alphabetical order, crawl in a line along the walls like an army
of stupid robots. One measly window lets in a tiny square of
Note that this begins by explicitly talking about the psychological
effect of the room. It then makes a simile, and concludes with a
short, judgmental description. These are the sorts of things prose
is good at. Contrast this with the same room seen through the eyes
of the Plotkin character:
The file room is an unimpressive rectangular room full of squat cabinets.
The file cabinets are a pale yellow, like raw milk, and each stands about
38 inches high. There is a maladjusted ceiling tile, and scruffy stains on
the padded carpeting. In the north wall is a window, about two and a half
feet square, with a crank latch. A copier machine sits near the wall,
bearing no make or marking that you recognize, even though no company
produces generic photocopiers that you know of. Even more curiously, the
wall socket behind it is empty, meaning that the copier is not plugged in,
and yet it definitely seems to be turned on.
Here is a representation of the way an aficionado of interactive fiction
is supposed to see the world. Note the catalogue of unimportant details,
the precise measurements, the alignment to compass directions — if
he went on any longer he'd start counting banana trees! Is this supposed
to be ideal way to render a room in interactive fiction? This sort of
Robbe-Grillet lite? If so, no wonder the vast majority of IF leaves me
My own IF has been treated far too kindly by most critics, but the best
written, far superior to Photopia or Varicella or any of the
others on that score, is the one that most people didn't care for:
Narcolepsy. Which isn't to say that it's the best one to actually
play — those who complain about its touchy and insufficiently clued
event triggers are absolutely right and I have no defense. But I can't
agree with those who charge it with taking place in a city that is "too
lightly implemented." Yes, it's true that the first time the player
character, Eugene, enters a location, he will usually make a joke about
it rather than giving you a precise geometrical accounting of the site.
Press him and he will just say something like "Buildings, etc."
Because that's what you actually see. At least, that's what you
see if you're Eugene. If you're me, you see a bunch of buildings and then
a couple of random details, like a "TANCREDO '08" bumper sticker on a
passing car and a female crow at the top of a lamppost. What you don't
do is count the number of windows on each building and note the cosine
of its shadow — unless you're the autistic narrator of
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the
Night-Time. Or unless you're Alain Robbe-Grillet.
So send Eugene Oregon to the plantation in Jealousy and here is
what you get:
Yes, we have an assload of bananas today.
Banana trees, etc.
Banana trees, etc.
Dude, what is your fixation with the banana trees? Are you not getting
enough potassium or something?
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