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 gnats.

  • "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 the corners.

  • "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" and "west."

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. Let's continue:

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 trees [...]
       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 there.
       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, nineteen, etc....

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.
Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1922-2008
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.

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 sunlight.

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 cold.

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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