command lines: chapter 1

I want to say at the outset that part of the problem I have reading a thesis like Jeremy Douglass’ Command Lines: Aesthetics and Technique in Interactive Fiction and New Media is the gap between me and the academy. In other words, I left school ten years ago, and shortly thereafter started swinging a hammer for a living. And last I heard swinging a hammer at a thesis wasn’t a useful mode of reading it, even though it may be not an uncommon form of criticism.

Nevertheless I’m not here to criticize this thesis but to engage with it. As Tank might say, this is very exciting! I’ve added my own section numbers.


First, something from the forward, titled Foreclosure and Interactive Fiction.

Procedural foreclosure displaces this active process of coming into understanding, as for example when the player learns in advance of initial play the optimal method for locating and destroying each colossus (as with a guide, tutorial, or review). Procedural foreclosure changes both the play technique and the resulting procedures of the interactive experience, and thus changes those aesthetic affects that arise procedurally. In the case of Shadow of the Colossus, optimally guided play shortens the length of the work dramatically by omitting exploration in every sense. Forewarned and forearmed, an epic half-hour struggle to subdue a creature fighting for its life becomes 30 seconds of precise and perfunctory execution – an encounter with Moby-Dick revisited by contemporary commercial whale-harvesters [4]

Reminding me once again that I want to play Shadow of the Colossus, I grabbed this quote because I immediately thought of the recent game Deadline Enchanter. If you don’t know, the basic idea in DE is that your protagonist receives an in-game walkthrough. You could say that in DE foreclosure occurs within the process of the game itself. Something I’d like to chew on further at some point.


I want to include CL’s ‘definition’ of IF — though it would be unfair to say that the thesis attempts to make a formal definition of IF at all (at least so far), this is what we get such as it is. IF is:

a text-based narrative experience in which a person interacts with a computer software simulation by alternately typing text phrases (generally a command in the imperative mood) and reading software-generated text responses (generally a statement in the second person present tense) [8]

As a rule CL uses the term interactor in place of player.


Next, I found this fascinating to think about:

“Unlike most hypertext fictions, most IF employ a spatial rather than topical metaphor (in that many individual exchanges produce substitutions of text that correspond to movement through simulated space, not associated topics), and thus are explored in the more pragmatic sense of explore: “travel through an unfamiliar area in order to familiarize oneself with it.” But most importantly, to engage with IF is to ‘explore’ in the most literal sense of its Latin derivation, ex-plorare: “to cry out.” IF proceeds, if it proceeds at all, as a result of outcry – utterances, typed by the interactor, that produce in response a growing familiarity with the simulated landscape.” [12]

Specifically the idea of the outcry, the commands the player types, which CL then calls out specifically as interrogation. Apart from the simply romantic notion of outcry, I wonder: if the work can reveal the landscape in response to outcry, shouldn’t it be possible for the interactor to reveal a parallel landscape in reponse to interrogation by the work? That could take many forms, from what you see in Spider and Web to some of the experiments devised by Victor Gijsbers (such as Figaro). In other words, when the tables are turned, is it still interrogation? What is it if not?

Jumping from this train of thought:


Should IF be understood in terms of a failed relationship to the model of publishing? Perhaps it could instead be represented as an ongoing successful relationship to the model of network distribution, or to the set of logics Alexander Galloway terms “protocol.” (8) The commercialization of IF, while foundational for the later commercial computer games industry, can be recast in this telling as an important anomaly, a brief big-business deviation from the otherwise constant association of the IF genre with individual authors each networked into a kind of literary salon culture. Indeed, as we focus on this version it quickly becomes unclear whether business production methods were ever strongly deviated from the methods of the earlier folk era or the later independent era: a single author laboring for some months, with perhaps the help of a few volunteer beta-testers.[20]

I’m unsure to what extent you can trace the lineage of the IF auteur back to the 70s and 80s, when as I understand it most computer games were written by auteurs in this period — not just IF. In that sense you could place IF auteurs in a tradition of video game auteurs, but is there a true folk tradition of IF auteurship with its own signifiers (assuming I’m using those words correctly!)?


CL really nails my interest in ‘field work’:

Browsing through stacks of critical monographs, piles of papers, and a hard drive of files, I am struck by the infrequency with which I encounter close readings – or rather, close interactions – in relation to these objects: a rarity of extended critical engagements with not only the form but also the texture of IF works as they unfold for us in all their aesthetic particularity. Perhaps this lack is a mere byproduct of our shifting focus away from what things mean and towards a renewed attention to what they do. At times, however, I fear that a deeper prejudice may be at work in our critical community, leading scholars to focus too often on the how of new media at the expense of the what, and in so doing dismiss with perfunctory summary the passions of artists and the experiences of their audiences, precisely as if the work warranted (and indeed, could bear) no deeper scrutiny. I fear the mistake, in other words, of assuming that the enduring importance of new media objects resides always in the ways that they are new, but never in their particular artistic renewals of our continual engagements with lived experience. The great disappointment of new media criticism in the humanities is that much of it is surprisingly inhumane.” [36]

When I say field work I’m hauling in some baggage from geology.

Wallace Stegner said, “no place is a place until things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends or monuments.” Every geological phenomenon we observe and interpret, from a single crevasse splay deposit to a continent-scale orogen, adds to our understanding of geology and of place. In that pursuit, I use a field-based approach to understand the interdependence between structure and sedimentation, and apply this understanding towards solving larger-scale tectonic problems. []

More about this later.


A brief detour through CL’s discussion of the term interactive:

“On the other hand Crawford’s work on interactive storytelling reflects a rigorous demand for some future sophisticated system (although Crawford differs from Lippman in focusing not on character simulation but storyworld simulation). [47]

I’m not so sure Crawford focuses on storyworld simulation in the sense this quote portrays. In fact I think he’s obessed with character simulation, and by a storyworld he means the dialog between the player and the artificial character.


Compare the following with Victor Gijsbers’ recent post ‘The Meaning and the Birth’:

IF is not a videotape of the hour-long session of IF that you yourself may have explored, nor the map you drew to aid your explorations. Neither is IF the complete printed transcript of your session. Artifacts such as walkthrough recordings (of the command stream) and transcripts (of the entire text stream) circulate widely in IF culture, and are important to it, but the transcripts are not themselves works of IF, which always imply procedural and experiential elements that cannot be flattened. Hypertext studies critics and games studies critics are at this point nodding their heads at this familiar purist position on interactive artifacts. A thornier question, however, is “specifically which parts of the total work of IF are missing when we read a transcript?” [49]


A chat client is not in itself a work of IF, yet it can become part of such a work if its command line is pointed towards an interlocutor that behaves in a certain way – and some chatbots actually enable exactly this kind of activity. The relationship of the chat client to IF is not a superficial resemblance. Instead this resemblance goes right to the heart of what we might call the more existential questions about the IF genre and its relationship to both artificial intelligence and roleplaying, that is, the machine and the human. Consider: an interactor engages two interlocutors using a chat client. One is a talented roleplayer and storyteller, who has been instructed to use the conventions of IF in a story in as rigorous a way as possible. The other is a chatbot running a sophisticated piece of IF software, which in addition to its brilliant ability to accommodate unexpected actions is versed in imitating human chat behaviors such as slowness, typos, etc. If the interactor can’t tell the difference, should we then define IF as an experience rather than a digital artifact? More importantly, who in this scenario is trying to pass as what?” [51-52]


In the notes I made while reading near this quote I asked myself, ‘is computational narration and computational presentation the same thing?’. I don’t think I’m alone here when I answer no — look at Nick Montfort’s ‘nn’ system, for example. Here I go back to CL’s provisional definition of IF as including computer-generated narration. In computational terms generation in an IF work can mean a specific thing, that is procedural generation of text, and I don’t think CL uses generation in this way. In CL generation can mean the presentation of the text to the interactor. Does an IF work generate or present text? You (meaning me) don’t wan’t to forget this distinction — it frames the reading, playing, and writing of IF, and an awareness of the frame allows you to step into and out of it understanding the effects.


The first chapter ends with a fair-sized explication of what CL will do in the following chapters, but here’s a last quote from before that part. ‘Implied code’ means what the interactor imagines the structure and content of the IF work-as-source-code to be — similar to guessing the text of a novel in the pages you haven’t got to yet.

When considered as a process in time, the formation of the implied code can generally be described as a coming-into-understanding. In contemporary literary IF,the interactor’s progress in learning to interact is often paralleled by the progress of the protagonist within the work, who also struggles to understand something within the world of the story. Implied code sets the pace of a dual epiphany that is both the climax and the conclusion: the character understands the world in the moment that the reader understands the code, and at that moment the work ends.[62]

I wonder if implied code does not include the idea of a mechanic of interaction then — presumably you want the IF to teach the player the mechanic of interaction as early as possible, quite apart from the exploration of the story world. By mechanic I mean the central metaphor for the interaction.

Good thing I’m not getting graded on this. Quite a fun read so far!


2 comments so far

  1. Jason Dyer on

    Nick’s definition of IF requires a world model. If what you quoted is Jeremy’s full definition, then he has a slightly more inclusive definition that includes chatterbots like Eliza. (One could discard Eliza in that it has no narrative, but only by a specific definition of narrative. This would still leave Astronomy Without a Telescope, which is a chatterbot with no world model but a definite narrative.)

    From what I gather it’s not really the goal of either paper to make a precise definition.

    Also, regarding the Victor quote: people have run human IF games before. I recall one forum where the members would type the next command in the thread and the author would respond like it was a game; this also has been done in a chatroom with the Receda’s Revenge games that were part of the Perplex City ARG.

  2. kooneiform on

    Jeremy doesn’t call chatbots IF in fact, for the very lack of a world model, though he notes how the lines are blurred by IF like Galatea. As you mention his definition is more of a description than anything else.

    There also are IF-like RPGs. I’m thinking of Jonathan Walton’s Waiting for the Queen/Tea at Midnight (often going by the shorthand Waiting/Tea), and something that Jared Sorenson at Memento Mori did, called Parsley. It’s funny that if you describe IF as computational narration — another term in my mind for narrative generation — these human-to-human IF would be more IF-like than IF itself. This seems like another point in favor of the argument that IF is not about computational narration, but computational presentation

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