Archive for December, 2007|Monthly archive page
The IF should be 40+ hours of meaningful play — whether you serialize it or not.
Character customization and credible ‘systems’ (such as combat and magic — though not necessarily these systems in the conventional sense) must be in place. However I’ve seen enough of ‘you hit the rat for 5 damage’, and ‘the rat bites at you and misses!’, not to want to program that into a game. Alternatives might be based on systems such as Spellbinder or the Way of the Tiger gamebook series.
The work should be open-ended in play, not a railroad.
With some free time over the holiday I’ve finished Jeremy Douglass’ dissertation. Chapter 4 is taken up largely by close readings of several works, and I have somewhat less to comment on here.
Here CL considers what it calls minimal works, to describe the essential of IF (241).
Typing at the command line is primarily a site of anticipatory or prospective closure – an attempt (which may be frustrated) to discover or solve the gap between the current state of the simulation and its next state. 
Compare this with the new design notes for Deadline Enchanter, and DE’s possible “projective fiction”. I wonder if DE is not so unlike interactive fiction as may be first thought.
CL goes on to examine tense and person in IF.
First and third person IF tend to complicate the narrative and functional relationships between interactor and protagonist by their nature, opening the distance between the two as separate selves. For this reason, first and third person increases the need for a framing tale to capture the separate self of the interactor in the diegesis; these modes thus encourage narrative elaboration. This is not to say that such elaboration is good or bad, nor must it follow that the minimalist mode of IF (second) be the dominant mode. Still, the fact that second person is by far the dominant mode might be telling about the general relationship of IF to framing complexity. [265-266]
You know, I’m still not convinced that first and second person in IF are really so different (in terms of complexity of the relationship between protagonist and interactor).
I’m perhaps as far from an English major as you could get, so my ability to understand the root cause of the dominant mode in fiction, third person (compared to IF’s dominant second person), is limited.
Whereas it’s easier to write IF in second person, maybe it’s easier to write fiction in the third person? That doesn’t feel right though — in fiction it seems to be more about convention.
Yet social convention is not so far removed from the function of physical technology, if not convention (i.e., what is possible with the tools).
CL takes a brief detour into talking about interactivity (273), dispels some myths about IF’s relationship to graphical computer games (278), discusses “time fiction” and time-loop fiction, and then makes a close reading of three works: Aisle (287), Shrapnel (309), and Rematch (324). The diagram of possible commands in Aisle is particularly cool (297).
Somewhat disappointingly CL does not essay a conclusion, though really each chapter is more self-contained than leading up to some grand thesis. And of course the works cited is a great reading (and playing) list (369-383). You easily could make a self-study course out of that list alone.
I’ve found CL to be instructive in many ways. As a historical and theoretical work to be sure. I think it’s also answered the question of whether I would want to spend several years writing something comparable — and I believe the answer is no! Even though I did enjoy reading it. I would much rather be making games than writing about them. However some of this goes hand in hand with making games, does it not? Maybe not for everybody — time will tell.
The zine Lady Churchhill’s Rosebud Wristlet has fluttered on the periphery of my consciousness for some un-specifiable amount of time. I finally ordered a copy, #21, to see what it’s all about. Other than reading Strange Horizons occasionally I haven’t kept up with SF (and most short fiction, really) at all — stopped reading F&SF and Asimov’s ten or so years ago.
A lot of the stuff in this issue has similar flaws. The writing lacks sustain, an emphasis on what’s important, interesting ideas, and kind of jumbles things together in a sophmore creative writing class kind of way. Not that I would really know I guess, I never took a sophmore creative writing class. I just read the stories my friends wrote in them.
On the other hand I think the cover is fabulous (though my friend and his girlfriend turned their noses up at the Xerox — people with taste!). And for the five or whatever bucks I spent I did get a really great story, “The Postern Gate” by Brian Conn. I’m happy with that.
I’ve also got a new subscription to Electric Velocipede but I’m saving that for the plane ride back to Seattle (not to mention an old copy of Fictitious Force sitting at home).
I wrote a few short reviews and put them on RGIF, as OGRC – three short reviews.
Later I read Emily Short’s review of the same games, particularly Urban Conflict, and my idea of what a conversation game is all about is changing as I write this, mainly in how to consider a game where the player’s thoughts and feelings interact with the work.
I’m getting more into the idea of some Noah’s Ark of text gaming. It would work something like this.
You run a mush server as a back-end for the persistent world. Players connect with a Flash or equivalent client on the web site, where you have forums, help files, player wiki and player character pages. So people are playing on the web site in something that looks like a mush — room descriptions, poses, and so on. If the player wants to they can connect to the game with their normal client. I guess it would be somewhat trivial to mirror help files and bboard between the web and the mush server — but this would be for advanced players who are coming in with their own clients and some mushing history. The Flash client lets you log, quote in, and configure the display.
In the forums you have PbP games running — it would be possible for these games to affect the mush world, but a little more difficult I think. On the site you have a library of IF the player can play solo with a Flash client as well — these could affect the mush game. Meanwhile there’s some strategy-based persistent browser-based game also running. This affects properties in the mush game in which people are RPing.
Playing IF can be slow. I hesitate to say IF is slow. But its nature lends itself to exploring, nosing around, fiddling with things. Taking your time.
For anyone who says this is a quality of text games, in contrast to shmup video games or Halo 3, remember that IF is not slow because its medium is text. There are dozens of examples of text games that play as fast as any shmup.
24%/ 13321 /Duck /ls ls ls ls ls ls ls ls ls ls ls ls
Sirius thrusts at your neck with his left wing-spike.
You block his wing-spike with your aegis shield.
Sirius thrusts at your stomach with his right wing-spike.
You hop to the left of his wing-spike.
25%/ 13321 /Duck /ls ls ls ls ls ls ls ls ls ls ls ls
You snap at Sirius with your fangs.
Sirius flies under your bite.
You’re looking at a fight from Godwars II, a mud. But a real-time mud is very different from turn-based IF — IF is slow, right? But slow compared to what? Shmup video games, obviously. First-person shooters, yes. Graphical adventures and puzzle games? Strategy games?
Clearly ‘slow’ is not the term we’re looking for to describe IF’s pace, it’s just not very descriptive. In many ways IF games are leisurely, deriving from some of the interface and programmatical conventions of IF in general.
So the whole reason for this is I just played a recent game from ECTOCOMP. Anyway, the game I played is Witness: Demon vs. Vampire, by Robert Street.
As you might imagine you are a witness to a fight between a vampire and a demon. In essence this is 50% of what Godwars II (the mud) is all about. I think this is a great concept for an IF game. However this game makes this monster fight about as leisurely as you possibly could.
It’s a little bit like showing up to a fight between a vampire and a demon and handing one of them a Rubiks cube.
If you’re going to write a game where a demon fights a vampire, for the love of Satan make it exciting. So, really this post isn’t about slow, but about action. I’ve never heard anyone call an IF a real ‘page-turner’ — not that you really could anyway. What would you call it, a real ‘command-enterer’?
Is this an insurmountable problem?
Because though I love leisurely IF, I sure as hell would love to make an awesome IF about a monster fight.
A little over the half-way point of Command Lines, and we have (I think) a confirmation of the idea of a central mechanic of interaction — but more on that in the final section.
Chapter 3 deals largely with what CL calls the aesthetics of frustration — the art made within the ambiguous possibility space, the gap between the interactor and the IF. It heavily references Espen Aarseth’s book Cybertext among other theoretical works, and this sent me to the intarwebs quite a bit. Some useful background on Aarseth and his idea of textonomy is here:
Cybertext Theory: What An English Professor Should Know Before Trying, Markku Eskelinen
Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star, Nick Montfort
In running down the wayposts on the road of IF theory CL stops at the book Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort (I need to read this — I passed up a copy of it at Twice Told Tales a few months ago, incidentally). Apparently Passages makes the case that IF inherits from the riddle. CL responds:
My first concern is that a work of IF is seldom a riddle in anything but the most extended of senses, although most might be more credibly described as puzzles. This is because the riddle is ultimately a better metaphor for a small group of interactions or even a single interaction within a work of IF. The moment of closure of some state change that the interactor considers a strategic advancement is much like one question that demands one answer. Like the critics before him, Montfort is addressing the multitude of gaps that make up an IF work and characterize its aesthetics. Yet he does not present riddle-books or riddle-collections as an artistic ancestor (which in contemporary culture are generally seen as tawdry affairs), nor any form of riddle-networks (if such things exist and are acknowledged as art) but instead the riddle (singular) in itself. 
What to make of this in light of an earlier section of CL, I’ll just requote in full:
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.
At first I thought, well wait a minute, is this not the ‘riddle’, that the interactor understands, at which point the work ends?
But taking this further, there is a difference between solving a riddle and understanding a world (or situation), and in any case, this would be a most liberal definition of a riddle. So there is some bigger central concept that is bigger than the riddle here, though I’m not sure how to describe it yet.
IF and Puppet Theory .
CL talks at length about the meaning and definition of the player-character (PC) and prefers to call the PC the protagonist. The protagonist is not a puppet — a FPS avatar, say, where button mashing sends a fairly unambiguous signal to shoot a gun or jump or run. Rather the nature of the command line creates an ambiguous possibility space that denies the validity of the PC as puppet. However CL doesn’t stop there:
The term “player character” is itself wrong, and rather than redefining it in cybernetic terms we should replace it with one that better reflects the ambivalent complexities of IF identification. This suggested renaming might be a self-contradiction, as I strenuously defend the use of the phrase “interactive fiction” based in part on popular use (Ch. 1) but here resist the term “player character,” which also has a strong (if less universal) consensus in practical use. Yet the situation is not exactly the same. First, “player character” is a specific term of craft or criticism, and thus bears a certain responsibility for accuracy (and carries a certain consequence for inaccuracy) which genre labels do not. Terms of craft are also easier to change. Second, the term “player character” strongly implies that the player is embodied by her character, or that the player character is occupied by the player. They term also implies that IF works (which may be played, used, read, interacted with, explored, tested, and so forth) are always played, which is particularly strange in relation to conversational or art show pieces, but generally limiting in even more conventional cases. Third, and most importantly, by implying that the player character stands in for the player, the term implicitly conflates focalization (how the interactor perceives the diegesis) with action (how the interactor affects the diegesis). 
The most important bit here for me is whether IF works are always played. The concept of play itself is especially relevant if you’re going to talk about an aesthetic of frustration — but wait on that.
I identify the figure through which interactor agency is focalized as the “protagonist,” or first actor: one who usually performs the interactor’s suggested acts. It might literally follow that multiple such figures (as in Berlyn’s Suspended or Granade’s Common Ground) are “agonists,” but for the sake of elegance we can simply call them “actors”: characters who perform the suggested acts of the interactor.85 Figures who are not conduits of agency therefore need not be called “non-player characters” (NPCs). They are simply “characters,” and describing them in this way helps us to consider the many complex ways in which characters may be partial or contingent actors. 
In this sense the concept of agency seems very limited. Any object in the IF by which the interactor achieves an effect on the world can afford agency. What then is not a conduit of agency? Backdrops or scenery that don’t have any effect on the world whatsoever? Is a key then an actor? That doesn’t seem appropriate either.
Other text games have used the term ‘agent’, and while it flows very nicely from the idea of agency, if you say a bunch of agents are running around your IF it sounds kind of cloak and dagger-ish doesn’t it?
Responding to theorists who advocate for a range of interaction in IF beyond that of genre tropes (for example, fantasy or science fiction stereotypes, though CL makes a good case that many theorists have been stuck near 1982 when it comes to analysis of IF work itself):
If we assume that the goal of the design space is to conform to strongly understood, previously available schema and scripts about interaction, then we have in the process implicitly stated that IF can never be accessible or usable on the one hand while still being unexpected, surprising, or unique on the other. We are arguing instead that the pattern of being unsurprising is what causes interaction design to succeed. To restate, accepting the hallmark of successful IF design as “reinforcing genre expectations” might also be positing good IF design as the antithesis of “subverting genre expectations.” To complete the syllogism: if subversion is a hallmark of artful literature, and the truly generic tropes are the opposite of subversion, does this mean that IF is in this sense the opposite of artful literature? 
CL then goes on to describe some ways that IF design can subvert genre expectations: by changing the interactor’s script within the process of interaction(by script I think he means the range of interaction, what the interactor can do in the IF), and by scripting for failure of the interactor. CL also defends against the idea that most IF is defined by genre tropes at all.
However, what CL doesn’t talk about, yet at least, is that the goal of the design space doesn’t have to be about genre tropes or transgressing genre at all — but instead about a central mechanic, a metaphor, that allows the player to come to terms with the work, regardless of genre stereotypes or whether it uses equally stereotypical tropes of literary fiction. The mechanic by its very nature imposes constraints and limits, and it’s the author’s job to reveal to the interactor what these are, and equally the interactor’s aim to discover them. Ultimately I think CL implies this idea .
Many works of IF create a unified language constraint, combining the description of most individual psychological, social, or physical constraints into powerful, comprehensive systems of constraint that are deeply tied to the concept of the respective work. These systematic sources of constraint might be a special situation of the world or a special condition of the protagonist. Of these two options, the move to formalize constraint in the protagonist is often more effective, as the protagonist is usually the consistent element in an often-varied environment. Yet the distinction is not always clear, as the modeled IF world may in fact reflect the protagonist’s worldview, or some other special property of the protagonist’s mind. Whether the world, the protagonist, or some combination is the origin of primary constraint, a host of foreclosed options may be attributed to a single cause. This single constraining cause then provides a compelling negative shape against which the remaining possibility space may be explored.95 The purpose of these limit-systems is to render the necessarily extreme constraints of the IF representation aesthetic by incorporating them into the diegesis 
And here we have it — CL is talking specifically about ideas of disability, literal and figurative, within IF, but you wouldn’t be doing too poorly if you said “a single cause[, a] single constraining cause [that] provides a compelling negative shape against which the remaining possibility space may be explored” was a description of the idea of the central mechanic.
I realize I’m throwing around this term of ‘central mechanic’ without many examples to back it up — I can only gesture vaguely to IF by Victor Gijsbers, Emily Short, Stephen Bond, Adam Cadre. I’m a doctor, not a cybertext theorist! — wait, I’m not a doctor either. Oh well.
This emphasis on the aesthetics of frustration is quite interesting — when we play IF we don’t say it’s frustrating us unless we’re stuck, and I don’t think this aesthetic is meant to apply only when you’re stuck. To adequately describe the experience of interaction it needs to apply when we’re having fun too, and while you may not play something like Galatea like you play Lock and Key, you are equally engaged. It seems odd to me to describe an experience of fun with an aesthetic of frustration. Nor am I satisfied that for some works we engage — with very serious faces on now — and for some we’re entertained. Maybe we can borrow something from drama (as some IF developers seem to be doing — or I should say interactive dramatists), as whether it’s Death of a Salesman or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s still a — well, maybe I shouldn’t go too far.
It so happens that I’m horrible at keeping any kind of list or ledger. Grocery list? Forget it. Balance a checkbook? In my dreams. This hasn’t stopped me from endless iterations of trying to keep lists. The joke here is that I also have a pretty lousy memory.
Anyway, you know what they say, rage, rage, and all that. Sometimes I think my sallies at list-making will, one day, catapult me into a golden age of perfect recall, or at least a list for every occasion, where I’ll never again forget a date, name, the book I read last thursday, or the author of the book I’m reading now (which just happened the other day).
I’m trying to keep a couple of lists here, of games I’m playing and books I’m reading. I won’t even try to keep them totally up-to-date, but instead I’m hoping they’ll grow by gradual accretion to record a history of what I’ve played and read lately. Already I’m starting to circumvent these lists, playing games and reading books that I’m not playing now — the horror! We’ll see, for example, if Lost Pig is still up there next year, like my Playing Now figurehead.
Picking up where I left off:
Chapter 2 is titled Implied Code, and following on section 9 in my previous post, CL essays an expanded discussion of the term. Implied code is in part made up by a guessing game as the interactor plays the game, so one of the first acts of the game is to teach, in some way, the interactor how to play the game itself. CL mostly uses video games as its examples. While I don’t think there are not any IF games that include in-game (diegetic or perhaps extra-diegetic) tutorials, it certainly seems far less common in IF than in AAA video games — probably because of the amount of effort involved. Far more common is an out-of-game (extra-, or in the case of simple instructions on how to play IF, even non-diegetic) tutorial contained in a HELP or ABOUT menu. Perhaps this is because, as CL intimates, the tutorial process is implicitly built into IF in a unique way:
In comparison to the contemporary narrative videogame, one might say that contemporary narrative IF is almost a tutorial genre, in that works tend to end at the moment that mastering the interface concludes. In contrast, we might rather say that IF does not seek an efficient resolution to the problem of how, but rather seeks an evocative exploration of the problematic of how; this is its primary design space. 
Once again I’m bothered by what seems to me a confusion of mastering the interface. Maybe this is related to how a narrative game is usually not a fast-twitch exercise (though compare against hybrids like Indigo Prophecy). Isn’t it possible to learn the interface in IF, learn the central mechanic of the work, and then use that as the mode by which you explore and experience the work? In this situation the tutorial is over at a point where we typically think of tutorials ending; that is, early in the IF.
CL mentions Leather Goddesses of Phobos in talking about “implicit configurative acts” , where at the beginning of the game the player chooses their gender diagetically (that does become an easy word to throw around, doesn’t it?). Compare with the original version of Aaron Reed’s For Whom the Telling Changed.
An implication model inverts the commonly emphasized sites and roles in interactive new media art and digital storytelling. In interactive simulations such as IF, “interaction” normally describes a process during which the interactor acts to intervene (via the parser) in the simulation. While outcomes are the result of a negotiated and cyclical communication process, the simulation or storyworld serves as the object of negotiation, the locus of all outcomes, and the ground against which the figure of the interactor performs. The converse of the interaction-simulation model is one of implication-cognition, which shifts the primary ground of discussion from the simulated space to the human mind while emphasizing the experience or reception of the work over its performance or construction. Through this lens the work rather than the user is now the primary actor. [97-98]
From this ground CL launches into the implied author, implied reader, and by extension the implied code. To be honest to fully understand this I’d have to sit down with a stack of books as tall as Frankenstein’s shinbone.
However I think CL’s choice of the word ‘intervene’ is an interesting one, for there is intervention in IF only to the extent that the interactor creates the stream of fiction in their mind. There is no simulation like where some researcher would input some variables into a feedback loop and let it rip.
In “Beginning to Theorize Postmodernism,” Linda Hutcheon grapples with competing terminologies and theories of postmodernism by considering a generic trope in the contemporary novel that she terms “historiographic metafiction”: a generic tope that subverts generic tropes from within, whose hallmark is the difficulty readers and critics have in classifying it, and whose preoccupation is the continually emphasized presence of the past. This past is always engaged through a critical reworking, never a nostalgic return. In this sense of history-writing, we can begin to see an analogy to the explorations of the interactor excavating the logic of the code. Interaction could be described as a kind of re-construction, re-creation, or reperformance of the actions originally imagined in the code. [117 -- emphasis mine]
I don’t see it as a kind of re-construction at all — isn’t that exactly what it is?
The precursors to contemporary gamebooks may have been the nonfiction instructional series TutorText, whose first volume The Arithmetic of Computers was printed in 1958. Fictional gamebooks did not appear until 1967, when Raymond Queneau of the OuLiPo group published his short story “Un conte à votre façon.” 
Also compare this with Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch, published in Spanish in 1963 and in English a few years later (though this isn’t CYOA or a gamebook per se).
Strangely, the use of the term ‘person’ in language studies does not correspond to its use in visual studies. Most games studies discussions use ‘person’ in the visual style, corresponding to the viewpoint of the player. The first person camera is the most immediate, providing a view from the eyes of the avatar with little more than a hand of the avatar-self encroaching on the image. The third person camera is more mediated and distancing, as when the separate self of Lara Croft or Master Chief46 is displayed on screen and followed through the game world by a cinematic crane shot. The function of this mediacy is complex, but one effect is that greater immediacy imparts greater immersion.
In language simulations such as IF, gamebooks, or RPGs, this process works differently. Rather than the process of simulation occurring as if from the player’s viewpoint, the simulation is addressed to the player from the simulator (“You are in a maze of twisty little passages”) creating complimentary thoughts in the mind of the player (“I’m in a maze!”). Second person narration (“You are”) evokes first person participation (“I am!”).
In both the textual and visual case, the game system describes an inhabitable experience through assertion (second person) for the purpose of the player’s participation, identification, or immersion (first person). We can conclude that the “first person camera” as it is discussed in games studies and the “second person narration” of RPGs and IF are not in fact two categories, but rather two perspectives on the same category of simulated immediacy. This immediacy is distinct from the more mediated “first person narration,” which creates much the same distancing effect as a “third person camera.” It does this in much the same way, by introducing a separate self into the frame. [144-145]
I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that. For purposes of showing the parallels in perspective between FPS and 2nd person IF I agree — however the ‘you’ of IF can mean the player, the protagonist, or some combination of the two (hypothetically — I can’t think of a game at the moment that’s like that).
In summary, simulated immediacy is a formation with respect to agency and desire, neither comparable across apparently parallel grammatical construction (first person game [!=] first person prose) nor comparable across identical visual composition (Terminator POV [!=] Half-Life POV). Instead, superficial structural similarities disguise surprisingly profound disjunctions, for it is the continuity or discontinuity with agency and desire out of which strongly parallel aesthetics emerge in overtly dissimilar works. 
Regardless, this is an engaging idea.