command lines: chapter 3

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. [183]

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.[62]

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 [186].

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). [206]

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. [207]

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? [211]

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 [219].


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 [231]

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.


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