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    probing worlds made of words

    Sometimes I'm not sure about the merits of the term "electronic literature." I've used it loads of times, including spending some labor in this very blog working on an unfinished taxonomy of "forms of electronic literature." Although even perusing that list will reveal some instances where I refer to certain types of electronic literature as really being more akin to "toys" or "films" then as "literature" per se.

    I think about this a lot in relation to the term "interactive fiction" or "interactive narrative," a category which encapsulates what used to be known as the more lowly "text adventure." "Interactive fiction" (IF) seems to have become the commonly-accepted term for these sorts of creative works, and I've stated some of the things I like about the term on record, but I wonder sometimes if it doesn't distort the way people think about the end product. Specifically, I wonder if it's useful to assess IF using the critical tools one would use to assess a piece of literature: I wonder if IF wouldn't be better assessed using the critical tools one would use to assess a video game.

    This came up for me recently when I was reading the transcript of "Interactive Narratives Reconsidered," an interesting speech that Ernest W. Adams delivered at last year's Game Developers Conference.

    Adams' speech mostly attempts to answer the question of "how can we make interactive narratives better as narratives?" In order to establish the need for improvement in this regard, Adams points out a set of "key problems" that make it "difficult to create interactive narratives."

    For instance, "The Problem of Amnesia": "What do we do about the fact that story characters understand the world they live in, but the player is amnesiac about that world? Why does the player have to spend time at the beginning of every game exploring what is supposed to be his own natural environment?"

    I think it's a valid point that this maybe doesn't make for a very realistic story, and it may not be compelling as literature, but it's never bothered me very much in the text adventures I've played (or, if you prefer, "in the pieces of interactive fiction I've read"). It's never registered as a "problem," exactly. And in trying to think about why that is, it occurred to me that a big part of what's pleasurable about a video game is this process of exploring and testing the environment. In Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad Is Good For You, he refers to this process as "probing," a concept originally theorized by social scientist James Paul Gee.

    Gee is a pretty smart guy (Stanford Ph.D.) who has some things to say on the topic of games as narratives (from this interview):

    "Stories in video games work very differently than do stories in books or movies, and we really don't understand well how they work, yet, because we keep treating games like movies. In books and movies, the story is 'top-down,' someone else has made it and you discover it in the order and at the pace the designer has determined. In games, stories are 'bottom-up.' The player picks up bits and pieces sometimes in an order and at a pace determined by the player."

    Well, exactly. The sort of "mimetic gap" between the way a player explores a game and the way a heroic protagonist would realistically behave in fiction, seems to me to be a key part of what makes a game a game.

    Apply Adams' "Problem of Amnesia" to a classic video game like, say, Defender. I've been playing Defender for approximately 26 years now and I'm still terribly bad at it: the fast gameplay and complicated controls make it a game of near-infernal difficulty. But that's the fun of it. Treating this game as narrative would be laughable: you wouldn't ask "why does this character need to spend valuable time trying to figure out the controls of his own ship?" or "why did this planet choose such an inept defender, thereby insuring their immanent doom?" (It's true that the planet in Defender only has ten humans on it, so their talent pool is pretty limited.)

    Similar is Adams' "Problem of Internal Consistency": "What if the player is controlling Superman as his avatar, but wants to do something very unlike Superman: killing people at random, for example?"

    This wouldn't make for a very canonical Superman story, agreed, but attempting to do something like that seems to me to be a fundamental part of the process of playing a video game. Part of the fun of a game is figuring out what constitutes its internal consistency, which means that sometimes you're going to do things which don't make consistent or realistic sense were we to be watching the thing as a narrative. Play Shadow of the Colossus and it's only a matter of time before you make the protagonist leap to his doom off a staggeringly high cliff. Taken as story, this makes no sense: why would a protagonist so seemingly driven to complete his goal suddenly opt for suicide? Taken as an instance of "probing"—testing the parameters of a game world—it makes perfect sense.

    I just don't think a text adventure / piece of interactive fiction should be held to different standards just because it's made of words and not polygons.

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    Tuesday, August 08, 2006
    12:30 PM


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