On interactive fiction

Later I’ll post my Twine story review per the assigned exercise, but I also wanted to share a discussion post about my experience with interactive fiction. I am a novice in this realm, so reading/playing “SHADE,” for instance, was completely foreign to me. A few observations, which will perhaps spur comments from the more experienced reader/players and sympathy from my fellow novices:

First, anecdotally: I was seated on my futon in my apartment when I opened “SHADE” and seriously, for a few seconds, thought there was some strange voyeuristic business going on when I saw the black bar at the top of the page (“Your apartment, on your futon”). I thought it knew my futon and me. Here’s to fulfilling apartment stereotypes. But I digress.

This game is not intuitive. (But is it supposed to be?) The “about” command only provided more setting and copyright material, and it least for me, it was not obvious which types of things I could and couldn’t do. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing—was there an objective? In games, there are goals and you achieve things, but in narrative, those lines are blurred, and the responsibility certain isn’t on the reader to enact anything. Plus, a story isn’t necessarily about plot; while actions typically drive narrative, they don’t have to. How would the two (action & narrative) be blended in interactive fiction? And how does a reader become a player?

There’s a weird dialectic between player & computer/programmer, here. I am both protagonist of the narrative (it’s “my” apartment) as well as active player and thereby, in some sense, writer of the narrative. The onus is on me to keep the story going, and yet, I have little control over how my actions are described and what consequences they beget. For instance, when I typed “Stand up,” the narrative continued, “You lever yourself upright. Umf. It’s amazing how much lack of sleep feels like a hangover, only without the preceding party.” Andrew Plotkin describes the hangover feeling, but I invoked his description by commanding that my character stand up. In some instances, this was really interesting to experience, but at other times…

I got REALLY frustrated, especially if the game didn’t let me do what I wanted. At one point, I had figured out that the game wanted me (what does that even mean? How does a game “want” me to do something? “The game repeatedly prompted me,” I should say) to drink water. For whatever reason, it hadn’t been revealed to me that a glass was on the counter (I’d looked in the cupboards, where only crackers reside) and I had decided that my best option was to dump out the peanut butter and use the jar as a glass. But the game wouldn’t let me open the jar because it claimed I had no appetite! I couldn’t explain my ulterior motives, so had to give up and put the jar away. (The refrigerator door kept swinging shut anyway…). If this is a game, shouldn’t it just follow my commands? Why is opening the jar contingent upon my appetite? Who is controlling this narrative???? (It’s obviously Plotkin, and as a “reader/player/writer” I found this frustrating).

On top of that, the game kept telling me upon certain commands that I could “see no such thing.” Excuse me? It has also described the apartment as one room, with bathroom and kitchen “nooks.” I’m pretty sure I can see the futon. Why can’t I see the futon? It felt very limiting to be told what I could and couldn’t see. So sometimes I would get existential and tell it to imagine the desert (“That’s a verb I don’t recognize.”). At one point, I told it to look out the window (although I quickly remembered I should open the shade first) but then I was told, “Darkness is already crawling in around the edges of the windowshade. You have no desire to look night in the face. You run your tongue over dry teeth.” Again with the not understanding—or ignoring—my motivations and “desires.” I thought maybe I could get a description of what was outside the window (because I’m curious! Tell me more, narrator!) but instead, I was pointed back towards my “objective”: find some water. As  a typical reader of fictive narratives, I was interested in Plotkin’s descriptions, and eventually, that’s what I went searching for—descriptions of the room, of the trip that was planned, of the scenery outside the window (#denied) but because this is interactive fiction, I had to find water.

I’m pretty sure my asking the game to “Imagine the desert” succinctly portrays my struggle.

Despite my frustrations, I do think interactive fiction makes one think harder about the different roles of narrative. Who ultimately controls the story? What is a narrator? A writer? A protagonist? A reader? In interactive fiction, as I mentioned, there seems to be a combination of narrative description as well as objectives & goals. This prompts us to consider what the objectives & goals of non-game (non-interactive) fiction are. I just finished reading Moby-Dick for the third time, and I can’t help but wonder how it would play out if I read/played it interactively (“Pick up harpoon”).

But at the same time, isn’t all reading interactive? I’ve always thought that Melville prompts us at several moments to consider our own quests of reading alongside Ahab’s quest for the white whale—aren’t we all just looking for enlightenment? Perhaps the metaphor of gaming and reading is actually effective, then. I tried and tried and tried to find ways to get that poor sad sack on the futon some water, and maybe it’s the same as trying and trying to find meaning in a difficult passage. The power of description is ultimately with the writer (who doesn’t understand or know the reader’s motivations—who drinks water out of a peanut butter jar anyway?) but the reader/player, then, must make sense of his or her own experience.

I’m curious to see what experienced gamers/readers of interactive fiction have to say about the value of objective-based play-reading. What can be learned from this experience? Is it just fun? How does having a role in the action influence reading?

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