Allegedly Interactive fiction; or, The Day My Computer Told Me “You Can’t Talk To Your To-Do List”

I went through “Howling Dogs” and found myself reminded of a conversation I had with an art major at a rather odd modern dance performance I attended.  We were sitting next to each other and fell to chatting about our majors, interests, and so forth.  Modernism in dance is not something I understand and I found myself engaged by the performance (sadly, I don’t recall the title) but provoked into thinking about it until my brain ached.  I was incapable of NOT trying to force the performance into a story that made sense, but its abstract nature defied me.  I confessed to my newfound artistically-inclined friend (when she asked what I, as a newbie, thought of it) that I couldn’t quite tell what it was about.  She told me that it isn’t necessarily about anything, and the experience of watching such a performance is more about letting it wash over you than anything else.  She explained that what you, as an individual audience member, feel while beholding it is the thing to analyze, not the performance itself.

This philosophy of art is very foreign to my usual way of thinking, but it may be the best available approach to something like “Howling Dogs.”  I cannot tell you what it was “about,” but it did serve to focus my reading experience in different ways than would a stationary text.  At first, I found it a little dull, but eventually I warmed up to the poetic cadence of the dream-like “activities.”  The first time I tried the shower and the trash chute, they worked fine; after that, they were broken and I have no idea why.  I suppose “I” was living in filth for a sizable portion of the story, but other than that I observed no effect from these elements of “my” habitat ceasing to function.  I assumed they were there for some reason (maybe that was a mistake) and so was deeply unsatisfied when I never found out what the point of them was.

As I read the story, I noticed that the links that revealed more text on the same page (rather than opening a new one) served to focus my pauses in a way that would not have been possible if the story did not rely on hypertext.  This feature helped shape my impression of the story as poetry because it emulated the way poetry can use line and stanza breaks to cause the reader to notice words that would be quickly passed if the same text were presented in prose form.  Even with the enforced pauses, the experience of reading the story — even though some of the links presented choices — was one of letting it wash over me.  It didn’t really feel interactive, since the choices were so limited and often did not stand in clear opposition (except in the battle-or-biscuits scene), so I would term it “exploratory fiction” if I had to produce a name for what this thing is.   This format allows the author to constrain the way the reader moves through it in more complex ways than are available for printed fiction, so I do not feel that it gives the reader enough agency to warrant the term “interactive.”

The constraint of apparent (fake) freedom can be much more infuriating, as I found out when I tried to do “Shade.”  There seems something almost perverse about telling a reader to use her imagination but only so long as she imagines what the author has decided is appropriate.  I had seen from Susie’s post that there was a glass to be had, but even with that cheating, I could not make this thing do whatever it was supposed to do.  The structuring force of the story began to take on a personality (an incredibly annoying one) as my enemy, and I reached a point where I could no longer focus on getting that dumb glass of water because I was too busy trying to outsmart or subvert this petty tyrant.

One good thing about this “story” is that at least it stood still in a way that let me save the text for future analysis.  Here is my attempt:  Shade take 1.   The effort required to simply walk around “my” apartment shut down any interest I had at the outset in the content of the story.  Did anyone actually figure out how to get through this one?

If I don’t like a fixed story, I can simply blame the author or say “it’s just not my cup of tea,” but this supposedly-interactive fiction denies me that chance.  It tries to trick me into thinking that it is my idea to do whatever it wants me to tell it to do.  I think I would prefer, as a user, to be called “I” in the first person rather than “you” in the second so that I could more readily imagine myself inhabiting the persona of the character that the author has in mind.  Maybe that protagonist can’t even find her own bathroom, but I jolly well can (thank you very much) and I don’t much like some disembodied entity telling me that I can’t.

I realize that the frustration I felt while striving for that willing suspension of disbelief was not warranted, and I am actually intrigued by the choose-your-own-adventure format of storytelling.  But — to return to the experiential model of art reception — the most noticeable thing about this genre to me is the paradox it generates; it takes away perceptive control at the same time it purports to offer the reader more agency.  With a fixed text, I can read the whole thing (even if it is abstract or I don’t like it or I have no idea what the author wanted me to think of it) and hold it in my mind and subject it to whatever analysis or re-purposing critique I want; I can use my imagination about it if not within it.  Interactive fiction offers me the chance to use my imagination within the story itself, but it forcefully rejects my attempts to control the story as a whole.  Electronic interactive fiction imposes further distance between the reader and the ability to grasp the overarching structure that governs the story because, even with a printed choose-your-own-adventure, one can eventually read each path or can even wrest experiential control away from the author by choosing to read it cover-to-cover, out-of-order, or backwards.

One thought on “Allegedly Interactive fiction; or, The Day My Computer Told Me “You Can’t Talk To Your To-Do List”

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