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?

The Masked Storyteller

Twine and Bklyn Trash King became my first foray into interactive and hypertext fiction.  Like Kathryn, I had heard of Patchwork Girl, but have not read it.  However, I did hear about it’s quirks and kinks since it is a CD-rom.  Needless to say, I had higher hopes with the stories on Twine since it is internet-based.

I initially set out to read Hunt for the Gay Planet, but just a few sentences told me it wasn’t my kind of story, so it was onto Bklyn Trash King.  At first, I thought something was wrong with my version, or this was just a VERY short story, when I kept hitting the “refresh page” link and got the same page of text over and over again.  Clearly, creator Ben Esposito knows it is easy to trigger the average computer user’s frustration, because I was willing to keep clicking this link until something happened.  And it did.  I was rewarded for my need to make the link work via incessant clicking and taken to the next page of the story.  I had to chuckle at Esposito’s cleverness at having the same page appear for both the narrator and the reader, thereby effectively putting the reader in the role of second person narrator.

What worked well was the continued use of tricks like this.  Esposito included links to outside sources/websites to further place us in his story and give it some validity.  One was a genuine news story about raccoons becoming pests in Brooklyn–the plot of Bklyn Trash King–which acted as a rather long footnote.  I actually took the time to make sure the article wasn’t just Esposito going the extra mile and making a mock news story.

Using the tried and true method of the choose-your-own-adventure tale, Esposito nearly lost me, but alas, it was another of his tricks.  For the first few “pages,” no matter which link I clicked, at the end I was rerouted back to the initial page where you were given options.  I then had no choice but to click the additional options.  Finally, I was taken back to a page where a third option that wasn’t there before has appeared.  Curiosity piqued.

At this juncture, the story truly becomes choose-your-own-adventure.  You are no longer taken back to the starting point with two choices, but are taken along a new path.  Of course, I had to know what happened in the other story I did not choose, so I started from the beginning again.  And here I was disappointed.  It was like a rom-com where you find out Gwyneth Paltrow’s fate is to be with this ONE guy, no matter which course her life takes.  I would have preferred an original ending for each course Bklyn Trash King took.

I’m sure creating these stories takes a lot of time and effort, but a little more attention could have been paid to minor details like spelling and grammar.  Those things immediately take me right out of a story.  Also, the deal between the narrator–you–and the Raccoon King to kiss the butts of three raccoons, plus his, just for a retweet seemed quite juvenile.

Overall, I liked the way the story worked and am curious to read more of the stories on Twine.  I think it will definitely give me some ideas on how I want to pursue my own Twine story next week.


Remember, Remember, the 11th of December

So, the title of this post is more for story clarification than actual advice, because I actually don’t know why the Twine story I read bears the title December 11, 2012, beyond perhaps the publication date(?). [SPOILER ALERT] The traumatic event in the story takes place in mid-summer, though the usage of a date as a story title (especially with the subtitle ‘Teddy’) did indicate an in memoriam work. When first approaching this story I glancingly assumed the importance of the date was historical – perhaps something to do with Pearl Harbor (yes, I know, that was December 6th… or 7th…). If I had known it was a story about cats, I definitely wouldn’t have read it, since neither I nor my family has ever owned a cat, and I don’t really care for them that much (the scratching, the snubbing, the hissing). However, in spite of this, I am glad that I was mildly tricked into reading this story, because it was abruptly emotional in a way that made me relate instantly to the author’s affection for his/her cat. Even with the clear foreshadowing, the very snapped-off way the death of Teddy is delivered to readers renders a clear picture of the disbelief one feels when they realize that they have truly seen someone/something alive for the last time, in a moment unrecognized for its significance. For me, that emotional impact was delivered after the news of Teddy’s death, in the lines:

By the time you fly home, Teddy has been euthanized and cremated. His remains are in a box in a drawer…you keep saying you’re going to bury him. You haven’t yet.

I know this has all been personal response so far, so I’m going to take a look at some of the technical aspects of the medium that I think worked to achieve this emotional effect on the reader (aka me). My first thought (and notation) while reading “December 11, 2012: Teddy” was that I liked the use of hypertext as a meta component to the story. I use parentheses and insertion dashes constantly in my informal writing, especially emails, and have to resist their overuse in blog posts (notice how I used a sly comma bracket for “especially emails” to avoid parentheses? oh, dang it). This incorporation of a meta component served to draw the reader closer to the emotional side of the story in moments (the incorporation of Teddy’s picture at the moment it would have the most emotional impact), while in others, paradoxically, the running commentary almost dulled the senses, as the monotony of normalcy is prone to do.

The stacking of the meta story at the bottom was… controversial for me. I jotted down “has linear component, but feels messy – why can’t there just be an inset pop-up that appears and disappears when you click the link?” as well as “really like that is doesn’t redirect,” like the tangential incorporations of the The Choose Your Own Adventure genre. CYOA never appealed to me as a child. I was always convinced that there was a ‘right’ narrative to the book, and so I read anxiously, marking my decisions with fingers tucked into different figurative crossroads, ready to backtrack at a moment’s notice. A little over-controlling, maybe, but my ‘right narrative’ theory seemed pretty valid when I ‘died’ in the course of reading… oh, wait, no I didn’t – let’s skip back to page 37 and choose “Follow man down the gangplank.”

In retrospect, though, the stacking of the “December 11, 2012″‘s details reflects the memories of the author, the compilation of moments that comprise the relationship between pet and pet owner, so I think maybe this stacking worked for this story. I was surprised by how short the story proper was – three short paragraphs that fit onto a single screen – yet the meta commentary took up a space over 5x greater. I’m pretty sure this was an intended point by the author. In a technical sense, I found that I tended to skim right over the titles given to each meta section (a sort of meta for the meta?) – maybe a two-step removal from the story was too much for my preferred reading concentration. Perhaps titling the sections with the word/phrase linking to that section would help the title disappear, yet retain its orientating function (as I perceived it).

Overall, I liked how this story was a hybrid of a fictive narrative and a blog post, in the sense that I was drawn into it emotionally and yet the entire story is, ostensibly, a public tribute to the author’s deceased cat. The same information could be shared by a FB status, “Teddy just died. :( I’ll miss that cat a lot,” but without the emotional impact felt when unraveling the story via Twine. That being said, I don’t think my Twine story for next week is likely to focus on the death of my hamster, Nibbles, however I might try my hand at incorporating the meta component that enriched this story so much – there are a lot of different directions one can take this.


Taking a Water Taxi to Raccoon Island

The sum of my experience with hypertext prior to this class starts and ends with Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl. The format of this work involves numerous nodes of text that you can click through at your own pace. Some of these nodes tend to follow a linear narrative, while others seem to bear little connection to the following and preceding nodes. It is nearly impossible (unless you have a lot of time on your hands) to read through each and every node on your first run-through. Nodes of text may repeat themselves, but this is almost never an indication that you are completely finished reading. It merely means that you must find a new starting point. All of the nodes were ultimately connected, telling fragments of the Patchwork Girl’s story. All led to the same “conclusion” (if you could call it that), though the means of getting there varies greatly for each new reader.

BKLYN Trash King was quite different from Jackson’s Patchwork Girl. The story played out like a choose-your-own-adventure game, though the choices were limited, and you were ultimately driven to virtually the same conclusion. At the start of this story, you are placed into the position of an individual engaged in attempting to fund a kickstarter project, which varies each time from ::: SmartJelly: A Wifi-Enabled LED Inside A Mason Jar ::: to ::: SteamCraft: The World’s First Steampunk M.M.O.R.P.G. ::: to ::: A DIY Tissue Box Ukulele Kit :::. However, the Wi-Fi cuts out, presumably because raccoons have been chewing through wires. Thus begins the adventure of finding the raccoon king in order to restore internet to your residence so you can continue to monitor your kickstarter project. While, as I said, there is a choose-your-own-adventure vibe, many of your choices are unimportant such as (“Look out the window” versus “Read the newspaper”). The only choice that really seems to matter is whether or not you will choose to strip down, tie raw meat to your body, and let raccoons eat the meat. You also have to choose whether or not to literally kiss the butts of said raccoons in order to get the BKLYN Trash King raccoon (who has an astonishing amount of followers on Twitter) to retweet your kickstarter project that seems doomed to fail. On my first play-through, I said “Hell no” to the repulsive demands of the raccoons, after which my character returned home to find the apartment wrecked. Following this, you quickly discover that the kickstarter project failed. I was confused, left wondering what was the point of it all. Wanting to see all of the options played out, I went through the story again and chose to do all of the repulsive tasks requested by the raccoons, which even having my character in the game do them was unsettling. Once I did this, I was asked whether or not I wanted to hang out with the raccoons (which led to my character drinking a lot of PBR and forgetting all about the kickstarter) or go home (which brought me to the same screens I received when I decided not to do any of the repulsive tasks set before me by the raccoons). In terms of the narrative, I was definitely confused as to the purpose of the story. As I said, the choices placed before me were relatively limited, and I found that I wasn’t rewarded for choosing one way or another. I suppose the internet is turned back on–though this seems to be the case in two of the three scenarios (refusing the tasks and performing the tasks but going home) since your character watches the project fail and the third indicates that nothing matters except PBR. The linearity imposed by the limited choices and conclusions offered by the author made me think that there must be a lesson to be learned from this story, but I was definitely unsure as to what the overarching point behind the story was.

One of the things that I found particularly interesting about this piece of interactive fiction and that helped me to interpret this work was the inclusion of external links (extra points for the inclusion of an external link to a video of an adorable slow loris eating a rice ball). At one point, you are led to a newspaper article about a real raccoon problem in Brooklyn. People seemed to be at their wits end trying to cage these witty creatures and relocate them elsewhere. So, the interactive fiction has a real-life story at its foundation, making the trip to see the raccoon king come across as a fictional solution (however ridiculous) to the problem facing the citizens of Brooklyn. Later, (if you click on the appropriate links) you are led to a TED talk by Seth Godin discussing “tribes” and the need for the average individual to invoke our shared cultural values and take charge in leading others toward change for the betterment of our communities. This shed a bit more light on this strange tale, because, while the methods utilized by your character are odd to say the least, at its heart this interactive tale relates a story about an individual trying to make a change in the community (by turning the internet back on), though as I said, I am unsure how much your actions, in terms of deciding whether or not to perform the tasks set before you by the raccoons, influence the return of the internet. However, your character does at least show some initiative in each scenario by going to see the raccoon king. Perhaps this is why the kickstarter project is doomed to fail in each scenario–because that’s not what really matters. As odd as it may be, perhaps by taking a water taxi to raccoon island, your character really did make a difference.

For those who like to tinker…

If you haven’t heard about the Raspberry Pi microcomputer (which retails for around $35), I thought this would be of interest. People use them to create all sorts of cool homebrewed tech projects: robots, home automation, etc.:


PS: The Pi was created as an inexpensive computer for schools in the UK, so there’s a “digital equity” angle to the project.  There’s a “what girls dig” (to paraphrase B. Nowviskie) angle too; see: http://www.raspberrypi.org/archives/3594

Following Compelling Words

I was not impressed by howling dogs at first.  The mental hospital feel of the first rooms was oppressive and yet not engaging, more off-putting than anything else.  The sort of monotony of the initial world lends itself better to a novel, I feel.  Even in the most dull of novels, one is spatially aware that there is an end to the tale and that one is moving closer to it.  In howling dogs, however, this awareness is not permitted and that I found to be one of the greatest flaws with the story and quite distracting.

I am not, by nature, an impatient reader, yet there were several times at the start of howling dogs that I had all but determined to close the window and choose a new twine creation.  Nothing seemed to be happening, each return to the little room forced the same routine–eat, drink, bathe, clean-up, occasionally glance at the picture, and return the the activity room.

Further, the initial jaunts in the activity room were not captivating enough to truly hold my attention.  I hated the feeling of not actually getting anywhere or learning anything.  For all I knew, the game could go on for days like this with hundreds of possible visions possible.  Other than slight changes, there was little to suggest that you weren’t simply back at the start each time one returned to “reality.”  Even these slight changes could have been produced with a code that randomly selected from a few different results on each reload of the starting rooms.

When the trash disposal finally broke I had all but given up hope of being able to actually “finish” the game.  I’m not entirely sure why finishing was suddenly of such importance for me, but in this story it very much was.  I wanted something to happen–perhaps find a means of escape from the rooms that didn’t involve being drugged? I admit, I spent far too long hoping I could jump or wriggle my way down the trash chute, if just for a change of scenery.  In the end, the trash disposal breaking was enough to suggest there was an end in sight.

And so, while I was terribly bored at first, I’m glad I stuck it out, for it was an interesting story.  I feel the start could have been far better.  Some indication sooner that one wasn’t in a continual loop of visions would have been appreciated, and yet, having finished it, I do appreciate that the monotony was done with a purpose and set a tone.  I was truly impressed with the blurred lettering on some of the pages–particularly the ones that blurred as you moved your mouse. There was something both illusive and compelling in that effect that seemed to me to capture the essence of the text.

Further, the later visions were fascinating–particular the one concerning the empress, the ambassador, and dreams.  Once the visions became as fully fleshed out as those–the turning point for me being when the murder occurs–I felt myself being drawn forward by curiosity and my early frustrations forgotten.  However, as a lesson to take away from this experience, I would suggest that one either keep the momentum going from the start or give the reader something more compelling than trees and sunlight and sleep to tantalize and encourage them.  I would like to experiment in creating a twine tale like howling dogs which does not so much offer choices as it does encourage you to select the word one is most drawn to in a text.  While one seemed to inhabit the main character’s mind, it still felt more like a text than a game–you simply followed the words that most compelled you to their conclusion.

P.S. Was anyone else who read this particular tale caught off guard by the realization (for me, during the murder) that the main character is a woman?


As a warm-up to Twine, I thought this neat little comic strip editor might be of interest: http://cmx.io/edit/. In short, it allows you to generate stick-figure comic strips using HTML-like markup. The only drawback right now: I don’t think the strips are very portable. To save your work, you need to create an account on github and copy your markup over to your own account. But you can freely edit/modify the sample on the page above to see how the whole thing works.

(In)visible Woman

Screaming Woman

This is a stencil of what I assume to be a screaming woman, spray-painted in hot pink. It’s located on the stairs that lead from campus to Lot 1, in between Tawes and the Art/Sociology Building (Google map here; you can even add your own graffiti sightings). I must have walked past it a million times without noticing it was there, because usually I am preoccupied with trying to see what art students are making in this door to the left of those stairs, which is open most of the time. [Lately it looks like someone in there is making a giant tree-person similar to the Ents in Lord of the Rings.]

Art Building

To the right of the stairs is this little nook. Turns out that brick wall, which is almost as tall as me, overlooks a secret garage door into Tawes.


Here’s a shot approaching the cement staircase.


And here it is from the stairs themselves.

Screaming Woman

I have to say, even when you know this stencil is there and are looking for it, it’s still hard to find. I became dejected when I thought a small patch of cement farther down the stairs was covering up the image. I walked the path down to Lot 1 to make sure I wasn’t remembering the location wrong, looking up and down the poles of streetlights and along the edges of the concrete; people started looking at me as though I was missing something. It wasn’t until I had given up the search and was walking up the stairs toward Tawes that I saw it again. Then I realized that the stencil wasn’t anything like I remembered–I assumed the shape I was looking for was a figure of a woman, not her face, and I didn’t have a strong sense of its color.

This exercise was a reminder about the embodied memory of space and place. It’s so fickle yet it sometimes leaves such strong impressions. I walk this path almost every day, and I always look forward to seeing what’s going on in the workshop with the massive door–there are always lights, sounds, eye-catching shapes that sometimes dwarf the humans that are working on them. The best view is at night, when the door is open and the building is lit from within by fluorescents. I try to watch what’s going on without being noticed by the artists, which is difficult because the brick wall gets in the way unless you are standing at the top of the staircase [and then people behind you trying to use the stairs wonder why you're just standing there....]. But even after my joy at discovering this stenciled woman for the first time, my memory of her receded and she stopped catching my attention until I remembered her for this exercise.

Why would someone put a stencil there, and why this stencil? It’s a hard image to interpret. I think it’s a woman but this could be the illusion of long hair created by the hard line at the edge of the stencil. Her mouth is open but her expression seems neutral–her eyes are in shadow, not angry or afraid. Perhaps she just calls out for us to notice her while we’re absorbed in our phones or paying too careful attention to our feet on the stairs. Perhaps she calls our attention to the details of this most everyday of spaces: one pathway between campus life and the journey home. It’s a space we’re not supposed to inhabit for long, and it’s a place some people may never go because of their inability to access it. In some ways it’s for us as pedestrians but in other ways its utility is closed to us, considering that on most sides it is hemmed in by delivery entrances, parking lots, driveways, and storage for what keeps the buildings around it running.

Oh, and there’s this.

Emergency Camera

As part of an exercise for Dr. Farman’s course on Space, Place, and Identity, the class mapped the security cameras on campus. Some of them are freestanding, but some of them are attached to these emergency kiosks. It doesn’t quite look like this kiosk at the top of the stairs has a camera, but it occurred to me that whoever put that stencil there might have been caught in the process, under surveillance by invisible, and potentially not even human, eyes.


The Robert B. Morse Water Filtration Plant Site, Rt. 29 in Silver Spring


This gallery contains 7 photos.

At the intersection of the Northwest Branch creek and Route 29 in Silver Spring stands what remains of the Robert B. Morse Water Filtration Plant, which was in service from 1936-1962. The pumping stations are still standing, but most of … Continue reading