New Media, not IF

I wish I were more interested in forms of new media other than interactive fiction. There are all sorts of experiments going on in digital art and poetry, but often they leave me cold; I sense that the interactivity of the form has become an excuse for the author to avoid not only meaning but even the constraints of craft. Quite frequently I emerge from an encounter with a digital artwork feeling that I have gleaned no more than I would have if the author had given me a box of words, individually printed on scraps of paper. Some themes and possible intentions emerge, but the responsibility for arranging them in an interesting pattern falls too heavily to me, and the work has too little structure to be aesthetically appealing.

Compared with some of these experiments, IF is downright conservative and constrained.

I felt this way — confused and a bit alienated — about three of the four current pieces in the New River Journal. But I do quite like the concept of the Poetry Cube, which rearranges the order of lines of a poem, presenting them as though they were arranged in a three-dimensional grid. I’m not sure that most of the entries here actually make good use of the medium, but the idea that the lines should be readable in multiple orders is a formalism which at least allows the possibility of craft.

Still: this kind of work applies interactivity to text in a way that is quite alien to most interactive fiction. The most successful pieces of digital poetry I have encountered are the ones that permit the reader to explore thematic strands in the text; the interactive aspect involves co-authorship or (better) interpretation. The poetry cube goes further, inviting the user to create his own text under the constraint that it should be interesting when algorithmically shuffled and rotated; it is not a work of art or poetry in itself so much as it is a form. But this is a little atypical in my (limited) experience.

Thematic interactivity seems largely incompatible with the kind of interactivity we usually see in IF, where the reader/player takes the role of a character and controls actions (perhaps making important choices within the plot) but does not have the power to change or select the thematic content. The closest we get are the works (“Exhibition”, “Common Ground”) that offer the player multiple avatars with different concerns and perceptions.

I can’t decide whether I think there is room in IF for more thematic interactivity. Most of the explicit controls I can think of — like allowing the player to change genres, or tell the game to produce more melancholy text — seem rather lame, breaking the player’s immersion in the game or requiring too much work on the part of the author. Nor are they fine-grained enough to get at what is actually interesting here: the numerous and subtle connections between concepts, which we can choose to recognize or ignore. Is the homeless man who appears in scene 3 really angelic, and does that lend a new significance to the winged statue in scene 10? One might answer yes or no; but how does one make this interactive? Allow the player to express (within the game) which he thinks is the case? And then extrapolate, from this, results for the remainder of the text?

Put like this, it seems impossible: a domain for interactive poetry rather than for interactive narrative.

6 thoughts on “New Media, not IF”

  1. What if a game offered thematic interactivity through the player’s choices within the narrative of the game?

    The game could offer multiple puzzle solutions or dialogue choices, some of them resonating with a particular theme, while others tend to counterpoint or undermine it. If the player’s choices point towards, say, an angelic interpretation of the homeless man, then the ending or perhaps a few incidental details could change to support that. That wouldn’t necessarily mean completely forking the whole game.

  2. Conceivably, though I think there’d be a real risk there that players would never catch on at all. In “Metamorphoses” I set up the puzzles so that different solutions would contribute to different characterizations of the player, and affect somewhat what you’re allowed to do later; but this is so much behind the scenes that I don’t think anyone noticed until I explained it.

    Using puzzles to develop a characterization of the player-character is slightly different from what you’re describing, but I suspect that the results would be the same.

  3. Emily,

    First, noticed the hits wafting from your site, so wanted to say thanks for the mention. It is interesting that you called my creation, the Poetry Cube, a poetic form. As that was exactly my intention in creating this work. And you are right in suggesting that it isnt a work of art in itself (although coders might not agree). I envisioned this work, and some works currently being developed to emulate established poetic forms such as sestinas or couplets etc…. Digital poetry has been and continues to be an exciting and experimental form of writing. But it does appear that we struggle to bring new writers into the fold. My thought is that there are not e-poetry forms which act as bridges between the print and digital worlds. And creations such as the poetry cube offer writers that bridge.

    If you are curious:

  4. Another thought: maybe trying to implement “thematic interactivity” as a game feature is the wrong approach. Maybe the only “thematic interactivity” you need is the player’s interpretation of the game’s prose and structure?

  5. Ben –

    Possibly: I’m not saying that I think IF is deficient because it doesn’t do this kind of thing very much in any implemented way. But if we’re just going to say that the player’s interpretation is what makes it interactive, then novels are also interactive literature.

    Jason –

    Thanks for the link. I’ll be curious to see what other sorts of poetic forms you have in mind.

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