IF in the ACM literature, Part Three

Part 3 of 4 of commentary on the ACM archives I have been looking at.

From Josephine Anstey and Dave Pape, “Scripting the Interactor: an approach to VR drama”, Creativity and Cognition, the Proceedings of the 4th Conference on Creativity and Cognition, 150-6.

This article largely describes an art project created for a CAVE, a virtual-reality room requiring special goggles and controls. The central story involves the player’s meeting and becoming involved in a somewhat unhealthy relationship with a strange, not-quite-human NPC. In many technical respects, this is far removed from the interactive style of text IF. But on the way they have some things to say about what interactive story-telling should entail:

Story-telling is a modeling process (of our world, our experiences, ourselves) created and experienced for a variety of often mixed purposes such as escapism, titillation, experimentation, questioning, reassurance, incitement. This process may present a protagonist with condensed dilemmas of a political, social, ethical, and/or emotional nature. Readers/listeners/viewers identify with the protagonist and in so doing rehearse and explore their own reactions to the dilemma.

This word “rehearse” interests me. I think of those skits they made us do in middle school, where we had to practice saying no to drugs. I’ve never thought of IF as offering that kind of experience — not that I got much out of those skits anyway: they seemed always artificial and totally unrelated to what I might experience in real life. It also implies that the point of presenting moral choice in IF and similar media might be not to enhance the story but to enhance the player — to educate him, to make him more thoughtful about issues, to encourage him to think through and articulate a position.

I’m not sure what I think about this. Part of the reason I write so many reviews et al. myself is that it feels like a good discipline, and it forces me to develop my vague thoughts and reactions into something coherent enough to describe to someone else. The process of scholarly writing is like this as well, for all that it involves different tools and requires a different approach. In fact, someone once said to me something like, “what you can’t say, you don’t know.” (Or maybe I saw this on television, or ran into it in a play — I don’t remember the original source.) This hard-line approach dismisses a lot of intuitive and emotional knowledge, as well as a lot of non-verbal conceptualization: how would you say a melody, or a dance step? There are verbal notations, but they can only skeletally describe such things.

Still, at some level this harsh puritanical approach appeals to me: it demands that we work on making our knowledge active knowledge rather than passive knowledge; it requires that we go over the steps of our internal arguments so that we can lay them out for others. Is it possible for a game to help with this process? If so, is it still a game, or is it more of an electronic Socrates, sticking us with more and more contrived questions to make us see the holes in our thinking?

The authors go on:

Computer-based fiction should be able to remove the middleman, make the interactor the protagonist, and allow that exploration to be direct. Although some find this conflation of first and third person problematic, we believe it is one of the most powerful promises and fantasies of interactive story. (150)

This sounds like “second person” to me — if only implicitly so, given that their story doesn’t present itself in text and therefore never has a chance to address the interactor as “you”.

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