One of the questions I semi-routinely get asked on interviews about interactive fiction is whether I think the annual IF Comp is a good thing for the community. I find the question hard to answer: the competition is so essential to the community identity that I have a hard time imagining it away, and besides, my opinion wouldn’t change anything; it’s like someone asking whether the human body would be more aesthetically appealing if it didn’t have a spine.
Nonetheless, I’m constantly conscious of the con arguments brought up a few times a year: that the competition siphons off attention from other games released at other times; that it produces a trend towards small games rather than epic works; that there is something wrong or unfair about the voting scheme (opinions vary on what that might be); and — my least favorite — that “real” artforms, like novels and paintings, are not produced primarily for competition, and that therefore competition is an unhealthy or unnatural context for artistic production, and we’d be better off without it. (Here we touch another of my pet peeves: people who make sweeping statements about “real” art are usually talking about [what they know about] commercialized artistic production in the early 21st century. I run into something similar with freshman mythology students: they’re often convinced that “originality” is the defining feature of good art, and so object to the fact that ancient authors reused mythological material. Their conceptions about literature have been shaped by market forces and copyright law in ways they don’t recognize. They also, if pressed, don’t have a very clear idea of what originality means, other than perhaps refraining from reusing the same plot and cast of characters from another work.)
Lately I’ve been reading two books that have helped clarify my visceral sense about this problem into something I can articulate.
The other is Martin Revermann’s fantastic book on performance criticism of Aristophanes, Comic Business.
Revermann spends a fair amount of time talking about the context of dramatic production in ancient Greece: usually a head-to-head competition between three plays, produced at considerable expense and underwritten by the state, in which the winning playwrights received negligible prizes but substantial rewards in prestige. Winners were determined by the votes of a small number of judges, not of the whole audience, but the audience’s reaction could have a major effect on the success or failure of a play. What’s more, it could be assumed that most members of a given audience had not only seen the other plays in the same competition (so that, for instance, Aristophanes could put a joke into Frogs at the expense of his rival Phrynichus, who was appearing at the same festival) but also that they were familiar with the same basic canonical body of plays produced over the previous decade or two. This meant that there was lots of room for metatheatrical humor — i.e., jokes about theater and theatrical production, about specific playwrights and actors, and about the conventions of the genre. It also meant that new works tended to be somewhat innovative (in order to stand apart from the work of other playwrights) but only somewhat: really unusual experiments would have been risky.
In fact, this sense of drama as a competitive form was so ingrained that even when the Greeks began to stage revivals of Aeschylus — reperformances long after his death — they seem to have done so in competition form: Revermann speculates that Aeschylus’ work was sometimes put up as a guaranteed winner against a couple of newer and presumably lesser plays, and that on other occasions multiple troupes of actors performed different Aeschylean tragedies and the competition was then about which troupe had done the best job. People came to the theater to be entertained, to receive insight both personal and political (Aristophanes received rewards and a rare repeat performance of Frogs because the audience thought so highly of the advice he gave), and to be part of a community experience of art. Part of that experience entailed comparison and judgment.
I mention all this not because I think IF has achieved Aeschylean or even Aristophanic greatness, but because some details of this description sound quite familiar. In IF, too, the default mode of production and experience is through competition — see all the mini-comps, the Spring Thing, the one-room game comps; even the IF Art Show is competitively structured. Nay-sayers argue that this is because the community is rankings-crazy, or because authors get so woefully neglected on non-competition releases. But I am starting to suspect that there is another reason: some of us enjoy playing IF more when it appears as part of a competition.
Enter the second book. Nick Montfort was kind enough to send me a copy of Videogame, Player, Text, and (from obvious motives) the first part I read was his piece on Savoir-Faire. In this essay, he argues that interactive fiction is particularly well-suited for collaborative play; while he focuses most on the puzzle side of this and the experience of shared solving, it is also true that IF is particularly suited to shared interpretation. If I read a novel on my own, I may miss some nuance, but it is unlikely that I will accidentally fail to see large swaths of text. Playing something at the same time that a bunch of other people are playing it, and comparing notes and thoughts with them, is a more enjoyable experience for me than playing a game on my own. Witness the fact that I usually manage to get through most of the 30-50 competition entries in a month and a half, while at other times of the year I might play one new game every few weeks. This isn’t because I’m making a superhuman effort at comp time. It’s because I’m more interested at comp time. And I don’t think it’s because I have a bloodthirsty sensibility and enjoy watching people’s hard work get trashed. On the contrary, the games I especially look for in reviews are the ones I liked myself.
I also find that I remember these games better, and for a longer period of time, than those I play alone; that I have more detailed ideas about how they work and why; and that they have a greater effect on my own writing.
But what about the (possibly) negative aspects of competition, like the fact that comp winners tend to be those games with some ambition, but not necessarily the very most daring or experimental?
This is a sore spot. Every year, people gripe about the competition’s failure to recognize the games they liked best; and if you look back at the competition rankings for years past, you will almost certainly find some works now touted as canonical greats or groundbreaking experiments but that placed 10th, 13th, etc., behind other titles you’ve just about forgotten. At the same time, there is a sense of frustration in some parts of the community (read the ADRIFT forums, for instance) that IF has gotten away from purely trying to be fun, that a high degree of polish is expected, that we’ve forgotten what a good old-fashioned text adventure is supposed to be like, and so on.
Marie-Laure Ryan also has an article in Videogame, Player, Text, in which she suggests that the problem with digital storytelling is the relative lack of material that falls between popular, story-light videogame and elitist hypertext concept-art. Literary hypertext, in my experience, tends to be more abstruse than the most experimental interactive fiction. I often walk away thinking that the work made no sense at all (having eschewed traditional narrative forms to the point where it is hard to extract any meaning, and I am frustrated by having to construct all the significance myself from assorted fragments — I could do the same with a pack of tarot cards, or a selection of ten ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ hits, or my neighbor’s garbage). Even when that doesn’t happen, I usually find that I appreciate what I read/experienced more as an idea than in execution. This is the point of concept art, to convey an idea and then stand back from it; and yet I feel cheated. I like craft, the effort and technique that go into making an idea into a thing of content and substance. In my more pugnacious moods I doubt whether there can really be art without craft. But we are now wandering into a theoretically dubious thicket of personal prejudice.
At any rate, Ryan’s argument is largely that digital story-telling needs more of that middle-ground stuff, the stuff that has a decent story, that brings in some ideas from both the hypertext world and from the video game world; the kind of thing, in fact, that the IF competition tends to reward. (She also suggests that The Sims are a good essay in this direction. I’ve never been that impressed by the narratives that arise from playing The Sims, but I also haven’t played some of the more recent editions which introduce more interesting goals. But if I had to put my finger on what is narratively lacking in The Sims, it is precisely the sort of thing that text delivers best: dialogue and the life of the mind. It always frustrated me that most of my time playing Sims was directed towards activities that I don’t really enjoy in real life — making them wash their dishes, say — but that when they did things I do find interesting, like reading books or having conversations, this content was presented in a vague iconic form to which I had no direct access.)
All right, so I’ve argued that competition constitutes a superior context for player reception than a context in which people play individually at different times; this doesn’t explain the relative non-success of things like the IF Book Club, which in theory give people a chance also to play something simultaneously and discuss it. The same idea gets brought up every year or 18 months, I’d guess, but always tanks after a month or two due to lack of participation. I suspect the problem is the ongoing nature of the project, or the fact that a voting competition gives people a direct personal stake in the outcome that they don’t have when it comes to playing book club selections. At any rate, there seems to be a functional difference.
I’ve also brought forward the hypothesis that competition-based art encourages the kind of highly polished, middle-brow work that Ryan thinks is particularly lacking in digital story-telling in general. I’m less sure about this, but I think it may be true.
If so, I’m not sure whether the fostering of the middle-brow is a purely good thing. While I agree with Ryan that artistically-ambitious-yet-broadly-accessible interactive storytelling is desirable on the larger scene, IF internally needs to have a full spread of its own. Of course, the competition doesn’t exclude people interested in writing pseudo-hypertext or old-fashioned dungeon crawls in BASIC; they may or may not place well, but they also may or may not mind that fact. Some authors are not discouraged by low placements and return year after year anyway, figuring that they are reaching some portion of the audience and that that is enough for them. There are also other venues, like the IF Art Show, which put the emphasis on different things. I was sorry to see the Art Show on hiatus, and glad it came back this year, because I think we need it. It gets less attention than the main annual competition, but it’s valuable as a context for experimentation.
I’m not sure there’s a compensating context for pure-game works. Do we need one? I don’t know.
It’s also unfortunate that there seems to be such frustration about what does get produced. I encounter a lot of rants about literary artsy IF, and a lot of rants on the other hand about the staidness of IF and its failure to get more narratively ambitious, and I find this both confusing and sad. While there may not be a range of customized comps to support it all, there is both literary/experimental and old-fashioned game IF produced every year, usually with some gems in each category — and thus, to my mind, no need for either side to get worked up. So I wonder whether things like the annual competition and the XYZZY awards give a false impression of consensus within the community, and suggest to people with different tastes that they are alone in their opinions.
Maybe it’s a good and timely thing that we have IFDB, which is designed to give a more nuanced view of who liked what, and why.
The bottom line is, though: there is something quite deep-seated in the community culture that inclines us to receive IF in a competition context, and I think that’s not wholly bad. On the contrary, the trend may be linked in some non-accidental ways to the nature of interactive fiction. Obviously, this isn’t the only way IF can be received, and it was once commercially viable as something played by individuals (though even in Infocom days I quite often played with a friend or relative, or compared notes with other players). But perhaps IF is a form whose meaning is best understood communally rather than individually — much as a live theater experience is shaped very much by the reaction of the rest of the audience. Part of what makes that possible is having special times set aside when lots of people are playing the same IF at the same time, and a context that motivates comparison, discussion, and personal investment in one’s preferences.