IF in the ACM literature, Part Four

I’ve been saving these for last, because they’re really the juiciest: a couple of articles authored or co-authored by Mark Bernstein.

Bernstein is the founder of Eastgate Systems, a company promoting serious hypertext. They sell a small but — within the hypertext community — highly respected collection of hypertext fiction and nonfiction, at serious book prices: much of it runs from $25 to $45. And they produce and sell Storyspace, a tool for hypertext creation. This is a niche market: the major works are self-consciously literary or pedagogical, and I think it would be fair to say that IF in general is a more populist form. At the same time, hypertext is a more successful niche market than IF: how many of us are selling IF game files at $45 a pop? how many would feel ballsy enough to try? And, leaving aside the commercial, hypertext also gets studied more extensively by academia, taught in more new media courses, and generally considered more serious.

Some of this has to do with accidents of community — with the sorts of people who happened to be drawn into creating each kind of thing, and with the ways in which they framed and presented their finished products. But I also think the media favor different kinds of content, and it’s interesting to look at why.

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IF in the ACM literature

Recently I’ve been looking at academic papers available at the Association of Computer Machinery portal, checking out what various scholars and conference-attenders have recently had to say about interactive fiction. (Note that while you can register with the site for limited free service, full access is by subscription, so your best bet is to access it through a registered library.)

It turns out that what these papers have to say is often some variation on “here is why conventional interactive fiction doesn’t live up to its promise: …”. They have different ideas of what that promise is.

One take on this:

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Data Visualization and the State of the Union

While I’m on the topic of games and IF with educational or persuasive value, I should mention (though I’m not sure how to place it relative to everything else) the State of the Union explorer. It allows the reader/player/experiencer to explore statistical information about the State of the Union addresses, discovering which words gain and lose prominence in political consciousness, and comparing any two specific years in overlay.

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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.