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.