Slap That Fish! — Interactive Fiction as Contemporary Art

February 15th, 2008 Comments Off

I have the good fortune to be able to travel to several of the great cities of the world on a regular basis as part of my job. And when I do, I always make it a point to visit the local museums and art galleries. I find art to be inspiring, and I do some of my most creative thinking while wandering around on the creaky wooden floors, looking at works made by artists past and present whose intent is not always transparent. I have come to believe that a work of art is not simply the sum of its creator’s vision, the “authorial intent”, but rather only made complete through audience engagement and interaction. The audience of a work interprets its authorial intent through the lens of their own experience. This lens may distort, it may enhance, it may obscure. I’m sure this is discussed at great length and more clarity by art critics, this is simply an explanation of my own feeling when encountering and interpreting art. So how does this relate to writing Interactive Fiction?

When I approach writing Interactive Fiction, I am inspired by art in two ways: First, by the product itself, the artwork as I interpret it. The Journey of the King and The Ebb and Flow of the Tide, for example, were based on works by Lord Dunsany, but also inspired by Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau. Secondly, I am inspired by the experience: how art creates an interactive space in which the viewer may interrogate a work and explore its meaning(s).

I have only recently turned my attention to Contemporary Art galleries, which have started to make more sense to me, now that I have spent so much time looking at historical works. Some recent, excellent shows I have seen include Antony Gormley at the Hayward Gallery, and the Olafur Eliasson show at SFMOMA. Both had sort of an Interactive Fiction turned “real” feel, in that you wandered around the exhibits into different “environments”, exploring the art at the most basic level through examining your surroundings and movement. The Gormley featured an incredible cloud chamber in which you could see nothing but white until other patrons approached, their ghostly visages appearing just inches from your face. And Eliasson featured an interesting room with purposefully-creaking floorboards that vibrated a pool of water, creating ripples on a projected screen in front of you, based on your movements.

You are probably not going to believe this if you have played it, but more than anything, Slap That Fish! is my first work inspired by contemporary art.

Contemporary art is, I find, very difficult to see through our experiential lens. Far more often then not, works do not move me, inspire me, or otherwise cause me even to pause. The art can be difficult to understand, and sometimes even when I do understand, I fail to see the point. There is a sense sometimes that Contemporary Artists may be making fun of us, somehow, laughing that we think their work is art. Marcel Duchamp’s FOUNTAIN (a urinal) is the classic example. And this is a dangerous position to be in. People do not like to think that they are being made fun of in some way, even when they are not. So dismissal becomes the safe route out of the contemporary art experience.

Galleries fret about this a lot, from what I can tell. So they try to intercede in the relationship between authorial intent and audience interpretation by providing some kind of pamphlet, an artist’s statement, a critical commentary, that does the heavy lifting for you. In short, galleries try to minimize your involvement in art and maximize the artist’s. So when you walk into a room full of wooden beams of varying heights, you can read in your program that they represent men, women, and children, of all ages, races, and walks of life, even though quite frankly you see no such thing. Generally speaking, I really hate this calculated hijacking of my interactive involvement in the work. Game-wise, it’s like someone just handed me a walkthrough that I didn’t really want.

I have come to understand I am very much in the minority in this dislike, however. For most patrons, in fact, the opposite is true. My friends who have worked in galleries and curated shows have all told me how patrons request interpretive help if it isn’t readily available, and lean on it heavily throughout their gallery experience. In general, people do not prefer to interpret art, they prefer to understand the “correct” interpretation. And also in general, artists prefer that audiences understand their art as close to its pure authorial intent as possible, so it’s sort of a win-win situation. And while I think the more static nature of some mediums might lend itself to this approach, I find it undesirable in Interactive Fiction. Part of the interaction between the author and the player should be interpretive for the work to resonate at all.

Writing IF as contemporary art is in contrast to the standard approach to Interactive Fiction, which is the telling an interactive story. In this approach, you follow all the basic tenants of writing: a strong hook at the beginning, a narrative, a compelling protagonist, etc. etc.

So getting back to SLAP THAT FISH, as I fear I must: I declined, in the competition version, to provide a declaration of authorial intent. This leads players to interpret the game through their own lens, while interacting with the work. As with most of my games, this works best only if the player interacts with the work as a whole. As with contemporary art, the interpretive burden is sometimes entirely unwelcome. This means some people will understand authorial intent, some will supplement that intent with their own vision, some will worry they are being made fun of in some way, and some will dismiss the work. All of these responses are entirely fair and honest responses to the game, and none should be discounted.

SLAP THAT FISH is designed to be a game that is only understood through interaction. The more you interact with the game, the more you learn. In game mechanics, that means the plot is revealed, your character’s motivation is revealed, the play mechanics are suggested. In this way, the game attempts to duplicate the experiential exploration of contemporary art. At no time does the game properly explain how it should be approached or played.

My focus when writing was on the player experience, not on the actual in-game player character experience. This was not the first time. My previous game, Ecdysis, was also focused on the player experience, and in that case based on the idea of complicity. The entire game was built around the idea of leading the player to identify with the player character through very simple actions, fulfilling the player character’s basic needs, until, in a series of incremental steps, the player becomes complicit in a heinous crime (Sort of the IF version of, “If so-and-so tells you to jump off a cliff, would you?”).

In SLAP THAT FISH, complicity plays only a part in the beginning. At the beginning, there is an emotional disconnect with the player-character. You are typing in his (always violent) actions, without a clear understanding of motivation. In fact, it seems plausible that the protagonist is deranged. The violence is occassionally quite mean, the deaths, perhaps overly celebratory. In this way I hoped to create an emotional unease within the player. This unease builds in two ways: first, through the meaningless violence, which may make the player somewhat uncomfortable; second, through repetition, until the player becomes uneasy that there is nothing much else to the game. Then, through continued interactivity, I hoped to change this unease into acceptance, understanding, and at last, perhaps, triumph. But nothing is clear unless you continue, and it is not until near the end that the full game world reveals itself.

This approach to game design is not ideal. Many of the best games take a more cinematic approach to design, including most importantly opening with an exciting “hook” to attract the player. Contemporary Art tends to be less compromising than, say, TV, and is less concerned with attracting the largest possible audience. This allows for greater expression of authorial intent (in that the author is not constrained by calculations of audience approval), but certainly narrows the amount of viewers willing to shoulder part of the interpretive burden. Perhaps, the less an author thinks about his or her audience, the less of an audience there is likely to be.

I should add one critical point to this essay: none of this is to say that SLAP THAT FISH is to be taken seriously. It is a completely absurd game. It is simply to say that these themes, these exhibits, these concepts, were among the ones that came out to the foreground of my thoughts as I put the game together.

The Journey of the King — Text as Treasure

May 28th, 2007 Comments Off

I recently wrote and released The¬†Journey of the King, free for download from the¬†IF archive, adapted from the writings of Lord Dunsany. Reception to the game has been mixed, with most notices centered around the style of writing, and its abundance. While it at first seems odd that someone might not like too much text in a text adventure, after a moments reconsideration there are in fact very good reasons for this sort of complaint. When writing “Interactive Fiction”, it’s all a matter of finding the right dividing line between the “Interactive” part and the “Fiction” part. And without a doubt, there is a lot of the latter in Journey of the King.

Journey of the King contains large chunks of text at certain points in the game. It’s probably worthwhile to talk about what that usually means. Works of IF usually use large chunks of non-interactive text in three different ways: cut-scenes, payoffs, and info-dumps.

A “cut scene” with a large amount of text is typically employed when the actions required by the player for this particular section of the game would not add to the level of enjoyment substantially, perhaps a part of the game that requires the player to go to the airport, board a plane, fly to another location, disembark, and find their hotel might be better described in a paragraph or two of text rather than actually played — it’s not central to the story, would take a tremendous effort to code, and isn’t very interesting to the player. This is a very intuitive use of text and similar shortcuts are employed in movies, for example; just an establishing shot of a landing plane is enough to convey the entire process.

Cut scenes can be mishandled, too; usually by forcing the player to perform many uninteresting steps, and then, just when the game is about to get interesting, put in a non-interactive cut scene instead that forces the player to become a passive observer. To use the same example above, imagine a game where you do play getting to the airport and boarding a plane, only to find the scene in which a mysterious stranger appears, makes cryptic statements, then jumps out of the window to be told in a cut scene and you as the player are not allowed to intervene in the proceedings.

The mishandling of cut scenes can be so annoying that it gives having cut scenes at all a bad reputation.

A “payoff” with a lot of text can sometimes be deeply satisfying: after performing a lot of actions, solving a lot of difficult puzzles, there is nothing worse than having a game simply and abruptly end. The payoff text provides the emotional payoff for the entire work. This is standard game writing practice with text-based and graphics-based games of all kinds. The big, cinematic, finish is a must in graphic-based games. These endings can be short, but it is satisfying as a player to get some sort of payoff for finishing your game. The end text is their reward. If a cut scene can be good or bad, a payoff is almost always a good addition to a game.

An “Info-dump”, on the other hand, is almost always bad. Lots of games start with page after page of background information, that make you tune out as if someone was droning on the other line of the phone. While reading is an integral part of playing Interactive Fiction, so is playing. And when you first start a game, you want to jump into it. Let the background information come out in the scenery, in the characters. Don’t dump all that information at the beginning. This is the hardest pitfall for a writer to avoid. Another place an info-dump can occur is in conversation.

***

Journey of the King is based on a short story by Lord Dunsany. The plot is simple: The King feels he is nearing death, and no longer enjoys making merry. He summons all the prophets of his Kingdom to him, and each in turn tell him what they believe happens after death. Each contradicts the other, and in the end, he makes a choice. The End. Now, there is nothing interactive at all in this story, but nevertheless I immediately seized on it as a story I would like to adapt. The one fundamental change I made to the story, the change that moves it from static fiction to interactive fiction, was to move the prophets out of the palace. Instead of simply sitting in the Throne Room and listening, the King must now go out into his Kingdom and seek out the prophets, wherever they may be. When he finds a prophet, he then must receive that prophet’s prophecy. The prophecies do not contain clues to anything in the game, they are simply stories. The prophecies are lifted exactly from the original short story, these are Lord Dunsany’s own words. The framing story, of the wandering King, are my own.

While this may seem like an unusal concept for a game, in many ways, I drew on the same model as the traditional text adventure: You must wander the landscape and discover treasures. I simply replaced the “clockwork egg” or whathaveyou with less tangible stories. It is, as the title of this column suggests, text as treasure. Lord Dunsany’s words, in the form of the prophet’s speeches, are treasures in the context of the game, and your job, as King, is to collect them. To underscore the concept of text as treasure, I awarded points for each prophecy collected, and modified the SCORE command to summarize each prophecy found. But no tangible objects are collected.

One of my beta testers suggested, after playing through, that each prophet should give you an object when you meet them, and at the end of the game, when you make your choice, you can put that object on an altar or something, which would then indicate whether you have chosen correctly or not. I thought this suggestion was excellent, and implementing it would have surely converted the game into a collect-and-score system much more familiar and friendly to the average player. It was, however, contrary to what I wanted to do with the game — Dunsany’s words are the real treasures here, and additional trinkets would only detract from that fact. The game is a story of the spirit, not of objects, about seeking the wise to help steer your way, but ultimately making your own choice. It’s about religion and rationality. I hoped to use just enough of the treasure collection system to make the game mechanics understandable, without fully moving out of the realm of ideas.

***

The long text passages of Journey of the King, then, substitute for “payoff” — enjoyable bits of story that you receive for completing certain portions of the game, rather than “info-dumps” — large sections of text that you must read to understand the game world and what you are supposed to do. There are a couple reasons that long time IF players, upon encountering the passages, mistake one for the other.

First, there’s the matter of the text itself. Written by Lord Dunsany in a pseudo-Old Testament style, it is very difficult to parse. You can’t read his words quickly, you have to slow down, follow its cadence, rather than trying to impose your own. For some, Dunsany’s text will never be a treasure, but more of a chore. Well, let’s agree to disagree on that one, and move on!

Second, payoff text usually appears at the end of a game or after a difficult series of accomplishments. But in Journey of the King, long prophecies emerge right away. Trying to merge the idea of Dunsany’s story, in which the prophets assembled for the King, and my idea, in which the King seeks the prophets, the game opens with two of the prophets having heeded your call. Now, you may summon them and hear their prophecies, accumulating them and earning points without lifting a finger. So much text so early in a game immediately suggests to an experienced IF player that they are getting an info-dump. At that point, they try to dig through the prophecies, trying to figure out what they need to know to play the game. Dunsany’s writing makes this an impossible task. And so players give up at this point, muttering about “info-dumps” and moving on. Their point is well taken, in that I can see how the structure of the beginning of the game lends itself readily to this interpretation. Combined with the difficulty of Dunsay’s text, that’s a one-two punch many players can’t recover from.

But too often, the focus of text adventures is in using text as a tool — using simple phrases to interact with the game environment. But text also describes that environment, and the people in it, and everything that goes on there. In a land where text is used as a tool to explore a text landscape, why not text as treasure, too? Text that shimmers with creative energies as potent as the day it was first written, a hundred years ago. Now that’s something worth discovering.

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