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.