Thursday, February 15, 2007

The meeting and the birth

Why are we interested in interactive fiction and roleplaying games as new forms of art? Presumably not simply because they are new and relatively unexplored, but because of the interactive aspect in its modes of creativity, complicity, judgement. (Thinking about the artistic modes of interactivity should be one of highest priorities.) Traditionally, a work of art is created by a writer, is the responsibility of the writer and expresses the judgements of the author.. Sessions of playing an RPG or reading a work of interactive fiction may transfer one or more of these wholly or partially to the players and/or readers.

Why is this a good thing? What can a work of art that is interactive in this sense do that a non-interactive work can not? But perhaps this is already the wrong way of thinking, if we wish to arrive at a critique of IF and RPGs.

First, there may not be a work of art. Is the program or the game book a work of art? It is certainly not the work of art we are looking for. Is the played-out session the work of art? No; for the played-out session is not interactive. The transcript of a session is simply a story written in a strange style. In roleplaying and in interactive fiction, there is no work.

Art used to come to us as a work. Now it comes to us as an event.

The work/event distinction is not the thing/performance distinction. There is a very real sense in which we can watch the same performance of a play twice, but cannot play the same session of an interactive fiction story or a roleplaying game twice. We can recreate a session, but only by stepping outside the modes of creativity, complicity, judgement in which the original session got its specific meaning.

Second, the event of art does not primarily do anything. Even for works of art, it is wrong to think of them as objects that primarily are the cause of certain effects on the reader, even though they may be that as well. Primarily, a work of art is an opening through which another world can reveal itself to the viewer. An event of art is primarily an opening through which the player can step into another world.

A book, a movie, a theater performance or a painting is a work that allows a world to reveal itself. A roleplaying game or an interactive fiction story is an entrance into a world. A session of a roleplaying game or an interactive story is an event of entering a world and acting in it. Reading a book is like meeting a person. Playing an interactive story is like being born.

From now on, I will talk about these modes of art as the meeting and the birth.

Here are some questions. Isn't the enrichment that art can give us the meeting with the Other? Is it possible for us to be reborn as someone not ourselves, or are we locked into repeating our ingrained beliefs and behaviours in the world which we have entered? Can we believe that interactive arts are an alternative to the mainstream arts captured in the framework of mass media, technology and the economy if that means we have to believe that the world opened through the program/book must somehow be free of these influences? If escapism is the attempt to escape from all responsibility, are the interactive arts with their simulated and therefore unreal responsibilities not the pinnacle of escapism?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

[IF] Meaning and dual authorship

This post only applies to interactive fiction that (1) has or provides the opportunity for theme* and message, in the sense that good literature has themes and may tell us a message about those themes; and (2) takes the reader seriously as a co-author of the piece.

In such a case, a problem arises: who should have the last word about the message of the piece? If the player is constantly addressing the theme of the story by making thematically significant choices, but is denied the opportunity to decide the final message of the piece, she will feel disgruntled.** On the other hand, by giving the player the last word, there is the risk of suppressing the author's view, which may be undesirable as well.

There are two basic strategies to overcome this problem, which I will call the parallel and the tangential strategy. In the parallel strategy, both the author and the player state their point of view, without one dominating the other. "I believe this," the author says, "and what do you think?" In the tangential strategy, the author and the player state their point of view concerning a different theme. For instance, the player might be at liberty to comment on the relative importance of happiness and greatness, while the author is commenting on gender roles.

Are there any examples of games that incorporate one or both of these strategies? And how do they carry over to roleplaying games?

* Those among my audience who are used to the RPG-theoretic terminology of The Forge should read 'premise' where I say 'theme', and 'theme' where I say 'message'. I consider my terminology to be more closely aligned with common usage. (A premise, for instance, is the logical basis of an argument, but not what the argument is about.) This is not something I want to discuss here.

** I wonder how the verb "to gruntle" got to have both the meaning "to complain, to grumble" and "to cause to be more favourably inclined". If any word does not sound like its meaning, it is gruntle in the second meaning. Aha, interesting information can be found here.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

[IF] Veiling and unveiling I


To recap from my previous post: every piece if interactive fiction hasd a space of possibilities. The author can choose to make these possibilities explicit to the player (unveiling them) , or the author can try to hide them (veiling them), relying on hinting, context and inspiration of the player.

This post is going to be very exploratory and prelimenary; I'm going to think aloud, and I invite you to think along with me and comment. What are the techniques used for veiling and unveiling? When is veiling useful, when is unveiling useful? How do the two interact?

I just deleted a list of general pros and cons of veiling and unveiling. We really need to look at concrete situations if we wish to go any further than mere vagueness. (I also just found out that 'vagaries' does not mean 'vague things'.)

The out-in-the-open puzzle

An out-in-the-open puzzle is like a chess problem: the situation is clear, the rules are clear, but the very complexity of the situation is what makes it non-trivial. (I spoke about puzzles of complexity here.) The best example known to me in interactive fiction is the game All Things Devours (sic).

What the author of All Things Devours has cleverly done is this. The first part of the game is a process of discovery, which slowly unveils all the possibilities the player has. At some point, just when things start to become difficult, you understand the rules of the game and thus the possible moves you can make. The puzzle then is to find the right sequence of moves, and this is satisfyingly difficult.

However, there is still some kind of veil in place. Suppose there are ten different ways to fail the game; that is, not ten sequences of moves that lead to failure, but ten different in-game reasons for failure. (Leaving a door open; not getting to place B on time; and so forth.) There is a sense in which only the eleven paths which lead to these ten failures and the one success are meaningfully different actions, even if all of them can be realised through many sequences of micro-actions.

Now the game could have presented us with a list of these eleven sequences, from which we would have to choose the right one. But this would have destroyed all the fun, because having the possibilities spelled out for us thus would allow us to infer the meaning of all the sequences almost instantly, and the puzzle aspect would have been gone.

We are seeing something very complex here. An action like "close the door" can be unveiled in the sense that we understand perfectly that it is possible, and what its effect on the state of the world will be. But on a higher semantic level, we may fail to see what it means in the context of the puzzle. (In the chess problem, we know that 1. Pf6 is possible and we know what it does, but we may fail to see that it is necessary in order to block 4. ... Qe8. And what on earth is the English notation for a knight? I've use the Dutch/German 'P', but that can't be it; nor can it be 'K', because that probably stands for King.)

So what we are doing is unveiling the micro-possibilities by revealing the content and the rules of the world, while keeping the macro-possibilities veiled behind a veil of complexity. (Here micro is defined by the kind of manipulations the player can do, while macro is defined by the logic of the overarching puzzle.)

The hidden-action puzzle

You're walking through a seemingly endless if roofless maze, and the only thing you have to do to escape is type fly - but you won't know you have wings until you take a look at yourself and notice that your physique has changed since you drank the blue potion three scenes ago. (I'm partly making this up.)

In this case, the puzzle is constituted by the fact that the possibility of the action is not apparent. If fly were a verb generally used in interactive fiction (because most PCs could fly), it would be the first thing anyone tried and there'd hardly be a puzzle at all. But since it is not, and since the game does not draw your attention to that fact that you can fly, the possibility remains veiled and there is a puzzle to solve.

For this kind of puzzle, then, veiling is crucial. On the other hand, in order for a solution to be achievable at all, the writer must use one of a variety of techniques to point the reader in the right direction.

One way to do this is by giving the player information that allows his to deduce or at least form the suspicion that he might be able to fly. In this case, drinking the blue potion might print the text "You feel a slow transformation coming over you.", and examining yourself might print "By god - you have grown wings!" Together, these two would give the player a fair chance of guessing that flying is the right option.

Another way to do this is by making the space of possible solutions so small that the player can simply try them all. If your character is falling from a plane without a parachute, flying is about the only possibility. This method has the drawback that only meta-thinking will allow the player to disclose the possibility: the puzzle must be solvable, therefore this action (which seems the only possible solution) must be possible. If one cares about 'crimes against mimesis', one should try to avoid that.

The hidden ideology

Suppose I wish to write a game about violence, and my aim is to show that the player of interactive fiction is predisposed to solving problems in a violent way, implicitly criticising her. (I do not know whether any piece of IF has attempted this, but the meta-RPG Powerkill did.)

The way to implement this is to create situations which can be overcome in both violent and non-violent ways, and not making this explicit. If I give you a problem and say "you can solve it in a violent way, like this, and in a non-violent way, like this", then you are not going to attempt the violent way without ever realising that a non-violent way might also be possible. But if I give you a problem and keep my mouth shut about the possible solutions, you might do just that. And then, at the end of the game, when it suddenly becomes apparent that there were also non-violent solutions, you realise something profound and scary about yourself.

Hiding the uncomfortable/inappropriate

In his review of The Baron David Whyld wrote:
While it’s possible, as I discovered after numerous runs through the game, to reach an ending that doesn’t involve the player having to carry out some pretty distasteful actions, it’s still a little disturbing that such actions *are* possible in the game. Maybe I'm just perverse, but the first action I tried when discovering Maartje in her room was one I felt would either not be recognised, or I’d be told off for even attempting such a thing, but the game did neither. It went ahead with what I’d typed, and then did all the other unpleasant and distasteful things as well. I suppose it’s my own fault for typing the commands in the first place, and I can hardly get indignant over it considering it was my option to type those things, but at the same time part of me wonders how necessary this unpleasant aspect of the game was.
Whatever one believes about the necessity of including this uncomfortable content at all, one can hardly disagree that veiling the possibility of doing these distasteful action was necessary. The disturbing content is there for those who wish to explore the very blackest consequences of the game's premise; but there are many who do not wish to take their exploration that far, and for them, even knowing that it is there (but certainly having it pointed out to them by the piece that they are now in a position to unlock it) can be too much.

We can also see this kind of veiling in less dramatic contexts. If there is a game in which you can play in either a very friendly or a very unfriendly way, then it may be the right design decision to veil these dual possibilities so that the person playing the PC friendly isn't constantly made aware of the possibility of playing in a very unfriendly way.

These four cases certainly do not exhaust the topic, but they may serve as a starting point.

[IF] Veiled and unveiled spaces of possibilities

Introduction: IF and CYOA

People who write interactive fiction in the narrow sense often look upon Choose Your Own Adventure-style writing as a lesser form of art. Interactive fiction, they may say, allows the player complete freedom, whereas CYOA only allows the player to choose from a number of predetermined paths. There is something wrong and something right about this statement, and it will be useful to explore it further.


The first thing to notice is that interactive fiction allows the player only unlimited freedom in the very trivial sense of allowing her to type whatever she wishes. The vast majority of commands - even those commands which are written in perfect english and reasonable given the knowledge the player has of the fictional work - will be met with a completely unhelpful response. In any work of IF, it is in principle possible to list all the commands that actually do something: change the state of the world or impart information to the reader. It is therefore possible - in principle, though generally it would be extremely cumbersome in practice - to rewrite a piece of IF as a CYOA game which gives exactly the same options on the same situations.

Interactive fiction thus gives the reader more freedom than CYOA-style games do in the following respects:
  1. In interactive fiction, the reader generally has more options to choose from. That is, in general the number of possibilities is higher.
  2. In interactive fiction, the reader has the freedom to guess which options are available. In CYOA, on the other hand, all possible options are listed.
The second respect is by far the most interesting. Even if we have a piece of interactive fiction and a corresponding piece of CYOA which gives exactly the same options, reading the two can still be a wildly different experience. Suppose the PC meets a crying girl. If "console her" is explicitly listed as an option, almost everyone will choose it; but if "console" is a non-standard command in IF (which it is), only a few people will try to console the girl in the interactive fiction work, and to them, the experience of having a good attempt work will be very satisfying.

I would like to introduce some terminology now.

Veiled and unveiled spaces of possibilities

Let us call the space of all possible significant actions the PC can do in a given situation the space of possibilities of the situation. This space will always be finite, and often it will be quite small.

If the player can look at all the possibilities; that is, if the player can know which actions are, and which are not possible in the given situation without trying them out, the space of possibilities is unveiled. We can see all the possibilities, and choose the one that appeals most to us.

If the player cannot look at all the possibilities; that is, if the player cannot not know which actions are, and which are not possible in the given situation without trying out the potentially unlimited number of possible possibilities (forgive me), the space of possibilities is veiled. We cannot see all the possibilities, and have to try whatever seems best to us.

Typically, the space of possibilities is unveiled in CYOA, and veiled in IF. But things are not so black-and-white.

Blurring the distinction

An example. In a piece of IF, we encounter the following object: "a large chest (which is closed)". At this moment we know with near certainty that "open chest" is a possible action.

Another example. In a piece of CYOA, we encounter a crying girl. We are presented with a menu: "(1) Ignore her. (2) Talk to her." At this moment, we have no idea whether consoling the girl is possible, although we know we have to try option 2 in order to find out.

These examples show that there are ways for authors of interactive fiction to indicate which actions are possible, and which actions are not possible; and that here are ways for authors of CYOA to hide, at least for a time, which actions are possible and which are not, and how those actions can be reached. Thus, authors of IF can unveil a part of their space of possibilities, and authors of CYOA can veil part of theirs.

We should not underestimate the prominence of this technique, especially in IF. If a room description is: "This is a cosy room. A television set is switched off. Exits are west and south. You also see a rubber duck here.", we can infer a lot of things about the space of possibilities:
  • It contains: "switch on television", "go west", "go south", "take rubber duck", "examine duck".
  • It does not contain: "switch off television", "go up", "go north", "take credit card", "x beggar", and so forth.
The very possibility of playing IF is based on the ability of the writer to unveil parts of the space of possibilities, and to indicate when and where it might be worth looking for parts that remain veiled.

More about using mixtures of veiling and unveiling in your interactive fiction next time.

[IF] Design and time management

A lesson about writing IF

I have started work on my second piece of Interactive Fiction, Fate, and development is going a lot faster then when I wrote The Baron. There are several reasons for this. First, I am using Inform 7, which is definitely easier and faster to use than Inform 6. Second, I am more experienced, and thus have to learn less about programming IF - although this benefit is partly negated by having to learn Inform 7. Third, I am writing in English only, and am thus sparing myself the struggles with the Dutch library as well as the final step of translation. But, although all these factors do play a role, I think the most important reason is something else, a hard-learned lesson of time management:

The time it is worth to spend implementing a feature is inversely proportional to the chance of a player stumbling upon it.

When you are writing a game, you will invariably think of strange things the player might try, and you may have brilliant ideas about what could happen when does. If implementing those ideas would cost you a lot of time, resist the temptation.

Baronic examples

Let me give you an example from The Baron, although I could give you countless examples from that work. These paragraphs will contain spoilers, but nothing to serious. There is a room, a torture chamber, which you can only find if you push aside some stones in the castle. You don't have to do this in order to finish the game, and many players probably won't.

The conclusion I should have drawn is that if I wanted to implement this torture chamber at all, I should do it quickly. Maybe just a description and one or two objects.

Instead, I created what is perhaps the most complex room in the entire game. Not only are there many objects with non-standard behaviours, I even implemented two further sequences which are very interesting, but also very, very unlikely to grace the screen of the player. One of these only starts when you have entered the cell, locked it, and threw the key away through the bars. (This is also the only moment in the game in which you can seemingly put it in an unwinnable state - but not so.) The other only starts when you enter the torture chamber, close the hatch behind you, are not carrying a light source, and type 'listen'. Depending on the state of the torture chamber, you'll hear different things - all of which are directly related to the theme of the piece, but none of which will ever be found.

Implementing this last sequence alone probably cost me about a day. I won't be surprised if no player has ever found it. Therefore, it was not worth the trouble.

What will the player find?

Understand this: the player will not play your game nearly as thoroughly as you do, or even as your testers do.

That doesn't mean that players will find bugs you didn't notice, for they surely will, and these bugs should be fixed - but it does mean that players will not in general search every nook and cranny of the game, nor try all kinds of strange actions, unless you give them a clear reason to. In The Baron, you can't get stuck, so there is little incentive for trying out all kinds of strange things; therefore, most people won't. There are seven ways of ending the first scene, but why would a player look for them? They won't. They'll stumble upon one of the more straightforward ones, and never notice all the work that went into the other ones. (Like running back to the iron doors and knocking on them once you are afire - the most interesting way to end the first scene, but hardly likely to be found.)

Remember that, and you may save yourself a lot of time.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Second Person

This may be interesting to the readers of the blog: a new MIT press book called Second Person. It contains articles about RPGs (Jonathan Tweet, Greg Costikyan, Kenneth Hite and Paul Czege are among the contributors), it contains articles about interactive fiction (about Shade, Planetfall and Savoir-Faire, among others), and it reprints three Hogshead Press "New Style" RPGs (Puppetland, Bestial Acts, Baron of Munchhausen).

It certainly is on my wishlist.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

[Fantasy] Wisdom literature

I just read A Wizard of Earthsea, the 1971 tale by Ursula Le Guin. It has been marketed as children's literature, but it would be more accurate to say that it stands in a tradition that precedes the distinction between children's literature and adult literature.

A Wizard of Earthsea is also definitely not a novel, but a tale. Perhaps I can summarise the difference as follows: novels affirm the truth of the particular, tales affirm the truth of the general. If you take a novel and change all the details, you will have a different book; but if you change all the details of a tale, you will still have the same tale. Faery tales are a good example: you can rewrite Sleeping Beauty as a tale taking place in the 20th century, with chemical substances instead of spells and scientists instead of princes, and you'll end up with Sleeping Beauty. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine Crime and Punishment taking place anywhere else than a late-nineteenth century eastern-European city.

The main concern of A Wizard of Earthsea is wisdom, and wisdom and the tale are closely linked. Wisdom is both practical and general (therefore never abstract): it is a move away from the particular life, towards a more archetypical view of life as exemplifying timeless patterns that link all human beings, and, perhaps, link human beings to everything else as well. Wisdom literature, if I may use that term, does not merely tell us about these patterns (as a philosophical or religious treatise might do), but shows us to them exemplified in a concrete life, without ever allowing the particular details to obfuscate the message.

It is clearly not the case that all fantasy is wisdom literature. The tales of Lord Dunsany are; John Crowley's Little, Big is an intricate fight between wisdom literature and the novel; The Lord of the Rings has elements of it, but only elements; our current heroic/epic fantasy has little to do with it. Very few non-fantasy books of the last century are wisdom literature - the novel reigns supreme. Perhaps the most interesting piece of wisdom literature in modern literature, if a boundary case because the fictional aspect is of relatively low importance, is Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus spake Zarathustra.

In Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, we are told about pride and its price, about fear and courage, and about knowing yourself. The tale is clear, vividly delivered, and profound. Here is a quotation:

"Tell me just this, if it is not a secret: what other great powers are there besides the light?"

"It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distance, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man's hand and the wisdom in a tree's root: they all arise together. My name and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name."

Staying his knife on the carved wood, Murre asked, "What of death?"

"For a word to be spoken," Ged answered slowly, "there must be silence. Before, and after."
I wonder, I really and non-rhetorically do wonder, whether the tale lost its power in modernity, or whether we have merely forgotten its power.