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.


  1. Curiously enough with regard to this post, today Grand Text Auto posted a letter sent to the Atlantic Monthly about Facade, by GTA's Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern. The author of the letter writes:

    "But books (or any traditional art form) have one thing that interactivity will never have: a natural respect for the human need to experience perspectives different from one’s own. Whereas adding one’s own point of view to a movie or video game would ultimately only reinforce that point of view. In the end, however clever it may be, it is an act of narcissism, not art."

    Is this an accurate critique, or simply someone uninformed about interactivity?

  2. Thanks for the link. I've posted there, and will corsspost here:

    I've seen this point come up in discussions about the potential for social critique of (tabletop) roleplaying games. The argument was that any group of players will reinforce their common point of view, rather than exploring alternate points of view - which is basically the same argument as Andy Voda uses with respect to Façade.

    These arguments are right in so far as they point out that giving the player more freedom to make his own point will not always lead to more careful thought on the part of the player, and may even have an opposite effect. We always develop our moral/social ideas in discussions with other points of view, and therefore a piece that offers no resistance to our current ideas cannot help us develop them.

    There are many ways to offer resistance to the player without taking away her ability to express her own final point of view. It would be interesting to discuss them, and the ways in which we've already seen them in action.