Wednesday, February 07, 2007

[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.

Freedom

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.

6 comments:

  1. Is it the case that the more limited the audience's experience, the lesser the form of art?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Ben,

    That question is a bit ambiguous. :) It is certainly not the case, it seems to me, that more freedom always leads to better art - the simple fact that the best works of art in our world literature offer NO freedom of the kind I've discussed here proves that.

    Nor do I think that CYOA works are necessarily worse than IF, or even that the best CYOA-works are necessarily worse than the best IF works. Indeed, I hope that my later comments indicate that the difference between the two isn't all that sharp.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The suggestion about listing the general "Talk to her" instead of the more specific "Console her" does a good job explaining the issue. Certainly CYOA texts that ask the reader to make trivial choices ( 1. Turn left, or 2. Turn right) without giving them any kind of a moral context are as emotionally unsatisfying as the IF game chock full of mazes and "guess-the-verb" problems. I do think it's worth noting that for the CYOA in print form, spending a whole page on "Talk to her" would get expensive, though creating such a break-out page for dialog in a hypertext would be a simple matter.

    All art is constrained in some way, from the vocal range of the singers who perform opera to the iambic pentameter lines of Shakespeare to the fact that a painter has to overlay colors in a certain order in order to achieve an effect.

    I would argue, though, that because a CYOA or a hypertext presents all the choices up front, a disinterested reader can make the text "work" by clicking links at random in the hopes that something new will come up that re-captures his or her attention. An IF game won't advance at all unless the player invests mental energy. This is both the reason why some IF works so well and why some players don't have the patience to invest their energy. This fundamental difference in approach means that to excel in IF and to excel in CYOA require different plot structures and different writing styles. So I'd be inclined to disagree rather strongly with the idea that IF and CYOA are as similar as you suggest.

    When I introduce a new class of students to IF, there are always a few people who say they didn't like it because it forced them to think too much. I've never heard that complaint about CYOA or hypertext lit.

    Adam Cadre's 1981 and 9:05 are both attempts to deal with what happens when the player's motives seem to differ greatly from the player-character's motives. Both games are short and well worth playing.

    And while I'm talking about Cadre, what do you think of his use of a multiple-choice dialog menu within a conventional IF framework?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Dennis,

    [A] disinterested reader can make the text "work" by clicking links at random in the hopes that something new will come up that re-captures his or her attention. An IF game won't advance at all unless the player invests mental energy.

    Even there I'd say the difference between the two is vague rather than clear-cut. There are works of IF - I believe Rameses is one of them - which will advance even if the player does nothing but type "z" all the time. That costs no more mental energy than clicking links at random.

    On the other hand, take a CYOA-style conversation like the conversation with Ravel in Planescape: Torment. If you start clicking conversation options at random: (1) you may get caught into one of the many loops in the conversation structure, (2) you may inadvertently make important choices about who your character is and what he thinks, because you weren't paying attention, (3) you'll probably miss important information and be unable to comprehend the rest of the game. Here, although at least this part of the game is CYOA-style, you need to expend mental energy.

    (Side note: what kind of students do you have? It makes them "think too much"? Do they ssay the same thing when they have to read Joyce?)


    And while I'm talking about Cadre, what do you think of his use of a multiple-choice dialog menu within a conventional IF framework?

    I used that myself in The Baron, and I'm using it even more extensively in my current work-in-progress. In my opinion, using both parser-based and menu-based input allows you to bring the best of both worlds together: the freedom and exploration of the parser, and the non-standard actions and preciseness of the menus.

    ReplyDelete
  5. It's certainly possible to write IF that advances if the player types Z, but that's not the norm. And yes, with mult-choice based games, it's possible to create loops and dead ends and change the options in the menu based on various game states, but I was speaking specifically of paper-based CYOA books.

    I'd agree that menu-based conversation and parser-based exploration/inventory management is a worthwhile compromise for certain stories.

    I teach mostly English majors, many of whom have already mastered strategies for dealing with linear texts, so they find their skills tested when they are asked to deal with multipath texts. Most do find IF strange and unfamiliar, but I expect that.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Okay, I wan't considering paper-based works at all, so that may have led to some misunderstanding betwene us.

    ReplyDelete