Thursday, July 04, 2019

[IF Comp 2018] Writers are not Strangers

Continuing with my reviews for the Interactive Fiction Competition 2018. I wrote reviews for most games in a topic on the private authors' forum over at the interactive fiction forum. I'm posting the more interesting and more spoilery ones over here, and the less interesting and less spoilery ones directly on the IFDB. So, again: spoilers ahead!

Writers are not Strangers by Lynda Clark
(Placed 27th out of 77; I might have placed it somwhat higher.)

When I started the game, I was confronted with a barely coherent fragment of fiction that I suspect was supposed to be an interpretation of Space Invaders. Then the game asked me to rate that piece. Interesting. I gave it a 3 and continued with the story of Alix and her dying superhero mother. Just when I had almost forgotten about the fragment, Alix came home, started up her computer to see if anyone had rated the piece of fiction she was so proud of… and was heartbroken to see it had been rated with a 3. But, she decided, she could write another piece and see if that was received any better. Very interesting

At that moment, I formed a hypothesis about the work, which is apparently part of a PhD project. The hypothesis was this: the game gives a random story fragment to players at the beginning of the game; it asks them to rate it; it then shows us the writer’s response to the rating, engaging our mechanisms of personal sympathy; it shows us another random fragment and asks us to rate it; and finally, when all the data is in, the researchers will check whether people give higher ratings to the fragments after they’ve become aware of the fact that the writer will respond emotionally to the rating, that is, after they’ve become aware that writers are not strangers.

It was a good hypothesis, but also totally wrong. As the game progresses, the protagonist’s reaction to the grades becomes less and less of a concern (not surprisingly, since her mother is dying and the end of the world is nigh). At the same time, the fictional fragments themselves come to be about the way the protagonist reacted to the grades, which means that the random factor is missing. Furthermore, when I replayed the game I found that the ratings you give to the initial and later stories have a major impact on how the story unfolds, an impact that is in no way due to the impact of the ratings on the protagonist. If you give good ratings, the story will be mostly about the protagonist’s career as a sort of Youtube star; if you give bad ratings, the story will be mostly about the protagonist’s relation with her mother. There might also be a middle path focusing on the protagonist’s aunts and uncles, but I didn’t fully explore this possibility. None of this really makes sense on the aforementioned hypothesis, which certainly doesn’t require the game to have paths that differ so widely – unusually widely for any kind of interactive fiction.

So what is the point? (Apart from telling a compelling, layered story, something at which Lynda Clark certainly succeeds.) Well, one of the perks of being a university researcher is that I have access to this brief paper. I quote some relevant parts:

The second part of this quote explains the wide nature of the game, in which you can indeed experience one and the same event in very different locations with very different company. It is an interesting way of setting up an interactive fiction, and one that I enjoyed exploring. But I’m less certain what to make of the ambitions described in the quote’s first part. Does the game really force me to confront my impact on all areas of Alix’s life? Here, the structural features of the game actually seem to work against the author’s intention. First, a single reading doesn’t give the player a very good sense of the impact they had. I was surprised at how different my second reading was; but of course, that means that it was only on this second reading that I understood the impact of my choices. Yet at that point I have also made the opposite choices and am no longer very invested in any of them as ‘mine’. Second, I wasn’t really tempted to interpret what happened to Alix as a result of my choices anyway, since the link between the choice and the events seems to be non-causal. Different ratings for the first piece of fiction will generate different story events before Alix ever learns of the rating. So it’s not my rating that changed her life; it is the game author’s underlying system that pulls at her strings, something which I might want to explore, but for which I feel no responsibility.

The game does gain something from being part of a competition where one is judging: judging a game about the impact of judgments on authors certainly makes one self-conscious. And yet – that Space Invaders piece? It deserved that 3 I gave it. Writers are not Strangers, on the other hand, was well-written and made me think, so it deserves much more.

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