Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Immersion - what's it good for?

I want to react to Sarah's excellent blog post. For now I'll just comment on a very small part of it and talk about that; I'll leave other things for later. It is related to things said in the comments to my previous post, to the piece by Internisus I quoted, and in fact to a lot of things I have heard over the years. Here is the snippet:
So this is the great advantage of Actor stance: facilitating immersion.
Immersion. What is it, and what it is good for? Immersion apparently is a mental state in which we identify ourselves with a character; but identify outselves with that character in a very specific way, namely, we achieve for a moment something that approaches forgetfulness about the difference between ourselves and the character. When I say: "I am like Hamlet, for I too think incessantly about my interior", I am identifying myself with Hamlet, but I am not immersed. But when I read the play and feel rage at the king's betrayal and want to revenge myself on him, and feel the urge to make him drink from the poisoned chalice--then I am immersed.

I love Hamlet the play, and am in awe of Hamlet the character. But when I read it, I am not in the mental state which I just described. I don't identify myself with any of the characters in this strong way; I don't have the feeling that I am present at the scene; I have no wish to act in it. I may be sad when Hamlet dies, but that is not an emotion Hamlet seems to feel at that point. I am very aware that I am reading a play, and I am enjoying the act of reading - which is my act, not that of a character in the play. I pause to reread some of the lines, speaking them out loud. I remember what Harold Bloom or some other critic wrote about Hamlet; I am thinking about my own interpretations. There is always, between me and the fiction, a distance; and it seems to me that this distance is necessary for good reading. No character within Hamlet can have an interpretation of the play (except perhaps Hamlet, who we feel knows that he is in a play of which he is in some sense the author - but never mind); I can, and must.

To take another example, which is even clearer: the stories of Borges. Is it possible to immerse oneself into the fiction of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, or that of the Library of Babel, or that of Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote? Most certainly not; all these fictions were written, it seems, with the express purpose of making immersion impossible. And yet Borges is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest writers of the previous century. Are we immersed in Ulysses, or are we rather all the time self-consciously reading literature and reacting to what we read as literature?

Is immersion not a danger to mature and thoughtful reading?

Make no mistake, I am not trying to set up a dichotomy between reading for your enjoyment and reading for academic purposes. True reading is reading in which we use all of ourselves; this includes our empathy and emotion, but not to the exclusion of everything else. I thoroughly enjoy reading Hamlet; I laugh at the jokes and weep when the sweet prince dies; and at the same time I am thinking incessantly about the meaning and structure of the play; I am savouring the beauty of the verse; I am obsessing over the question what Hamlet feels and thinks when he says "The readiness is all. ... Let be."; and so on. This seems to me the fullest way to enjoy Hamlet. Putting yourself so much in Hamlet's shoes that you can no longer at the same time enjoy the play on all the other levels will not only decrease your enjoyment, it will also make it (paradoxically) quite impossible to understand the prince himself.

If the Actor Stance facilitates immersion, this is its great disadvantage, for immersion - as I understand it - is but a shallow way of reading. My examples were from static fiction, but why would interactive fiction be different in this respect?

Perhaps I do not understand immersion; or perhaps I judge it wrongly. Please join me in discussing it, here or at some other place.

My kindest regards,

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Actor stance, make way!

Internisus writes:
Are you familiar with Victor Gijsbers's experimental Figaro? It's an IF in which, at specific points, the game asks the player what s/he would like to see in the story. For example, you're spying on a scene, and a guy walks in. Now the game pauses to ask you whether you want the guy to be, say, your shady uncle or your romantic interest's boyfriend. You choose which way you want the story to go, and the narrative continues. It's a normal IF in every other respect. Victor wrote a short paper explaining the thinking behind this idea, and I wrote something on raif explaining why I absolutely hate it. Is it hard to see why? It's vaguely promising for some applications, perhaps, but for the most part in any title where you play a character with all the mortal and finite restrictions that apply to being a person, you absolutely should not have godlike control over the narrative. Some things are just out of your control--that's life! Who that guy is that walks in should be just as much out of your hands as the fact that there's a guy walking into the room in the first place.
"Some things are just out of your control-that's life!" It sounds like a truism, but in this context it is nonsense. In Figaro, the identity of the person who enters the room is not out of your control, and it is a forteriori not "just" out of your control either. It is within your control, although your control is admittedly limited to choosing between three pre-programmed posibilities.

In the previous paragraph, the word "you" is intended to refer to the player, not to the character Figaro. Obviously the identity of the person who enters the room is out of his control; but the character is not the player, and I'm sure we can all keep the two apart. Those who cannot should never play an interactive fiction, for bad things might happen. (Just imagine someone who thinks he is Varicella!)

Perhaps the crucial statement in the quoted paragraph is this: "in any title where you play a character with all the mortal and finite restrictions that apply to being a person, you absolutely should not have godlike control over the narrative". But this is a very puzzling statement. In any title where you play a character with all the mortal and finite restrictions that apply to being a person, you do not have godlike control over the narrative. If you had, you wouldn't be playing a title of the indicated kind, but some other kind of title, a title in which you have more, or a different sort of, influence over the unfolding narrative. So the whole argument has the form: "If something is green all over, it shoudn't be red all over; and Figaro is red all over, so I hate it."

Bad as the argument may be, it nevertheless points to a prejudice that is perhaps prevalent among players and designers of interactive fiction, a prejudice from which it is very hard to free ourselves, and which it will be fruitful to discuss. This is the prejudice that the player of an interactive fiction must necesarrily take what I will call the actor stance, that is, that he must identify with a certain character in the fiction, and think of his interactions with the game as corresponding to fictional interactions of that character with the game world (and thus subject to the same limitations qua power and knowledge).

The actor stance has never been ubiquitous. Saving the game at dangerous moments, consulting the score and letting changes in the score affect our behaviour, restoring in order to try something else, these actions were never interpreted to be actions done by the fictional character. But in the gross and scope of our interactions, we did use the actor stance.

We don't have to. The player of an interactive fiction can be given a more authorial role ("author stance") than the character within the fiction; and I know of no prima facie reasons why this could not lead to satisfying games. Figaro is only a very modest example of a game in which the player is not confined to the actor stance; but I think great and interesting things can be developed along these lines.

Indeed, great and interesting things were done in the field of pen and paper roleplaying games after people stopped relying on the actor stance. Letting the player be actor, director, scenarist and dramaturgist all at the same time, while nevertheless subjecting him to certain structural constraints, turned out to work very well. (If people would like to hear more about this, just ask. It would be fun to discuss some examples.) All the innovative indie RPGs of the past 10 years have dropped the exclusive reliance on actor stance for something much broader, and could not have been made without this change in our conception of what it means to play a roleplaying game. Perhaps we will say the same about interactive fiction in one or two decades. Perhaps not; but it has to be tried.

Now one important lesson from early experiments in roleplaying design is that "godlike control over the narrative", as Internisus calls it, is not a good thing. There must be some limitations; total freedom does not make for good gameplay. Again, these limitations do not have to be the limitations of the actor stance; they may be something else entirely; but they must be there.

However, this lesson seems to be not very important for interactive fiction. There is just no danger that we will let freedom get out of hand and forget to implement constraints; and this is one of the great differences between interactive fiction and pen and paper roleplaying games. In a roleplaying game, the default situation is that everything is possible; people can say anything they want; and the task of the game designer is to impose fruitful constraints. In an interactive fiction, the default situation is that nothing is possible; the program reacts to nothing with more than a parser error; and the task of the game designer is to create possibilities--and he always thinks of many more interesting possibilities than he has time to implement. There is in interactive fiction, pace Stephen Bond, no real danger of making the freedom of the player too great.

So, let us experiment with going beyond the actor stance, and let us see what happens!