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Journal of No. 118


January 23rd, 2012

Twisty Little Passages, by Nick Montfort @ 02:31 pm

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Twisty Little Passages is "an approach to interactive fiction" (aka IF, i.e. Infocom-style text adventures). I remember when the book came out, thinking, "Cool idea. I need to get this book. Er, $30? Maybe I can wait." Well, a pb exists, and cheaper still is the electronic text, which I read on my kindle.

On the whole, I found it a frustrating and flawed work. It doesn't pretend to be a complete history of the form, so I don't fault it on that basis, but there still seems to be an almost random swing in detail from way too much to totally shallow.

The first chapter I found particularly trying, in that Montfort spends quote some time settling on a definition of IF and various bits of terminology:

"Anything the interactor contributed, from a press of the space bar to a long typed text, is an input. Whatever texts are produced by the program are output, even if these include things previously typed by the interactor. A cycle is one input and all the output that follows it until the next input. The initial output is whatever output is produced before the first opportunity for input; this is before the first cycle."

Fascinating, o Socrates. Now, having clear terminology is fine for discussing a subject in a clear fashion. But I doubt 'cycle' was used more than a handful of times, if that, in the rest of the work.
Similarly, I can see the distinction made between diegetic commands (those that refer to the fictional world of the game "Take Lantern") and non-diegetic commands (those that don't "Save Game"). But the construction of these terms and their discussion reminds me a lot of the similar vocabulary that has developed for the academic discussion of LARP, in that, unlike the things to which they refer, these terms and discussions are not-fun.

And the discussion goes on to bring in other aspects of literary theory to bear on IF. Certainly this tactic has some validity, but a sentence like the following leaves me as ignorant as I was when I started:
"A distinction between story and narrative has been noted in various ways since Aristotle, who distinguished the argument, or logos, and how it was arranged into plot, or mythos; the Russian formalists also distinguished the material of the story or Tabula from how it was told in the sjuzet (Chatman 1975, 295)."

The second chapter is really a history of the riddle, as Montfort sees the riddle as the closest literary form to IF. There's maybe some justice in that, but the chapter still seems rather out of place.

Personally, I see a lot more similarity between IF and role-playing games (or LARP) [though I suppose these aren't literary forms]. Montfort specifically tries to dispel the connection between D&D and Colossal Cave/Adventure. Certainly, Adventure is not a software realization of a D&D game, but I think there's a much stronger connection between IF and RPG. The player generates inputs, and the program/DM generates outputs that illustrate the result of the player's input. If the input is 'unexpected', the program may balk, while the GM will either make something up, say "there's no table for that, so you can't do that", or bounce heavy dice off your head. The computer is more limited, because all the responses have to be thought of beforehand, and canned in the program.
The kind of Theater-style LARPs I've designed are similar. The designer has to try to think of all the things that PC may attempt, and then have appopriate reponses for them. Or disallow them. Or make up the results on the fly, like when the soul of the King-Emperor is placed in a large gingerbread man instead of the chess-playing automaton.

Anyway, I think IF is a better representation of a computerized RPG than what currently goes by the moniker of computer RPG, where you kill things to make certain numbers higher, which allows you to kill more difficult things. (Then again, we've all been in those D&D campaigns too, I suppose.) Once we get to graphics, maybe Tomb Raider and GTA are closer to the feel of Zork and table-top RPGs. Though now it seems convergent evolution is bringing a lot of these things closer together. Or at least, harder to distinguish as separate game categories.

Speaking of chess-playing automatons... Montfort mentions the one built by Torres in 1912 as the first computer game in history. Although it only used a few pieces, it sensed the human moves, and made its own moves. "This first machine had a fairly easy-to-use interface, but that was improved upon in 1920 when Torres built a second automaton with an ordinary chessboard. This one moved its pieces using electromagnets, and, hooked to a gramophone, it employed speech synthesis: It verbally announced check ("jaque al rey") and checkmate ("mate")."

Thus once into the main part of the book, there are lots of interesting tidbits, but it's very hit or miss. Some games are described in a perfunctory manner, while others get a more careful treatment. Even then, the treatment may not actually dig very deep. I mean as an example...
In both Infocom works the overall experience is similar whether one chooses a male or female player character-it is not really that different even if the "neuter" option is chosen in Moon mist. The same commands work to unlock the plot-controlling puzzles in both cases. There are only subtle differences in the differently gendered interactive experiences. These different experiences of the game and the treatment of gender in these works certainly invite a more extensive critique [but the margin is too small to contain it]. The works seem to assert that gender is actually superficial, since the same sorts of events occur whatever gender is selected. The IF worlds that are set up (perhaps in a somewhat utopian mode) provide for men and women to have essentially equal sorts of experiences. Other interactive fiction might be created that provides a variety of experiences and makes a different sort of point. [But I don't know of any. Maybe there aren't any. Still, it was a cool idea when I was thinking about it.] Still other questions remain: Why does the interactor in Leather Goddesses of Phobos get to choose what gender the player character is but not (due to the limited availability of potential paramours) the sexuality of the player character? [Hmmm... maybe I should ask Meretzky about that, since I'm using him as a source? Nah.] ... The ability to select a gender is significant not only because of the way it relates to the issue of gender, but because for the first time an interactor could choose not just what the player character would do, but who the player character actually would be, in a way that did affect the experience of the IF world and the generated texts. [except that I literally started this paragraph by saying that it didn't affect the experience much.]
(snark mine)

Then in the last stages of the book, as commercial IF dies, but the independent IF community blossoms, the increasing appearance of "this author" starts to grate.

It wasn't a bad book, but I think it could have been so much better had the emphasis been placed differently, and/or organized differently.

Anyway, here are a couple of the other interesting nuggets:

"A remarkable checkers program was devised by Arthur Samuel at IBM that learned from the games it played and, by 1962, was able not only to defeat its creator (Spencer 1968, 14) but also to best a human champion." (a somewhat more sober assessment of the program's ability to defeat champions.)

"Woods describes his impression of [Colossal Cave] and what happened next: 'I thought it was a neat idea for a game, but there wasn't a lot to it, and it was full of bugs.... I sent mail to crowther@xxx for every xxx on the net.'"

"As a curator once commented in conversation, Adventure teaches two essential principles of computing: Try absolutely everything you can think of and save all the time."
 
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Comments

 
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From:ian_tiberius
Date:January 25th, 2012 08:39 pm (UTC)
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Did you ever see the documentary "Get Lamp"? I have it sitting around, but haven't gotten around to reading it.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:January 25th, 2012 09:08 pm (UTC)
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Hadn't heard of it! I'm afraid it looks like quite the talking-head fest. Once you get a chance to check it out, let me know if it's worthwhile.

Journal of No. 118