Thursday, December 25, 2008

metaDRAMA: Interactive Fiction

Jeremy Freese's Violet, which won (and can be downloaded at) the 14th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition, begins with a simple task: write 1,000 words or your girlfriend leaves you. However, try to write (type "write"), and the story unfolds: you are distracted by the Internet. Unplug the Ethernet cable ("unplug cable") and you'll just end up plugging it back in. Unless you hide it somewhere, that is. Look around, and the world expands: there's a desk with a computer (which you are sitting at), a bookcase, a cabinet, and a stool. Because there are no graphics to give visual cues, the game forces you to engage in examining things ("look at [noun]"), which in turn makes your brain far more active than it will ever be pressing button sequences in Prince of Persia, honing reflexes in Gears of War 2, or exploiting systems in Persona 4.

The text-based adventure game isn't modern--Infocom's popular Zork series was an '80s thing--but it is postmodern. Each graphic upgrade (and it came quickly, with Sierra's Quest for Glory in the mid-80s, and LucasArts's recontextualization in the '90s) actually stripped the player of choices, limiting him to a standardized pallet and pre-approved list of verbs (i.e., actions). It's a pleasure, then, to spend a few hours with new classics like Violet, and a pleasant bit of exercise for my brain. If Pynchon, Bolano, Wallace, or Vollman had ever made a video game (Violet even has built-in footnotes, called "asides"), it would play like this.

How this ties into theater and criticism is that media has developed so rapidly--invasively and subversively--that the way we use our minds has shifted. We don't tune in, we zone out. What's essential, then, is that we remain active in our entertainments, that we think beyond the frame. Taken seriously, blogging can help with this, giving large audiences an outlet in which to extend the watching of a film like Slumdog Millionaire. One of the reasons I write so many reviews is that it's an interactive way to process experiences that are less vivid than those of the real world. My hope for the new year, once we all sleep off those holiday hangovers, is that this site can become more interactive: that is, that readers will use the review to re-engage with the play, just as I use my writing to involve myself in what I've seen. Happy holidays everyone, especially Chris Dahlen of the Onion A.V. Club, who managed to highlight this important freeware.


Parabasis said...

Mild nerdantry--

You mean "king's quest", the first of sierra's quest series NOT "quest for glory" (nee Hero's Quest) which was a late entry into Sierra's serieses and whose games came out in the 1990s. Kings Quest, Space Quest and Police Quest all started in the 1980s. QFG ezpanded on the model by having character classes, thus increasing replay value dramatically. I would also posit that Zork and Hitchhiker's are just as if not MORE literal than the many graphical interface games they helped spaen.

Aaron Riccio said...

You got me; I do mean "King's Quest" and I regret the error. However, while graphical interface games, particularly those using SCUMM, made it easier for people to interact with the world, I stick by my statement that this was at the cost of personal freedom. In pure text adventures--especially sarcastic ones, like Hitchhiker's Guide--you had to be exact with your grammar, but you could *TRY* to do anything, and many of the puzzles in that game required leaps of illogic, hence making them less literal and mroe daring. (For instance, going inside your brain to remove your logic so that you can make "no tea" for Marvin.)

isaac butler said...

I continue to disagree... there were still correct actions (those that furthered the game and scored points) and incorrect ones.

Really, it's not until very recently with the advent of Sandbox games, particularly the RPGs like Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect and Fallout 3 that choice in video games becomes really possible. In Fallout, the only way to lose the game is to die (either in combat or from radiation poisoning) but you don't even have to move through the plot of the game to play it. And that plot constantly adjusts based on decisions you make within the world.