The Empowered Reader

28-06-2000, published in Sentura #8 and on

According to Jonas H. Smith, interactive fiction is a genre that soon may be able to offer experiences beyond those books can offer.

Stories are not what they have been. The good old novel has long ago faced keen competition from a range of different genres. In both books and films the outer limits of storytelling have been probed. Works of fiction cross-refer to each other and demonstrate a kind of devil-may-care attitude towards classical narrative conventions. But this is not the whole story. Lately the concept of interactivity has crept into all sorts of places. If anyone should be in doubt, interactivity is a Good Thing, or so it is often claimed. Interactivity is freedom; it is dynamic activity instead of passive entertainment. So why have attempts so far at interactive storytelling not caused authors worldwide to drop their pens and kneel in front of the almighty computer? First of all, this is because not everyone masters the narrative techniques of other media. Give a typewriter to a great author and great literature will emerge, while ordinary mortals will produce less glorious results. This is true – for example – of the Danish ‘dogma’ instructors’ D-day project: “Take the TV remote control in your hand and create your own film”. The idea is not bad, but it presupposes that everyone is a good film editor, and additionally has the required time and resources. If the best of interactive fiction has to be as good as the best of linear fiction, or even be superior to it, one must take a completely different approach. First of all, the revolutionary rhetoric of interactivity has to be ignored in order to learn a lesson from the past. To do this, one only has to look back 20 years.

The Electronic Brain that Wanted to be a Medium
Around 1980, the highly-regarded Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) commanded quite overwhelming computational resources, which were bought and paid for by the university for sensible research projects, but were also used for a more irreverent purpose: computer games. In 1980, a computer game like Doom had naturally not been thought of yet. The idea that someone should benefit from a computer at home was still a thing of the future. Far from this low-tech idyll, computer departments at research institutions already housed the scenes of formidable screen battles and violent space wars. During the 1970’s, these activities spread to so-called video arcades, in which teenage boys competed fiercely against each other in games like Pong and Space Invaders. At MIT, enterprising students didn’t settle for reducing each other’s spaceships to smouldering intergalactic wrecks. Gradually, a small group of creative souls began to see the computer as being more than a cold-blooded electronic brain or electronic shooting gallery. Suppose the computer were a medium? In an Open Field … In this compressed outline of the birth of a medium, it is sufficient to note that the result was Zork. Zork was a very unusual phenomenon that took two years to name. Zork was no less than a work of interactive fiction. “You are standing in an open field west of a white house …” was how Zork greeted its astounded audience. The game wrote textual descriptions on its screen, and the players could respond in primitive sentences, typically consisting of a noun and a verb. It’s interesting to note the use of the second person in the opening sentence, which is a prerequisite for interactivity: You are standing in front of a house. You are the main character.

Interactive Fiction
Seen with literary eyes, this formulation is significant: gone are linear storytelling and detailed character descriptions. What is left is a compiler that attempts to transform the players’ textual input into propositions understood by the game, and then tells the players what is seen and experienced in the world of the game. Although the predominant interactive narrative format no longer is textual, the principles of Zork have proved to be surprisingly resilient. This is because Zork was a fake. The proponents of Zork and its successors claim that players create the story themselves, but this is an almost absurdly naive description of the type of interactivity involved. In reality, the stories are thought up and scripted in an extremely linear fashion, and the players merely have to ‘solve’ the story. It would be an overstatement to claim that adventure games could be compared to the kind of linear stories in which the reader can move on to the next chapter only by solving a crossword puzzle, but the comparison stands. They are fun, they are flashy, but books hardly need to fear being replaced by the children of Zork. Something new is happening, though. The many attempts at this tried-and-true medium have resulted in the insight that game designers should not regard themselves as authors. The task of the game designer is not to create a plausible story about life, death, and love – as authors of books do – but to create a framework for interaction with the player. This process can best be understood as a kind of deistic narration in which the creator of the game – like a god from the old testament – creates a world and lets the player handle the rest.

Computer Games and Literature
‘Is this literature, then?’ one could ask. One has to be careful about categorizing, since the real question is if the format is good, and if so, is it just as good or even better than the classical linear story? First of all, one needs to realize that the concept of interactivity has been permeated with optimism. The possibility of action instead of mere passive entertainment conjures up positive associations. In particular, literary theories have contributed to this viewpoint with their emphasis on the autonomous reader who does not put up with standard stories. In reality, an interactive product like Zork does not represent freedom to any great extent. Most of what we claim to be interactive today is to linear media what a standing buffet is to a multi-course banquet. The cook has still chosen the ingredients, and, as we cannot all be cooks, it is often sensible to let a professional cook, author, or television producer just get on with it. An interactive story is therefore not per se better than a linear one. Does it make any sense to consider computer games to be a type of literature? If what is meant by ‘literature’ is crafted linear storytelling with character development and causality, then the answer is no, since the computer storyteller isn’t an author, but an architect. The interactive story should be seen as a room that has been built and furnished by a creator. The art lies in creating a starting point that has narrative potential. For example, to create a living room in which the player is placed at the table and a dragon in the corner. This is not a story in itself, but if implemented well, a story is created.

The Uncertain Future of Books
With this in mind, one could argue that linear literature and interactive fiction actually are two quite different co-existing entities. On the other hand, the latter could overcome its teething troubles and create experiences that go beyond those that books can offer. The pleasure of being able to explore at one’s own rate, and the intense identification that arises when a player is given an active and meaningful role in a dynamic and fantastic world, are qualities that over time may open many people’s eyes to the fact that there are both feelings and great fiction behind the flashing computer screens. Several decades after Gutenberg invented the printed book, books with low user-friendliness were still being printed, as neither chapters nor indexes had been invented yet, and these useful features didn’t appear until sometime later after much laborious experimenting. Despite technological advances, interactive fiction is still in its puberty. In 1605, when Cervantes wrote the world’s first modern novel, Don Quixote, it was seen as a great blow to oral storytelling. But was it? Perhaps oral storytelling only changed format – or medium.

Jonas H. Smith holds a BA in Film and Media Science and is co-author of the book “Den Digitale Leg – Om Børn og Computerspil” – The Digital Game – about Children and Computer Games, Hans Reitzels Forlag, 2000). This article has been published also in the Magazine, Sentura (Translation: Britt Keson)