At the dawn of the personal computer age in 1982, a former Apple Computer manager named Trip Hawkins formed a new entertainment software company called Electronic Arts. EA printed its mission statement on the box of every game it produced in those early days: “We’re an association of electronic artists who share a common goal. We want to fulfill the potential of personal computing. That’s a tall order. But with enough imagination and enthusiasm we think there is a good chance for success” (Archon). Developers flocked to EA, attracted by its dedication to innovation and by its penchant for treating them like true artists. Most early EA games featured a color photo of its development team, often taken by rock music photographers. The musical motif extended even to EA’s packaging. Each game was shipped in a flat, rectangular box whose resemblance to an album cover was hardly accidental (Hunter). Perhaps these determined grasps at hip cachet were a bit strained, but in its first ten years of existence EA undeniably produced many of the most innovative and fondly remembered computer games of the era in a wide range of genres.
Today EA is the largest third-party entertainment software developer in the world, but possesses little of its old spirit of innovation. The company’s business model now primarily involves producing endless streams of sequels that display incrementally better graphics but little innovation in gameplay, and buying outright any companies that threaten its supremacy. Developers are no longer prominently credited and are treated with little respect, with enforced eighty-hour work weeks often being the norm. The company was recently the defendant in a pair of embarrassing class-action lawsuits from employees and former employees seeking millions of dollars of unpaid overtime (Jenkins).
As goes EA, so goes the videogame industry as a whole. Every year brings
endless iterations of the same tired ideas, and a quantity of interesting
titles that can generally be counted on one hand. The situation cannot be
written off as the kvetching of a handful of old-timers lamenting the loss of
the good old days and failing to understand the realities of business, for many
respected industry insiders also see the problem. Chris Crawford, veteran
designer of such groundbreaking titles as the Cold War geopolitical simulation Balance
of Power and author of the seminal text The Art of Computer Game Design,
claims that the videogame industry has “no creative spark” and is just “marking
time to die” (Murdey). Thirty year after first
entering the home, videogames remain overwhelmingly concerned with escapist
themes that carry little real world relevance. Designer John Tynes: “We’re still waiting for our Sorrows of
Young Werther, our Napoléon,
our Sgt. Pepper’s. Endless regurgitations
of dwarves and elves or action-packed recreations of
One way to invest gaming with the same cultural relevance of other forms of media would be to place players inside compelling, sophisticated stories. It is an idea that has been long discussed. The first advertisement to appear from Electronic Arts bore the tagline, “Can a computer make you cry?” summing up EA and the industry of the time’s optimistic view of the medium’s artistic potential (Hunter). That same year, a company called Infocom released an all-text adventure game called Planetfall that provided an affirmative answer through a lovable little robot named Floyd. Janet Murray described Planetfall in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck:
Once you figure out how to turn Floyd on again, you are no longer alone. Wherever you go from then on within this baffling and dangerous world, Floyd is always there, chattering affectionately, begging for attention, playing with a rubber ball, and eagerly providing information and small services. After living through many adventures with Floyd, you reach the door of the radiation lab that contains a crucial piece of equipment. Inside the room are loud and dangerous mutants. As you stand outside the door listening to the murderous clamor, Floyd volunteers with characteristic childlike loyalty – “Floyd go get,” he says – and rushes into the deadly chamber without giving you a chance to stop him. After accomplishing his mission, Floyd emerges “bleeding” oil and dies in your arms (52-53).
Planetfall’s designer, Steve Meretzky, succeeded in coaxing emotion from his players using incredibly primitive hardware and with no more than ten pages of total text and computer code. Meretzky notes that, “What’s amazing is not that I was able to create a computer game character that touched people so deeply, but how infrequently the same thing has been accomplished in the intervening two decades” (Meretzky 138).
And yet games today have more stories than ever before. Virtually every single-player title that is published has a “campaign” of some sort that leads its player through an unfolding storyline. Unfortunately, game stories are generally extremely linear and are all too often told mostly through non-interactive cut scenes that the player is allowed to view -- but not participate in -- as a reward for finishing another level or battle. For all of the technological advances of the last twenty years, the amount of room given to the player to affect the story in most modern games is if anything even less than that of Planetfall. This situation might be livable if games were at least occasionally telling good stories, but they are not. Like other aspects of contemporary videogames, the stories told reflect the adolescent male worldview of their target demographic and possess little power to evoke any emotion deeper than bloodlust or frustration in the player. Wired magazine recently published the following about Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the latest iteration of a hugely popular series developed by Rockstar Games that allows its players to live the suburban white male teenage dream of becoming gang-bangers:
To deflect charges that its games encouraged players to mistreat women, Rockstar created a new challenge for San Andreas: dating. To impress women in the game, players have to learn their tastes. Get your avatar a hairstyle and wardrobe she likes, pump iron at one of the in-game gyms, and she might let you take her out. Buy her flowers, drive her to a restaurant and a club, and maybe at the end of the night she’ll invite you in for some “coffee.” As she and your avatar disappear into her house, your health meter rises, and you hear their moans through the door (Kushner).
And so is courtship and romance, obsession of literature for time immemorial, reduced to getting the appropriate hairstyle and wardrobe, pumping iron, and not forgetting the flowers. The idea of a computerized interactive story is of course a relatively new one, and we should not be surprised to witness many failures in the field. What is disappointing is the game industry’s complete disinterest in even trying to break away from it current simplistic mode of storytelling.
The relation between game and story – or, perhaps more accurately, between interactivity and plot – is a complicated one. Janet Murray coined the term cyberdrama to emphasis the performative aspect of many interactive narratives, in that they insert the player into a world to enact a role in a kind of improvisational theatre. I prefer the more universally descriptive if less imaginative storygame, however, a term first used to my knowledge by Mary Anne Buckles in her landmark 1985 PhD thesis on the textual interactive fiction game Adventure. I have taken the liberty of extending the term storygame to represent a work possessed of the following four attributes: 1) the work must be interactive; 2) a computational (but not necessarily computerized) simulation – a storyworld -- must house the action of the game; 3) the player must experience the game by playing the role of an individual or individuals inside that storyworld; and 4) it must be possible to finish the game and walk away having experienced a complete story.
Some examples might be helpful to clarify this definition. The popular computer strategy game Civilization does not quality as a storygame because the player views its world from a Godlike perspective on high, rather than being immersed in the game’s environment. A massive multiplayer online role-playing game such as World of Warcraft does not quality as a storygame because its players do not experience any real story. At best they experience a series of anecdotes as they focus on improving their characters and socializing with others in a game that has no definite ending. Planetfall, however, is a storygame. It is interactive, responding to typed commands from the player; it does simulate a miniature universe in which its story takes place; the player does inhabit the role of an individual in that universe, in this case a stranded space traveler searching for a way off a deserted planet; and a “winning” player will have experienced a complete, coherent story.
I do not assert that games with stories are inherently superior to those without. All art, even all literature, does not demand a story, and it is perfectly possible to create artistically rich videogames that are not storygames. I offer the idea of compelling, meaningful storygames as one way out of the current artistic cul-de-sac in which the videogame industry finds itself, but it is by no means the only way. That said, in the remainder of this essay I will attempt to comes to terms with the concept of the storygame by first examining the role of games in stories and stories in games, and then surveying the current state of the computerized storygame.
Games in Stories
In his 1997 book Cybertext, Espen Aarseth coined the term ergodic literature to refer to all forms of directly interactive texts.
The concept of cybertext focuses on the mechanical organization of the text, by positing the intricacies of the medium as an integral part of the literary exchange. However, it also centers attention on the consumer, or user, of the text, as a more integrated figure than even reader-response theorists would claim. The performance of their reader takes place all in the head, while the user of cybertext also performs in an extranoematic sense. During the cybertextual process, the user will have effectuated a semiotic sequence, and this selective movement is a work of physical construction that various concepts of “reading” do not account for. This phenomenon I call ergodic, using a term appropriated from physics that derives from the Greek words ergon and hodos, meaning “work” and “path.” In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text (1-2).
Aarseth’s term is useful when considering the concept of interactivity in print literature, but should not be overvalued, as many of the gamelike literary works I will describe in this section do not in fact qualify as ergodic literature according to Aarseth’s definition, for they are not directly interactive.
The concept of interactivity in print literature tends to be bound up with the idea of immersion. Marie-Laure Ryan in her 2001 book Narrative as Virtual Reality described the tradition of reading for immersion and thereby coming to inhabit a virtual reality, or storyworld. It is a tradition inextricably linked with the novel, beginning in earnest with Don Quixote in 1605 and reaching its peak, at least in reference to “high” literature, in the nineteenth century, which also and perhaps not coincidentally marked the literary novel’s period of greatest commercial and cultural relevance.
High realism effaced the narrator and the narrative act, penetrated the mind of characters, transported the reader into a virtual body located on the scene of the action, and turned her into the direct witness of events, both mental and physical, that seemed to be telling themselves. Readers not only developed strong emotional ties to the characters, they were held in constant suspense by the development of the plot. The immersive quality of nineteenth-century narrative techniques appealed to such a wide segment of the public that there was no sharp distinction between “popular” and “high” literature: a wide strata of society wept for Little Nell or waited anxiously for the next installment of Dickens’s serial novels (Ryan 4).
In the twentieth century, literary fiction largely turned away from the concept of immersion:
The story has been told many times: how literature, cross-fertilized with the New Criticism, structuralism, and deconstruction, took a “linguistic turn” in the mid-twentieth century, privileged form over content, emphasized spatial relations between words, puns, intertextual allusion, paraody, and self-referentiality; how the novel subverted plot and character, experimented with open structures and permutations, turned into increasingly cerebral wordplay, or became indistinguishable from lyrical prose (4-5).
Even today, however, and in spite of a certain discomfort with the idea inside the academy, the vast majority of readers read for immersion. The immersive ideal is a hallmark of the genre literatures that sell many times the books of the increasingly insular world of “high” literature. It may be helpful to think of immersive literature as three-dimensional literature, in the sense that the text serves as a window into a storyworld that exists in some sense “below” it. The cliché “lost in a good book” perfectly describes this mode of reading. Most poetry and most modernist and postmodernist texts, meanwhile, are two-dimensional literature. The reader is concerned with the semiotic and aesthetic qualities of the text itself, as an end unto itself.
These two modes of reading carry with them very different expectations about what constitutes “good” writing. A three-dimensional reader sees the text as primarily functional, its purpose being to concisely and lucidly describe the storyworld but not to otherwise call attention to itself; whereas a two-dimensional reader is fascinated by the qualities of the surface text itself, and much more tolerant of obscurity and wordplay. One should not carry these dichotomies too far, of course. Many texts, among them many of the greatest in the literary tradition, can be read equally successfully in either way. Certainly one can read Shakespeare to admire the surface aesthetic qualities of his verse; but one can also – with perhaps a bit more difficult today than in his own time, due to the changing English language – read him to immerse oneself in his plots and settings, empathize with his characters, etc.
It being the goal of authors of immersive fiction to involve their readers in their stories as much as possible, giving them some sort of agency within the storyworld was a natural development. We see the first glimmerings of this phenomenon with the development of the mystery story. Edgar Allen Poe’s 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is generally acknowledged as the first example of the form. It was further developed by the English Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins in The Moonstone, and reached its mature form toward the end of the century with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of Sherlock Holmes stories. While a mystery seems upon cursory examination to be written and structured like a normal story, an understood convention is that the reader will in a sense play the role of a detective investigating the puzzle at the heart of the story and attempt to solve the case for herself. There is also a competitive element working at a meta-textual level here, as the reader matches wits with the author of the story to solve the puzzle before the author’s in-story protagonist. In her PhD thesis, Mary Ann Buckles drew explicit connections between the traditional mystery story and early “puzzles and treasure” computerized text adventure games. On the gamelike nature of mystery stories, she wrote:
Some writers and critics have even established game “rules” to make sure the game or competition between the reader and the characters, or the reader and the author, is fair. One of the first and most important of the guideline-makers was R.A. Knox, who set forth ten rules to give the reader a sporting chance – such as that the author must at least mention the criminal early on in the story, no supernatural elements may be introduced, there may not be more than one secret passage per story, no secret twin-brothers or sisters may be [sic] suddenly appear to explain the crime, and so on (88-89).
Buckles notes that different sub-genres of mysteries have even been equated to different types of games. Early Sherlock Holmes-style stories are crossword puzzles; later, more developed novels like those of Agatha Christie are puzzles of interlocking pieces; and spy novels such as Ian Fleming’s James Bond series are games of chess (88). While mystery stories provide a sort of pseudo-interactivity through presenting their readers with intellectual puzzles to solve, they do not allow them to actually affect the course of events within their stories and are not sufficiently interactive to qualify as true ergodic literature.
In 1976, Edward Packard took that next step to true interactivity when he published Sugarcane Island, first in an anticipated line of interactive children’s books to be called The Adventures of You. That line petered out after only one more release, but Packard and his associate R.A. Montgomery were able to sell another publisher on the concept shortly afterward. Packard’s The Cave of Time appeared in 1979, marking the first volume of the immensely successful Choose Your Own Adventure series, which would run for almost twenty years and eventually include more than 180 volumes in the main series and many more in various spin-off lines (Katz). Each book is written in the second person, addressing its reader directly to increase her sense of immersion. One begins to read a Choose Your Own Adventure book in the conventional way, but within a few pages is confronted with a menu of two or more choices for one’s in-story alter-ego, each with a different page number associated with it. The reader proceeds through the story by picking from these menus and jumping to the appropriate pages to learn of the results until she reaches one of the story’s endings, which may be successful or unsuccessful.
A large number of other lines of so-called “gamebooks” were published during the 1980s. Some took the gamelike dimension a step further by allowing the reader to customize her character with various skills and abilities, and providing some simple game mechanics for resolution of actions within the storyworld in addition to the standard menu choices. This added layer of computational simulation found in gamebook lines such as the popular Fighting Fantasy series actually qualifies these works not just as ergodic literature but as full-fledged storygames satisfying all four requirements of the form, although they are certainly very simplistic and not often terribly satisfying examples of same. Indeed, very few of these books are of much literary value. Most were cranked out on a schedule by writers for hire, and all were targeted toward a teenage or younger audience. Perhaps the most artistically successful and respected line is the Lone Wolf series created by Joe Dever, comprised of a series of interconnected adventures that let the reader take the same customized character from book to book, improving her in-world skills as she goes (“Project Aon”). By the late-1990s, virtually all of these gamebook lines had ceased publication, their appeal among young people perhaps eclipsed by flashier electronic entertainments.
While interactivity and immersion often seem inseparable concepts, the two-dimensional literary tradition in fact has gamelike works of its own, beginning with a form that is often not thought of as literature at all: the riddle. Storygames have generally drawn mostly from the tradition of three-dimensional interactive literature, but the two-dimensional tradition -- particularly the riddle -- has had a strong influence too, and one can even detect a postmodern worldview at work in some of the more experimental storygames.
In his recent book-length study of
textual interactive fiction, Nick Montfort names the
riddle as the single most important ancestor of computerized IF. While I
am not comfortable going that far, the form’s impact has certainly been
considerable. Montfort notes that the riddle
pre-dates the written word, and that riddles can be found in some of our most
important early stories, such as the legend of Oedipus, whose ascension to the
Two-foot, three-foot, one time four,
Four in the morning, two at ;
Eve’s three-foot creature, then no more:
What am I? (Martin 244)
The answer is man, who crawls as a baby, walks upright in the prime of life, and hobbles with a cane in old age. It illustrates a certain playful, “tricky” aspect to many riddles that forces the would-be solver to deploy intuition and lateral thinking in addition to straightforward logic. While riddles, like mystery stories, present their reader with puzzles to be solved, they lack the storyworld context, and thus the sense of immersion, of mystery stories. One does not inhabit a riddle, but approaches it strictly on the two-dimensional textual level. It is for this reason that they are so frequently and easily imbedded within larger narratives, including many storygames.
Although many of its practitioners would be shocked at the assertion, postmodern literature owes a considerable debt to the riddle. Novels like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 consist of an intricate web of intra- and inter-textual allusions to be ferreted out and puzzles to be pondered, if not solved; for one major difference that does exist between the aesthetic of postmodernism and the aesthetic of the riddle is that postmodernism rejects the concept of objectively correct answers to its puzzles. Although often ostensibly presented as a straightforward narrative, much postmodern literature is not really about the characters or plot at all. Even time is flexible rather than linear. In his recent PhD thesis, for instance, Jeffrey Lamar Howard suggests that the timeline of many postmodern stories could be mapped spatially onto a grid of locations visitable by a player’s avatar in a computerized interactive fiction game to aid the player in understanding the web of “twisty little passages” that make up the work as a whole.
After the release of Apple Computer’s HyperCard system in the mid-1980s, a considerable amount of “hypertext fiction” appeared which was very much heir to the postmodern tradition of print literature. Postmodern print had in fact been straining toward non-linearity for years by that time, as evidenced by works like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which told its story, such as it was, entirely through a series of lengthy, discursive footnotes to a fictional work of poetry. Ironically, the literary genre hypertext fiction most resembles, at least on a cursory reading, is the Choose Your Own Adventure story, although its aesthetic focus and target audience are very different. After an initial burst of excitement and hyperbole upon HyperCard’s appearance, and a second flurry when the arrival of the World Wide Web truly brought hypertext to the masses, hypertext fiction faded rather quietly from the scene, and is practiced today by a rather tiny group of mostly university academics. Hypertext did revolutionize the way we read, write, and learn, but primarily in the realm of nonfiction.
In his 1961 study Man, Play, and Games, Roger Callois divided then-extant forms of gaming into four categories: agon, involving struggle or competition between two or more parties; alea, games of chance such as those played in casinos; mimicry, games of make-believe such as those often played by children; and ilinx, a difficult to understand category of games which “are based on the pursuit of vertigo” and “inflict a kind of voluptuous panic” (23), and into which category Callois places roller coaster rides and drug experiences. Leaving aside the very valid debate over whether the latter category should really be described as games at all, one cannot help but notice that storygames do not fit comfortably anywhere on Callois’ matrix. They perhaps come closest to qualifying as games of mimicry, but carry with them a goal-orientation and sense of structure that does not really fit with that category. I thus believe that the very definition of what constitutes a game has expanded since Callois wrote his book. In the remainder of this section, I will discuss how this has happened.
Like texts, we can “read” games either two-dimensionally or three-dimensionally. While the two-dimensional gamer focuses on the game’s surface of rules and physical materials exclusively, the three-dimensional gamer uses these as a window into a storyworld being simulated by same. As with texts, it is possible to read the same game in either way, although games often tend to “want” to be read in one way or the other even more strongly than do texts. Thus, while one can and some tiny fraction undoubtedly do imagine a game of chess as a window into a real clash of armies, the vast majority of chess players approach it as a two-dimensional game of purely abstract strategy. The concept and rules of chess favor this approach. Some games do, however, occupy a certain hazy space between the two. An example is the very popular modern hobby of participating in “fantasy sports” leagues. Here, one can equally well play two-dimensionally, treating the game as a contest of pure mathematics and abstract strategy; or three-dimensionally, imagining oneself as the owner of an actual sports team.
While two-dimensional games – a
category that includes sports as well as purely intellectual games -- probably
pre-date the rise of homo sapiens, the
explicitly three-dimensional, simulational game is a
much more modern phenomenon. The first successful wargame
– a term referring to an at least semi-realistic simulation of armed conflict
-- was also the first successful three-dimensional game of any stripe. It
was invented by Baron von Reisswitz, a German civil
administrator, in the early years of the nineteenth century (Leeson). While there had been earlier attempts at
simulating armed conflict, most had been variants of chess, which is a fine
abstract strategy game in itself but hardly reflective of warfare in the real
world. Reisswitz’s game did a credible job as a
generic simulation of armed conflict of its day, to the extant that, even
though it was initially designed to be played only for pleasure, the Prussian
military soon showed an interest. Reisswitz’s
son expanded and refined the game at its behest, and wargaming
of scenarios and strategies became an integral part of the German military machine
under Otto von Bismark. By the end of the
nineteenth century wargames were an accepted,
valuable tool being used by militaries all over the world, and remain so more
than ever today. Powerful militaries like those of the
Yet wargaming began as a hobby, and a hobby it remained for some. Right from the birth of Reisswitz’s invention, a small number of people around the world designed their own game systems and carved and painted elaborate miniatures to give their gaming tables a certain visual flair worthy of the colorful conflicts being simulated. Included among this group were the writers Robert Louis Stevenson and H.G. Wells; Wells even writing and publishing two now largely forgotten books on the subject (Kirschenbaum). These hobbyists were scattered and rather few in number, however, and their games were not so much published as designed by committee and consensus, to the extant that every player must by necessity be at least something of a designer. That changed in 1954, however, when Charles A. Hill published the first complete boxed wargame, Tactics, through the Avalon Hill Game Company. Many more games followed, from Avalon Hill and others, and the hobby expanded relatively quickly to peak during the late seventies. With the advent of home computers, tabletop wargaming has become more of a niche interest than ever today, but certainly new titles are still published and players still exist, and a considerable number of others have taken their hobby to the computer.
Wargames have been published covering virtually every conflict in human history; in levels of complexity ranging from almost childishly simple to bewilderingly complex. Some, such as History of the World, give each player complete control of an empire, and have each turn represent years of real time; others, such as Advanced Squad Leader, are resolved at the level of the individual soldier, and have each turn represent seconds. Wargames have been created to simulate conflicts in hypothetical science fiction or fantasy universes and even professional sports, an interesting example of a three-dimensional game being used to simulate a two-dimensional game. Wargames are not storygames, as they do not in any real sense ask their players to play a role inside their storyworlds; but those storyworlds can be very compelling, and can almost seem to have a life of their own. Although most were designed for ostensible play as two or more player, agonal games, a surprising number of players play alone, moving each side in turn and letting the conflict unfold in their imagination. (Novelist Robert Coover provides a colorful portrait of this style of play taken to unhealthy extremes in The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., in which the protagonist’s obsession with the storyworld of his simulated baseball league literally consumes his life.) Given the fascination these simulated worlds hold for their players, the next step – going “inside” these worlds to play roles there, rather than observe from the outside – was perhaps inevitable.
In the late sixties and early seventies, there existed in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, a group of serious wargamers who called themselves the Castle and Crusade Society (Rausch). They specialized in games of fantasy conflict such as the battles depicted in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels, with dragons playing the part of air support and fireball-flinging wizards where one might expect artillery. One of the group, Gary Gygax, had helped to form a small publishing house, Tactical Studies Rules, which published the group’s “house rules” for its games in 1971 under the name Chainmail. Gygax became interested in simulating combat at a lower level, allowing each player to make decisions for just one, or at most a few, characters in the storyworld. These ideas soon surfaced as a supplement for Chainmail, but Gygax was not done yet. Working with Dave Arnenson, he developed an entirely new type of game that would be even more immersive and that would remove the agonal element in favor of cooperative storygaming. In it, each player would play the role of a character in an ongoing fantasy campaign inspired by the fiction of Tolkien and Jack Vance, guiding her through many battles and stories and increasing her skills all the while until she met an unfortunate end, retired, or even achieved immortality and went to join the gods. The campaign would be overseen by a referee, whom Gygax and Arnenson dubbed the dungeon master, who would create the world of the game and guide the players’ adventures within it. As few as one or as many as a dozen players could participate, although the ideal number was probably between four and seven. TSR published the game under the name Dungeons and Dragons in 1974.
D&D represents not just the first table role-playing game and the first true storygame, but also the most important single game of any type of at least the last half-century. Its influence today extends far beyond the relatively few number of people who have ever played it in its non-computerized, tabletop form. Both its fantasy milieu and its basic mechanic of improving skills and abilities through experience dominate computer gaming today. Hugely popular online games like World of Warcraft, for instance, are direct heirs to D&D; and the public’s recent taste for big-budget fantasy films can be largely laid at its doorstep as well, albeit filtered through a web of game and non-game derivatives and spin-offs.
None of which is to say that D&D was an instant success. Its initial run of a few-hundred crudely printed copies took months to sell out, and the game would not find real commercial traction until its rules were cleaned up and refined several years later (Rausch). And while it undeniably qualifies as a storygame, the stories its players tell, then and now, are not often terribly good stories. Although it gives lip service to the storytelling possibilities of role-playing games, D&D’s rules are overwhelming focused on just one type of story that barely even qualifies for the name, in which the players enter a dungeon inhabited by monsters, kill them, and take their treasure. They then receive a reward of experience points and take their more improved characters on to the next, slightly more difficult, dungeon. TSR published a huge number of simplistic scenarios of this type, which it dubbed “adventure modules,” for dungeon masters who lacked the time or patience to create their own. While D&D became quite popular, particularly in the 1980s, many serious role-players have criticized the game for these tendencies, referring to it as a “roll-playing” game in reference to the dice rolls used to resolve combat. Of course, even a game of “hack and slash” D&D can be considerable fun with the right group of friends, and some do push the system in more compelling directions.
Although the commercial supremacy of D&D in the tabletop RPG hobby has never been seriously threatened, a large number of other tabletop RPGs followed in its wake, many of them featuring more literate and interesting settings, themes, and mechanics. Call of Cthulhu, first published in 1981, casts its players as investigators into the paranormal in the world of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction. Cthulhu actively subverts the meta-narrative of D&D to comment on the fragility of human beings. Instead of getting stronger from adventure to adventure and possibly becoming gods, characters in Cthulhu gradually lose “sanity points” as they get too close to the horrors of Lovecraft’s universe. If they manage to avoid death, most characters end their careers not as immortals but as gibbering lunatics confined to asylums. Cthulhu also set a new standard in the depth and richness of its published adventure modules. In contrast to the typical thirty-page D&D adventure consisting of a dungeon and some seemingly randomly thrown together monsters and treasure, Cthulhu adventures often ran for hundreds of pages of detailed plot and background information. Things reached an almost ridiculous peak with the 1999 publication of Beyond the Mountains of Madness, which ran to over 450 densely-typed pages and estimated that the average gaming group meeting for a few hours once or twice per week could expect to spend a year or two trying to complete it.
Other tabletop RPGs followed Cthulhu’s lead to focus less on the mechanics of combat and more on character and atmosphere, among them the games of White Wolf, the second largest publisher of tabletop RPGS today. Its World of Darkness line of gothic horror games, which began with 1991’s Vampire: The Masquerade, actually reject the RPG label entirely, preferring to call themselves “storytelling games” in reference to their emphasis on same. While the popularity of tabletop RPGs in general peaked during the 1980s and has declined somewhat since, the rise of the Internet has allowed the online distribution of many innovative new types of RPGs that focus on story even more heavily than do those of White Wolf. A well-played modern RPG can be a spectacular experience, with something of the flavor of improvisational theatre and setting a storytelling benchmark to which computerized storygames can as of yet only aspire.
It is worth noting at this point that the storygaming traditions I am describing do not exist in a vacuum. Lines of gamebooks such as the Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf titles, for instance, borrowed their game mechanics from tabletop RPGs; and when Dungeons and Dragons received its third major redesign in the late 1990s after the acquisition of TSR by Wizards of the Coast, one of the designers’ goals was to make the system easier to port into the computerized storygames that will be the subject of the remainder of this essay.
There is a large overlap among readers of immersive genre literatures, players of tabletop wargames and RPGs, and computer professionals and hobbyists. It is thus no surprise that as soon as computers began to arrive in the home at the end of the 1970s their owners began creating storygames on them. Historically, computerized storygames have tended to divide into two main categories, which I will here call the narratological and the ludic traditions. The former places the player into narratives that are largely pre-crafted, while the latter relies on simulational techniques that lead to organically emergent narratives. I will describe each tradition in turn.
The story in a narratological storygame lies waiting to be discovered – but not written – by the player as she makes her way through the game. Narratalogical storygames are capable of offering strong, interesting stories of real literary value in the hands of a good designer, but must often do so at the expense of player freedom. The player generally has local agency only, meaning that she may have some options about the order in which she explores the storyworld and how she causes events to progress, but is rather tightly bound to the overall plot created by the game’s designer. Some narratological storygames do make an effort to offer a degree of global agency to their players, but even this all too often takes the form of a single choice offered at the climax of the game leading to one of two or more alternate endings. The effect is somewhat akin to writing a traditional novel, then suddenly including a Choose Your Own Adventure-style menu choice in the last chapter.
The already-discussed Infocom title Planetfall illustrates both the strengths and weakness of the narratological storygame. Having earlier deferred to Janet Murray for an explanation of Planetfall’s strengths in the context of the heroism of Floyd the robot, I will defer to Chris Crawford for an observation on its weaknesses in the same context:
An old example illustrates the way that adventure games are dressed up with emotions. In Infocom’s classic game Planetfall, Floyd the robot befriended players early in the game. Floyd helped out in all manner of ways and provided lots of humorous diversions. But then, in a moment of danger to the player, Floyd charged forward and sacrificed himself to save the player. Players were overwhelmed with the moment’s emotional power. This great moment, I must point out, was absolutely noninteractive. There was nothing players could do to avert it. Players could insult Floyd, abuse Floyd, ignore Floyd, and he’d still nobly sacrifice himself. This behavior was programmed into the game (Crawford, Interactive Storytelling, 337).
Every player who completes Planetfall will have experienced the same basic story. She may have seen that story in a slightly different order than another player and even solved its problems in slightly different ways, but, as Crawford points out, Floyd will always sacrifice himself at the climactic moment, and all of the other major plots events will always play out in the same way. Narratological storygames thus fit quite comfortably under Espen Aarseth’s concept of ergodic literature, being mostly fixed texts that require “non-trivial effort” to traverse, and draw from the literary as much or more so than from the gaming tradition.
The narratological form was initially closely associated with the “adventure game” genre of computer entertainment that is named the first example of same, Will Crowther and Don Woods’ Adventure, but it has expanded into other genres. Adventure actually slightly pre-dates the home computer era, having been developed by Crowther on an institutional DEC minicomputer in 1976, then expanded and refined by Woods in 1977. In it, the player explores a network of caves in quest of five great treasures. The game describes locations and events to the player using pure text, and the player responds by entering commands for her in-game alter ego using simple imperative English phrases. Although Crowther was an avid early player of Dungeons and Dragons, his game drew thematic more than mechanical inspiration from D&D:
It imitated that role-playing game not by having dice-driven combat based on ability and experience points, or by allowing the interactor to take the role of a particular fantasy character, but by providing opportunities for creative problem solving and by providing a challenge that could be definitively met (Montfort 88-89).
Adventure became one of the most-ported computer programs ever, appearing on a bewildering variety of computer systems and spawning a whole genre of successors. Games in the tradition of Adventure were initially known simply as “adventure games”; then “text adventures” to distinguish them from a new breed of adventures utilizing graphics; and were eventually coined “interactive fiction” in the 1980s by Infocom in reflection of that company more literary aspirations for the form. After a brief period of popularity, interactive fiction began to fade from commercial viability in the late 1980s, and the last mass-market release of an IF game came in 1993. While commercially extinct today, the form has not been allowed to die entirely, as a small but vibrant Internet community continues to write and play IF. Freed from commercial constraints, their work often puts that of the commercial videogame industry to shame in terms of literary quality.
As the multimedia capabilities of home computers increased, developer began to add graphics to the basic style of play of Adventure. The first stage, begun with On-Line Systems (later Sierra Entertainment’s) 1979 Mystery House, was a hybrid form of IF in which graphic images were occasionally displayed to illustrate locations and situations in an otherwise traditional text adventure. In 1983’s King Quest, Sierra replaced most of the text with dynamic graphical representations of the environment, although the player still entered command using a textual parser. That too gradually disappeared in later releases, however, replaced by mouse-driven point and click interaction. The release of 1993’s Myst by Cyan Entertainment marked the commercial high-water point for graphical adventures. Victims of both a videogame market trending toward faster paced, less cerebral entertainment and a certain congenital failure to innovate beyond a set of basic puzzle-solving tropes, the adventure game faded from prominence during the late 1990s. While they have not entirely disappeared, graphical adventures are now very much a niche market little noticed by the world of mainstream videogames.
Even as IF and adventure games faded from commercial prominence, however, their basic storytelling techniques migrated into other genres that focus on reflexive action and/or strategy rather than the solving of set-piece puzzles. Since the release of 1998’s paradigm-shattering Half Life, every first person shooter game is expected to have a story that the player experiences in breaks from blasting creatures, even if it is done largely through between-level, non-interactive cutscenes. Most real-time strategy games also offer a “campaign mode,” in which the player guides her armies through a series of battles linked together by an unfolding storyline. As mentioned previously, games have more stories today than ever before, and those stories are mostly told using narratological techniques that originated with the adventure game.
The ludic storygame is not a new idea, but it is a very problematic one. It revolves around the concept of emergent narrative, and might be summed up as turning the player loose with an overarching goal or goals in a robustly simulated storyworld and allowing her to create her own story in conjunction with the inhabitants of that world. Unfortunately, while developers have gotten quite good at simulating physical environments, they have had little success in creating believable characters for the player to interact with. The problem is fundamentally bound up with the way that computers “think.” Consider the way that a computer approaches the game of chess using the commonly employed minimax algorithm:
The minimax algorithm can
be thought of as consisting of two parts: an evaluation function and the minimax rule. An evaluation function for any
chess position produces a number that measure the “goodness” of the
position. Positions with positive values are good for White, and negative
values are good for Black. The higher the score, the better it is for
White, and vice versa. The minimax
rule allows the evaluation function values to be used. It simply
states that, when White moves, White chooses the move that leads to the maximum
value, and when Black moves, Black chooses the move that leads to the minimum
Thus, while computers are now very capable of beating humans at chess, they do so using a fundamentally different type of “thinking” than their opponents in that they replace human intuition and strategizing with brute-force mathematical algorithms. This latter mode of “thinking” is also perfect for simulating physical environments, but rather at odds with the creation of believable human beings, or even animals. And yet interaction among characters is at the very heart of almost all stories, which leaves the would-be ludic storygame developer in a very difficult place.
The ludic conception of storygaming is most closely associated with the computer RPG, which arose from the desire of tabletop RPG players to simulate the experience on their computers, and without the need to gather half a dozen friends together. Among the first examples of the type were 1980’s Alkalabeth and 1981’s Wizardry. A considerable number of releases have even licensed the Dungeons and Dragons name and rules. Other genres have borrowed from the ludic approach as well, perhaps most notably the Grand Theft Auto series of open-ended action games.
Unlike the adventure game tradition, the computer RPG tradition is heavily simulational in its approach, and foregrounds its “rules” to the player much more prominently than do adventure games. Computers are ideal for simulating some aspects of the tabletop RPG experience, and greatly decrease the burden on the player by handling all of the “die rolling,” record keeping, and rules application for her. As mentioned previously, though, computers are not so adept at character interaction or intuitive thinking, things that come naturally to a good human dungeon master. The result of these strengths and limitations is a genre of games that revolve around combat to a greater extant than even tabletop D&D, as combat is much easier for a computer to simulate than character interactions. And even storygames that seemingly offer completely open gameplay often “cheat” by falling back on narratological techniques to give the player a satisfying story. For instance, Grand Theft Auto III and its successors are often praised for their non-linear gameplay, but the reality is that they offer two separate but parallel modes of gameplay. The player can indeed go and do as she chooses, but this does not lead to real story-building, only the collection of ultimately meaningless anecdotes. To get a real story out of Grand Theft Auto III and in the process complete the game, the player must carry out a series of linear, pre-written missions within the storyworld. We can see this pattern again and again in other videogames.
For those still holding out hope for the truly ludic storygame, however, two current projects provide reason for cautious optimism. Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas recently released for free via the Internet a groundbreaking one-act “interactive drama” which they call Façade. Inspired by the classic play Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, Façade casts the player as an old friend visiting the home of Grace and Trip, a yuppie couple experiencing marital difficulties. Over the course of a single playthrough lasting twenty minutes or so, the player can interact with the couple using natural language dialogue typed on the keyboard, and hear Grace and Trip reply in spoken dialogue of their own. She is free to guide the action of the story any way she chooses, from attempting to take advantage of the couple’s state to seduce one partner or the other to playing the concerned counselor and attempting to sort out and patch up the couple’s differences. Behind the scenes is a sophisticated “drama management system” that is unlike anything seen before in a videogame. It cycles through a large number of pre-written story “beats” – a term drawn, like much of the game’s terminology and philosophy, from the world of theatre -- in response to the player’s actions and with an eye to constructing a satisfying, believable story arc. Mateas and Stern:
During the first part of the story, Grace and Trip interpret all of the player’s discourse acts in terms of a zero-sum affinity game that determines whose side Grace and Trip currently believe the player to be on. Simultaneously, the hot-button game is occurring, in which the player can trigger incendiary tropics such as sex or divorce, progressing through tiers to gain more character and backstory information, and if pushed too far on a topic, affinity reversals. The second part of the story is organized around the therapy game, where the player is (purposefully or not) potentially increasing each character’s degree of self-realization about their own problems, represented internally as a series of counters. […] On the whole, because their attitudes, levels of self-awareness, and overall tension are regularly progressing, the experience takes on the form and aesthetic of a loosely plotted domestic drama (Mateas and Stern, 189-190).
Façade “breaks” all too frequently. The natural language parser is not as sophisticated as one might wish, and sometimes Grace and Trip’s responses seem completely nonsensical. Certainly the devious player can willfully confuse the system easily enough, and even honest playthroughs occasionally just do not really “work.” Nevertheless, Façade represents one of the most sophisticated approaches yet to storygaming, and when it works gives the player a surprising sense of realism, of really being inside the dramatic situation it depicts. In contrast to traditional narratological storygames, one would have a hard time experiencing the same story in two separate playthroughs of Façade even if one wanted to. Mateas and Stern are currently at work on a commercial project that will utilize the technology developed for Façade in what will hopefully be a more refined experience for the player.
Veteran game designer Chris Crawford has for over a decade been working on an approach to storygaming even more radical than that of Façade. Crawford’s approach is based heavily upon Aristotle’s theory that all drama arises from character. He therefore designs computer-controlled characters by assigning to them numerical values representing their personalities, moods, and relationships with others in the storyworld. He then places them into the storyworld to interact with one another and the player in the hope that a compelling story will result. Computers are at this point completely unable to generate believable, vernacular English sentences. To get around this problem, Crawford has designed a simplified, symbolic language he calls Deikto to allow generative communication with the player inside his storyworlds. Communications like this, however, seem a problematic route to compelling drama:
Johnny flee from Billy.
Billy exclaim greatly.
Sheriff find Billy.
Sheriff take Billy to home.
Sheriff tell Mom story.
Mom exclaim greatly.
Sheriff go to town.
Sheriff find Doc.
Sheriff tell Doc story.
Sheriff request Doc that Doc go to home.
Doc go to home.
Sheriff find Dad.
Sheriff tell Dad story.
Dad go to home.
Doc tell Mom that Billy health very negative.
Mom request Doc that Doc make Billy health positive (Crawford, “Deikto,” 174).
Nor has Crawford entirely, or even mostly, solved the problem of creating believable computer-controlled characters. Even leaving aside the very real question of whether a human personality can be condensed into a stream of numerical values, his choices about which attributes make up a personality are necessarily arbitrary. And by so radically de-contextualizing his stories, Crawford loses most of what makes fiction compelling. Character interaction is important, undoubtedly, and a major failing of current storygame systems. Yet setting and atmosphere, among many other things, are also vitally important for immersion. Can a player really lose herself in a story that reads like the one shown above? Crawford might succeed in making a completely ludic storygame only to find that no one wants to play it. His work is of enormous theoretical interest, but might be most useful if applied judiciously in an effort to improve the generative storytelling capabilities of more traditional storygames. Crawford has recently formed a company, but we have yet to see a concrete demonstration of his ideas in the way that Façade displays Mateas and Stern’s storygaming approach in the context of a playable game.
Will the work of Mateas and Stern, or Crawford, lead to a breed of truly ludic storygames? Even if not, the situation is not so dire. We have ample evidence, including the occasional commercial gem and the work of the freeware IF community among others, that it is possible to create storygames of great emotional impact and thematic weight using only tried and true narratological techniques. Even if the player has limited power to affect the overall course of a story, simply placing her inside a story in the way that narratological storygames do immerses her as no storytelling form has done before; and investing her with even limited local agency over the course of events of the story gives her a feeling of empowerment that makes her identify with her character and situation that much more. Floyd’s death in Planetfall written up as conventional static fiction would likely be maudlin and forgettable; yet when placed in a storygame context, as a surprising event directly experienced by the player, it is still remembered with a pang of emotion by people who played the game almost twenty-five years ago.
The stories videogames tell are largely cliched and forgettable, but that is more a failure of vision on the part of the contemporary videogame industry than a theoretical failing of the narratological storygame. We could create moving and artistically satisfying works even within its conservative, tried and true parameters. That we largely do not is an indictment of the juvenile culture that dominates the world of contemporary videogames. Clearly gamers want stories in their games more than ever today. Will videogame developers ever consistently provide them with good, adult stories, so that they do not have to move on to other hobbies once the gang-bang antics of Grand Theft Auto III and the generic fantasy tropes of countless other titles start to pale? The technology to create videogames worthy of academic study not just in their cultural context but as worthy aesthetic objects in themselves is here. Will the commercial videogame industry ever grow up and seize the opportunity?
Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.
A seminally important books for theorists of electronic literature and writing, Cybertext defines an ergodic text as one which “requires a non-trivial effort from its reader.” A cybertext, then, is one that expects its reader to get actively involved as more than a passive consumer of its riches. Put yet another way, it is a text whose meaning is created through a collaborative effort between its reader and its author. (Many modern literary theorists would of course say that this latter describes all texts, but there is something else going on in true ergodic literature, involving a certain intentionality or awareness of this process on the part of its author.) Obviously, ergodic literature has exploded in sheer quantity with the advent of hypertext and other forms of electronic writing and, of course, videogames, but it is not strictly a phenomenon of the computer age. Aarseth actually devotes the vast majority of his book to non-computerized cybertexts, going back historically as far as the ancient Chinese book of wisdom, I Ching. If this book has a major flaw, it is that it almost explodes with ideas that demand far more than its modest 200 or so pages to adequately explore. Aarseth also defines ergodic literature a bit too narrowly for my taste. I am tempted include mystery novels, which involve their readers in the “game” of trying to solve the case themselves before the end of the book, in this category as well, for instance. Aarseth’s book, alongside Hamlet on the Holodeck, was however only the first of a series of academic works focusing on interactivity in fiction. A book like Narrative as Virtual Reality likely would not have been possible without the pioneering work of this book.
Buckles, Mary Ann. “Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame Adventure.” PhD
By her own account Buckles’ dissertation was coldly received by her academic peers at the time of its completion, but it stands as a remarkably prescient document today. Twelve years before Hamlet on the Holodeck legitimized the academic study of the narrative possibilities of computer games, Buckles’ work ably describes the fascination that greeted Adventure among hackers and computer buffs upon its initial appearance. She then goes on to aggressively and unapologetically make the case for Adventure as the first example of a new, legitimate form of literature, placing it in the tradition of riddles, mystery stories, and tales of high adventure but emphasizing that future works of IF are by no means limited by these categories. Like Montfort many years later , Buckles focuses almost all of her attention on the literary side of IF at the expense of its more game-like elements and the tradition of role-playing games that spawned them, but her work is so courageous and pioneering that to complain further seems like ungracious quibbling. She captures the excitement that was palpable in the 1980s not in academia, as Buckles learned to her sorrow, but among IF companies like Infocom who truly believed they were creating a new form of literature with the potential to replace the traditional book.
Callois, Roger. Man,
Play, and Games. Trans. Meyer Barash.
In this classic 1961 study Roger Callois divided then-extant forms of gaming into four categories: agon, involving struggle or competition between two or more parties; alea, games of chance such as those played in casinos; mimicry, games of make-believe such as those often played by children; and ilinx, a difficult to understand category of games which “are based on the pursuit of vertigo” and “inflict a kind of voluptuous panic” (23), and into which category Callois places roller coaster rides and drug experiences. Leaving aside the very valid debate over whether the latter category should really be described as games at all, one cannot help but notice that storygames do not fit comfortably anywhere on Callois’ matrix. They perhaps come closest to qualifying as games of mimicry, but carry with them a goal-orientation and sense of structure that does not really fit with that category. I thus believe that the very definition of what constitutes a game has expanded since Callois wrote his book.
Campbell, Murray S. “’An Enjoyable Game’: How HAL Plays Chess.” HAL’s Legacy:
2001’s Computer as Dream and
Reality. Ed. David G. Stork.
Press, 1997. 75-98.
This article may initially seem a bit far afield from our purpose, but it in fact illustrates better
than anything else I have read how a computer really “thinks,” which is
necessary to understand if one is to grasp just how difficult the creation of a
non-simplistic computer-mediated interactive story really is. As the
title of both article and anthology indicate, the focus here is superficially
upon the famous computer HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s
equally famous film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The article uses this
only as its starting point, however, quickly developing into a careful but
non-technical explanation of how computers are made to play chess.
Costikyan, Greg. “Where Stories End and Games Begin.” Game Developer September
Costikyan, Greg. “Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String.” Second Person: Role-
Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. Ed. Pat Harrigan and Noah
I group these articles together because they represent one respected game designer and theorist’s evolving views on the relationship of gameplay to story. The bulk of each article is a listing of the various types of story-games in existence at the time of the writing, with several paragraphs devoted to that form’s strengths and failings as interactive narrative. The latter are mentioned far more prominently, for Costikyan’s views on the potential for game as story are quite skeptical, surprisingly so when one considers that he is the designer of the much-respected Paranoia tabletop role-playing game. While Costikyan’s analysis of the present state of affairs in each genre he considers is quite accurate, he fails in his earlier article in particular to adequately allow for future developments. His position in effect is that we do not now have truly interactive stories, and so we will never have them. His later article concludes considerably more optimistically, with a call for innovative new approaches as the only possible ways to bring about truly interactive fiction in digital media, although he has no real concrete suggestions to offer. Both articles are thus somewhat flawed in my eyes by a certain lack of vision, but nevertheless useful as detailed descriptions of the problems in current and historical attempts at interactive narrative that must be overcome if the form is to reach its potential. His earlier article concludes with another useful corrective to the over-optimism of some narratologists. He points out that story and even emotion are in no way necessary to worthwhile art. While videogames with meaningful, believable stories that offer true agency to the player are one route to making the medium culturally worthwhile and meaningful, they are by no means the only way.
Crawford, Chris. On Interactive
Crawford, Chris. “Deikto: A Language for Interactive Storytelling.” Second
Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. Ed. Pat
and Noah Wardrip-Fruin.
Crawford’s ideas on interactive narrative are as original and fascinating as they are, to this writer’s eye, problematic. Never one to indulge in false modesty, Crawford opens with the sweeping claim that none of the forms of computer-based interactive narrative to come before him – textual interactive fiction, graphical adventure games, computerized role-playing games, and hypertext fiction included – are truly interactive storytelling, for all constrain the player’s possibilities to one degree or another. He alone has the secret, which he will proceed to reveal over the course of his book. Crawford agrees with Aristotle that all drama arises out of character, and proceeds to construct a hypothetical system for storytelling that will dispense with just about everything except characters and their motivations. Unfortunately, this means that Crawford throws aside all of the other elements of traditional fiction, such as setting and even dialogue, which he replaces with an abstract symbolic method of communication he has named Deikto. The examples of interactive storytelling he provides read like very strange computer programs interacting with one another in very confusing ways, and his claims that this will all be much more intriguing when one is playing rather than reading are somehow not always reassuring. While Crawford’s radical approach is wrong-headed in may respects, and his endless self-aggrandizing gets very tiresome very quickly, I believe there are a number of ideas here that could lead to real progress if incorporated into the traditional forms Crawford has so blithely swept aside. Regardless, he is at least determined to put his money where his mouth is, and has founded a company to implement his ideas. The results so far have been one rather spectacular failure, but he is trying again. We will see what he comes up with next. Visionaries serve the purpose of spurring us onward even when they get things wrong.
Hite, Kenneth. “Narrative Structure and Creative Tension in Call of Cthulhu.” Second
Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. Ed. Pat
and Noah Wardrip-Fruin.
Based upon the literary universe of H.P. Lovecraft, the first edition of the Call of Cthulhu tabletop role-playing game was published in 1981. It has remained in print through five succeeding editions since, and stands today as one of the most respected and literate of RPGs. Hite’s article is an analysis of the various “adventures” that have been published over the years for the game, which sometimes stretch to hundreds of pages and represent some of the most sophisticated interactive narratives we yet seen. There are very few of the traditional staples of videogames or, indeed, even other RPGs found here. Combat and “action scenes” are generally few and far between. The players are rather tasked with solving intricate mysteries involving dark psychological horror. One of the principal mechanics of the game is a “sanity meter.” When a player’s character has seen too much, she will literally go insane and become useless. Call of Cthulhu is always aware of the essential fragility of humanity, in marked contrast to the super-heroic bombast of Dungeons and Dragons and similar games. Hite asserts that almost all published Cthulhu adventures are organized under one of a handful of basic structures, each of which might offer a way out of the action movie style of “storytelling” most forms of interactive narrative, computerized and otherwise, indulge in. The article is inspiring on both a practical level, as all of these basic structures seem directly transferable to other systems, and on an emotional level, as an illustration of where interactive narrative might go if freed of juvenile videogaming tropes. Tellingly, when Call of Cthulhu was recreated as a videogame recently all of its graceful sophistication was stripped away in favor of simplistic, ultra-violent first person shooter gameplay.
Howard, Jeffrey Lamar. “Heretical
Postmodern American Novel and Technological Pedagogy.” PhD diss.,
The title is rather a mouthful, but for our purposes Lamar’s arguments can be summarized as claiming that post-modern authors such as Vladimir Nabakov, Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon can, and perhaps should, be read in a new, active way. Works such as Pale Fire and Gravity’s Rainbow must be explored and “puzzled out” by their readers in a way little different from the “twisty little passages” of interactive fiction, a connection which Howard makes explicit in his fourth and final chapter. I found some very problematic aspects to Howard’s arguments. His insistence on filtering his ideas through Gnostic philosophy smacks of a pet interest allowed to run wild, and his assertions about the surface textuality of IF as a fundamental quality of the medium clash with the theory of immersion outlined in other works in this bibliography. I am more sympathetic to the notion of IF as immersive storytelling device than IF as yet another form of postmodern poetics, but I suppose there is no reason why the form cannot go in both directions. His ideas about the potential for IF to illuminate works of static literature have already been applied in at least one work, based upon Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, and are of great value even if one is, like me, skeptical of some of his other arguments.
Leeson, Bill. “Origins of the Kriegspiel.” Kriegspiel News. 27 April 2007.
provides a quite detailed overview of the development by Baron von Reisswitz of the first true wargame
during the early nineteenth century. While there had been earlier attempts at
simulating armed conflict, most had been variants of chess, which is a fine
abstract strategy game in itself but hardly reflective of warfare in the real
world. Reisswitz’s game did a credible job as a
generic simulation of armed conflict of its day, to the extant that, even
though it was initially designed to be played only for pleasure, the Prussian
military soon showed an interest. Reisswitz’s
son expanded and refined the game at its behest, and wargaming
of scenarios and strategies became an integral part of the German military
machine under Otto von Bismark. By the end of
the nineteenth century wargames were an accepted,
valuable tool being used by militaries all over the world, and remain so more
than ever today. Powerful militaries like those of the
Meretzky, Steve. “The Creation of Floyd the Robot in Planetfall.” Second Person: Role-
Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. Ed. Pat Harrigan and Noah
In this very brief article, the designer of the classic textual interactive fiction Planetfall describes in concise, matter of fact fashion the process of creation of Floyd, the lovable little robot in the game who sacrifices himself to save the player’s life. Almost twenty-five years after Planetfall’s creation, this incident is still frequently mentioned as a fine example of a videogame moving its player to feel emotions beyond frustration and bloodlust. If only we did it more or often. As Meretzky says at the end of the article: “What’s amazing is not that I was able to create a computer game character that touched people so deeply, but how infrequently the same thing has been accomplished in the intervening two decades.”
Mateas, Michael and Andrew Stern. “Writing Façade: A Case Study in Procedural
Authorship.” Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable
Ed. Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin.
Mateas and Stern here provide a surprisingly detailed and technical explanation of the way their revolutionary storygame Façade works under the hood. Inspired by the classic play Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, Façade casts the player as an old friend visiting the home of Grace and Trip, a yuppie couple experiencing marital difficulties. Over the course of a single playthrough lasting twenty minutes or so, the player can interact with Grace and Trip using natural language dialogue typed on the keyboard and a set of rudimentary physical gestures, and hear Grace and Trip reply in spoken dialogue and on-screen activity of their own. She is free to guide the action of the story any way she chooses, from attempting to take advantage of the couple’s state to seduce one partner or the other to playing the concerned counselor and attempting to sort out and patch up the couple’s differences. Behind the scenes is a sophisticated “drama management system” that is unlike anything seen before in videogames. It cycles through a large number of pre-written story “beats” – a term drawn, like much of the game’s terminology and philosophy, from the world of theatre -- in response to the player’s actions and with an eye to constructing a satisfying, believable story arc.
Montfort, Nick. Twisty
Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction.
MIT Press, 2003.
This is so far the only book-length academic treatment of textual interactive fiction, a form which occupies a very important position in my essay. Thankfully, it is a very good treatment, if perhaps a bit stretched in trying to cover quite a lot of territory in its 250-odd pages. The book is structured as an historical narrative, and as such takes us from the form’s literary antecedents, most notably the traditional riddle, through the first true work of IF, Adventure, and on through the form’s brief period of commercial viability in the 1980s, concluding with an overview of the current small but vital community of Internet-based IF writers and players. While his situation of IF in the context of earlier literary forms is valuable, I feel that Montfort devotes far too much space – one full chapter out of just eight altogether – to IF’s relationship to the riddle, and rather neglects other just as important forms of pre-IF ergodic literature such as the mystery novel. Also missing is an in-depth discussion of the influence of role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons upon IF. (Will Crowther, the creator of Adventure, was an avid D&D player). Luckily, what is here is very well done, and other sources fill in the gaps in Montfort’s work quite admirably.
Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.
This is one of the formative academic books on the
possibilities for computer-based storytelling, and remains an excellent source
of ideas and inspiration even as it is rather short on specifics on ways to
makes those ideas a reality. In marked contrast to many academic
Nelson, Graham. The Inform Designer’s Manual (4th
Interactive Fiction Library, 2001.
The ostensible purpose of this book is to serve as a technical manual for Nelson’s Inform, one of the two programming languages in which most quality works of modern interactive fiction are generally written. As a technical manual it is superb, if arguably now out of date, as the version of Inform it describes, Inform 6, has now been overshadowed by the entirely reworked Inform 7. Hidden toward the back of the book as Chapter 8, however, is something much more valuable for our purposes. “The Craft of Adventure” is 80-some pages on IF theory and practice, chock full of tips and advice on what makes a good adventure game. Some parts (“The Room Description”) apply directly only to textual IF, but many more (“A Triangle of Identities,” “The Design of Puzzles”) apply to virtually any kind of interactive narrative. The first edition of this essay appeared in the mid-nineties, and in many places it anticipates theoretical debates on player identity and other subjects that have since emerged from the contemporary IF community and from academic scholars such as Montfort. Nelson’s overly digressive style can sometimes grate when one is looking for a quick factoid, and his love of half-page long footnotes that are more interesting than the text they claim to illuminate is downright bizarre, but the whole stands up well today, being not only insightful but almost compulsively readable.
Perlin, Ken. “Can There Be a Form Between a Game and a Story?” First Person: New
Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat
Perlin presents just one truly new
idea in this brief article, but it is a very valuable one. He considers
one of the central conflicts between a game and a story. In a story, the
reader passively observes the actions of others, and thus has no agency at
all. In a traditional game, the player is in complete control of the actions
of her surrogates, whether they be chess pieces or playing cards, and thus has
total agency. For story-games, Perlin advances
the idea of intermediate agency, in which the player does have control to
influence events but does so not as herself but rather while playing the role
of another. Thus when one play Tomb Raider, for instance, one in a
sense – assuming the game is working as an immersive experience – “becomes”
Lara Croft, and begins to play this role as an actor in a sort of
improvisational theatre. Perlin here clarifies
and advances some of the notions
Rauch, Jonathan. “Sex, Lies, and Video Games.” The Atlantic November 2006: 76-86.
This article focuses on Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas’ pioneering work of interactive narrative, Façade, but also describes the current state – some might say mire – of videogaming culture. He describes the industry’s failings -- from its complete lack of innovation and to its obsession with juvenile, violent storylines -- very well, and introduces the idea of interactive narrative as having the potential to begin to solve these problems. He holds out the tantalizing vision of videogames that really matter culturally in the same way as do books and movies. As one might expect of an article published in a mainstream magazine like The Atlantic, there is little theory about how interactive narrative might actually work from the creator’s perspective, nor any of the technical details behind the work of Matteas and Stern. Much of the article is written as a personality profile of these two visionaries, and a historical account of Façade’s genesis. Rauch is obviously deeply sympathetic to what Matteas, Stern, and others hope to achieve. He concludes his article by describing a possible future game that combines the rich narrative of Façade with the generative technology behind Will Wright’s soon to be released big budget production Spore, and sums such a creation up like this: “Wow, I heard myself think, if I could play that, I’d be so excited! “ (86). Many of us, myself included, are inclined to agree. The article makes an excellent introduction for the layman to interactive narrative’s potentials and obstacles, yet reads as easily as the typical human interest piece.
Rausch, Allen. “Magic and Memories: The Complete History of Dungeons and
Although published on a contemporary video-gaming website, hardly a bastion of serious journalism, this is actually a lengthy and surprisingly detailed history of the first tabletop role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons. D&D and the similar (and often more literate and interesting, if less popular) games that sprung up in its wake have been hugely influential for developers of computer-based interactive narratives in ways that go beyond the rather trite Tolkienesque settings that have always dominated the video-gaming world. D&D was the first popular game to be about the shared creation of a story. One did not try to overcome one’s fellow players, but rather worked with them to meet the challenges of an imaginary fantasy world. The early parts of this article are perhaps most important for our purposes, describing as they do the birth of D&D from miniatures-based fantasy war-gaming. Its initial modest print run of a few hundred crudely edited booklets little heralded the huge change it would initiate in our very conception of what games are, a new idea that would be channeled directly into the first generation of computer games that shortly followed. Many of the earliest computer game designers were inspired principally by the longing to recreate the experience of an enjoyable session of D&D on the much more convenient computer screen. They did not succeed, and no one has in the decades since, but the tabletop RPG industry lives on and remains a sort of ideal to be striven for by designers of computer-based narratives. Some of the latter parts of this article carry a disturbing whiff of corporate patronage, but for the most part the story told here is balanced and complete.
Narrative as Virtual Reality.
Ryan’s book has been hugely influential upon my own thinking
about immersion and its role in interactive narrative. Her basic thesis
is almost insulting in its simplicity. Virtual reality, she writes, is
not an invention of our current high-technology era, but has been with us as
long as we have had stories and imaginations. The old saw about being
“lost in a good book” is in fact a description of a virtual reality. That
statement, though, is only the barest beginning of what this book has to offer,
as Ryan explores the ramifications of this idea both in traditional and
electronic literature and brings out some fascinating ideas in the
process. For instance, she writes that until the dawn of the twentieth
century the goal of authors was to immerse their readers in their
narratives, a tendency that reached its apex during the Victorian age that not
coincidentally marked the height of the novel’s cultural ascendancy. This
was the era when crowds greeted the first ship to arrive in
Tynes, John. “Prismatic Play: Games as Windows on the Real World.” Second Person:
Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. Ed. Pat Harrigan and
Unlike most of the other texts found here, this article does not delve into the theoretical details of interactive narrative at all. It is, rather, a justification for doing so, an impassioned argument for why developing more sophisticated forms of interactive narrative matters. Tynes particularly wants to see games get beyond the trite fantasy genre that currently dominates their culture, which he characterizes as “a tool we have clumsily wielded to middling effect” (227). Doing so would greatly add to the player’s emotional investment in the story, as it is hard for most suburban gamers to truly empathize with a dragon-slaying knight. It would also make games valuable as educational tools, teaching their players about the real world as they entertain them. Tynes, in short, wants us to move beyond escapist entertainment toward “engagist” games that have relevance to our lives and that can speak to us on the great issues addressed by literature and other art-forms. This does not preclude entertainment. One finds that most of the stuffy literary classics are in fact great reads once one rolls up one’s sleeves and dives in under no duress from one’s high school English teacher. There is no reason why games cannot also succeed as entertainment in addition to providing something more.
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