Once Upon a Time…I wrote a story.

As part of “We Tell Stories,” the six authors/six stories/six weeks project from Penguin Books UK, Kevin Brooks wrote a kind of interactive fiction piece that tells you a Fairy Tale in the Hans Christian Anderson style. The piece first asks you to choose the names of the The Peasant’s Daughter and The King in the story you are about to craft, and then proceeds to introduce the conflict in the story: The Peasant cannot pay his rent to the King, who then decides to take the Peasant’s Daughter as a bride for the Ugly Prince in lieu of rent. As the story moves on, the reader is asked to choose from different variables like who to talk to, what qualities are most valued by you, and emotionally what kind of ending you would like to read for your story. While the story is fairly short (only about six sections), the interface in which the reader directs the plot is fairly interesting considering last week’s reading about the death of the Author and the inconstancy of the author in digital media, and especially the database form.

Fairy Tales directly relies on the reader to make creative decisions concerning the plot and details of the story, much like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. This story, though, also allows the reader to choose character names, and at the end even append one’s own personally written epilogue to the story. In fact, when you finish the story (having written or not written your own ending), you are then asked to “Share your story, or make another fairy tale…” The wording of the language clearly states this is the reader’s story, even giving him/her the chance to title it and share with friends. While Kevin Brooks wrote the base narration and dialogue, and presumably the algorithm that displays the corresponding text to the corresponding quality/value/ending preference chosen by the reader, he does not take credit for the resulting story. This work does a great job of simplifying and making clear the idea that in digital media, and especially works that operate as a database where “the reader” is invited to sort and search data according to certain variables, there is not necessarily a clear, singular author. Meaning and “wholeness” are created as a product of the reader’s reading, which may (and often is) different from another reader’s reading (in this case, the different character names, the different individual choices, and the epilogue would likely vary from reader to reader). So, in that way, Fairy Tales is a work by Kevin Brooks, but it allows for new, different, varied works to be created by any number of additional authors. The reader/author is just as important to the meaning-making strategies of this work as the writer/coder/author.



The Fourth Era Remembers

Nick Montfort’s “Interactive Fiction’s Fourth Era” ended with a wonderful surprise for me (though perhaps only because I had been thinking it the whole way through the essay).

“The basic framework of interactive fiction, in which approximately one event happens per conversational turn, means that this deficiency does not cause too many problems. But it also rules out richer simulation in which many things happen per turn (and are narrated in an interesting way), the use of flashbacks to events that occurred earlier in the interaction, and the ability to narrate events from different perspectives.”

I love this idea of the Fourth Era of Interactive Fiction. That, in order to be revolutionarily transformed, IF will essentially have to get more complex in its responses and ability to remember events that have taken place in the story and in what order these events have taken place. It seems a big undertaking: I imagine the code used to write interactive fiction stories now (Montfort mentions Inform as being a good writer) would have to be almost entirely altered to perhaps date code events and prioritize certains responses based on whether one event occurred before the other for one user versus another user. Montfort’s essay makes clear that IF is not simply a story, it is a world to be explored. Unlike traditional book narratives that have a start and an end, and every reader generally progresses through this narrative in the same order, IF lends itself to a more varied reading asking you to explore around different directions and hallways and tunnels and fields and on and on. While The Warbler’s Nest offered a Walkthrough, with essentially the shortest path to the end of the story, such a Walkthrough almost seems to defeat the purpose of Interactive Fiction where it’s preferable to see all there is to see than simply “beat the game.” In the spirit of that exploration, Montfort’s call for an IF that can provided many, and  diverse, responses and interaction for users seems an obvious course of action. You can certainly play an IF many times over, exploring different places and sometimes achieving a new ending, but in general the responses of the computer are based simply upon going to a place or picking up an item, and not on what order you explore places or the ways in which you might ask the computer to move forward. The Dreamhold does, though, have built into its code some of this remembering of events: at the beginning when you can squeeze to the narrow hallway to go up the stairs, I went up the stairs, then down the stairs, then up the stairs, then down the stairs, over and over again. While the actual IF content did not alter, interestingly the Turtorial Voice did notice that I was doing the same events, and that I had already been to the place I was just at.

“You’ve been here before, but it’s a particularly crowded room,” says the Turtorial Voice, acknowledged my prior entrance into the same room, and later, going down, it says “The first time you enter a room, you’ll see a detailed description. But if you return to a room, you see just the roomname, followed by a list of the more portable objects lying around.” So, this IF does have the capacity to remember where I have been, which is a start. I don’t think the Tutorial Voice quite compares with the vision Montfort has of the future of IF, but it’s a start. Now, if only the Tutorial Voice remembered how many times I went back and forth up the stairs and responded different every single time, maybe noticing new things, maybe just some snarky response about choosing a direction.


The Digital Ream

On April 5th, 2006, Nick Montfort sat down to write Ream, a 500 page (and word) long poem, with each page consisting of a single, one-syllable word in 14 point font. Later, this poem was translated into French by Anick Bergeron. But, before that, Montfort turned the poem into a literary hypertext for our digital pleasure. The result is (very basically) a webpage with a black background upon which a single word is written. Clicking on that word leads us to the next word, and clicking on that word leads to the next, and so on and so forth until you reach page 500 where clicking on the final word “zoom” brings you back to the the “title page.”

For all its simplicity, Ream gives us a lot to work with in terms of seeing adaptations from print to digital. Last week in class we seemed to get bogged down by the idea of adaptations of works intended to be printed, represented in the digital sphere, as opposed to works instantiated in the digital to begin with.Reampresents an interesting case, as part of me feels like Montfort may have envisioned this print work also as a digital work to begin with (doesn’t seem that far off an assumption since Montfort is quite the name in electronic literature circles). One thing the digital version of the poem inspires is the idea that each word in a work (whether print or digital) is basically a gateway to the next. In this case, each word is very literally a gateway, a piece of hypertext taking you to the next word once you’ve pressed on it. This emphasizes the importance of all words in the poem, and helps us feel as if there is purpose and connection to each word despite the apparent lack of coherence between them. In fact, the poem seems to speak more to the idea of how we read, and that we should take care to connect each word to the next, rather than actually presenting a story that demands this reading. For one, you must obscure the word in order to click on it, and secondly (as stated previously) there is not an immediately obvious contextual connect between these words. Furthermore, each word is embedded with a particular link to the next word. You cannot press word 230 (grim) and get anything except word 231 (groves). This emphasizes an order and an intention that we seems to sometimes miss with a lot of electronic literature that offers numerous links and seemingly infinite pathways. This is not to say that you cannot edit the URL inside the search bar to skip to a word “further down the ream,” which you can, and I most certainly did. While the print version may inspire some of these feelings, I think the use of digital hypertext is really a superior way of understanding how important word order and connection is.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

In Jay David Bolter’s “Seeing and Writing” he makes the point that the electronic page does not create a reading experience like that of the printed page. Kerry Lawrynovicz’s “Girls’ Day Out” captures the unique ability of electronic literature to create an experience for the reader that could not have been replicated in the same manner by a printed page. The white words on a black background help lead the reader to the terrifying truth that is in direct contrast with the seemingly extremely harmless story about two sisters riding horses over a vast natural landscape.

Bolter mentions the importance of how a page is framed and the space that is left unfilled on a written page and how that space has played a role in a reader’s understanding through history. Lawrynovicz utilizes the negative space, that is not only space absent of words, but also space that is black and not white (or some similar white-like color) as is traditional on the printed page, to make the reader feel the emptiness of the lost lives of these innocent murdered young girls. Additionally, Lawrynovicz uses the overlay of the innocent storyline of her and her sister riding horses to contrast the underlying sinister story that her and her sister knew nothing about but could easily have been victims themselves. The first story fades and select words are left behind to reveal to the reader that there is another layer to this narrative. To achieve this using a printed page would be challenging. The colors alone would seem strange on a printed page. On a computer screen it is less noticeable until the animation progresses and the lone few words are left on the screen and that is when the reader really takes notice of the black and associates it with thoughts of death and evil.

Bolter says “The electronic author who chooses to animate must bear greater responsibility for the reader’s temporal experience, because he or she can regulate the flow of text and images on the screen.” By this he means that the electronic author loses the advantage that the print author has which is the room for the reader to make their own interpretation. The electronic author who animates is able to direct the reader’s thoughts more precisely, but if their goal is not achieved or falls flat or if the reader doesn’t get it, the electronic author is more to blame than the print author because they bore the responsibility of creating a more directed understanding within the reader.

Reading Escape from the Blue Room

Trying to find something exciting to write about for this creative response, I found myself getting quite distracted exploring all manners of interactive stories and games. One puzzle game that I found particularly interesting considering our class is starting off with the idea of Platforms, was a game called “Escape from The Blue Room.” This game is one of many “Escape the Room” Games, apparently a genre in of itself, one of the most popular being “Crimson Room.” At its most basic, the goal of the game is to escape from a digitally rendered room that you inexplicably find yourself in upon the start of the game. By using the computer’s mouse (or track pad) the player clicks around the two dimensional room hoping to unveil clues through the narration that pops-up above the viewer or by finding “hidden” objects. One-by-one you gather objects and information, which you can then use (by clicking and dragging the item over another item on the screen) to find new clues, turn on items, open items, and other things. On the surface “Escape from the Blue Room” seems like just a first-person, point-and-click game, but I’d argue this is also an expressive work of new media that works to critique our culture’s views of literature and storytelling.

“Escape from the Blue Room” and most Escape the Room games rely on the assumption that the user is familiar with the structure of a story. These games have a narrator (a character), a narrative structure, plot devices, and even clichés unique to their genre. When you first start the game, you have no idea why or how you’ve come to be in this room (though this is not the case with all Escape the Room games), but simply by clicking on the screen once you can get a good idea of how to move forward through the game. The narration above the viewer will tell you simple things like “It’s a blue couch,” but it will also occasionally provide unique details like “It’s a water tap. But without a handle.” It is these pieces of narration that work with the various object you find (like the water tap’s handle) to transform them into plot devices. In this way, the game has a narrative structure, requiring you to complete certain tasks before others, such that the story unfolds fairly linearly as you get closer and closer to escaping the room (the ending). It is not necessary to complete gather all items in order, however. For instance, you can grab the aquarium net before filling the glass bowl with water to place the piranhas in, but you would not be able to advance the story (taking the piranhas out of the aquarium) without having both items.

Opening scene of “Escape from the Blue Room.”

Another obvious literary trait of “Escape from the Blue Room” is that there is a narrator, or a character. Obviously this is a first person story, with the user controlling the current view, but the narration itself has already been created and is not controlled by the user. This makes it seem less like the user is playing the character, than the user is simply unveiling the character’s words and thoughts through clicks. It would be like having a book with pages made out of scratch off ticket material and you have to go through it will a quarter scratching off narration to read the story. Analogies aside, though, just because the viewer happens to be my view, I do not necessarily feel like I as the user have agency in this story, but rather am simply attempting to piece together a story already in place.

In short, I definitely think that “Escape from the Blue Room” speaks to the idea that these game users must utilize and exploit their skills as readers to win the game. By having a familiarity with the devices used in literature (narrators, narrative structure, plot devices, etc.), and by treating the game as a piece of electronic literature to be read, unveiled, and mulled-over, the game becomes less about winning and more about finishing the story.