Paper topic: looking at a game as literature

I plan to analyze Braid in my final paper.  I had a hard time thinking of games as literature before playing Braid, so I am intrigued by how it creates a fictional world and a coherent narrative.   Marie-Laure Ryan puts forth some ideas in “Toward an Interactive Narratology” that will be useful in my analysis, along with several other sources.  It is remarkable how Braid plays with time and represents the complexities of human emotion.  One may fairly ask whether the author could have told this story as effectively using another method or technology, and I hope to address that question.

Creating a universe beyond the text

Braid challenges the player to figure out how to play, and why.  A friend of mine, who is much more of a gamer than I’ve ever been, reacted to his first hour playing Braid by saying, “The game seems interesting, but I found it very frustrating due to the lack of explanations.  The instructions are incomplete; commands such as Shift + arrow key combinations are not explained, and I don’t understand why not everything is affected by turning back time. I think the game creators were trying too hard to be clever, and took too many shortcuts; this is laziness disguised as creativity.”  In his defense, I must point out that my friend is not an English major, and I asked him to judge Braid simply in comparison to the games he normally plays.

I explained to my friend that you must read the text carefully, and think about it, in order to understand why the game works the way it does.  For example, the player reads the theory of turning back time at the beginning of World 2: “What if our world worked differently? … We could remove the damage but still be wiser for the experience.”  In terms of the game play, we can undo the damage caused by colliding with a cannonball, yet still hold onto the golden key we had just grasped when the cannonball hit us.  The cannonball still moves toward us when we resume normal time, however, so we must learn to evade it.

I believe this concept of being able to acquire wisdom through experience while undoing damage provides a thoughtful foundation for a work of fiction.  It could be applied to a host of other works, from fairy tales to historical dramas.  It is interesting to ask whether Jonathan Blow could have told this story as effectively using another technology, rather than a video game.  While it is possible to play with time in traditional writing and film, it is difficult to imagine doing what Blow does with time in Braid quite as coherently using any other format.  The author doesn’t just tell a story; he also creates a universe.

According to an interview with Jonathan Blow by Chris Dahlen, posted on The A.V. Club Blog in 2008, the creator of Braid stated, “You know, in college, I never got either degree, but I was a double-major in Computer Science and English. And English at Berkeley, where I went to school, is very much creatively-driven. Basically, the entire bachelor’s degree in English is all about bullshitting. And Computer Science, which was my other major, was exactly the opposite of that. You had to know what you were doing, and you had to know what you were talking about.”

Judging by the comments on that web page below the interview, many English majors felt a need to defend their discipline from Blow’s characterization.  He was speaking in the context of his reaction to attempts to interpret the meaning of his game in ways other than he intended.  Based on Blow’s comments, the interviewer states that “Braid isn’t a subjective work of creativity: it’s a system, meticulously designed to convey a meaning that really isn’t up to broad interpretation.”  That is certainly Jonathan Blow’s position, but one could imagine our old friend Roland Barthes responding with, “the birth of the reader (or player) must be at the cost of the death of the Author,” to quote the final words of his famous essay.  Blow has created a universe worth exploring, but each player will come away with their own interpretation, regardless of the author’s wishes.

A quest for audience impact

Viewing the works assigned for this week’s class leaves me wishing for more.  Not more of the same thing; rather, I would like to see a work of electronic literature that provides more impact to the reader/viewer.

I visited each of the links listed in the assignment, but I found little that I would feel confident classifying as literature.  I found some of the works by Jason Nelson to be artistic, particularly the Weather Visualizer.  I found nothing, however, that moved me emotionally or intellectually, nor that changed the way I think about myself or others.  I do believe that electronic literature has the potential to rise to that level and accomplish such things, but the authors need to reach higher.

The subject matter is not the problem; Nelson has chosen for his works some weighty issues, including the meaning of life and death.  The Bomar Gene begins with the claim, “Inside our codes are unfinished thoughts, ideas half formed, lives existing as brief and unsolvable equations.”  This certainly touches on rich territory for literature, but my scientific mind bristles at the attempt to create a pseudo-link to genetics.  Moving beyond this quibble, I eagerly click on the seemingly endless links, but eventually figure out that there are only nine distinct subpages.  Some of these pages have the potential for creating moving short stories, such as the tale of Gabriel whose voice is understood only by trees, but too much of the reader’s focus is directed to the array of distractions that Nelson packs into his Flash application, and not enough on developing a coherent narrative.

With all of the text and sounds and images in Jason Nelson’s work, the viewer initially imagines a level of complexity that withers away upon closer inspection.  For example, “sydney’s siberia: a digital poem” purports to be “infinite click and read,” and leads the viewer to suppose that all of the images expand into infinite other images as one clicks and zooms in.  It is quite a clever concept.  Alas, the number of unique images is rather small, and the site relies on a trick: clicking on an area does not really zoom in on that part of the image, but instead leads to a new image that takes you back to some of the tiles you’ve seen before.  This is easily demonstrated by clicking repeatedly on the same spot, such as one corner – doing so usually eventually puts you in a loop cycling the same 4 images (although I found one special spot comprising an 8-image cycle).  Although the movement of the image after clicking implies that you are zooming in on it, you can occasionally notice a color change or pattern shift as an entirely new image comes into view.  Again, ignoring my quibble, I seek meaning, and find only lines of poetry presented in random order.

The best use of randomness I have seen in this class so far may be Nelson’s “this is how you will die.”  Not only are the resulting death narratives mostly coherent, but the connection of life and death to the spin of a wheel is a time-honored concept sure to resonate with the viewer.  It is certainly more readable than the poetry on “Taroko Gorge,” as it takes into account coherence, and includes user interaction.

Overall, I think these works are too limited in scope to have much meaningful impact upon the audience. They are like bonbons – small, tasty, but quickly forgotten.  The authors may be confusing complexity with depth, because there is certainly a lot happening on some of these sites, but in the end it means little.  I challenge authors of digital literature to expand their vision, and to boldly strive to produce work with more lasting impact.

Having said that, I do appreciate this assignment for exposing me to an unfamiliar genre, and inspiring me to try to meet the challenge I identified above.

Throwing the reader off balance

From the moment I glanced at the table of contents, I realized that The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia would challenge my need to find meaning in every element of the book.  In the table, each of the three major divisions includes a hand symbol, and each chapter is assigned one to three dots or bars, with no explanation of the code.  Fortunately, the meaning of the dots and bars became clearer as I read and noticed the pattern of alternating voices, but I have not forgotten that feeling of being in unfamiliar territory.

The text throws the reader off-kilter from the first three sentences of the Prologue, which quickly establishes a surreal setting with elements both familiar (papal decrees concerning reproduction) and fantastic (people created out of mud and bones).  The reader keeps looking for familiar elements to put the story into context, but there are certain elements that cannot be reconciled with reality, such as a man making people out of folded paper.  Discussing rules of coherence in Before Reading, Rabinowitz states that “The most general rule here, familiar in part through such critics as Wayne Booth and Mary Louise Pratt, states that we should read a text in such a way that it becomes the best text possible” (45).  In the case of People of Paper, I assumed from the start that the story is told through the lens of magical realism, with some big mysteries explained as the reader progresses, such as Saturn overseeing the action.

This novel is remarkable for its self-awareness, and for the presence of the author as a rather unlovable character.  This Sal is no Bill Gray from Mao II, but his relationship to his characters is much clearer and more clever.  It is hard not to think of House of Leaves when encountering text layout tricks such as black boxes in this book, and also as the novel deconstructs itself for the reader.  With People of Paper, the characters rise up and emerge from the book, the author reveals himself, and the reader is left with text and a new idea of what it can do.

My old friend T.A.G.

I spent a few hours playing Bronze, Violet, and Shade (Varicella) in preparation for class this week, and my previous experience with this genre helped me get beyond the opening hurdles in each.  Encountering “Interactive Fiction” in this class has been like running into an old friend who has changed dramatically since you last saw him.  I.F. seems like a respectable guy, all dressed up and running with an impressive crowd of academics from the likes of MIT, but when I look at him closely I cannot help but see “Text Adventure Game,” my old friend T.A.G., the simple guy with the small vocabulary who was great at helping me pass the time sitting at my 386 PC years ago.  Good times.

I have created “interactive fiction” myself in the past.  I never thought of it as writing or fiction, though; at the time, I was simply writing a computer game with the skills I had (using words), without requiring the ones I lacked (using graphics).  Designing an interactive game of this sort seems to me to involve more game design than creative writing skills.  A game is designed with one or more paths in mind; if the user completes all required tasks in the correct order, a certain outcome will be attained (player will get a prize, slay the dragon, etc.).  If the player deviates from this path, they will fall short of the goal, either becoming stuck or reaching the end of the game.  Fiction, on the other hand, is usually designed with multiple possible interpretations. The clever author does not tell the reader *everything* that happens, but rather leaves some feelings and actions for the reader to guess.

The documentary Get Lamp includes an interview with a gentleman who thought he found a bug in an early I.F. game because when he typed “drink bottle” he literally drank the bottle, which then disappeared.  From the game design perspective, I think it is far more likely that the designer thought about what to do if a player typed “drink bottle,” and decided it would be clever to allow the character to consume the bottle.*  Most fiction writers I know would be quite bored doing the basics of game design, such as defining every possible command and the associated outcomes, which are frequently repetitive (go east: cannot go that way, etc.).

*<Correction, Nov. 2: “drink bottle” was a real bug, per the comment on this post from Jason Scott.>

I once created an interactive game based on my job at the time, working in the IT department of a hospital, for the enjoyment of my coworkers.  As I recall, the object was to print and deliver patient reports to the nurse stations in the hospital before the deadline.  The player was confronted with many challenges unique to our workplace, such as a “herd of visitors” that would crush anyone attempting to use the hospital elevator rather than the stairs.  There was also a troll lurking amid the electrical cables beneath the floor of the computer room, causing mischief.

I must admit that my game had one or two interesting story lines, and that it reflected some modestly creative thinking on my part.  Compared to my efforts at writing fiction, however, creating the story line of an interactive game seems much flatter and less complex.  When I write fiction, I strive to create a story that works on several different levels, supporting both literal and figurative interpretations.  A game, in my experience, typically operates on a purely literal level (examine table, get lamp, etc.), rarely venturing into symbolism.

So, while I understand that interactive fiction does involve some elements of creativity and storytelling, I believe the end result does not come close to the experience of reading a work of fine literature.  I think of I.F. as more game than story.  I suppose it depends upon how much effort the designer puts into the writing.  Simply coming up with lists of verbs, objects, and responses is not creative writing as I define it.  In his YouTube video “Exploring Interactive Fiction,” Nick Monfort mentions what at least one designer attempted in terms of character development, which moves a bit closer to creative writing.  I think future designers should try varying motivations and emotions, and strive to provide non-linear outcomes.

In other words, I suspect that a simple poem or short story can convey a far richer and more complex experience to the reader than any of the forms of interactive fiction we have considered.  As an example, I humbly offer a poem comprising only commands a user might enter in an interactive fiction game:


In interactive fiction, the commands above are likely to produce results that are strictly linear; in poetry, they serve as pointers to limitless meanings.

Response to prof’s mom regarding House of Leaves

Dear Judy,

According to all of the sources I have checked, there never existed a documentary named “The Navidson Record.” You bring up an important point – if the Navidson Record does not exist, then the premise of House of Leaves becomes unreliable.  It is fiction, though, so ultimately it is the same with any novel.

I would guess that the author created this novel as more than just an unusual book, though – I think he wants the reader to ask many questions, such as “What is a novel?” and “How do we decide what things mean?”  It gets pretty deep, which is probably why your son has assigned it to our class to study.

I hope you enjoy the book!

DeLillo’s Permanent Child

I am surprised by how little the character of Karen changes from beginning to end of DeLillo’s Mao II – in her final scene, she is still child-like and dependent, with no notable thoughts or beliefs apart from her faith in the Reverend Moon.  I think it is significant that the Unification Church is cited as making its followers more child-like. “What does the church teach? Be children again” (80).  Although endowed with an adult body, Karen is portrayed as a child at many points.  For example, Scott observes a theme of underwear in Karen’s life in Chapter 6.  If DeLillo wished to present Karen as a sexy young woman, nudity might be a more effective motif; underwear seems more appropriate for a child.

Karen is presented not as an adolescent nor as a growing girl, but rather as permanently child-like. Her final lines in the novel cement this impression: “They can own the house,” Karen said. “But they should let us live here. And we keep the manuscript and we keep the pictures” (223).  Karen’s wishes are hopelessly naive and quixotic, and rather self-centered.  Scott has speculated that the matter will ultimately be in the hands of lawyers, while his companion demonstrates her lack of a mature understanding of their situation.  According to Rabinowitz’s “rules of notice” as described in Before Reading, the last sentence (and last appearance of a major character) are “privileged,” and a valid interpretation of the text should be able to account for those privileged elements.  By this measure, any interpretation of the character of Karen ought to explain the ultimate simplicity of her thoughts.

Karen does not judge or evaluate, but rather accepts everything around her as equally important.  She is the embodiment of a member of a crowd after the “discharge” has taken place, and all become equal and lose their fear of being touched, as described in Canetti’s Crowds and Power.  In Karen’s case, not only is there no fear of being touched, but she practically must be touched to exist, to be experienced.  She is constantly seeking to connect with other people.

Pictures play a large role in Mao II, and Karen emphasizes their importance in connecting with members of the crowd.  Karen’s mind is mostly a blank slate. She rarely reads books, and did not come into Bill’s presence through any familiarity with his writing, unlike Scott and everyone else around the writer. Although she doesn’t read, she frequently watches television as a way of connecting with the crowd even while sitting in an isolated house.  While watching TV, she seems to absorb the pictures, often with the sound turned off.  Continuing this theme, in Karen’s final chapter she is looking at photographs of Bill, as she and Scott view contact sheets using a lightbox.

Karen seems to be a sort of hologram, unaffected by her surroundings, and untroubled by deep reflection.  I am tempted to assert that Karen exists only when someone chooses to see her, which might account for her interactions with Bill and Scott, but would not explain her time among the homeless in New York City.  Although it is stated in the novel that Karen is like a character out of Bill’s writing, she is left alive after his demise.  At the end of the novel, she is a child of the future, completely dependent on the crowd, with no use for independent thought, or writers like Bill.

The Writer vs. the Crowd

Clearly, the theme of “the crowd” looms large in our reading this week, as found in the chapter “The Crowd” from Canetti’s 1962 book Crowds and Power as well as in DeLillo’s 1991 novel Mao II.  The excerpt from the 1962 book begins by positing a “fear of being touched,” while the 1991 novel introduces the same concept on the second page of Chapter I, expressed by a man purporting to be there to sign his books before being ushered out of a bookstore by security, telling the guard, “Watch the hands. There’s no right that you should touch my person. Just, that’s all, don’t put no hands on me.”  Canetti cites two situations in which a person suspends the fear of being touched: first, when they are attracted to someone, and second, when “the discharge” occurs and the members of a crowd meld together as equals.  Thus, crowds are defined as opposed to individuality, while the writer seeks to make his mark through his individuality.


With all the other references to crowds in Mao II, I cannot help but wonder whether DeLillo was familiar with Canetti’s book. DeLillo frequently refers to crowds in a negative sense, such as the crowd of devoted disciples of Reverend Moon in the opening section.  Writers such as Bill Gray (and the man escorted from the bookstore) stand apart from the crowd.  Given this negative view of crowds, the final line in the prologue may be intended as a warning: “The future belongs to crowds.”  The ‘reclusive writer,’ who probably has elements of DeLillo himself, is the ultimate anti-crowd character: he does not participate in them, does not follow them, and takes pains not to attract them.  Yet attract them he does, as his admiring fans invade his mailbox with their epistles.  Curiously, the author acquired his power by publishing a few works, yet he now chooses not to publish his latest novel, so as to maintain his power and avoid the risk of losing it.  The truth is that his crowds of fans empower the writer, just as they empower the Reverend Moon, and as they empowered Chairman Mao.


Likewise, the terrorist attains power over the masses through their attention to him.  On page 41, Bill Gray states, “There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists…. Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.”


The writer’s optimism, Bill Gray’s hope for revealing truth, comes through the writer’s craft of rewriting.  On page 48 of Mao II, Gray describes his philosophy of rewriting:  “Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it, and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there…. There’s a moral force in a sentence when it comes out right. It speaks the writer’s will to live.”  Of course, he says a lot more in that paragraph, but I’ve selected those two sentences to emphasize Gray’s belief that writing can be a force for good in the universe.  In light of this novel’s linkage of authors and terrorists, I suspect that DeLillo’s hope for combatting the evil and hopelessness of terrorism may lie in the writer’s ability to project truth, good, and hope.  DeLillo may wish that not a single writer’s voice will be silenced by the force of hostile crowds.

The Human Role in Constructing Coherent Narratives

When considering how technology can be used to support the construction of narratives, it is important to note that human interaction is still necessary.  Marie-Laure Ryan, in the chapter “Toward an Interactive Narratology” from her book Avatars of Story, lists four “properties of digital systems… that I regard as the most relevant for narrative and textuality” (98).  These four properties concern the ability to adjust behavior based on user input, the ability to change what is displayed, the ability to utilize multiple media channels, and the ability to connect to other computers and users.  Ryan goes on to write that “interactivity… does not facilitate storytelling, because narrative meaning presupposes the linearity and unidirectionality of time, logic, and causality…” (99).  Ryan proposes a new type of narrative combining the design of a storyteller with input from individual users.  Ryan’s structure would aim to reward the user with a “coherent narrative” that is a product of their own input, not entirely pre-scripted by the designer (Ryan 100).

Clearly, the web-based works We Feel Fine and The Whale Hunt take advantage of the four properties listed by Ryan to create a rich experience for the user, or visitor to the sites.  It is debatable, however, to what extent these two web sites reward the user with a coherent narrative.  Both sites seem to emphasize interactivity over meaning, as the user certainly has choices, and may be inundated by words and images, yet is left to grasp at the thinnest connections to pull together a hint of a narrative.

Containing 3,214 photos, The Whale Hunt is based upon a huge but static database of images, captions, and descriptions. The user may set several different variables, including focusing on a particular character, subject, or time period.  Even with user interactivity, it seems to me that the basic story of The Whale Hunt remains the same, and any subplots are the result of filtering the main story.

We Feel Fine, on the other hand, is based on material that is regularly updated from across the Internet, and which may change significantly over time.  The user must interact with the database by specifying search parameters in order to extract any data.  The results, therefore, are likely to be unique for each individual visitor.  The chances of extracting a coherent narrative from We Feel Fine, however, seem slim.  It may be possible to derive the raw elements of a story, such as the skeleton of a dialogue, which the user could then develop into a narrative.

Constructing a coherent narrative seems to require structure, plus human intelligence to select and link elements in a manner we can understand as a story.  The web sites The Whale Hunt and We Feel Fine, while providing the raw materials for a good story, are not intended to complete the job; for that, we still need humans.

Calvino’s demonstration of authorial power

Calvino demonstrates the power of the writer in If on a winter’s night a traveler.   The reader is treated to a performance in which the author challenges the conventions of the novel.  First, there is the structure of the book itself, which does not merely progress from chapter to chapter, building a story, but rather utilizes two parallel threads to pull the reader along: the numbered chapters, and the titled chapters.  Calvino also breaks the invisible wall between story and reader, bringing the reader into the story, even while the reader is uncertain what constitutes the story.

Reading the table of contents may provide a clue as to what the author intended to accomplish with this novel: the chapter titles themselves, read in sequence, convey a sense of one looking down on a town from above, and asking, “What story down there awaits its end?” Perhaps Calvino wishes the reader to be cognizant of how a shift in perspective, or a whim of the author, may change this story, or any story.

The author deconstructs the relationship between reader and novel.  He writes in Chapter Three, “The novel you are reading wants to present to you a corporeal world, thick, detailed.”  The action comes to life to the point of directly affecting his character the reader.  For example, after Chapter One, at the start of the chapter titled “If on a winter’s night a traveler,” we do not encounter the literal beginning of a novel, but rather we are told about the beginning of the novel that the reader is viewing: “The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.”  We, the readers, are not reading a novel; rather, we are reading about other readers reading stories, and the action described alternates between these worlds.  In Chapter Four, Ludmilla states that “Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be.”  Calvino seems to relish using this uncertainty to entertain his readers.