Interfacing with Computer Narratives: Literary Possibilities for Interactive Fiction
The computer medium differs from other media in three fundamental ways: it is digital, it can imitate other media, and it is interactive. While the computer is also distinguished from traditional media by other traits, such as its novelty, these three are the most influential factors differentiating the computer medium from other media of the narrative arts.
Although the computer is the first truly digital medium, artists and writers who use the computer may not be startled by this, since certain other media have features that make them seem digital. Any information stored on a computer is, ultimately, a string of zeros and ones. In most cases, text is also digital, in that any book, play, story, essay or other written work is a string of symbols: letters, numbers, spaces, and punctuation marks. Just as a computer program is, at the lowest level, a number with zeros and ones as digits, a text is a number with typesetting symbols as digits, so it is digital. Because of this, texts that do not include illustrations or nonstandard characters are easily transferable to computer. (Note 5) Any text published today on a modern press was a digital computer text at some point in the publishing process.
The digital nature of works in the computer medium has implications for how these works are stored and transmitted and how easily they can be copied or encrypted. Ultimately, a digital medium is unlike the continuous world because information stored in this medium and works created in this medium must be, at the lowest level of representation, discrete. The digital nature of the computer medium also facilitates its emulation of other media and its interactivity. But because some features of other media seem digital, the digital nature of the computer medium should not, by itself, stun those who would use the computer to create works of interactive fiction. The digital nature of the computer medium is not wholly alien to the arts.
Marshall McLuhan wrote: "Nonliterate societies had small use for numbers, and today the nonliterate digital computer substitutes 'yes' and 'no' for numbers." He went on to call the computer "weak on digits" - an odd characterization for a device which, unlike a nonliterate society, does nothing but calculate numbers composed of bits (binary digits). These bits are fundamentally high and low voltage levels, which are, within the computer's realm, mathematically identical to the digits 0 and 1 . The computer does, then, perfectly translate our ten digits into its two, as McLuhan indicated. Despite his odd characterization of computers as digitally weak, McLuhan's conclusion was truer than he could have known: "In effect, then, the electric age brings number back into unity with visual and auditory experience, for good or ill." (Understanding Media 109) Computers can bring number into unity with sight and sound because the computer can not only substitute "yes" and "no" for our numbers, but can also make this substitution (that is, perform this digitization) for text, images, and sound recordings.
The computer's ability to digitize works in other media gives it special standing among media.
The protean nature of the computer is such that it can act like a machine or like a language to be shaped and exploited. It is a medium that can dynamically simulate the details of any other medium, including media that cannot exist physically. ... It is the first metamedium, and as such it has degrees of freedom for representation and expression never before encountered and as yet barely investigated (Kay 59).
The metamedium nature of the computer is reflected in so-called multimedia software, which combines images, animation, sound and text. In the past, and even today, computers have not been able to simulate other media as perfectly or rapidly as software designers have wished. So often they have turned the computer's technical deficiencies into assets by using high-cost media like animation sparsely for minimalist effect, as in Myst. "There is a lot of animation, but mostly it does not dazzle; it is like careful writing." (Carrol 70) The tiny movements of seagulls and clock hands in Myst accentuate the stillness of the trees, the sky, even the oddly motionless waves, all of which have been rendered at one instant by a powerful graphics computer and stored, frozen, on CD-ROM. (The Making of Myst)
Sometimes designers have selected only a few of the several possible media in order to use those to the fullest. Infocom's The Lurking Horror for Commodore's Amiga computer is a good example of this type of focus. Among Infocom products, this version of The Lurking Horror was unique in that in addition to the usual text element which other versions of this software, and all of Infocom's other early fiction, had, it plays digitized sound effects as the displayed text describes those sounds. Lurking Horror designer Dave Lebling said of the addition: "[W]e have been discussing for some time the possibility of putting sound in our games in general. In a horror story in particular, sound is something that can really enhance the experience."
Multimedia software development is still dominated by the need to make virtues out of limitations. But even the most limited and rudimentary multimedia capability still brings together different media, that before had no connection, in one common digital form. This redefines the way we look at these media and the way designers create works that are formed from many media. "Nowhere does technological pressure fall more intensely than on the relation between the arts. Digitization gives them a new common ground, a quasi-mathematical equivalency that recalls the great Platonic dream for the unity of all knowledge." (Lanham 11)
The metamedium nature of the computer also influences the third important characteristic of the computer medium: its interactivity. When we interact with people and with traditional narratives, we do so through a single medium (an artistic medium or a medium of communication) and we can use a single interface.
In a verbal phone conversation we speak into a microphone. Our gestures are irrelevant to our communication, as are any words we may write down or drawings we may scribble on a notepad in front of us. After dialing and connecting to the other party, even touching the buttons on the usually does little more than annoy the other person on the line. McLuhan believes our ability to visualize is impaired when speaking on the telephone (Understanding Media 233-234). At any rate, our telephone conversation with others is through a uniform interface, the microphone.
When reading a traditional book, we may look up from the lines of text to observe an illustration or break off to read a footnote, but we will be engaging our vision in the way a reader should during our entire perusal of the book. The book will not change shape or become animated, nor will it utter words or begin playing songs. A film, along with engaging our hearing, engages our vision, as does a book. Film engages our vision in a different way, however. (Note 6) Were a lengthy text to appear in the middle of a film, the audience would have difficulty assuming the readerly attitude of one who is perusing a magazine or pursuing a novel. Like phone conversations, traditional books and films also have a uniform interface.
When we communicate with a computer, on the other hand, we face a panoply of media, and the same interface is not always appropriate for every section of our interaction. If we expect the computer to perform a calculation on a large number, it will probably be easier to communicate that number to the computer by typing it rather than pronouncing it into a microphone, writing it on a digitized pad, or selecting each digit of the number with a mouse. If we are trying to indicate an area of the screen to be magnified, the mouse will probably be much more effective than the numeric keypad.
Like general computer activity, narrative occurs in many different media. But interacting with a computer narrative is not like entering a number or magnifying an area of the screen. A good interface for interactive fiction must take into account the different media a computer can emulate and the complex nature of this interaction.