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Interfacing with Computer Narratives: Literary Possibilities for Interactive Fiction

Part II
The Role of Interaction

3. What is the Interactor Doing?

In a newsletter to interactive fiction purchasers, Infocom pondered the question of how to categorize the interaction between software users and their products, and what to call the user of an interactive fiction. They sought an appropriate verb to connect the user and the interactive fiction: "Back when they were simply adventure games, you played them. But does one play an interactive fiction? Or do you read it? Some Californians here at Infocom have suggested that you 'do' interactive fiction."

The interactor is "doing" several things in an Infocom interactive fiction. On one level, he or she is reading the text produced by the interactive fiction and typing text which becomes part of the story. On another, the interactor is controlling a character with typed commands and through that character exploring a setting, conversing with other characters, and placing in motion events that advance a plot. The activity of an interactive fiction user has components of traditional literary activity.

One of the interactor's activities is writing. Richard Lanham describes this type of interaction as a type of literary criticism:

In interactive fiction, the reader determines the story's outcome by controlling its branching of events. Such decisions amount to literary criticism of a sort, in the same way that deploring Nahum Tate's happy ending of King Lear is an act of critical judgment. Suitably embedded in the fiction, a reader's comments about the plot's decision points become part of the fiction itself. (6)

It is just as easy to think of the interactor, who contributes bits of text to a story and determines its outcome within a given framework, as an extremely empowered editor or a somewhat enfeebled co-author. But pressing an interactor into these roles asserts that the principal activity occurring between an interactive fiction and an interactor is writing. In fact, most of the writing an interactor does in an Infocom interactive fiction consists of one- or two-word sentences in command form, and sometimes the interactors' textual contribution may be little more than the letter "N" (the abbreviation for "north" or "go north"), appearing between two lengthy place descriptions. In a graphical interactive fiction like Myst or even a hypertext novel like Afternoon, the interactor does no writing at all (Note 7) - the literal contribution of the interactor to the story consists only of mouse clicks.

Perhaps, then, there is another primary mode of interaction - the one suggested by Infocom's question, "Do you read it?" One certainly does read it. In Infocom interactive fictions, the interactor spends a great deal of time reading the electronic text that describes the main character's sense of the surroundings and lets the interactor know the results of the commands that have been issued. Although the activities of a Myst interactor do not closely resemble reading, even in a purely graphical interactive fiction the interactor must do some internal reading as he or she pieces together the narrative from the images displayed. This is akin to the non-verbal "reading" done by someone looking at a picture book or a narrative series of photographs.

Often this reading is a close scrutiny of whatever the computer has offered (text or image) for clues that help the interactor progress though the story to a favorable conclusion. The fact that many interactive fictions are goal-oriented punctuates the interaction with long periods of looking back over areas already traversed, replaying sequences of events in time and pondering the way out of a certain area or dilemma. In Infocom's interactive fictions, this revisiting of the landscape and of earlier events involves close reading and conscious exploration of each phrase's possibilities. The interactor in such a situation is like the reader of a mystery novel or a person presented with a verbal or visual puzzle, in that the interactor pursues the text in great detail - but not because the craft of the words will yield up additional pleasures. Rather, the text is a means to unlock the secret locations and events of the interactive fiction. Like Wolfgang Iser's "implied reader," who is in a process of discovering the world of a novel, the interactor also is on a voyage of discovery - an explicit journey which he controls through the interface. (Note 8)

The engrossing quality of interactive fiction may be closely related to the fact that it contains secrets which, unlike those of the traditional mystery novel, cannot be revealed by flipping to the final pages. "What could be more seductive than the secret?" Baudrillard asked. "I have already said this of the challenge and the flash of wit, in fact, all these things combined are part of the constellation of seduction." (64) The challenge that the designer's puzzles offer combine with clever quips and the lure of the interactive fiction's conclusion to make the interactor's reading process a particularly seductive one.

Part of this seductive quality lies in the ability of portions of the text to expand seemingly without limit. In Zork, for instance, successful interactors find, after wandering a while in a small outside region, a hidden trapdoor.

[T]hen one sees the world of Zork unfold outward into an immense network of concentric chambers, looping passageways, branching and terraced corridors. The map of this voluminous (if monotonous) universe was itself gigantic. Primitive through this world was, it was absorbing, even transporting. (Pinsky 26)

The seduction of hidden regions is demonstrated by interactor's activities. Even after successful "completion" of an interactive fiction which has puzzles and a final goal, interactors who have accumulated fewer than the maximum number of points - meaning that they have neglected a certain puzzle which was not needed to reach the final goal - often continue to interact with the story. They will pass through well-traveled regions, carefully examine the text the computer produces, and try bizarre combinations of commands in an attempt to earn the "hidden points." After these have been earned and the final secrets unlocked, interest is almost always lost entirely.

Yet the interactor's special type of reading is not always, in every interactive fiction and at every moment, tightly focused on solving puzzles. The engagement of the interactor in the text as he or she strives to overcome obstacles, discover secrets and advance toward a conclusion is only one of the ways in which interactive fiction elevates the process of reading over the product of the text.

_____________ Nick Montfort