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Interfacing with Computer Narratives: Literary Possibilities for Interactive Fiction

Part IV
Wither Interactive Fiction?

8. The Problem of Death and Other Endings

To get to the end of [a puzzle-based interactive] fiction, the interactive reader must work out which particular responses are appropriate and useful in a given situation and which are ineffectual, harmless, unwise, or, at the extreme, fatal to her persona. The high probability that a reader's alter ego will suffer failure or death, at least initially, calls upon the reader to restart her text frequently or rethink her approach. The fundamental tactic is trial and error. As in any learning situation, the process can be both exciting and frustrating, because a successful conclusion depends upon previous frustration or failure. (Niesz and Holland 121)

Niesz and Holland refer to the successful overcoming of an obstacle when they note that this characteristic of puzzle-based interactive fiction can be "exciting." Frustration, not excitement, is almost always the result when the interactor's character perishes, (Note 12) as usually must happen along the way to successful solution, since the narrative has been truncated before its natural conclusion.

Ron Gilbert [of Luscasfilm] counsels game designers to avoid situations in which a player must 'die in order to learn what not to do next time.' [Gilbert, 1989] In a presentation at SIGGRAPH '90, LucasArts Entertainment's research director showed a re-edited version of Star Wars in which Luke Skywalker was killed in his first battle with Darth Vader. The story was over in less than three minutes. (Laurel 122)

In traditional narratives, the possibility of the protagonist's death can keep the reader, listener or audience in suspense. In interactive fiction, the numerous ways in which the character perishes along the road to the goal have numerous ill effects on the interactor (in addition to the obvious ill effects on the character). Besides the discontinuity caused by the premature endings and restartings, the interactor is also distanced from the character, since the character's death is simply a learning experience for the interactor.

Many recent interactive fictions, among them Myst, Loom and The Seventh Guest, solve this problem by not allowing the interactor's persona to die. This removes the suspense that comes from the possibility of the character's death, but it prevents the unsatisfying endings that accompany the death of the character prior to the completion of a natural-sounding narrative.

Another problem with endings manifests itself, however, even in these narratives. Once all the puzzles have been solved, there is little incentive to interact further. In many puzzle-oriented interactive fictions, the reading process is a form of unlocking, and the text is evidence in a mystery puzzle. As noted earlier, this can make the first trip through the fiction very enjoyable, as the hidden areas of the fiction's world, and the hidden texts that describe them, are seductive. However, this stands in contrast to the traditional enjoyment of a novel or poem, which takes place on several levels, only one of which is this type of puzzle-solving. The deductions about and musings upon literary worlds of traditional narratives cannot be tested by typing commands. "[A] reader, whether of Charles Dickens or Henry James, is likely to feel that the fictional world she has inferred from the novel is in some final sense mysterious and unknowable." (Niesz and Holland 122) In an interactive fiction, where some of the implicit connections between the text have been made explicit, the interactor's exploration of the various locations and solution of the various puzzles gives a sense that this world is known. After the explicit discovery in a puzzle-based interactive fiction is completed, further journeys through the work result in scant enjoyment.

This "pop fiction" quality may, of course, be a result of the prose written by interactive fiction designers - the majority of whom are from the computing, rather than the literary, community. It is likely that better writing, as is seen now in hypertext novels and his been demonstrated in some entertainment software, will elevate this subgenre. But the "read once" nature of interactive fiction in which the interactor is a literal co-author, adding text to story, may also be because the need for a traditional "ending" has been taken from non-interactive narratives and grafted onto a fundamentally different form of literature.

The idea that a computer work should have a beginning, middle, and end, as laid out for traditional, linear literature in the Poetics, is espoused by Laurel (63-64). Although abrupt endings to an interactive fiction, of the sort that might be caused by a power outage, are certainly unpleasant, a computer work, which is "dendritic or tree-shaped" (Niesz and Holland 120) rather than linear, does not have to closely emulate the type of closure its linear cousin has. Nor does the scale of the beginning, middle and end need to cover hours and consume the entire score of an interactive work. During natural pauses in an ordinary conversation, for example, a simple "I have to go now, bye" and an "OK, good-bye" in reply gives satisfying closure to the exchange. On the other hand, in oral narratives, after a lengthy story is told to completion, assertive listeners might ask the teller, for instance: "So then what happened to the woman who sold it to him?" eliciting from a creative storyteller yet another entire narrative from some detail in the earlier story. Interactive fictions do not need to end with the placement of the last treasure in the trophy case; they do not really need to end at all, just to pause and see if the story experienced has been enough for the time being.

Michael Joyce's comment in his text fragment "work in progress," from the open-ended interactive fiction Afternoon, is relevant: "Closure is, as in any fiction, a suspect quality, although here it is made manifest. When the story no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or when you tire of the paths, the experience of reading it ends." But only then.

_____________ Nick Montfort