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DAC 2000

A Choose-Your-Own-Trip-Report!

An Interactive Fiction Perspective, by Nick Montfort

I've recently returned to Boston from a great conference. In between spouting academic jargon and dropping the names of French literary theorists, I've been telling my hypertext colleagues about this great conference, Digital Arts and Culture. I also consider DAC the most interesting academic conference for interactive fiction creators and readers. It brought together scholars, critics, writers, and artists, to discuss and help advance the state of the digital arts. DAC has been going for three years now. Last year, I debuted my IF work Winchester's Nightmare at the second DAC, in Atlanta. Some other conferences dealing with computer literature, such as ACM Hypertext, would likely not have found a place for an IF work. (I am pleased to note that the Computers & Writing conference, while rather focused on the composition classroom, has proved more amenable to discussion of IF. As I wrote in an earlier trip report, I recently presented a paper on Winchester's Nightmare at that conference.) This year, DAC was back at the University of Bergen, where it had been held originally.

I was presenting during one of the sessions, reading with my co-author William Gillespie from The Ed Report, a hypertext epic and fake government report at <> that we crafted with designer Dylan Meissner. I also handed out some Winchester's Nightmare floppies, attended many excellent presentations, and had many great conversations with luminaries in the electronic literary field. This report describes some of the talks most closely related to interactive fiction that were given at DAC 2000.

Since I posted an early edition of this report on <>, I've made some changes. I wrote more about specific issues raised at the conference that pertain to IF, and exactly how I think they pertain to IF. Rather then try for an extended discussion of all the many topics worthy of IF creators' attention, I've selected fewer points to write about and sought to provide more context, and more depth.

Mark Amerika gave the first day's keynote speech. He was the big literary figure of the three keynote speakers. He's the head of and author of Grammatron and two print fiction books. Some of you, I know from discussion on the ifMUD, have looked at Grammatron and not been impressed. I think you may still find Amerika's insights valuable. I think they can be of help to IF creators, in terms of our poetic practice.

Amerika began by offering a meta-tag summary of the conference - an actual set of meta tags that summarized, in keywords, what was being talked about at DAC. He offered this for the DAC program coordinator to use on the main conference Web page. This goes to show that although the hypertext crowd may be slow to share writing and code the way the IF community does (with TADS and Inform libraries, not to mention the development systems and interpreters themselves), they are catching on, and starting to think closer to the code level, using markup in interesting ways. Amerika also encouraged "collective playgirism" - working together to subvert and incorporate earlier texts (and code) in fun and playful ways. No, this isn't "playgirlism," and it isn't something incredibly obvious that doesn't even need to be said, as I've heard said on the ifMUD. (I imagine this misconception springs from my not explaining the concept very well.) If "playgirism" is so obvious, where are the examples of it in IF? The only example that comes to mind (aside from direct parodies - not "playgirisms" - in the Mystery Science Theater vein) is Graham Nelson's Tempest, which rips the text of Shakespeare's play for interactive purposes. The word "collective" suggests another idea the IF community should play with. Where are the great collaborative IF games - since Adventure and Zork, that is? We IF creators certainly have pioneered one important element of artistic practice by doing both the programming and the writing ourselves. But working together to craft IF (with, say, two or three people who are all programmer/authors) is too seldom attempted. Still, it is unfortunate that Amerika didn't mention IF in his talk. Although not "playgiristic" with regard to text and code both, IF was one of the very early subversive use of programmatic elements (a parser, a world-model) in combination with writing and playful intentions.

Later that day, Marjorie Luesebrink, in "Play On: Plot and Pause Points in Hypermedia Literature," spoke about how changes in graphical layout and different sets of link options can modulate the rhythm of a hypertext reading. Luesebrink writes under the pen name of M.D. Coverly. She's written many hypertext fiction works that are online. Her hypertext novel Califia, relating five epic Californian journeys, is the latest publication of Eastgate Systems. I won't claim that nuances like these are as important as questions of interface and narrative structure, but Luesebrink's layout and her link comments do have clear implications for IF. Popping up a quotation window, clearing the window, and even placing a <HR$gt; across the window in HTML TADS can affect the pace of reading independent of factors such as how much text is presented and how difficult or easy that text is to read. Also, long words and lots of text do not always read faster than briefer, shorter text. Although the options are always pseduo-infinite in IF, even Luesebrink's link-related comments are applicable, since certain scenarios present more or less obvious reactions that can slow or hasten the reading. The presence of a SUPERBRIEF mode (now rather deprecated) in Zork and the early Infocom games was there to allow movement through familiar areas to proceed rapidly, but Luesebrink has pointed out that other factors besides the length of the description (or the presence of the description) call also speed or slow the pace of interaction.

Rob Swigart described how reading/playing his Portal on the C64 was profoundly different than experiencing it on the Amiga, because the delay in moving between screens was so great in the former case. Swigart is the author of the 1985 Activision-published "electronic novel" Portal. He's also the author of the next work coming from Eastgate Systems, Downtime Interactive, a deadpan short story collection dealing with breakdown. Swigart showed how the pace of reading his Downtime Interactive off the screen was different than that of listening to his recorded voice reading it (a complete audio reading, with music, keyed to each section, is included on the CD-ROM), and how this made the experience with and without sound qualitatively very different. The main IF-related insight here is that adding an audio reading of at least part of an IF is an excellent idea. Of course, sound effects have been included in IF works, but why not read text? Only the room descriptions could be included, or (with a bit of work) all the potential outputs could be provided for. A musical backing could be used, as was done in Downtime Interactive, but it wouldn't be a must. The result could be aesthetically nice for all users, and could (if implemented well) be particularly appealing to the community of visually impaired IF interactors.

A brief note on our session, the first one of the second day. We presented The Ed Report during the first session of day two. Beginning the actual report summary with an invocation ("Sing to us, highly placed anonymous source!") William and I read a greatly shortened version of everything that transpired in The Ed Report, expanding on two themes (selected by the audience) by reading from the Web report itself at two points. It was a lot of fun - I think for the audience, too. Also in our session, Sue Thomas described some interesting results from the trAce online writing community's survey, conducted mainly in the U.K.. The largest group of online writers who responded to their survey were women of age 50-65. trAce sponsors an annual electronic literature competition along with, and I was pleased to learn that the prize they award will no longer be called the "hypertext" prize, but the "new media writing" prize. It's still Web-centric, with "groundbreaking web design and site navigation" being one of the criteria, but take a look at <> - perhaps some of you non-hypertext new media writers would like to enter.

I'll mention briefly that a panel headed by Adrian Miles discussed how (and whether) hypertext poetics can benefit from using concepts from cinema to understand how text can be "cut" and how transitions can be made between it. Although the fit isn't perfect, I came away thinking it's a useful perspective in terms of one's practice. The lesson for IF is that certain concepts from other media can apply to the ones we work in, even if these aren't textual media. Instead of looking at cinema, IFers might do better to look to SimCity-style simulations, Eliza- and Racter-style conversational characters, and other programmatic artifacts. Since insights can come from looking at other media, it's particularly good to hear from different cutting-edge digital artists and critics, even if they are in other fields. This is essentially why IF creators can befit from learning about the hypertext people are doing, by the way, by attending a conference like DAC, or by reading some of the proceedings of such a conference.

On the final day, during the opening session, there was a panel that was was quite IF-related, as you could tell when Curses and Zork were being displayed on the screen during two of the talks. "SurREAL: Dramatis Personae on the Digital Stage" was unfortunately titled, since it wasn't exclusively about drama, but rather about the concept of character in drama, the novel, games, and MOOs. (Susana Tosca pointed out that it's important not to confuse the dramatic and novelistic concept of character, in fact.) The panel had several good insights, and I'd recommend that these presentations be the ones thing IF creators look at online, as they are made available on the Web.

There are two important questions about character in IF that I've been pondering after hearing these presentations. First, what is a character in an interactive fiction work? (Leaving aside for the moment the tricky case of the "player character," which I'll save for the second question.) Lisbeth Klastrup described the program itself as a character that has discernable personality and traits, as when Graham Nelson's Curses will paternalistically not let you continue until you atone for your bad language. It seems that point of view might be an equally useful way to conceptualize this program behavior, however. Characters are essentially masses of text, in a novel, so in a work of IF, I suppose they are essentially code and text. It makes little sense to call everything in an IF program a character, making it impossible to discuss character as distinct from anything else. Perhaps everything is a character in the case of Eliza, but even in a character-centric IF work like Galatea, the plaque is not meaningfully an aspect a character. The "voice" and controlling presence of an IF work is better distinguished as a narrator (or perhaps intrigant, following Espen Aarseth's narrative/intrigue distinction in Cybertext) rather than considering it to be the same as a NPC. In fact, it's probably pretty useful, from the standpoint of practice and aesthetics, to simply define a character in Inform as an object that has the animate attribute. But then, what is the status of the computer "voice" (hollow or not), or, for that matter, of someone like Lord Dimwit Flathead in Zork I, who is described in text but doesn't exist programmatically?

The next question I have is - how can we (or more specifically, I) get rid of the player character and explore some other modes of interaction? The idea of interaction that isn't character-centered is another hot topic, as I found out in online discussion, but there's really no reason we have to interact with IF by issuing commands to a character. Anyone interested in this question will wish to read Susana Tosca's "The Player Character in Computer Games." Trying to force the player into a "character" role in every sort of game (including Tetris) is overboard and simply not useful, but even in IF, the assumption that there must be a player character is limiting. Tosca's typology of player character interaction is a good beginning for understanding how PCs differ, allowing us to understand the timescales and ways in which they exert influence. It's also good (for me, at least) to look at those examples of computer games where there is no discernable character or only a tenuous one (the Mayor in SimCity has the power to summon tornadoes and giant monsters?) to try to figure out how else the player/reader might interact intentionally, without manipulating a character. One idea is the Lemmings model, to some extent presaged in Suspended. (Interestingly, Espen Aarseth uses Lemmings in his book to demolish a typology of video game elements, and Adam Cadre mentioned Lemmings on the ifMUD as an alternative model of IF that isn't based around a "player character.") I do think that while alternative to the player character are overdue, understanding what we like most about our friend the PC can help to make other sorts of interaction, based on other elements of the story or text, satisfying.

I smiled when Jill Walker, discussing the second person in electronic fiction, referenced Zork I and Michael Joyce's famous hypertext novel Afternoon side by side. The "you," she explained, is a rhetorical device in print. In hypertext and IF, it can be answered, so it becomes a real form of address. Use of the second person by Calvino and Brontė - some of the more shining examples of the 'you' in non-interactive writing - was discussed. It's worthwhile to compare the first-person games from AI (as well as IF couched in the third person) if this topic is to be fully investigated in relation to IF. The second-person address clearly isn't a requirement of the form, but it can have a very powerful effect. I think it does, for instance, at the beginning of Tom Disch's Amnesia, when it's used to upset the reader's expectation rather than 'customize' the main character to the reader's liking.

I've omitted mention of many interesting presentations that didn't tie very directly in with IF, and some that probably did - one by Jay Bolter that I missed because it was opposite mine, for instance. I had written about Stephanie Strickland's presentation, but it turned out to be far too complex for me to briefly gloss, much less tie in to IF, so I removed that description. The presentation by Gonzalo Fresca on immersive and non-immersive theater is certainly of interest, and I encourage you to read the Web version (along with looking at the other presentations I've mentioned) when it appears.

I mentioned a few writers from the DAC community at this point, encouraging IF authors to read some of their works. Given the platform-bound nature of many works, and given the angry reaction to QuickTime VR that resulted from my most recent personal recommendation, I think I will refrain from casually listing a large numer of works that I think are worthwhile. Instead, anyone who wants a personal, platform- and to some extent taste-specific recommendation should contact me on the ifMUD or by email. Although I'm no librarian of hypertext fiction, I'll be glad to try to point you to something I think you'd enjoy reading.

In closing, let me mention that DAC 2001 will be taking place in Providence, Rhode Island (hosted by Brown University) at the end of April. I strongly encourage IF authors and readers to attend, particularly those who are nearby. I'll provide more details as the date draws nearer.

-Nick Montfort

nm 2000-08