Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Work in Progress: Montfort's All Alike

Continuing one of our irregular features, here's another edition of Work in Progress, in which I copy and paste notes I've made on a book (in this case, Nick Montfort's Twisty Little Passages), so you get the argument without any organization, mechanical improvement, or context.

 You're welcome.

Incidentally, I've written on interactive fiction before, and in a more personal context.  Take a look if you missed it the first time around, because I think it may be one of my better posts.

Let’s do a joint Chapters 7 and 8, since they’re relatively short. Chapter 7 is a brief summary of those currently operating in IF communities (currently being a relative term and in this case referring exclusively to circa just before 2003), with a focus on those who are particularly stretching the IF field, or just those that are most popular. Chapter 8 is a bit on the potential of IF, and its future possibilities. The summary is mostly going to be a list of individuals and games, fair warning. Post commercial era, IFs continued to thrive, but in an independent, experimental volunteer capacity. // Montfort begins his brief discussion with the tools necessary to craft a homebrew IF, starting with those who programmed in BASIC, then naming early kits: The Quill, Graphic Adventure Creator, Adventur Master, HURD, Generic Adventure Game System, and the Adventure Game Toolkit (an improvement on GAGS). Now, the big two are The Adventure Development System by Michael Roberts, and Nelson’s Inform. Discussion of IFs started with the Usenet groups—two in particular that talked about playing, and making. There’s also the Interactive Fiction Archive.// In terms of academia, Joe Bates’ Oz Project was the big IF initiative. While it’s mostly defunct now, there’s some trace of it in Mateas and Stern’s endeavors. // Nelson popularized Inform in 1993 by releasing it alongside his popular game, Curses, which emphasizes exploring mental spaces and homes. Nelson is known for his design work, and his IF works. //Many IFs feature colleges as settings, and Montfort highlights Rees’ Christminster, which is particularly noteworthy for how the PC needs to manipulate NPCs to solve puzzles. // There’s also regular IF competitions, and irregular small competitions, which highlight the work of the community. // He briefly follows Andrew Plotkin’s work, including the emotion, animal NPC and landscape of A Change in the Weather, the memory construction of Spider and Web, and the riddle-shape of Shade. // Cadre’s work includes the simulated environment of I-O, the broken pieces of Photopia, and the renaissance conversation-bases of the Machievellian Varicella/ // He concludes with a discussion of interesting attempts—the IFs with a single response, parodies and hoaxes like Textfire, Emily Short and Galatea, Jon Ingold and interactor and PC breakdowns.

The last chapter briefly discusses the influence of IF in culture and other sources. // He lists its influence in the development of MUDs, its connections to CRPG, Tim Berners-Lee and how links are like connections between IF rooms, educational values of IF, and literature that has a heavy IF influence. // McGath, in 1984, shows the risk of over-speculating on IF—for Montfort, the big question is whether they’re ever going to be regarded as serious literature. //As for why bother, he argues there doesn’t have to be a deep or thoughtful reason—for fun among the current audience is fine—but motivations vary. // the future of IF, he argues, should be about more than a return to commercial success; it should be a broadening into many different groups and scenes. He concludes that IF is important, because it shows that the computer can do something literate.

It’s odd how Montfort’s arguments slip in and out of his description. It really drives home that this is a subjective sampling of new IF stuff, rather than a definitive list. All of the IF sound at least interesting, but time is brief. Christminster is probably at the top of my personal lsit, followed by Cadre’s Varicella; I like the NPC centered stuff. I-0 is neat beans too. The end really hints at IF’s desire to be literature, which, coming from someone in games, where the question is is it art rather than is it literature, and the answer is usually who cares, seems very odd to me. But it’s indicative of the IF community in particular (to judge from the IF reader) as well as more generally fears about technology (as inscribed in The Rise and Fall of the World) and the value placed on the word. (Which is ridiculous, when you consider the literary worth of current bestsellers, like 50 Shades of Grey or Twilight). The educational value of IF is noteworthy for me, if only because that’s where I first came across IF—it’s a great motivator for learning some BASIC. I was a bit surpirsed at myself for having such a strong reaction to learning that Emily Short is a pseudonym. I think there’s some rather unpleasant sexual connotations going on behind that for me. But it’s not just that. I think I resent the notion that she gets to exist in this dual role, as academic on multiple fronts, and that there’s this in crowd of IF that knows the “true” person. And I resent the notion that IFs aren’t serious enough or valuable enough in and of themselves that an author of them would have to disguise her authorship. And yet I also know it’s fully her right to do whatever the hell she wants with her identity and her time. A large portion of this may be sour grapes on my part. I like the idea of a one-command game end. It’s instantly appealing as something that takes only a few seconds. The mini-tirade he goes on regarding score and literary value is something I generally agree with (and it allows him another shot at Randall) but I can’t help but think he’s deliberately ignoring the point—you can’t say IF isn’t gamelike, then deny that the inclusion of gamelike elements make it seem less like literature and more like a game. I think a moving work can have a score, but I can’t really name of many literary works that do. On that note, the connection between IF and Facade seems a little forced. Yes, it’s a text-based thing, but the graphics and voice are so important that it seems like something menu-based has a lot more in common with IF than something like that. Actually, the graphic involvement is something he never quite addresses. Is there a difference in IFs that require the graphic component, and can’t be solved without them? He certainly is quick to note which graphic games have graphics as mere ornaments. And finally, to end on a very negative note, the IF community “perspective” that IF didn’t really get going until the commercial era ended strikes me as a bit high-minded. The problem with saying that you want IF to be taken seriously as literature means you’re also taking on a lot of cultural baggage regarding the starving artist, and the question of whether serious work can mean commercial success. Admittedly, removing the financial constraint on IFs changes their nature considerably, but to deny the IF commercial phase entirely seems a bit far. (Not that Montfort does that, but his comments suggest that some have.)

Comments are welcome, if unexpected.

Later Days.

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