May 20, 2003

I Can’t Get No Satisfaction

by Andrew Stern · , 12:16 am

[several of the other bloggers are traveling at the moment, not easily able to post for the next day or more, so I will continue to hog the blog]

No one has complained (yet), but in my blog posts so far I wonder if it appears like I’m bashing some of the approaches to digital fiction-making, e.g., hypertext, or IF.

We didn’t start this blog to bash, or be negative. If my posts have appeared that way, let me say that’s not how I intend it. And if possible, I preemptively apologize for bashing I may appear to be doing in the future. :-)

While I’m definitely critical (no apologizes there), my intention is to offer what could be fruitful directions towards making deeply interactive digital fiction.

See, there I go again, implying that what has been built to date has not been deeply interactive. Well, sadly, from my perspective, that’s true.

Where I think my dissatisfaction comes from – a feeling my fellow grandtextauto bloggers may or may not share – is that we’re still waiting for an experience of fiction on the computer that, gosh darnit, really really delivers the pleasure the computer is capable of offering.

And what is that?

When I think first and foremost about what this new medium, the computer, offers to art, I think agency.

Agency doesn’t have to mean control per se. As a player / reader, personally, I’m not seeking to be able to control and puppeteer and play god in a digital fiction. I don’t know why, but that gets tiresome to me rather quickly. (I don’t really like the Simsblasphemy!)

Nor is it enough to navigate. Sure, the computer allows us to set up some pretty damn intricate networks, environments, etc. – forms that would be difficult or impossible to realize without the computer. But navigation through complex networks just doesn’t do it for me either, I’m afraid. It’s interesting, for sure, to see how this chunk of content is associated or connected with that chunk (I prefer “chunk” to “lexia”, it’s more fun), allowing us to explore a collection of narrative fragments in non-linear ways, etc. It’s powerful, it’s complex, it’s rich, I won’t deny it. But it’s also, I don’t know, in a way, cold? Like wandering through a beautiful forest of petrified trees? A sculpture garden?

Also I feel there’s a kind of a tyranny in discrete, delineated choices, whether it be links in a paragraph of hypertext, a given set of commands in an IF adventure game, or a menu of dialog in a computer game. Explicit multiple choice makes me feel straightjacketed.

What do I want?

I want to be able to express myself in my own way and on my own terms, and have a meaningful, rewarding impact, some serious effects, on the fiction.

The best metaphor I’ve heard for what I’m seeking, as far as I know first exposited by Chris Crawford, is the idea of a conversational notion of interactivity. This doesn’t necessarily mean a literal verbal conversation with computer, but more generally, the idea that you and the computer go through cycles of “listening”, “thinking”, and “speaking” with each other. I expand this notion a bit in this essay.

If I were given the means to “speak” with some decent richness, and the digital fiction itself somehow has enough intelligence to “listen” to what I am “saying”, do some non-trivial “thinking” about what I said, and “speak” back a meaningfully interesting response, then now, finally, we’re getting somewhere.

If I’m free to express, and if the system is really listening to me, and if it’s got even an insect’s level of intelligence, then hey, maybe I could form an ongoing, persistent relationship with the work itself. I can’t control the work (I don’t want to), but I can express myself to it, and it expresses itself back to me. The fiction feels alive. It doesn’t have to listen to everything I say, nor I to it. But it’s got something it needs to say, and maybe I do too. We’re peers. We get to know each other, we build a relationship.

Sick? Or the future of fiction?

I’m pretty sure this doesn’t require solving the big AI dream of building an artificial mind, but it must mean making works “smarter” than they currently are. On this blog, I’d love to discuss ways do this. Also I don’t mean to suggest we stop writing hypertext fiction or IF or games in their current forms, but I am suggesting that these forms just aren’t pushing hard enough towards enabling what may be the most rewarding pleasures for players / readers.

I wonder if it’s more pleasurable to write hypertext fiction than to read it?

Okay I’ll shut up now. Tell me where I’m shortsighted, narrow-minded, blind-to-what-already-exists, fantasizing, ignorant or just plain wrong.