August 11, 2004

Thereby Hangs a Tale

by Nick Montfort · , 5:30 pm

J. Robinson Wheeler has written a nice article about creating IF, Mapping the Tale: Scene Description in IF. The article does a good job of explaining how the convention of a static “room description” has morphed to become a more interesting and fluid part of the narrative discourse in some more recent works of IF. Sure, using the framework of narratology could have made the discussion clearer and taken it a bit farther, but Rob’s awareness of how things fit together at the word, sentence, paragraph, and game level, and his close look at the way scene descriptions work in several important games, results in a very helpful essay. (The main flaw, I think, being Rob’s reliance on his own IF writing to supply “bad” examples; the nitpicking isn’t so helpful and the bits he cites are seldom that bad.) The article describes an aspect of IF authorship that may seem to correspond to bits of game design of other sorts — point-and-click graphical adventures: drawing the backdrops, first-person shooters and platform games: designing the levels. Upon closer inspection, scene description involves a lot of things that has no clear analog in graphical computer games, because the text that describes a scene ends up fitting into an overall, verbal narration, sometimes doing other sorts of narrative, literary, and gaming work at the same time. Update: I thought I’d get away with just plugging Rob’s article, but no — lengthy addendum below, in comments, about narratology and IF.

7 Responses to “Thereby Hangs a Tale”

  1. nick Says:

    I received some pillory online for writing “Sure, using the framework of narratology could have made the discussion clearer and taken it a bit farther,” without explaining this any further or giving any examples of what I mean. My point in writing wasn’t really to try to pick apart Rob’s article, but I’ll do my best to explain this sentence fragment briefly:

    The idea of a “mutable scene description” (second to last section in Rob’s article) is a sort of inside-out view. It’s looking at IF from the standpoint of the computer program, inside of which there is a scene description, perhaps stored as a string (if static) or as a routine (if mutable). When I read a text, I see a bunch of words in order. If it is IF output, some of them are underneath a bold room name, but I can’t tell what’s a string and what is the output of a routine. From the perspective of normal reading and writing, it’s the most natural thing in the world to shorten “U.S. President George W. Bush” to “Bush” on the second reference; it’s not a twist on what happens when I type “BRIEF.” When I read a story and the same thing happens twice but it is described in less detail the second time, this, too, is quite ordinary.

    By referring to the “framework of narratology” I mean that it’s helpful to consider that among other things the whole session or traversal of IF is a narrative: a telling of events that take place in the IF world. If some information about a location is provided to alert you to manipulable things that are there — for “interface” reasons rather than to advance the generated narrative — then of course they should be repeated in subsequent appearances of that description. If they are for other purposes, they can be “said” only once, when a room is first entered.

    Rob mentions that Adam Cadre thought of this in Varicella, but Rob doesn’t mention many of the other ways that Cadre’s initial description of the Dining Hall is effective, just saying that it contains information about the game’s world:

    Dining Hall
    Though this dining hall was able to hold the entire Venetian delegation with ease when they were here for the (failed) peace negotiations, you’ve grown far more accustomed to seeing it at one-thirty in the morning as King Charles and Miss Sierra indulge in a postcoital late-night snack at a table built for sixty. It’s been ages since this chamber even remotely resembled the raucous banquet depicted on the tapestry decorating the southern wall. An old suit of armor stands guard over the entrance to the kitchen, off to the north; other exits lead east and west.

    To mention a few points about the first sentence of that initial description: It begins by recalling a specific event in the recent past (peace negotiations with Venice), mentioning in a one-word parenthetical note that the negotiations failed, and then describing the habitual use of the room by the king and his mistress for late-night dining. So it describes one specific event and one repeating event; one sort of variation that makes Adam’s writing lively. There are things like this to find in many sentences from scene descriptions, if you want to look for them.

    I certainly wouldn’t claim that this is due to Adam’s taking a class from narratologist Seymour Chatman, but I doubt that experience damaged his writing. Studying stories and how they are told (narratology) seems like a reasonable pursuit for interactive fiction authors, and taking this as a framework when analyzing scene descriptions could certainly help to extend the fine beginning that Rob has made in his article.

  2. Stephen Says:

    I’m not convinced that his approach to “mutable descriptions” is an inside-out view, given the article’s intended audience. This is/was a Theory Book article, and the audience for that was explicitly stated as “This is first and foremost a book for the readership of rec.*.int-fiction…” That audience includes a large percentage of IF authors, for whom articles focusing on craft as well as theory are needed. Much of Rob’s article read to me as being aimed at authors, especially the section on mutable descriptions, and thus his approach was not inside-out. It may be quite ordinary in reading stories that repeated actions are described in a summarized manner, but that is very much the exception rather than the rule for current Interactive Fiction.

  3. nick Says:

    Stephen, sorry I didn’t manage to convince you. I think of “craft” topics in IF as being analogous to what people study in creative writing (and what they would study in creative programming), as opposed to “theory” which may be interested in describing the nature of or development of literary forms, independent of whether that study makes anyone a better writer. I’m aware of the intended readership of the IF Theory Book, and again, I think Rob’s article will be useful to that readership. to those of us on r*if.

    I hardly think that that’s all there is to be said on the topic, though. I’d point to my analysis of the first sentence of Adam’s “Dining Room” description as the sort of thinking about stories and the way they are told that is definitely of use to authors. If this were a traditional text of some sort, creative writers might study a long passage of it in this way to see what’s going on there and to understand how they can better narrate stories. Why not IF authors? I also give examples in “Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction” of how being aware of, for instance, the violation of narrative levels (metalepsis) has allowed some authors to use metalepsis cleverly, while being unaware of it has resulted in awkwardness. I would think that IF authors should be interested in avoiding awkwardness and achieving cleverness. I’m not saying all IF authors should go study narratology in graduate school courses (as plenty of creative writers do, incidentally) but being open to this approach and learning some about it can help. Those who are really interested in understanding IF and the way it works shouldn’t leave the study of stories and their telling to the IF theorists — whoever they are, exactly…

  4. Stephen Says:

    I was hardly claiming that there is nothing else to say on the topic, nor that there is no value in a narratological approach. What I was objecting to was your implicit claim that, had Rob only looked at room descriptions from the viewpoint of narratology, he would have gone further in his analysis. I believe it would have been in a different direction that would not have contained the original discussion.

  5. J. Robinson Wheeler Says:

    First of all, thanks for calling some positive attention to my essay. I mostly agree about your take on my use of my own writing in the piece; it has always bothered me a little bit the way I did that, and if I were to rework the article today I would take a different approach. (When the time comes for the IF Theory book to enter its final state before publication, I probably will take the opportunity to do some rewriting.)

    On the other hand, while I appreciate the sentiment that the excerpts I used in this way are really not that bad, I think I can still defend where I was coming from at the time. It was only in the process of researching this article that I began to scrutinize my own scene descriptions. What perhaps should have remained a mental note to myself to try harder ended up part of the essay, but I think the reason for the nit-picking is that I saw a clear difference between a scene description that was “not bad” and one that was excellent. The sequel to First Things First that I’m working on will reflect my new respect for scene descriptions.

    As to your other point about Adam’s writing in Varicella, it seems like you’re taking most of the meat out of what I said about the full description of the Dining Room in dismissing it as "just saying that it contains information about the game’s world." I clearly shared your admiration for the writing in this particular scene description or I wouldn’t have chosen it for the article. True, I didn’t go into sentence-by-sentence detail about what makes it particularly effective, but I did say (emphasis new):

    Note how much information about the game’s world is contained in the description of just one room… This is a game world with a full history, and the sense of the kingdom’s grander past as opposed to its seedy present is also brought out.

    As to using narratology, well, I’m not part of the academic tradition. You may be right that I could have taken the discussion farther and clearer if narratology were part of my mental toolkit, but studying how scene descriptions can be used to better tell stories in IF is the main premise of the essay.

  6. nick Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Rob and Stephen. My point wasn’t to try to dispense with meat from the original essay, just to point out that a principled approach exists that is useful and that could extend the investigation you started, Rob. There’s not much reason for me to carrying on about it, though, and trying to produce an example or two. Eventually, I or somebody else will hopefully try to continue the discussion in this way, or maybe we won’t. I did want to mention that thinking about things from the standpoint of stories and how they are told shouldn’t particularly require an academic — a category which includes Graham Neslon and Emily Short, incidentally — and if I’ve made it seem that way by being too abstruse or eggheaded, the failing is mine.

  7. nick Says:

    Turns out Adam Cadre commented at length on this conversation in his calendar, yesterday. Regarding narratology, not regarding his interactive fiction Varicella.

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