March 21, 2005

Text-only “Playable Fictions”

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 6:29 am

The feedback on my previous post about the show I’m curating at ACMI was a great help. So here’s another post, focusing on a different group of pieces.

Again, I’m framing my thoughts in terms of how pieces will be displayed. Recently I’ve been thinking about text-only work. It seems there are great opportunities here. For example, to show pieces like Eliza in their original context (as they are almost never presented now). As Nick has pointed out in his “Continuous Paper” essay, “Weizenbaum had an IBM 1050 in his office, a print terminal which featured a Selectric typewriter ball.” That’s to say, Eliza wasn’t originally presented on any sort of screen, but rather on a text-only display essentially like a souped-up typewriter. Through ACMI it seems possible that the use of a number of interesting text-only displays could be explored, showing pieces that originally were experienced via those interfaces along with anachronistic pieces.

In addition to a print terminal (which might be hard to find) we could use a few of the VT100-style terminals. I remember playing “Hunt the Wumpus” on terminals like these at my mom’s university computer lab when I was a kid, and then using them to learn vi when I was in college, but they seem all but gone from the landscape now. Though I recently saw them used to good effect at the Error Engine installation at the University of Rhode Island.

And, of course, we could also use text-only interfaces such as SMS and IM. While I don’t know any SMS novel projects that encourage us to message back, it could certainly be an interface for these projects. On the other front, Andy Baio’s previous foray into using IM as an interface for classic interactive fiction should perhaps be included as a piece itself, in addition to what it makes playable.

At my most ambitious, I want to go further. What would it take for Melbourne to let us hook up the text-only displays on some public transportation to show in-process interactions with text-only pieces? (Or to show transcripts from earlier in the exhibition that have been checked for “offensive interactions” first…) What other kinds of public text-only displays could we employ?

Of course, however interesting the context, it’s also important to have interesting work to show. Here’s what I’ve been thinking on that front.

Types of pieces:
– Early interactive characters (e.g., Eliza, Parry)
– Early interactive fiction (e.g., Adventure, Zork)
– MUD/MOO games and performances? (The question is both which to include and how to represent these. As transcripts? As performances taking place at announced times during the exhibition?)
– An Oz text world? (Can these be made playable, or would we be limited to archived interaction transcripts?)
– Contemporary interactive characters (e.g., Galatea, Breakup Conversation)
– Contemporary IF (e.g., Book and Volume, Photopia)

As you might note from the list above, I’m planning to leave out batch mode story generators. They’re not “playable.” Same with email, IM, and SMS fictions that don’t alter with audience input. These are interesting text-only fictions, but they aren’t playable fictions.

Now let’s see if the trick works a second time. Please share your thoughts. What am I leaving out? What specific pieces must be included? What do you think of my proposed exhibition strategies?