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?

5 Responses to “Text-only “Playable Fictions””

  1. chrisf Says:

    There’s something interesting in this vein happening at the forums, where one of the forumites has hooked up a vbulletin interface program of his own devising with the classic text adventure Zork.

    This effectively means all users of the forum get to collaboratively enjoy a text adventure. Lots of bugs and things to iron out still, but a pretty compelling idea, I reckon.

  2. Malcolm Ryan Says:

    When’s the show, Noah? I’m tempted to come down to Melbourne to see it.

    As for content… as a veteran MUDder (on LambdaMOO) I’d gladly encourage you to show people a MUD, but I’d be careful about how to do it. I’ve seen too many classes go through Lambda without any kind of preparation. And nobody particularly profited from the experience. They just wander around dumbly, annoying the populace (who don’t like being treated as a ‘tourist attraction’). Sooner or later some idiot (in the class or on the MOO) gets abusive and it degenerates quickly from there.

    So if you show people a MUD you should be very careful to prepare things well. Make sure they enter into a sympathetic environment. Warn the locals of what you are going to do. Have experienced guides on hand in the MUD, to take the visitors in hand and help them get the best out of the experience. Oh, and make sure they are running a proper MUD client, not just Windows Telnet (which has a broken backspace!)

    If you can’t do that (and it is potentially a lot of work) then I’d seriously advice against sending people into the MUD at all.

    I’d be very happy to lend a hand with any of this.


  3. noah Says:

    chrisf, yes, I think there is something interesting about opening up IF for that kind of collaborative play. I wonder if we could do it in some way specific to the exhibition…

    Malcolm, glad you’re interested! The show should open in September (I’ll fly over for the opening) and run into December. I don’t think we have exact dates yet.

    I think you’re right that MUD tourism isn’t a great model. There are a couple thoughts that have occurred to me. I know people have done MUD/MOO theatre. Maybe we could have a few events of this sort that were specifically part of the exhibition, and perhaps had some element of them that was also connected to the physical space of the gallery (and maybe some other, cooperating, physical spaces). Another option might be if there are parts of MUD/MOO spaces that people have built specifically for tourism. I feel like the memory of an example is right on the tip of my brain here. Anything come to mind for you?

  4. noah Says:

    Wondering why my sudden silence on “Playable Fictions”? Well, due to larger ACMI programming issues, it’s been put off until 2007. Look for more in this space in about a year.

  5. Malcolm Ryan Says:

    Aw. Nuts.

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