June 1, 2006

More Riddles to Solve, Part 1

by Nick Montfort · , 10:45 pm

In Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, I started to consider how a long-standing but neglected literary tradition, the riddle, offers a way to consider computer games and how people understand them, learn from them, and are able to see the world through them in new ways. In what follows, I’m going to suggest how the analogy between the riddle and interactive fiction can be extended to other sorts of games that involve figuring out. I’ll follow this post up with another in which I consider a bit more about how the riddle can help us understand interactions among computer gamers.

Although poets, including May Swenson and Emily Dickinson, have written compelling riddles that question the world and how it is perceived, riddles are, of course, often dismissed these days as a trivial amusement for children – just as computer games often are. They have had an important place in developing new ways of thinking, however, and have had such a place even before Aristotle wrote about them in the Poetics. Riddles certainly have been involved in teaching for a while: The first ones that are known were found in Babylonian schoolbooks. Riddles are also among the first English poems and, while they have sometimes appeared as parlor amusements, they have also taken up the more substantial task of helping people learn new ways to perceive things which are described figuratively. By asking the listener or reader to complete them with an answer, riddles invite thought and discussion in a way that other literary forms do not.

The concept of the riddle particularly helps in understanding what people do as they solve challenging computer games. While the riddle can be seen as the overall framework for many interactive fiction pieces and graphical adventures, there are riddle-like problems posed in numerous sorts of games. Describing what a riddle isn’t helps to identify riddle-like situations in gaming: Solution does not have to involve physical skill, reflexes, memorization of how a level progresses, a sense of rhythm, or any other abilities along these lines. Nor is it simply a matter of detection, of going over every virtual surface for a missing clue. Rather, the riddle-solver needs the ability to map metaphors, understand figuration, see how systems work, and think with new frames. Graphical adventures and action-adventure games can allow players to see things in new ways, providing them with the ability to achieve a “this is no cave” realization of the sort that Han Solo experiences in Star Wars.

[Spoilers for the very beginning of Spider and Web…] Interactive fiction does supply many great examples of this sort of situation. Andrew Plotkin’s Spider and Web has a central puzzle, for instance, that requires a deep sort of riddle-solving. The character controlled by the player initially seems to be a tourist in an alley, but this “reality” quickly disappears. This character is then seen to be in an interrogation room, accused of being a spy. The character is repeatedly taken back into memories of penetrating a secret complex. In the game’s top-level world, its present, the player can do little but have the bound character answer the interrogator yes or no. In the world of memory, the character is made to explore the complex. To solve the game’s most powerful puzzle, the player has to be able to connect these explorations in memory, and what is learned there, with the level of the present. The solution is found not by searching a virtual space for the right button or switch, but by understanding the technologies and workings of this science-fictional world and figuring out how the main character, even when fastened to the chair in the interrogation room, can use them to escape. This, in turn, involves assembling an understanding of what has gone on before from the strange guided tours of the character’s memory that are initiated by the interrogator. The solution can be summed up in a single word, but the systems that must be understood to attain it take many hours of thought to traverse and comprehend.

In Twisty Little Passages, I explored some of the ways that the riddle can help us understand the workings and effect of interactive fiction, considered as encounters between individual players and computer programs. Interestingly, the riddle also offers a way to understand how gamers interact with one another. Players working to figure out a game, or something in it, seldom do so alone. While there is not a human riddler there to be questioned in person by the person playing, there are often fellow players who are willing to help out – online, if not in one’s school or in a real life group of friends. It’s hardly unusual for people to play supposedly single-player adventure games together, sitting in front of the same screen. Or they may play on their own computers for a while and then consult with one another, in person, on the phone, or online. Even those who play the game “by themselves” can find plenty of ways to consult others for help. Looking to a walkthrough or an official hint book is simply the most formal way of involving someone else in one’s puzzle-solving session. Most hint-giving offers room for both the player and the person offering a hint to learn.

To be continued…