February 4, 2008

EP 3.1: Digital Fictions and the Eliza Effect

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 7:19 am

Imagine you’ve checked out your books and walked, through the damp twilight, to the bus shelter across the street. Its fluorescent tubes have flickered on — you can read the schedules and advertisements behind the plexiglass, as well as the stickers scattered over them.

One rectangular sticker catches your eye. It has the name of no band, the number of no locksmith, the logo of no corporation, and no image of Andre the Giant. It’s just a block of text. The first words read, “Why bomb libraries?”

The text is a passage from Implementation (2004), a novel written in small chunks formatted to fit on mailing labels that can be fed through a standard laser printer. Implementation is a sticker novel, in one sense, and also a kind of digital novel. Its authors, Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg, don’t primarily distribute stickers. Instead, they distribute digital files, which others print on stickers and post in provocative locations. Readers sometimes encounter these stickers. But, like most stickers, they tend to be removed pretty quickly from the benches, doors, bathroom stalls, statue plaques, lampposts, bumpers, and other locations where they’re placed. What lasts longer are the photographs people take of Implementation stickers in interesting positions, and it is through these images that most people experience Implementation, the files for these images dwarfing the other contents of the Implementation website.

Encountering Implementation can be a mysterious experience. Finding a disconnected sticker of text, especially if well placed, can border on disconcerting. And the images of placed stickers can offer up their own mysteries: Where is that? What is that? But, despite the importance of digital technology for Implementation, the mystery is never about software. Implementation depends on digital processes — but ones we use every day, such that the processes of file downloading, laser printing, and photo sharing no longer attract our attention.

One might even argue that Implementation is not appropriate to discuss as a “digital” novel, but rather one that is distributed and documented digitally. Regardless, in its use of digital processes, Implementation stands as a relatively extreme example of something true of many digital fictions: they avoid the dilemma of the Eliza effect by employing processes that are conceptually simple and familiar, which are clearly exposed to the audience.

Different fictions approach this general strategy in different ways. Some, in a manner relatively close to Implementation, embed themselves in familiar digital contexts. An email novel, such as Blue Company (2001, 2002) by Rob Wittig, depends on processes of email transmission and reading — but, like the processes of laser printing, these have become completely naturalized for many with computer access. Similarly, the familiar link-following functions of web browsers and web servers makes it possible to construct fictions from interconnected networks of web pages, as with The Unknown (1999) by William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg, Dirk Stratton, and Frank Marquardt. Familiar processes are also the primary digital components of hybrid works such as the alternate reality game I Love Bees (2004) by Elan Lee, Sean Stewart, Jim Stewartson, and Jane McGonigal, which brought players into a fictional world composed of web pages, email messages, phone calls, physical settings and elements, and live performance — but defined its novel processes as rules to be carried out by human participants (rather than by digital computation).

However, another approach to digital fiction is more common than this sort of piggybacking on the processes of everyday information life. In this more common approach, digital fictions define their own versions of digital media processes in widespread use — or employ versions of these processes defined for use with digital media authoring tools. Such authoring tools range from Adobe’s Flash software (for interactive animations) to game engines (used repeatedly by the same developer or made available for commercial license) to tools identified with particular artistic communities (such as the Storyspace hypertext authoring system).

The most widespread fictions taking this approach are computer games. They tend to avoid the Eliza effect by employing versions of simple processes, familiar to those who play computer games within the same genre, and following conventions to expose the structure and actions of the underlying processes to their audiences. This chapter will look at two particularly well-crafted examples of computer game fiction — Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Falkner, Gilmour, Hudson, Karpyshyn, Ohlen, Watamaniuk, and Watts, 2003) and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Mechner, Mallat, Désilets, Langlais, Châteauneuf, and Lacoste, 2003) — as well as two commonly-employed operational logics that enable the fictions of computer role-playing games (RPGs). But, to understand all this, it is important to begin with a wider view of RPGs.