Crimes Against Mimesis

Crimes Against Mimesis is an essay by Roger Giner-Sorolla that was posted in several parts to the usenet (to, I believe). It has to do with elements of game narrative that break the believability of the story presented in the game. I find it interesting and compelling, so I’ve reproduced it here.

Part 1

[Warning: This essay contains references to plot elements (but no spoilers) for “Theatre”, “Christminster”, and “Jigsaw”; and one mild spoiler for a puzzle early on in “Curses”.]

Continuing on my previous tack, here is my necessarily incomplete survey of IF-game elements that detract from the work’s reality as a piece of fiction, along with suggested solutions. I hope this list will make a worthy complement to the points raised by Graham Nelson in his “Player’s Bill of Rights” from his Craft of Adventure essays, which deals mainly with the elements that detract from the enjoyment of the work as a game. Some of my points also build upon Mr. Nelson’s observations on game atmosphere and puzzle construction, particularly in essays 4 and 5 of “Craft.”

As stated before, I see successful fiction as an imitation or “mimesis” of reality, be it this world’s or an alternate world’s. Well-written fiction leads the reader to temporarily enter and believe in the reality of that world. A crime against mimesis is any aspect of an IF game that breaks the coherence of its fictional world as a representation of reality.

A general rule of fiction guiding these observations, which will be reiterated later, is this: If the reason for something is not clear to the Model Reader (a late-20th-century person armed with a reasonable knowledge of contemporary Western life and literary conventions), it should be explained at some point during the narrative. Even fantastic elements must be placed against the background of known legends and lore. The ghost who returns to haunt his murderer need not be explained; but if by novel’s end we don’t find out why a ghost walks up and down the midway of the abandoned carnival every third Sunday playing the kazoo, we are bound to feel hoodwinked, unless the author claims the Absurdity Defense [which will be discussed in the next installation.]

My remarks are aimed at game writers and players who judge an interactive fiction game as a work of fiction, not merely a game, and want to know how to write good games that will also be good fiction. That being said, the prosecution is now pleased to present the first three crimes against mimesis, which have to do with violations of context.

[The second set of three crimes are more subtle, having to do with assumptions in the structure of the problems, or “puzzles”, in an IF game. These will be covered in my next installment.]

1. Objects out of context

This is a tidy, well-appointed kitchen.  On the table you see a chainsaw.

The object out of context is one of the screaming red flags that indicates that the puzzle has taken precedence over the maintenance of a coherent atmosphere. (As Graham Nelson would put it, “the crossword has won.”) In the imaginary example above, the game author needs the player to pick up the chainsaw for later use, and has dropped it in any old place where the player can find it.

This is fine for the gameplay, but damaging to the fictional integrity of the game. In any coherent world, things are generally where they are supposed to be. If they are not, there is a reason for it; and the work of fiction further demands that out-of-place objects or happenings have some significance that the reader (player) can guess at, or find out.

One solution to the chainsaw-in-the-kitchen problem would be to move the chainsaw to a woodshed. But let’s be more creative, and rewrite the game so that the chainsaw has some reason to be in the kitchen:

This is a tidy, well-appointed kitchen.  On the table you see breakfast: six 
fried eggs, a foot-high stack of pancakes and about a pound of fried bacon. A 
huge checked flannel shirt is draped across the chair, and on the other end 
of the table you see a chainsaw.

Now, the chainsaw has a context: evidently, a lumberjack was called away just before eating breakfast, and the chainsaw is his. Putting objects in context can actually add to the gameplay, suggesting realistic obstacles to getting the object. In this example, the author could put a time limit on getting the chainsaw and leaving before the lumberjack returns — you might expect that he wouldn’t be too happy to see you walk off with it!

As for why the lumberjack was eating breakfast in that particular kitchen, and why he was called away … well, a good work of fiction will answer these questions too, in due time. The answers don’t have to be profound; they just have to make sense. (For example, “A large, burly, bearded man stomps in, drying his hands with a paper towel” would give the player a pretty good idea of where the lumberjack has been.)

2. Contexts out of context: Genre bending

If the object out of context is a hoary adventure-game tradition, the “anything goes” jumbling together of contexts within the same game is an even more established — some would say beloved — feature of the game tradition started by Adventure. The original Adventure itself (to say nothing of its 550-and-up point expansions) was an omnium-gatherum of storybook characters, Tolkien refugees, and fairy-tale phenomena. Zork (Dungeon) added thereto a raftload of anachronistic objects and locations — the flood control dam, plastique explosive, the Bank of Zork.

While the atmosphere common to these games and their descendants has a rambling, Munchhausenish charm, it leaves much to be desired in the way of fictional coherence. It’s interesting to note, though, that the endgame of Adventure (in which it is implied that the whole cave complex is a sort of theme park maintained by Witt & Co.), and the extensive after-the-fact elaborations on the history and setting of Zork’s Great Underground Empire, are partially successful attempts at explaining the diverse elements of their respective games. Apparently, pressures towards fictional unity exist even in a patently absurdist dungeon-style game.

For the most part, unless they are aiming to imitate Zorkish whimsy, today’s adventure game authors are very careful to place each game within a single genre. Reviewers are alert to incoherencies as subtle as the switch from ghost-story horror to Lovecraftian horror midway through “Theatre.” Where settings are intentionally diverse, as in “Curses” and “Jigsaw”, they are usually presented as a series of internally coherent scenes, simultaneously separated and held together by framing devices. In “Curses,” the various modes of time/space/reality travel separate the scenes, while the theme of the Meldrew family holds them together to some extent; and in “Jigsaw,” the framing device is quite literally the frame (and pieces) of the magical jigsaw puzzle.

A more fruitful bit of advice to today’s game designer might be to look beyond the genre in organizing the game. “Theatre,” in my opinion, is one game that relies too heavily on the horror genre, and too little on the specific plot and background of the game, to provide a context for its array of ghosts and creatures. Some, it’s true, are related to the background — the ticket-taker’s ghost, the invisible monster — but the slug-thing, the entity under the stage, the living mannequins have no reason for existing except that “this is a horror story.”

Compare this to “Christminster,” which (IMHO) is a much more satisfying piece of fiction. Just about all the locations and personages in the game fit easily with our real-world image of an old English college — the chapel, the cellars, the library, the cat, the professors. But more importantly, the unusual elements are well-integrated with the background, so that by the end of the game we know who built the secret passages, why the telephone system is so primitive, and who put the bottle in the cellar. It would have been easy enough, for example, to leave the secret passages unexplained, relying on the genre convention that “old English buildings have secret passages.” The way the passages are integrated with the background story, though, contributes a great deal to the “reality” of Christminster’s specific fictional setting.

3. Puzzles out of context: Cans of soup, or, “Holy conundrum, Batman!”

Most of the problem-solving in IF games is an imitation of the kind of problem-solving we do in dealing with the real world — or would do, if we led lives as interesting as those of the average adventure-game protagonist. Objects have to be manipulated, physical obstacles have to be overcome, people and animals have to be persuaded or evaded or defeated in a fight.

And then there are…

Mazes. Riddles. Towers of Hanoi. Cryptograms, anagrams, acrostics. Etcetera.

These are the kinds of problems we normally play with to escape dealing with the real world and its problems. So, when one of these “set-piece” puzzles comes up in an IF game, we are in danger of being rudely reminded that the fictional motivation for the game — the efforts of the hero to gather loot, get back home, save her family, town, way of life or universe — is itself only a trivial diversion. Or, to quote Russ Bryan’s immortal comment on a set-piece puzzle in “The Seventh Guest,” what the hell kind of villain thwarts the hero’s progress with soup cans in the kitchen pantry?

Mystery and adventure fiction, from Poe’s “The Gold Bug” on, can capably integrate set-piece puzzles into the overall mimetic goals of the story. The cryptic message in “The Gold Bug” is actually a set of instructions to a treasure; the cryptogram in Conan Doyle’s “The Dancing Men” was devised by two characters who had a need to communicate in secret. From Oedipus to Tolkien, the riddle has similarly been used as a challenge to the hero’s wits in which the reader can share. But the convention of including puzzles in the adventure story leads easily enough to excess. Think of the intentionally ludicrous villains in the old “Batman” television show, who always leave a coded clue to the location of their hangout, and are indeed the kind to thwart Batman’s progress with soup cans. (Lucky for Batman, his utility belt can always be counted on to supply a Bat-Can-Opener.)

Apart from the primitive, anti-fictional approach — “answer this riddle to open this door, just because” — there are two main ways the IF writer can work set-piece puzzles into a game. The less satisfying way is to postulate some sort of 1) eccentric genius, 2) mad god, 3) warped wizard, 4) soup-can Sphinx, who has set up the puzzles out of a) pure native goofiness b) a desire to test the hero’s wits c) sheer boredom d) the requirements of a bizarre system of extraplanar magic. This way is less satisfying because, like the scheming of Batman villains, it refers too obviously to genre conventions instead of to an original representation of life. The advantage of this approach, though, is that it provides a very broad excuse to work in a wide variety of puzzles.

Are there more fictionally coherent excuses for a set-piece puzzle or two? Consider the anagram near the beginning of Curses; the cryptogram in Christminster; the Enigma machine in Jigsaw. All of these puzzles are related to credible real-world uses — authors as illustrious as Voltaire have used an anagram as a pseudonym; a maths professor may very well keep his secret journal in code; and of course, the cracking of the Enigma code was a historically vital conundrum.

I hope these examples will be more instructive than any actual rules for guiding the tactful insertion of set-piece puzzles into a work of IF. The basic principle recalls French critic Jean Baudrillard’s theory that Disneyland is only a decoy, an explicit sign of artificiality obscuring the fact that all of America is a “Disneyland.” Instead of calling attention to the artificiality of the whole situation, a riddle or maze or anagram should have a more or less realistic role in the context of the game, serving to diminish rather than enhance the sense that the objects-and-locations “action” of the game is itself a contrivance.

[Coming next: Three more subtle crimes, and the Absurdity Defense]

Part 2

[This part of the essay contains medium-grade spoilers for the games Adventure, Christminster and Theater, and non-spoiler references to a couple of the Zork puzzles.]

So far, I’ve been looking at the ways that IF games can lose their power as works of fiction by poor contextualization of objects, locations and puzzles. The second half of my critical rogues’ gallery encloses a more insidious set of offenses. In this part of the essay, and the next part, I’ll cover those “Crimes Against Mimesis” that are provoked by the structure of the puzzle-based adventure game itself.

Problems of contextualization can usually be fixed by better writing and planning of the existing game. But many of the problems I’ll cover below are harder to deal with. In these examples, a feature which offends the sense of reality is often convenient to the programmer or game player. To exclude it would make writing the game more difficult, or playing the game less satisfying.

Still, striving toward this goal can do a lot to improve the quality of a game as a work of fiction, while keeping its play enjoyable. My insidious aim is to get the writer/programmer who would spend the same X hours doing up a sprawling 200-room mega-dungeon to spend the same X hours constructing a tighter, smaller, but fictionally more meaningful and satisfying game. (Of course, some writers have been moving in that direction on their own — I’m thinking specifically of the improvement in fictional atmosphere from Magnus Olsson’s “Dunjin” to his “Uncle Zebulon’s Will”…)

Now, onwards.

4. Lock-and-Key, and Four Ways Out

The most common problem in any interactive game is the lock-and-key puzzle. The solver starts out with an object, or “key”, and has to find a place where this key can be used to gain access to another “key”, which in turn allows access to another … and so on, until the final goal is reached.

Sometimes, a lock-and-key puzzle makes no pretensions to be anything else, as with the red, blue and yellow keys in “Doom.” And, of course, literal locks and keys appear in more sophisticated games, most notably “Christminster.” Actual locks and keys can enhance or reduce a game’s fictional realism, depending on whether they are presented in appropriate contexts. One can only find so many keys inside fishes’ bellies, lost in the wainscotting, dropped at random in corridors, or hanging around guard dogs’ necks before the artifice of the puzzle structure becomes painfully clear. By contrast, all six of the keys in “Christminster” are hidden in places where one might actually keep a key, and all their locks are guarding places that one would expect to be locked; moreover, we end the game with a pretty clear idea of who normally uses each key and why.

But more often, an IF game will keep the basic logic of the lock-and-key puzzle, but use other objects to implement it. A hungry frog bars the entrance; it will only let you pass if you give it a live fly. The bridge is broken; you can only get across it using the plank you found at the construction site. The key can be a found object, a character or creature whom you’ve convinced to follow you, a piece of information like a password; the lock can be an obstacle to another location, or an object that requires another object to be useful, such as a corked bottle.

Disguising “locks-and-keys” as real-world objects may superficially contribute to the realism of the atmosphere, but once the player figures out what is going on, the artifice of the one-on-one mapping between objects and problems becomes even more jarring. Graham Nelson identified this, in “The Craft of Adventure”, as the Get-X-Use-X syndrome. Give the goat a tin can, and it will cough up a red handkerchief; wrap the handkerchief around your head, and the gypsies will let you into the cave; use the lantern you found in the cave to get past the giant mole; and so on. These pat, lock-and-key solutions don’t really do justice to the complex process of real-world problem-solving, and after a while they get boring even as abstract puzzles.

Fortunately, there are many structural remedies to the predictability of the lock-and-key game. Let’s consider five:

a) Solutions requiring more than one object

It’s not a novel idea that a problem might require more than one object to solve. Adventure and the original Zork both had a couple of multi-object conundrums — the chained bear; the exorcism in Hell; the explosive and fuse — and in general, these went a long way towards making the puzzles more realistic and interesting.

Still, a multi-object puzzle can come off as artificial. In particular, the scavenger hunt for the various components of a Very Significant Object is one of the stalest chestnuts in modern fantasy literature, derived (as usual) from Tolkien’s _Lord of the Rings_ trilogy with its Nine Rings of Power: Collect ’em all for World Domination!

The Quest for Prefab Parts is to plot structure what the Quonset Hut is to architecture. It shows up in innumerable role-playing game scenarios, assembly-line sword-and-sorcery novels, and seasons of “Doctor Who”; and, from what I’ve seen, not even the best IF games can completely keep away from this device. If the author doesn’t make the “pieces” interesting objects in their own right, and plausibly integrate them into the storyline, he or she can expect some eye-rolling from the sophisticated reader (“Not the Six Shards of the Dinner Plate of the Gods again!”) As an example, the task of piecing together the diary in “Theater” is much more believable than the task of collecting the four “eye gems” which comes later on in the same game.

b) Objects relevant to more than one solution

Again, multi-purpose objects had their start early on in text adventure games — the original “Adventure”, for one. As I recall, the second use for the keys in that game popped up just about at the point where I had arrived at the one-object, one-puzzle principle by induction, and started confidently leaving things lying by the puzzles they solved. How annoying to trek back to the surface for the keys!

But my assumptions were fair game for a clever designer, and nowadays it’s expected that a good IF game will require the player to find more than one use for a number of objects. In general, fictional realism is thereby improved; the player must jettison the comfortable “lock-and-key” rule, which bore little resemblance to the messy process of real-world problem-solving. However, most games nowadays allow near-unlimited carrying capacity, and the result is an equally bizarre Model Player who takes and keeps everything just in case it might prove useful later on — a Crime Against Mimesis in its own right; number 6, I believe.

c) Problems having more than one solution

To my mind, the crucial difference between a “puzzle” and a real-world problem is that the real problem has more than one possible solution. This is true even of such a barren, abstract task as knocking a banana down from a 10-foot ceiling with only a chair and a yard-long pole. Chimps are usually able to “stand on chair” and “hit banana with pole,” proving that Homo sapiens is not the only tool-user around. This human, not to be outdone by a mere Pan Troglodytes, came up with:

> throw chair at banana

> balance chair on pole and hit banana with chair

> hold pole and jump at banana

> knock on door. shout for experimenter. threaten experimenter with lawsuit. 
   experimenter, get the banana

Perhaps the Model Adventure-game Player is a chimpanzee? But all joking aside, few puzzles in any game are set up to admit this variety of solutions, and the reason is simple: the Model Adventure-game Programmer is only human. Game designers would rather spend time coding a variety of locations than implementing every second-string solution to a problem like the banana one, where the most likely solution is indeed the chimp’s way. Players would rather play a game with a variety of challenges, and to this end, are willing to accept some restriction in possibilities, especially where the alternative solutions are less obvious than the intended one.

All the same, nothing cries “This is a game, not a story!” louder than a puzzle that ignores obvious and reasonable attempts to solve it. By convention, some crude solutions are generally excluded: breaking things, burning things, hitting or killing creatures. The default messages for such actions in Inform and TADS imply that the protagonist is just not the type to take a sword to the Gordian Knot — a Doctor Who or Miss Marple, not a Rambo. Even with this healthy assumption in place, many puzzles break the fictional mood by accepting only one plausible, but rather unusual solution, when there are more straightforward ways to go.

As an example, look at the opening scene of Christminster. The problem is to rouse a man who is sleeping on a key, just enough so he’ll roll over without waking. The solution is to tickle him with a feather (this isn’t such a terrible spoiler, since getting the feather is really the hard part). As a puzzle this makes sense, but as a real-world problem it’s hard to see why you can’t just tickle the old codger with your fingers, even though the game doesn’t understand “hands,” “fingers,” or “tickle man” without an indirect object. Anyway, the message to the player is clear: “Be creative … my way!” And the hand of the puzzle author intrudes on the scene.

An IF writer who wants to avoid this problem has three options:

(1) to allow the alternative solution;

(2) to have the alternative solution turn out to be a wrong one even though it apparently works at the time (e.g., tickling the man with your hands is too strong a stimulation; he wakes up in the next turn and catches you stealing the key);

(3) to program in a plausible, specific reason why the alternative solution is not allowable, in place of the default “You can’t do that” message (e.g., “Touching a strange man with your hands would be … well, improper.”).

Of these, the second is the most interesting; it gives the player at least a nudge in the right direction, while allowing the author to retain control over the puzzle structure. In all fairness, the player should be able to figure out beforehand that the alternative solution is not the best one, or else be given a chance to do it over the right way. A good example of a well-clued “wrong” alternative solution would be feeding a hungry swine with a rare string of pearls that’s needed later on, when the beast will just as gladly wolf down a handful of acorns.

d) Objects irrelevant to problems and problems without solutions

A player who is only interested in the game tends to see irrelevant objects and unsolvable problems as unsporting annoyances; “red herrings” planted by a fiendish game designer, in defiance of the implicit rule that everything is relevant and the task is to find out which thing is relevant to which. Because coding up a lot of useless objects and locations is hard work, designers generally agree. Most games today subsume irrelevant objects into the scenery, leaving only a couple of ringers. Even then it is considered sporting to flag useless items as such, usually with a hint or a more-or-less witty pun on the phrase “red herring.”

If we see the game as more than a collection of puzzles, though, a game feature can have nothing to do with any puzzle and still contribute to the atmosphere or the storyline. “Smart red herrings” like the gargoyle and the chapel in Christminster strengthen the background of the game with additional information (even if the meaning of the initials on the gargoyle is somewhat, ahem, obscure). At the same time, they effectively rebut the creeping suspicion that all the features in the environment are dictated by one puzzle or another, and serve notice that the fictional milieu has a life outside of the mere game which is being played out inside it. Even the “shadowy figure” red herring in the original Adventure is eventually explained in terms of the game’s rudimentary background (those vain dwarves!) Consequently, the player feels satisfied, rather than frustrated, when its true nature is revealed. To sum up, in the well-written IF game, every item and location should still serve some purpose; but the puzzle-game shouldn’t be the only purpose.

[In my next installment: thoughts on the IF protagonist, NPC’s, and the goals of the game itself]

Part 3

5. “I Am Not A Puzzle! I Am A Human Being!” — The Reality of NPC’s

Paper-and-pencil roleplaying games use the term “non-player characters”, or NPC’s, to refer to the troupe of imaginary personalities controlled by the game referee. In the hands of an imaginative referee with a flair for improv acting, NPC’s can take on a life of their own. The referee can assess how they would react in nearly any situation, and have them banter, barter, bluster or battle accordingly, pursuing their own motivations while remaining true to type.

Computer interactive-fiction games also refer to characters programmed by the game’s author as “NPC’s”. In a comparison between the two kinds of game, though, the live referee has a rather unfair advantage over the programmer. The game-master bases NPC output on a highly sophisticated interactive algorithm synthesizing years of social observation and literary convention: the human mind. To even begin to compete, the computer-game author must effectively write this algorithm from scratch; an impossible task, even for the artificial-intelligence experts!

With limitations like this, it’s hard to blame game designers for following the lead of the early text-adventure games, and relegating NPC’s to very simple roles: either roving menaces from a hack-and-slash campaign of Dungeons and Dragons (the dwarf and pirate in Adventure, the thief in Zork) or mere components of a lock-and-key puzzle (the troll and bear in Adventure, the cyclops in Zork). And yet, a few game designers have managed to create memorable and personable characters. In the Infocom era, the robot companion Floyd from Planetfall stands out. Among recent games, Jigsaw is notable for the enigmatic and recurrent character Black, while Christminster employs a dramatis personae of no fewer than twelve vivid personalities, including a very stubborn cat.

Amazingly, when examined closely, memorable characters in IF are really doing much the same things that their more forgettable counterparts are doing — roaming about the map, reacting to single words, serving as puzzles to be overcome by the right object or objects to overcome the right puzzle. Few works of linear fiction can entirely dispense with non-protagonist characters; even Jack London’s classic solo adventure story, “To Build A Fire”, included a canine character with at least as much personality as the hapless human hero. So, if our goal is to write IF that is good fiction as well as a good game, it’s essential to make characters come alive — preferably, without resorting to advanced artifical intelligence programming!

Good writing, of course, is the linear fiction writer’s key to creating believable characters without any interactivity at all, and the text elements of the interactive NPC — description, dialogue and actions — are no different from those of the fictional character. The challenge is in joining these elements into a single, well-defined character. As with object placement, there are many ways to achieve the illusion of realism. An NPC’s features need not be completely expected and stereotypical, but they should be explained if they violate common sense, unless you’re aiming for a comical effect. Why is the policeman cowardly? (His uncle is a big political boss who got him the job.) Why does the minister take your satchel? (He believes you are an immoral thief and intends to return your treasures to their rightful owners.)

In fact, all the characters in a game, even minor ones, should be able to pass the book editor’s eternal question, “What motivates the dwarf to throw an axe at you?” The ticket-taker takes your ticket because it’s his job; a desire for world domination pushes Sauron to seek the One Ring; and so on. The answer need not be terribly deep, but it should be evident from the context and the information you provide.

Continuity across settings helps immensely in convincing the player that an NPC exists independently of any single puzzle. A single character who appears in a variety of situations (like Planetfall’s Floyd) offers far more opportunity for character exposition and development than would an arkload of different creatures, one for each puzzle. As with objects, well-developed NPC’s should have more than one function in the game, and these functions should make sense as a whole given the NPC’s personality and motivation. In Christminster, Professor Wilderspin’s erudition, kindness, and love of exploration are very consistently brought out through the puzzles in which he figures, and the result is an interesting and emotionally engaging character.

A more complicated example of continuity appears in Jigsaw, where the character of Black starts out as an impossible yet oddly helpful annoyance, and gradually reveals playful, vulnerable, and even amorous sides over the course of sixteen episodes. Perhaps only love can explain why Black allows the protagonist to interfere, time and time again, with his/her attempts to change history! In any case, the development of Black’s character across such a variety of roles is an impressive feat. If it works, it does so because of the multifaceted personality and conflicted motives that are brought out in Black’s reactions and dialogue — continuity through an explicit admission of discontinuity, perhaps.

The beauty of the NPC illusion is that, when well-done, it can hide enormous limitations in the interactivity of the character. Inform and TADS only allow the player to converse after a fashion, by probing the NPC with single-word input (“ask Einstein about relativity”). Even with this limitation, it’s patently unrealistic to expect a piece of code to be able to hold forth about every irrelevant topic the player could bring up. At the very least, though, a well-developed NPC should be able to react to basic conversational input about the elements of the present situation, and about his/her background. The default response for unknown input can itself convey character; consider “Fiona treats you to a lengthy and brilliant conversation about <topic>, which unfortunately leaves you no closer to getting out of the prison cell” versus “Fiona just grunts and goes back to reading her paper”. Customized responses to social actions such as “kiss”,”hit”, and “give” are also essential to the fully individualized NPC.

Are there workable models for more complex and responsive NPC’s? While it’s unreasonable to expect an intelligence like 2001’s HAL to emerge from a 400 kilobyte game, I think that the increasing desire of authors to create interactive games with literary elements may result in games where the NPC, instead of being a mere accessory to a lock-and-key puzzle (“Hercules, lift stone”; “give mouse to cat”), actually is the puzzle.

I have in mind a very interesting class of NPC created on DhalgrenMOO by the character “Calkins.” (Those with Telnet access may log on to Dhalgren at 7777, then “connect Guest” and “help #192” to see more information on this NPC class.) Essentially, this type of automaton is a psychological maze. The rooms are the NPC’s moods, such as “angry” and “interested”, and the passages are the player’s commands such as “hug NPC”,”feed NPC” and “ignore NPC”. The automaton’s description changes with its mood, and each command is echoed by a response, which may or may not help the player figure out exactly what impact the command has had.

As a specific example, allow me to present my own creation, the automaton “Kim” (currently on display at DhalgrenMOO; type “@go #1603” to join her). This is a transcript of one of many possible interactions with her; the command and response syntax should be familiar to adventure-game players. “Trismegistos” is my character; the automaton’s responses are displayed to all players in the room (including the person interacting with it) in the third person, which makes for some inconsistencies in grammar.

look at kim {initial description}
A short, craggy, thirtyish shag-cut blonde, wearing black Keds and a 
 sleeveless blue greasemonkey coverall with her name stitched above the ciggy 
 pocket. Kinda tough, kinda tender, she could be your best buddy or your worst 

smile kim
Trismegistos catches Kim's attention by trying to smile. She smiles right 
 back at Trismegistos, half-mockingly.

l at kim {description for new mood}
Kim looks back at you, half amused. She seems relaxed.

talk kim
Trismegistos's conversation interests Kim. She crosses her arms and smiles at 
 Trismegistos, listening.

l at kim
Kim smiles at you. "Whatcha lookin' at?"

sing kim
Trismegistos sings, and Kim sings along, loudly and off-key, smiling.

l at kim
Kim smiles at you. "Whatcha lookin' at?"

talk kim
Trismegistos's conversation grabs Kim. She listens, smiling, and laughs at 
 all Trismegistos's jokes.

hit kim
Trismegistos hits Kim, who hits him back, playfully.

kiss kim
Trismegistos's kiss cools Kim down some. She looks at Trismegistos warily, 
 trying to figure him out.

l at kim {back to initial}
A short, craggy, thirtyish shag-cut blonde, wearing black Keds and a 
 sleeveless blue greasemonkey coverall with her name stitched above the ciggy 
 pocket.  Kinda tough, kinda tender, she could be your best buddy or your 
 worst nightmare.

Note that the same command can have different effects, depending on which mood she’s in. (I wouldn’t advise hitting her when she’s not in a good mood!) Note also that these are only three of her eight moods.

Characters with “mood mazes” have many possible uses in a game. Some moods may provide vital information; other moods may make the character more receptive to requests for help. Moods might also be triggered by giving or showing certain objects to the NPC, or asking her about certain things, or bringing other NPC’s into the room … The possibilities for creating intricate social situations are nearly endless.

I can’t help but suspect that character-based puzzles may have taken on a stigma from early attempts like the seduction puzzles in “Softporn.” (Yes, Kim can also be seduced; but the direct approach won’t work, and the actual experience may be less fun than getting there…) This stigma is unfortunate, because pornography is not the only fictional genre that can be adapted into an IF game via social and psychological, rather than physical, problem-solving. Imagine games centered on courtly intrigues, political maneuvering, or the machinations of the psychological thriller! Concepts like “Dangerous Liaisons: An Interactive Intrigue” could go a long way to attract players who are put off by conventional, scavenger-hunt type puzzles, and want a more literary experience.

[Coming next: The player’s character in IF, and the game itself]

Part 4

6. The Three Faces of “You” — Player and Protagonists

Computerized interactive fiction is a discourse between the game program and the game player, mediated by the player’s character (PC). By convention, the program addresses the player in second person declarative as if he or she were the character (“You are standing in a field in front of a white house”), while the player addresses the game program in a sort of pidgin second person imperative, as if the program were the character (“examine house”;”go west”).

The origins of both sides of this curious dialogue are plainly traceable. The program’s voice echoes a human referee in a role-playing game informing the players of events in the imaginary world, while the player’s lines resemble commands in a text-based operating system (“copy file to b:\”,”cd if-archive”), their choppiness dictated by the simplemindedness of the parser.

Although bizarre by conventional literary standards, this convention has proved surprisingly robust in IF games over the years. A few games have experimented with third- or first-person narration, but none have inspired a real tradition. Perhaps it’s more satisfying, in an interactive nature game, to have your situation narrated directly to you by the (Dungeon) Master’s voice, as opposed to the narrative detachment of first or third person.

But the problem with second-person narrative, and perhaps a reason why literary fiction writers generally avoid it, is this: it is easy to define who is speaking in first person, or who is being spoken of in third person, but it’s not so easy to see who is being spoken to in second. In effect, second person confounds the reader with the protagonist. What’s more, in a narrative that is at the same time a fiction and a game, the protagonist’s identity fractures even further, into three distinct persons…

  • The Reader/Player. This is you, the real human being sitting at your computer playing the game. Your goal is to amass points, finish up, and have a good time along the way. You command all the reality-warping conveniences of the game program: save, restore, undo. You know when an item is important, because it is described as a separate object rather than as part of the scenery; you know when an action is important, because you get points for doing it.
  • The Game Protagonist. This is you, a nameless cipher of a person who just loves picking up objects and toting them around, because you Never Can Tell when they’ll come in handy. Your goal is to fiddle around with all these objects in any way you possibly can, so you can explore your environment as thoroughly as possible and amass all the really important objects, so you can get to the really important places. Strange urges guide you — whispered warnings from disastrous alternate universes your player “undid”, oracular impulses to pick up the can opener in the kitchen because it’s the only thing you really feel is important there.
  • The Story Protagonist. This is you, Jane Doe, an unassuming college sophomore who has stumbled upon a sinister plot to destroy the world. Or maybe you’re John Doe, a cigar-chomping private investigator with calloused knuckles and a callous attitude, who has stumbled upon a sinister plot to destroy the world. Or maybe you’re Jhin-Dho, a half-elven sorcerer’s apprentice who has … Anyway, your goal is to stop the villains while staying alive, though it’s a bit odd that you keep picking up stray objects without knowing why, and they always prove to be useful later on…

Early adventure games did not bother much with defining the story protagonist. The result (at least in my experience) is an entertaining kind of imaginative romp in which the blank hero takes on the identity of the sweatshirted person at the keyboard, running around the dungeon in tennis shoes, playing the game from within. In fact, the appearance of the Zork games’ Adventurer in the “Enchanter” series comes off as an amusing surprise, precisely because most players never thought of Zork’s protagonist as a character in his own right.

Actually, the “hero-is-you” approach has an honorable precedent in imaginative fiction. Ever since Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee visited King Arthur’s court, everyday slobs have explored strange and fantastic worlds. And what better way to encourage involvement than to write the player in as the hero? But the limitations of the blank hero are equally obvious, once you’ve played enough adventure games. Without any distinct identity, the player has only the motivations of the game protagonist as a guide, and “get the items, solve the puzzles, get the treasure” quickly grows stale when repeated from game to game.

Recognizing this, game writers in the early 1980’s began to present stronger plots and identify their story protagonists more distinctively. Sweatshirt and sneakers gave way to wizards’ robes, detectives’ fedoras, 18th century crinolines. But as the story protagonist took firmer shape, the motives and behaviors of the game protagonist lingered on, like a kleptomanic doppelganger. Even today, few IF games have managed to present a protagonist whose actions are completely defined by his or her own character, rather than by the objects-and-puzzles intrigues of the game. (Exceptions tend to fall within the mystery genre; but then again, linear mystery novels themselves have a long tradition of balancing realistic characterization with the game-like rules of the whodunit.)

Writing up a blank protagonist is easy enough, and a sensitive writer will try to avoid accidental assumptions such as “You wake up with a stubbly chin” (not applicable to both genders) or “You turn white as a sheet” (not applicable to all complexions).

A writer who wants to write a definite character, though, has to think in entirely different terms. Will the character be given only an identity, or a fully developed personality as well? Most IF games present the story protagonist more in terms of social roles and motivations, than in terms of strong personality traits. For example, in Christminster, you are Christabel Spencer, a young, properly-brought-up British woman whose brother, a college professor, has mysteriously vanished. Christminster does an exceptionally job of outlining Christabel’s role as a woman by limiting her actions (she can’t enter chapel bareheaded) and through the NPCs’ dialogue (the villains and the Master are condescending, while young Edward sees her as a confidante).

Motivationally, too, Christabel’s actions are clearly determined. She needs to explore the college, so that she can complete her brother’s researches and eventually find out what happened to him. Even the one necessary act of vandalism she commits as the beginning of the game can be explained as an attempt to enter the college, although the text could bring this out a bit more clearly.

Christabel’s role in the fiction is much more clearly defined than her personality. She is by turns stoic (when attempting to cry on demand) and squeamish (at the sight of a skeleton), proper (when entering chapel) and improper (when commiting various acts of theft, wiretapping and trespass). Her constant traits are those inherited from the game protagonist: inquisitiveness and acquisitiveness. The variety of her other traits, too, can mostly be chalked up to the demands and necessary limitations of a number of different puzzles.

But it’s not clear to me that straitjacketing the story protagonist with a definite personality is always a good idea. While the reader/player can usually identify with a person of a different gender, ethnicity, social role, or time period, it’s harder to project one’s self into an entirely different set of personality traits. Such a protagonist would be experienced more as a “he” or “she” than as an “I”, robbing the second-person narrative of its potency; and character identification would suffer at the expense of character definition.

A basic tenet of social psychology — the “fundamental attribution error” — can be stated thus: we are reluctant to accept our own actions as indicative of our personality traits, and eager to attribute the actions of others to their personality traits. In part, this is because we see ourselves exercising many different traits in different situations. We are deferent to superiors, authoritative to underlings; courageous in areas of our expertise, hesitant in things we know little of; cheerfully unafraid of spiders, but repelled by the sound of crinkling styrofoam. (Well, I am, anyway.)

Christabel’s apparent inconsistency of personality, then, may actually be helpful in getting the player to identify with her. What’s more important to writing vivid story protagonists, in my view, is consistently bringing out the character’s role in relation to the external world, and setting his or her actions up to reflect clearly defined motivations.

I’ll close by covering two special problems, and offering partial solutions: one in which the player’s task can result in a less believable story protagonist, and one in which the game protagonist’s task can also undermine the story.

Save, Restore, Undo. Some might argue that an IF game is made more “realistic” by disallowing the ability to restore games or undo moves, but I disagree. The ability to undo is no less realistic than the ability to restart the game, and a good deal more convenient. Given that a restartable game can always be played with knowledge from a previous, failed “incarnation,” the task of the player is not literally to live or die as the protagonist would, but to maneuver the protagonist so as to “write” the optimal narrative that the game author has hidden within the program, in which the protagonist does everything right and achieves a happy ending.

(This process brings to mind a toy from my childhood called “Chip-Away” — a rather literal-minded take on Michelangelo’s famous dictum that the statue is hidden within the block of marble. The makers of “Chip-Away” embedded a white plastic statue within a block of white soap, and the young “sculptor” was provided with hammer and chisel…)

All the same, the finished account of the protagonist’s efforts will look odd if it shows signs of having been produced this way. Practically speaking, this means that the player should in theory be able to complete the story without using any information gained from fatal dead-ends. An obvious violation: hiding a magic word at the bottom of a (full) well so that you see it just before you drown, and pass it on to your next game-incarnation.

A less obvious violation: the fatal trial-and-error puzzle. Consider four identical doors, one leading onwards, one concealing a lethal explosive. In the story that would result from solving this puzzle, it would be much more satisfying to the story reader and the game player if there was some way to tell which door hides the ticking bomb, rather than having success come only from a lucky guess. The clue may be difficult enough so that the player opts for the brute-force, save-restore-undo method (who would think to “listen to north door”?), but at least it is there to explain the story protagonist’s actions in a fictionally satisfying way. Even though real-life survival may often depend on dumb luck, fiction can only get away with so many strokes of fortune before suspicion sets in.

Examine All. Get All. In the same way that save/restore/undo can lead a story protagonist to act in strange ways, the demands of the game protagonist can often intrude into the story. Most jarringly, the game protagonist finds it useful to pick up all objects that the program indicates can be picked up, when the story protagonist might have no real reason to, say, take an apple peeler out of someone’s kitchen.

Let’s look at the two ends of this problem. On the picking-up end, there is the cue that the game author sends the game protagonist when presenting a room with a usable object in it:

This is a well-stocked, modern and efficient kitchen, done up in an 
avocado-green color scheme.
On the table you see a battery-powered flashlight. An apple peeler is lying 
on the counter.

The well-trained game protagonist will, of course, pick up both these objects and take them along. But the story protagonist? If he or she is anticipating doing some exploring, it would make sense to pick up the flashlight — but why the apple peeler? And in terms of the story, what is so darned attractive about the apple peeler, as opposed to all the other objects subsumed in the description of the “well-stocked kitchen”: the pots, pans, knives, can opener, oven gloves, and so forth?

On the putting-things-down end, there is the recent trend towards allowing near-infinite carrying capacity via a container — rucksack, purse, or what have you. Understandably so, since realistic constraints on inventory make for an annoying game where much of the action consists of running about trying to remember where you dropped that screwdriver. And yet, the person who is reading the story has to wonder occasionally at the verisimilitude of a character who casually totes around a portable yard-sale of forty-odd objects, as happens at the end of “Jigsaw.”

(What’s even more annoying about “Jigsaw”‘s cluttered rucksack, only one or two of these objects have any use outside the episode in which they were found. Yet the faithful game-protagonist hangs on to the green cloth cap, the stale piece of corn bread, the mandolin because “you never know…” A shame, because the time-travel theme could easily have provided some cosmological excuse to prevent the export of objects from their own time period. The challenge then could have been to find some way of getting around this rule in order to solve the later puzzles, as in the later stages of _Uncle Zebulon’s Will_ where the protagonist has to smuggle objects past the watchful demon…)

These challenges to the fictional integrity of the protagonist’s actions may not have an easy answer, and I don’t think they should necessarily be answered at the expense of anyone’s convenience. In the kitchen, for example, I don’t think the answer is to code up a whole lot of useless pots and pans. Hiding the apple peeler is also futile, since the good game protagonist knows to search every nook and cranny before moving on.

The action to be simulated here is the protagonist coming across a Very Important Unpeeled Apple in the course of the adventure and thinking, “Oooh … there might be an apple peeler back in the kitchen!” Cuing reminiscences explicitly would give away the solution to the puzzle, of course. It might be possible to force the player to go back to the kitchen and explicitly type “look for peeler” in order for the apple peeler to appear. Or, to forbid that the apple peeler be taken until the apple has been encountered, with messages to the effect of “What on earth do you need that thing for?”

I suspect, though, that clever game players will figure their own way around these devices, commanding protagonists to search for every likely object in a location, and looking for hints to a new puzzle by going back and trying to pick up every “forbidden” object they’ve encountered. Perhaps a workable compromise would be to design games so that most of what you need to solve a given problem is available relatively nearby, apart from obviously useful tools or strange artifacts that can be taken from scene to scene.

Alternatively, you could place very realistic limits on what can be carried around, but automate the process of remembering where objects are, as with the “objects” command in Inform. Even the process of going back and getting them could be automated, possibly with a “walk-to” routine that checks to see if there is a free path from the current location to the known object’s location, and expending the requisite number of game turns to get the object, while taking only a second of the player’s time.