June 10, 2005
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Interactive Fiction and Hypertext Fiction

Jeremy Douglass wrestles with one of the apparent limitations of interactive fiction (IF, e.g. Adventure games) and identifies hypertext fiction as a notable counter-example. It's a useful, thoughtful post.

Douglass argues that the underlying puzzle nature of IF is an intrinsic limitation that can only be partly assuaged by careful hinting and skillful writing. Like other IF critics, he ignores the argument I made in "My Friend Hamlet" (Hypertext '01) and repeated with Diane Greco in First Person:

Tragedy requires that the characters be blind (as we ourselves, at times, are blind), and if you let a sane and sensible reader into the room, everything is bound to collapse. Take Hamlet: it's absolutely obvious that he should go back to school, get roaring drunk, get laid, and await his opportunity. He knows this. Horatio knows this, Ophelia knows this. Even Claudius and Gertrude know -- why else send for his college pals? Nobody can bring themselves to say the words -- that's the tragedy. But what's to stop the reader? Only brute force and error messages ("You can't do that") that call attention to the arbitrary boundaries of the world. If you make Hamlet a game, it has to be rigged.

Douglass points out that IF faces inherent mechanical difficulties that may prove intractable. Matteas and Stern have published a useful series of papers that illustrate the complexity of the underlying programming issues. (They've long said they had a solution and we'd see it real soon, and apparently we'll get a look shortly.) I'm arguing further that, even if we overcame all these problems, that we're still facing an apparently irreconciliable conflict:

Illusions that place the reader on stage necessarily founder: the promised freedom of action is inevitably contradicted by the limitations of the simulated environment. Interactive Fiction, whether the holodeck or Colossal Cave, asks us to find a creative, imaginative, and successful resolution to the dramatic problem. The imaginative reader is bound to think of things the creator never envisioned, and the reader's best thinking inevitably generates the dullest response: "I don't understand." The computational environment can never match our aspirations, and allusions to unlimited computing power of the future (the starship holodeck) can't rectify the fundamental problem: readers will always want to do things nobody (and no computer) could anticipate.

The hero will try to do things the author didn't think of: that's what heroes do. Card Shark and Thespis outlines some ways we could get the reader on stage, but they're closer to theater in the round than to IF.

As far as I'm aware, this argument has been essentially ignored.