June 14, 2005
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Jeremy Douglass corrects my understanding of his position and refutes my argument, proposing what amounts to a theory of frustration in interactive fiction.

Over at Grand Text Auto. Andrew Stern says I'm a troll for asking again about My Friend, Hamlet. He (and Noah Wardrip-Fruin) think I'm simply repeating Bernstein's Challenge:

Take the last twenty years of computer games -- the whole kit and kaboodle. Put them on a shelf. (Yeah, it's a big shelf) Now look over the shelf, and tell me everything we learn about, say, sexuality.

If I were a troll, of course, I'd have responded with force and vigor in their comments, and we'd all have an edifying flame war and everyone would have their teeth set on edge. But I'm not, and we won't. This is a really good example of why weblog comments are dangerous. Disagreement is essential to the progress of research. Keeping the disagreement within the realm of ideas, not persons, is essential -- the study of games is already too much like a club -- and the direct cut and thrust of comments emphasizes rhetoric at the cost of substance.

Raymond J. Barry, Amelia Campbell. Photo: Richard Feldman

Friday night at the American Repertory Theater, I saw a nice performance of Desire Under the Elms. Is there anything, anything, in the world of computer games that would lead you to say, "yes, that sort of reminds me of Eugene O'Neil?" That's Bernstein's challenge.

Is this an unfair question? Try some other arts. Painting? Sure. Music? I think so. Dance. No idea, but I betcha. Go ahead and play along at home.

"My Friend Hamlet" proposes a pair of different and more focused doubts about interactive fiction -- not about games in general.

Dramas depend on the specific natures of the characters. Lots of people with kids remarry, it happens all the time. Desire Under The Elms is about one specific, nasty, old man, Ephraim Cabot, who went out and got himself a fresh new wife. If you were his son, eager to inherit the farm and to see the last of the nasty old man who worked your sainted mother to death, you might handle the situation well or poorly but you probably wouldn't handle it quite as badly as Eugene O'Neil's Eben Cabot does. And if you were Abbie Putnam, you'd almost certainly make better choices about handling your stepson and your new baby.

It's all about the characters -- these specific people at this specific time. It always is. If young Eben were, say, Groucho Marx, we'd be off the rails in seconds. But shouldn't Groucho be entitled to read interactive fiction? (Memo: interactive dramas in which the reader-protagonist might tell really good jokes are a big headache.)

That's the first doubt. The second doubt: can any system (or a human dungeonmaster, for that matter) keep a work on the rails when the reader-protagonist might turn out to be Groucho, or Woody Allen, or my Uncle Lionel, or (for that matter) Hamlet? Someone so smart and witty that they do things unforseen? If you frustrate this ambition, you're left with....frustration.

Douglass is right in arguing that frustration is fine, we can use frustration. But is it enough? You take frustration and I'll take, say, passion -- I think we both know who's going to be in Scotland first.

Andrew Stern says, "I wrote a response in First Person." Yes, but this response rests heavily upon his long-awaited interactive drama Facade, and we still haven't see Facade and so no one is quite sure what his answer is. It's almost out -- and congratulation to Stern and Mateas! I hope they've got the answer; until they do, though, the question remains open.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin yawns.

It’s been aired in several high profile places, considered by many people in the field, and then left aside. Those are the characteristics of an argument that people don’t find interesting,

Aside from a few weblog comments, I didn't know that. Sorry. My bad: I'm just ignorant. References?

A redeeming response comes from Espen Aarseth, who cites important work by Selmer Bringsjord. Bringsjord is writing systems that compose very short stories derived from focused ontologies. But Bringsjord (in the article Aarseth mentions) is not discussing interactive fiction and he's rebutting a different objection entirely: can machines tell stories about people without known everything people know? It's an interesting question. I find Bringsjord's approach sensible and his preliminary results promising. It has nothing to do with "My Friend, Hamlet".

All of this discussion is over at GrandTextAuto, in the comments. I started to compose a comment, too. It was a gem: crushing, witty, vigorous. Now, that will show them!

No comment: I caught myself in time. Comments inspire acrimony, and we've got too much acrimony as it is.