November 12, 2005

Clearly Has Not Read Benjy's Chapter in S+F

The novel-reader does not suffer as the player of a game does: she needs only to keep turning the pages, and can be trusted to do this by herself. The novelist may worry that the reader is getting bored and discouraged, but not that she will suddenly find pages 63 to the end have been glued together just as the plot is getting interesting.

from The Craft of Adventure [note: link leads to a slow-loading text file]

Posted by Jason at November 12, 2005 2:03 PM | TrackBack

This quote isn't comparing degrees of difficulty, i.e. "Mystery House is harder than Finnegans Wake." The point it makes is that no matter how hard Finnegans Wake gets (and it is devastating, nigh impossible at times even for professional Joyce critics) every word of the text is available to every reader. You can read word 10657. If you don't understand that word, you can still read word 10658. And word 10659.

This capability to read what comes next no matter what is simply not true in IF - if you cannot understand a door puzzle, any text occurring beyond that door is inaccessible to you, as if the pages were stuck together, and you will never have the opportunity to read those words until the door is understood. The Sound and The Fury, hard though it may be in parts, is quite the opposite, as you can plow through Benjy's chapter in total incomprehension and with no problem read what lies beyond. Physically hiding content isn't something the print codex is particularly good at, although Choose Your Own Adventure Books try, as do some novels (the index in Pale Fire, the maze in House of Leaves)....

Posted by: Jeremy at November 13, 2005 1:54 AM | Permalink to Comment

Initially, I meant the title (added after I realized I had not included one) mostly as tongue-in-cheek. You (and the quotation) are both right - the material components and algorithmic construction of computer games fundamentally alters methods of narrative communication and progression, and I quoted this here so I would remember to use it in one specific section of my dissertation (which is concerned with exactly these issues). I particularly liked the image of gluing pages together, and thought that such a lucid image serve as a nice example in differentiating the material characteristics of print novels and computer games. The ad-hoc title, unfortunately, must have implied a criticism of the quotation that wasn't intended; alas, it points out that I’m not nearly as funny as I think I am ;).

But your comments encourage me to consider the flip-side of the equation, which is that it is possible to cheat your way past an adventure game, just as you can metaphorically cheat your way past Benjy's chapter in the Sound and the Fury. It also calls to mind an issue of replayability/rereadability, especially with regards to text-based adventure games. Once you know the answer to a puzzle, why return? And what is such a puzzle in the printed text of FW, or S+F, that makes us continue to return? Which makes me think that we still have a long way to go in terms of understanding what it is to read and to play -- and in text-based adventure games, how we distinguish (if we even can) between these two hermeneutic styles when reading and playing are both very much required ...

House of Leaves also has that great (though simple) word puzzle in the letters at the end, but as you say, easy enough to figure out. I would argue that the codex is great at hiding content through linguistic, rather than material, means - maybe that’s why we keep coming back to Benjy or FW over and over again…

Posted by: Jason at November 13, 2005 12:25 PM | Permalink to Comment

Sorry I was a bit humorless about the title - to tell the truth, I squinted at the title for at least a minute trying to figure out when Walter Benjamin had written a chapter about sci-fi and fantasy....

I like your observation on "the flip side," both 'cheating' and replay-ability. I'm currently working on a chapter about single-move IF, in which only one move is possible before the text ends, e.g. "Aisle." I'd say that the encouraged mode of such highly replay-able works is almost entirely 'cheating' - proceeding based on the use of knowledge from previous sessions. There are related examples of this in normal multi-move IF - "9:05" is a particularly good example, as one tends to play it quite differently the second time.

In general, it might be useful to distinguish different forms of cheating:

- cheating with acquired knowledge from other sessions (anticipating game behavior and avoiding repeat mistakes)
- cheating with acquired knowledge from outside the game (reviews, hints, decompiled code, etc.)

It also might be useful to distinguish between the effects of cheating - whether they optimize certain sequences, or simply eliminate obstacles in a disruptive way that makes the overall progression of experience make less sense. I haven't really worked this out - perhaps use Montfort's sense of the puzzle as a knowledge transaction, and then distinguish between cheating that solves puzzles quickly or automatically and cheating that bypasses or removes them entirely... although now I'm rambling....

Posted by: Jeremy at November 14, 2005 1:27 PM | Permalink to Comment

No need to apologize when my irony is unclear and poorly executed. ;)

Single-move IF - is that like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and note: I am attempting humor!):

>You wake up.
>_ Look around.
> Your house has been bulldozed. Try again? Y/N

I kid, I kid.

Is prior game knowledge cheating? I think it's actually an interesting question in that it focuses specifically on the implied gamer's connection with the player character. In traditional D+D, for example, you must distinguish "player knowledge" vs. "character knowledge," right? So it would be cheating to memorize a module or, even more common, the entire Monster's Manual, and then play as though your character has that knowledge to better succeed.

At the same time, in the process you describe in both single- and multi-move IF, this is in some ways a basic procedure of gameplay, is it not? Almost forced, in some cases, like Dungeon's Lair, where you got by on either incredible luck (in rare cases) or repeated plays (and quarters). That wasn't cheating - that was a combination of twitch and aporia placed in unique art and story (for the time in videogames) in order to generate revenue.

Now I'm rambling, I think. But isn't there potentially an interesting correlation between how much the player knows (and should know) in the course of methodical gameplay, and how much a reader might know in the course of reading a novel, or watching a film… Not one to one, of course, but what are the game strategies and expectations – and even purposeful design features – that distinguish between levels of player knowledge (and knowledge transfer … and notions of cheating)?

Posted by: Jason at November 16, 2005 10:23 AM | Permalink to Comment

[note: Francois emailed this comment to me after experiencing technical difficulties with posting the comment]

With artless humour or rather humourless art, let me point out that the
serialized novel offers a third example for the pursuit of the
access-to-more theme. Even happens in a non-serialization context: author
dies before serialization is complete... other authors come in to provide
endings and continutations(e.g. _The Mystery of Edwin Drood_).
Intentionality as much as material matters. Furthermore, measurements of
suffering in either the context of game playing or the circumstances of
reading are likely to have the same distribution as gender-related
attributes (i.e. the difference between the highest and lowest in one
gender category is greater than the differences between gender categories
[See Margrit Eichler, _The double standard : a feminist critique of
feminist social science_ (1979)]).

There is also the exquiste torture of wanting not to turn the page but
being compelled to read on...

Posted by: Francois at December 13, 2005 11:44 PM | Permalink to Comment
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