The Art Part

Writing decent interactive fiction requires mass quantities of creativity. But can the result ever aspire to be taken seriously as art? Or are we just building grandiose crossword puzzles?

Everybody gets to have their own opinion about this. I’m not going to pretend to have any definitive answers. But I do find myself dissatisfied enough with the medium of IF to ask the question.

Great art speaks to our deepest feelings as humans. Works of great art continue to be cherished for centuries because each new generation finds meaning in them.

Let’s set aside the subsidiary question of whether the computer will still exist as a delivery system a hundred years from now, and whether anybody will be writing IF interpreter software compatible with OS M. Arguably, that’s a very relevant consideration, but we’ll leave it for another time.

I have two or three issues with the idea that IF can ever aspire to be considered art.

First, in creating art the artist enters into a sort of altered state of consciousness. The intuition is very, very active. The intuition explores the materials of the work rather the way a kid explores a big glop of wet clay. Writing IF, on the other hand, involves reams and reams of computer programming. Yes, your intuition will rise up and prompt you — “Hmm, I’ve created a ‘tie’ verb, I mustn’t forget to create an ‘untie’ verb to go along with it.” But that’s not an intuition about the story or the characters in the story, it’s an intuition about computer programming.

During the process of programming a story, the intuition addresses itself to the materials of the story only sporadically and shallowly.

“Shallowly” because the nonlinear, interactive nature of the medium does not lend itself well to matters of emotional depth. This is a separate issue. Conveying depth requires precise control of pacing (in time-based art such as film, music, and storytelling) and the arrangement of materials. If you can’t control the pacing, why even try for nuance?

Stories are about people, and people interact with one another mostly by having conversations. Often, in great fiction, the conversations move in subtle ways and imply more than is actually said. In interactive fiction, the reader/player takes on the role of the lead character in the story, and engages in conversations with other characters. But the sorts of conversation that the lead character can have with anybody else in the story are very stilted, because the IF conversation engine is not capable of anything better. This is widely recognized as a weak point in IF development systems.

In addition, the conversations the player character has in IF will almost always be goal-directed: The reader/player is trying to accomplish something specific, and is hoping to maneuver the other character into providing it. This is not the way conversations generally flow in good fiction. In good fiction, Emma may be trying to maneuver her husband into giving her money, but she won’t ‘ask husband for money’. That would be awful. She’ll approach the topic in a more roundabout fashion, perhaps over the course of a few minutes, perhaps over the course of days or weeks.

Or perhaps the character (not Emma, in this case) will want to get money from her husband, but will be unable to ask him, for reasons of pride or fear. Needless to say, such considerations would not enter into the calculations of an IF player/reader. The player/reader will simply ‘ask husband for money’.

And this leads into the other difficulty. At the receiving end of the work, the reader/player is, I think, almost certainly not going to be in a frame of mind to experience the game/story as a work of art. Of necessity, the reader/player is going to explore the game/story analytically rather than intuitively — or, at best, intuitively and analytically in an alternating fashion. After (perhaps) responding to the description of the snarling watchdog as if it were in a short story by Joseph Conrad, the reader/player will, of necessity, sit back and think, “Okay, now how am I going to get past the watchdog?”

The process of responding analytically will inevitably, I feel, draw the reader/player away from any experience of the game/story as a work of art.

Just to see what may work, the player will often try actions at random, even actions that the lead character would never consider (‘kiss the butler’). This separates the player from any sort of empathy with the character or immersion in the story. It gets in the way of anything that we might consider art.

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