1 INTERACTIVE NARRATIVES NEW MEDIA & SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT October 23-25, 2014 University of Toronto ISBN: WHAT S MISSED WHEN NO ONE IS MISUNDERSTOOD? UNDERSTANDING WHOSE AGENCY IS INCREASED THANKS TO INTERACTIVITY Kateland Wolfe, Georgia State University Suggested citation: Wolfe, Kateland (2014). What s Missed When No One is Misunderstood? Understanding Whose Agency is Increased Thanks to Interactivity. In Proceedings of the Interactive Narratives, New Media & Social Engagement International Conference. Eds. Hudson Moura, Ricardo Sternberg, Regina Cunha, Cecília Queiroz, and Martin Zeilinger. ISBN: This article is released under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC-ND). Abstract: Interactive fiction is aptly named, for it is interactive. Let it not be forgotten, though, that interaction is not synonymous with user/reader agency. The interactivity in interactive fiction, the non-linear nature, the ever-changing circumstances and storyline, all make the experience much more focused and mediated than the reading of a linear, traditional novel. In this paper, I use Roland Barthes to suggest that the reader has complete agency in the act of reading a traditional book, and suggest that the agency has to be removed in order to share it with the computer program in the narrative setting of interactive fiction. I come back to interactive fiction, the text-based exploration of fictional worlds that had its heyday in the 1980s, because it is one of the very few representations of the creation of a program that develops a narrative through collaboration with the player. I then do a rhetorical analysis of Aaron Reed s interactive fiction, Whom the Playing Changed, in order to study the moves that the interactive fiction takes in order to limit the agency of the reader and encourage collaboration with the computer program. If a user has to make use of a message in order to continue receiving the message, does it not automatically influence the user to limit his/her response to the realm of possibilities thought up by the creator? Chris Crawford, in On Interactive Storytelling, defines interactivity as A cyclic process between two or more active agents in which each agent alternately listens, thinks, and speaks (Crawford, 2005, p. 29); but can a user who has to input decipherable material in order to receive the rest of the text actually be given space to think? Or is the realm of possible responses already limited by the function of the creator, thus only giving the user the ability to pick among options? That is, can a user really ever have agency in an interactive world, or is there more agency on the part of a user when a response is not mandatory for continuation? While there is certainly value to both interactivity and user agency, they seem to be often conflated leading to the assumption that
2 Wolfe 138 interactivity is a highly valued function because of the agency that it gives to the user. For example, Richard Lanham, in The electronic word: literary study and the digital revolution, a 1989 article, expresses the growing values of the last twenty-five years when he says: the interactive reader of the electronic word incarnates the responsive reader of whom we make so much (Lanham, 1989, p. 268). His essay also aptly expresses why this is valued: the authority of a fixed, print text is destabilized. This humorous question of pronouns shows Lanham s desire to destabilize the binary between creator/ medium and critic/admirer: Programs available widely and cheaply for use on computers just like the one these words are being written on (through? by? with? or from?) allow novices to compose pleasant-sounding music by enlisting the computer as cocomposer (Lanham, 1989, p. 272). By questioning the boundaries between the creator of the text and the consumer of the text, Lanham is making more tangible an argument that Roland Barthes had first theorized in 1967: the Death of the author. Lanham, however, is making an argument that without a stable text, the author and reader can both exist as authoritative agents because their texts will differ. Barthes was suggesting that within the readership of the same text, the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author (Barthes, 1998, p. 386). This suggests a binary opposition between the agency of the author and the agency of the reader: Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing (Barthes, 1998, p. 386). To give a text an author is to suggest a way that it must be read and interpreted. He goes on to argue that a text s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination (Barthes, 1998, p. 386), suggesting again that a traditional, printed text must lie in one or the other, and it lies with the reader. Interactive Fiction is suggested to solve this binary because good interactive fiction, according to Chris Crawford is developed using second person insight, which is the ability to think primarily in terms of how an expression will be perceived by the audience (Crawford, 2005, p.31). Crawford s notion of second person insight gives the idea that a good creator of an interactive fiction can make the reader the imposer of Barthes limits on the text. This is because in order to have second person insight, the creator must anticipate and respect it [any emotional response the audience may have], and you must be able to visualize the confusion audience members bring to the experience (Crawford, 2005, p. 32). It does seem that a good interactive fiction, wherein the creator can truly anticipate and respect any emotional response, would allow the interactor to have agency in the text. Crawford uses the example of students, one that many teachers do sympathize with: you stand up in front of your students, reveal the truth to them in a few clean, simple sentences, and note with shock the utter incomprehension in their faces (Crawford, 2005, p. 32). This is a very noble task and certainly creates a place that is reader-centered. It does not, however, give the user agency. By the very art of needing to anticipate the user s reactions, the creator has set parameters on how the user can react. And this user agency is important because interactive fiction so often gets cited as a model for something that can be used to create spaces that allow for more user agency. Wasn t interactive fiction the dead precursor to videogames? As many scholarly essays on interactive fiction will state, interactive fiction was a textonly game popular in the 1980s; it is still a program that is being discussed and theorized, but only by a niche discourse community. Infocom, the only company to
3 Wolfe 139 focus its commercial production on interactive fiction, was sold to Activision in 1986 (Scott, 2013). Since then, interactive fiction has been circulated, criticized, and theorized by a fairly closed discourse community. This is alluded to in Get Lamp, a full-length documentary on interactive fiction and text adventures, when it is noted that game creators are the ones playing the game. This closed community is also suggested by how little of the literature on interactive fiction seeks to make the argument relevant to a larger audience; many interactive fiction scholars just start making their point. Other scholars offer reasons that interactive fiction is valuable to a larger community, such as its use in the classroom to get students into a meaningful relationship with reading. Aaron Reed, author of Creating Interactive Fiction With Inform 7, argues that [interactive fiction] not only talks back to its reader, but listens, too (Reed, 2011, p. xxi). He also argues that text-based gaming allows the reader to go beyond things that can be captured by an image. Interactive fiction, seen as an ancient artifact by many, is software that uses preprogrammed rules and descriptions combined with input from a user to create a story. In this way, anybody who considers a single session in an interactive fiction as a narrative or a piece of fiction is being asked to not only consider the text as written by the programmer of the game, but is also asked to consider the way the text has been interpreted and reacted to. In this way, reading an interactive fiction session transcript linearly is more like reading a relationship than reading a story. Current views on user agency Discussing the place of interactor agency in interactive fictions seems first to depend on determining the purpose of the interactive fiction. As noted above, text adventures and interactive fiction are often approached with a different frame of mind; text adventures seem to prioritize the gaming aspect and interactive fiction prioritize the story. The question of agency of the player is more concerned with how much the player can do, and less with how much the player can affect. In some cases, it seems to mirror that of a business relationship. The interactor is viewed as the customer and the programmer as the person responsible for immersing the interactor into the world. Dennis Jerz, in Get Lamp, shows his concern that the interactor is going to say, ha-ha, that s a mistake, this sucks! (Scott, 2006). The agency in this instance is a powerstruggle. The interactivity of the interactor is something to be guarded against. Andrew Plotkin, also in Get Lamp, addresses this concern from the opposite point of view when he says: If you sit down in front of a text adventure for the first time, the first thing that is going to happen is that you re going to type something and the computer is not going to understand it. That s a real experience. The misconception is that that s the intended interaction of the game and that s what the author has spent all of his time thinking about. (Scott, 2006). Again, by addressing the assumed intentions of the author, a self-defensive nature of the author is addressed, suggesting that it is the author that is being blamed (or even the game), not the relationship between the two. Ernest Adams says because the more freedom you give the player, the more the player has the power to do things you did not anticipate, and to do things you did not want (Scott, 2006). Again, this relationship pits the interactor against the programmer or the game (as it stands as the work of the programmer). This relationship sees interactivity not in terms of agency of the interactor, but in terms of freedom of the player. The question being asked in these instances is about the quality of the product: how immersed can the player become in the game world? This function of interactivity is not concerned with the literary quality of the session. Another way of understanding interactor agency that does not recognize interactive fiction as a program to develop literary fiction is to consider interactive fiction as a tool for
4 Wolfe 140 teaching and testing student understanding and engagement. For example, Brendan Desilets, in Interactive Fiction Vs. the Pause that Distresses: How Computer-Based Literature Interrupts the Reading Process Without Stopping the Fun, treats the reader as a student. The interactor does not have agency, instead the interactor is being required to do something for his or her own good. Desilets focuses on how interactive fiction forces or creates situations where the reader must. Granted, it forces readers to think about how they are controlling their thinking and the reader must still pause often (Desilets, 1999). These are positive outcomes that potentially help the interactor to have more agency in his or her life or subsequent education, but in the dynamic presented by interactive fiction, the interactor is without agency to choose whether he or she is going to do these activities. What s at stake in giving some of the reader s agency back to the author, especially in education, is seen in the end of Desilets essay when, he claims that it is the careless or unskilled (Desilets, 1999) who cannot get through the interactive fiction. This is not taking into consideration that when interaction happens, it is also possible for misunderstandings to happen. If the interactivity of the interactive fiction becomes normative, then the interaction is no longer happening; the shift of agency has gone too far back to the programmer. It is easy to see that with an interactive fiction s limited vocabulary it can quickly become normative. However, that is a limitation of the interface and not of the theory. The idea of theory is to question what interactive fiction is capable of if the interface can be made to match the theory. Thus, I am avoiding questions of limitation of the interface here. Desilets is perhaps the bridge between the understanding of interactive fiction as a game and the understanding of it as a literary experience. Desilets sees interactive fiction as a tool for getting students to think critically and comprehend what they are reading. Andrew Bond has what seems to be a less moral approach, but one that is also easy to equate with early ways of approaching literature. Bond, in Player Freedom, argues that interactive fiction is an art and should be appreciated as such. Bond implies that interactive fiction (the work of the programmer) is art and art isn t about catering to your audience; it s about taking sides, expressing an opinion, climbing to a podium and shouting here I stand! (Bond, 2007) This is to suggest that the moves the interactor makes are predetermined by the programmer and programmed for the interactor to interpret on the terms of the programmer, enjoyed as art in that way. The agency of the interactor then is limited to trying to figure out what the programmer was expecting, and experiencing the interactive fiction in that manner. Bond argues that to experience art is to submit to another ego. It s to entertain someone else s vision (Bond, 2007). Bond is here fulfilling the other side of Barthes binary. He is suggesting that the program be given all of the agency in much of the same way Barthes was offering all of the agency to the reader. Bond proposes that a text s unity lies in its origin. And that unity is meant to be admired and adapted, not changed or affected. Emily Short counters Bond, though, in On Stephen Bond on Player Freedom and suggests, instead, that offering the player a moral choice in interactive fiction is not the same as offering the player co-authorship (Short, 2007). For Short, co-authorship is the goal, and co-authorship does not happen merely when an interactor is given a decision. In co-authorship, You have to be free to try to solve the problem, because otherwise the failure to solve it cleanly is meaningless (Short, 2007). Thus, Short s definition of interaction is not about letting the interactor make choices in the narrative, but also to make choices not to make choices. If the interactor is only choosing from a menu of options, then interactive fiction is nothing but what Montfort and others refer to as hypertext fiction; however, if the interactor is able to
5 Wolfe 141 bypass certain decisions altogether and decide to not make choices, then interactive fiction is not just a group of different preplanned options, but rather an amalgamation of the work of both the interactor and the programmer. Nick Montfort makes a very similar distinction: Monfort holds that there is a difference between input from the user and interaction when he says pressing the space bar in response to >MORE is an input, for instance, even though it normally provides the interactor no opportunity to influence the course of the narrative that is being produced (Monfort, 2003, p.33), which suggests that the definition of interaction includes having influence on the narrative product. Monfort also suggests the definition of interactive to be works of fiction which explicitly call upon the reader to interact with them by means of queries or replies (Monfort, 2003, p. 8). Queries and replies suggests that the player is, again, doing more than choosing from a dropdown list of actions or responses. Instead, the player is asking specific questions and offering specific responses that the system then works with. The system, however, is still responsible for the mediation of the information, the accepting of some responses, and the rejecting of others. The essays of other authors appearing in the IF Theory Reader presuppose the reader s agreement that interactive fiction is to be considered a program producing literary fiction and continue from there to theorize how interactive fiction should be created in order to best make this model of interaction. In Crimes Against Mimesis, Roger S.G. Sorolla makes no qualms about placing in binary opposition the real world (or a real world created fictionally) and a trivial diversion (Sorolla, 2011, p. 7). He offers six criteria upon which the scale from fictional coherence to a rambling munchhausenish charm (Sorolla, 2011, p. 5) is fixed: coherence among objects and contexts, the purposefulness of a puzzle, the logical solving of puzzles including logical locks and keys, and the correct invocation of the interactor as reader. Sorolla suggests that the reader with agency is the one who gets to read the interaction as a coherent piece of fiction. Furthermore, he suggests that this is agency which should be afforded to the model reader who is a late 20 th Century person armed with a reasonable knowledge of contemporary Western life and literary conventions (Sorolla, 2011, p. 4). This suggests a reasonable limit to what the program is able to interact with, but it also suggests that the programmer has the right to require specific knowledge of his or her reader in order to make interaction, and thus the continuation of the story, possible. While Monfort and Short balance out the definition of interaction, so that the desired agency can be shared between the program and the interactor, Sorolla offers some real limits about who the interactor can be and what the program can do in order to suggest what interaction should look like. Victor Gijsbers Co-authorship and Community: An Essay on Innovating Interactive Fiction offers the most radical definition of interactivity when he suggests that [allowing the player to change the world] would allow completely new ways of interacting with a piece of interactive fiction, new ways which would allow the player to freely use his creativity for the first time, and which would allow the player to be a real co-author for the first time (Gijsbers, 2007, p. 6-7). This seems like a good, viable way to grant the player agency. As Gijsbers argues, it will give the player real agency. He argues that the trick to implementing this comes in three things. The first is opening the play up to a larger community of people for each run-through of the game. The second is in having a way for the player to be able to change the game, but to protect the game from being irreconcilably ruined. The irony of this radical suggestion is that it seems a lot like the system that exists now: we play the games, comment on the games through publication, suggest changes to the game, and engage in conversation about the game. This radical suggestion
6 Wolfe 142 resembles how people interact in discourse communities already, because it opens up all of the agency to the interactor. When the interactor can help change the programming, they become the sole creator of the meaning of the text. Then, interactive fiction is no longer interactive because the agency of the program is limited. The interactor is then just the creator of a different piece of interactive fiction; the interactor is switching roles from interactor to programmer. Aaron Reed s Whom the telling changed Now, I am going to turn to Aaron A. Reed s Whom the Telling Changed in order to show more specifically that interaction in an interactive fiction means to limit the agency of the reader and give more room for shared agency with the program. It is possible to argue that Reed s Whom the Telling Changed is not a typical interactive fiction. Reed himself states that it is an experimental piece of interactive fiction designed as an exercise in exploring a conversation or story space rather than a physical space (Reed, 2006). Furthermore, that Whom the Telling Changed is very different from an average interactive fiction. It has only four rooms, no puzzles to speak of, uses a keyword-based conversation system and a single-word shorthand for examining items (Reed, 2006). All of these variables have an effect on the interactive process, but there is not enough interactive fiction to clearly categorize it into what is typical and what is a-typical. Because the base number of interactive fictions created is so low, every difference from one to the next is going to look like a major difference in structure. A reason, however, for using Reed s interactive fiction is that he wrote Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7. If Reed is the authoritative figure to look to for explaining how Inform 7 works, the open source software used to create many interactive fictions, then he must have influence over and insight into the world of interactive fiction. So, what he is doing is worth noting. Whom The Telling Changed by Aaron A. Reed starts with what literature would call an epigraph that says: "He found the knowledge at the heart of the universe; Returned, and cut his story into stone" (Reed, 2006) and claims to be taken from The Epic of Gilgamesh. This appears off-center on an otherwise white screen with no further direction. Inside my memory I first venture to the room that holds the knowledge of The Epic of Gilgamesh, maybe I pull up a new window and link to it on my computer. Then I move to the left and stop in the part of my memory where Plato lives, because anything that is written or sketched or recorded automatically links to Plato and his discussion of the unknown, outside force of writing. Then I meander into the part of my memory that knows that Returned, and cut his story into stone is not a complete sentence and should not be proceeded by a semicolon. Or these are all of the places I would visit if this had been an epilogue at the beginning of a novel. The otherwise blank screen gives me literal space to think about these things while the fact that it is off center gives me an urgency to think these things. If the text had been centered, it would seem that it was enough for the page, it was all that was supposed to be there. Since the text is off-center, it encourages me to keep trying to fill (even metaphorically) this page with information. This is exactly how the interaction would work if I was reading a book. However, I would know what to do next. I would know that when I was ready, I flip the page, scroll down or tap the page if it s an e-text; knowing what to do next would encourage me to take my time. On this first screen I get panicked because I clicked to the link for a game and I don t know what to do next. How do I move past this page? All it takes is hitting any key, but I become singularly focused on how to get to the next screen and am no longer encouraged to take my time in reading/ thinking about/ exploring the epigraph. In this way, the timing of the story is being guided by the programmer. The agency is now split between the interactor who can interpret the words in any manner desired and the programmer (via
7 Wolfe 143 the program) that is pushing the interactor to continue on in the story. As Reed points out, there are key words that are highlighted as the story moves forward. These key words work to make explicit a part of interactive fiction that is often problematically implicit: the fact that the program has to be spoken to in very specific language and can only accept commands of a certain style. The keywords in the interactive fiction function in the same way that many commands do, they take the reader to something that is pre-programmed to continue the story in what may seem like an arbitrary manner. The other commands function as typically binary options. If the interactor is to look at the symbol of your (sic) occupation, the interactor is asked: Which do you mean, the medicine bag or the copper dagger? (Reed, 2006). Depending on which the interactor chooses, the lover will take the other. Another example of this is that the interactor is approached by two other players and told As you approach, your enemy grows silent. Your love turns to you with a look of relief and reaches out a hand (Reed, 2006). When the interactor reaches for the hand of his/her lover, the interactor is asked: Which do you mean, Sihan or Saiph? (Reed, 2006). The one who is not chosen gets mad and walks away. The key words acting more as interactive than the commands shows that the work is sharing agency with the player: it is helping the player see what is important to it. And, it seems, the interactive fiction is going even further to comment on how interactive fiction is working in order to show its awareness of itself. The type of narrative that this interactive fiction and others can create has a lot of positive implications, ranging from being a new producer of a creative product that relies on the programming of a system and not the actual creation (which I see as being the most important), to educational benefits, to fun in solving puzzles. However, one of the implications is not heightened agency for the interactor/reader, but rather heightened agency for the program and the author of the program. Interactive fiction at its best offers a very highly structured, though always changing, way of experiencing a text that can be very fulfilling and beneficial in certain circumstances. What needs to be further discussed, however, is the way that interactive fiction, as a model for future production of digital media, limits the reader s ability to misunderstand the text and all of the productive rabbit holes that get explored via the accidental miscommunication. References Works of interactive fiction: (2006) Whom the Telling Changed. Developed in Inform 7. Other Works: Barthes, Roland.(1998). The Death of the Author. In Eric Dayton (Ed.), Art and Interpretation: An Anthology of Readings in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. (pp ). Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview. Bond, Stephen. (2007). Player Freedom. URL: ml Crawford, Chris. (2005). On Interactive Storytelling. Berkley,CA: New Riders Games Desilets, Brendon. (1999). Interactive Fiction Vs. The Pause that Distresses: How Computer- Based Literature Interrupts the Reading Process Without Stopping the Fun. Currents in Electronic Literature. 1.1(1999): np. Gijsbers, Victor (2007) Co-Authorship and Community: An Essay on Innovating Interactive Fiction. URL: novation.pdf Montfort, Nick, Twisty Little Passages (MIT Press, 2004). Lanham, Richard A. (1989). The Electronic Word: Literary Study and the Digital Revolution. New Literary History 20: 2, Reed, Aaron A. (2011). Creating Interactive Fiction With Inform 7. New York: Cengage Learning Whom The Playing Changed: An Analysis of 72 Player Transcripts. URL: Scott, Jason, dir. Get Lamp
8 Wolfe 144 Short, Emily. (2007). On Stephen Bond On Player Freedom. URL: <http://emshort.home.mindspring.com/whatsif.h tml> May 25. Sorolla, Roger S. G. (2001). Crimes Against Mimesis. In Jackson-Mead, Kevin and J. Robinson Wheeler(Eds.). IF Theory Reader. Boston, MA: Transcript on Press.