Games about writing; writing about playing games. The second themed review exchange. Two rec lists; two reviews.
Cat’s Interactive Fiction Rec List
There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, a good number of interaction works that feature writing as a motif; I wanted to limit myself to works in which the story itself took up the process of writing, and the difficulties involved. I do want to make an honorable mention to Dark and Stormy (http://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=wqrlx3wvtmkjds9q), a parser game written by Emily Short, which I didn’t include because I didn’t want to suggest two games by the same author, but I am contractually obligated to recommend anything described as “Borgesian”.
I’ve offered three games written in three different systems; all of them, however, address themes of constraint and failure. I don’t know if this is the medium of choice-based games: much has been written on “true freedom” (slippery conceit, that) and how different platforms allow for different possibilities. But Violet, the parser game on the list–long-held by sections of the IF community to be the format that offers the most player agency–also deliberately limits you in emotionally significant ways.
- Violet (http://iplayif.com/?story=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ifarchive.org%2Fif-archive%2Fgames%2Fzcode%2FViolet.zblorb) In my estimation, this is one of the most charming–and most relatable–parser games ever written. You’re a Ph.D. student who has to write a thousand words on your thesis, which you’ve been putting off because it feels impossible, before noon. Or your long-suffering girlfriend will leave you and return to her home in Australia. Of course, it’s not that easy. As any academic can tell you. Like I said–relatable. Perhaps a bit too much.
- First Draft of the Revolution (https://lizadaly.com/first-draft/): An epistolary narrative with an interactive twist. Juliette, a young bride in pre-revolutionary France, has been sent into exile in the country by her husband. Writing and revision–and the reasons for which we engage in these practices–are significant here.
- The Writer Will Do Something (https://mrwasteland.itch.io/twwds): A darkly comic game about being a writer working for a major AAA studio. This is the sort of thing that got passed around in rueful recognition when it was first made; there are a lot of moments that game writers will recognize, but it’s also very much about the frustrations of creative collaboration and personal agency.
Arkady’s Speculative Fiction Rec List
There’s a long tradition of games being central plot and thematic elements in SFF stories. Playing games together is one of those deep human activities which carries enormous symbolic and thematic weight, after all, so it’s only understandable that it often acts as a synecdoche for connection or communication or competition – and games are also cultural touchstones, so they’re particularly useful in SFF, to demonstrate worldbuilding ideas: what are games like in a society much different from ours? How are they useful?
I could start this rec list by pointing to the 1957 film The Seventh Seal (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050976/) (the one with chess with Death!), but we’re sticking to short fiction, at least for now – which also rules out The Player of Games (http://www.amazon.com/Player-Games-Culture-Iain-Banks/dp/0316005401), Iain M. Banks’ Culture-universe novel about the nature of cultural competition and post-scarcity boredom and Charles Stross’s novel Halting State (http://www.amazon.com/Halting-State-Ace-Science-Fiction/dp/0441016073), which uses an MMORPG as a setting for a near-future police procedural. There is a lot of use of games in SFF!
But here are three short stories, all fairly recent, which explore games and game-playing.
- “That Game We Played During The War”, Carrie Vaughn (at tor.com, here: http://www.tor.com/2016/03/16/that-game-we-played-during-the-war/) A chess game between two people on opposing sides of a war – with an interesting twist: one of the two of them is telepathic. How does chess work when one player can see the branching decision tree belonging to the other player? Does it work at all? (How does friendship work, under such conditions?) What is, in fact, too alien and strange to be borne?
- “Interlingua”, Yoon Ha Lee (at Uncanny, here: http://uncannymagazine.com/article/interlingua/). A sentient AI designs and playtests a game which is meant to help her crew interact with peculiar aliens. Some things go – awry. Startlingly awry. Very much, in fact, about why people keep playing games. And certain difficulties with acculturation. Some amazingly alien aliens, including the protagonist.
- “Stalemate”, Rose Lemberg (at Lackington’s, here: http://lackingtons.com/2014/10/28/stalemate-by-rose-lemberg/). Mental games, puzzles and questions and linguistics; but also games of memory, games which are unwinnable, games where not winning is the best possible option, however insufficient. There’s a chessboard here, but it’s the least important of the games Kabede and the protagonist play together. Haunting. I come back to this story often.
Arkady’s review: “First Draft of the Revolution”, Emily Short
Available here: https://lizadaly.com/first-draft/
I have a very profound affection for epistolary narratives, and for the process of constructing a self via the medium of letters. I wrote my PhD about it. It’s also showed up rather forcefully in my personal life, and gets into the fiction I write myself, too. I spend a lot of time thinking about how writing a letter creates an image of a self, maybe an ideal self, maybe a false self, maybe a true-as-possible-but-still-mediated-by-distance self. So I was ideally prepared to love First Draft of the Revolution, which is a piece of interactive fiction in which Juliette, a semi-disowned aristocratic wife in an alt-historical magic-containing pre-Revolution France, writes and receives letters to her husband Henri while conducting a semi-affair with a heretical friar and defusing an incipient magical revolution.
I … really, really wanted to love this game, and I didn’t. I think I’ve figured out why, but first I need to explain what did work.
- Emily Short is a brilliant writer. Her command of language and imagery and voice is pretty stunning. Every character in this game has a distinct epistolary tone, period-appropriate, information-bearing, and in several cases, evolving – Juliette, especially, begins as a very hesitant and frustrated person who becomes capable, by the end of the story, of articulating her emotions with extreme vividness. (Though, perhaps, not able to commit to enshrining those emotions in epistolary communication. I will return to this.)
- The conceptual mechanic is great. First Draft of the Revolution is played by writing and rewriting letters: the initial draft you first read is then adjusted over and over, by clicking on the text and following the writer’s thought process of revision. The mechanic exposes quite clearly how epistolary is a construction, and how revision is iterative. It is clearly a game about writing.
- The setting and plot are lovely. I am rather fond of the heretical friar, and of Juliette’s relationship to him, and of the use of theology as a backdrop.
But nevertheless, despite all these things I loved, and my interest in the thematics of the game, I found the process of playing First Draft of the Revolution immensely frustrating. Part of this may be that I am not, I am discovering, any good at playing games. In First Draft, the player must in fact make a large number of changes to the letter before they can go on to the next screen, even, at times, when I did not want to change aspects – when I was happy with the aesthetic of the letter without rewriting, when I wanted to make a choice that I thought was part of what playing an epistolary game was about: designing the persona of my character(s). Because I felt like I was supposed to be making choices about what actually got said, rather than experiencing the revision process as an aesthetic/informative one, I began to feel like I was playing the game badly; making choices I wasn’t sure I wanted to make, and that I might be presented with a ‘bad ending’ and it would somehow be my fault for not understanding the mechanic correctly.
I only realized this lack of actual consequential choices about Juliette, Henri, and their companions-in-intrigue was deliberate when I arrived at a section where Henri decrypts a magically-encrypted letter, and I was not offered choices, but instead was shown that what First Draft was meant to do was demonstrate the thought-process of the letter writer as he or she revised and recreated.
In short: I wasn’t supposed to be playing a game. I was supposed to be interacting with a mentality.
This is an interesting problem with interactive fiction in general. IF comes out of ‘gaming’ – I, at least, still approach each new IF I play with the verb to play, rather than to read or even to experience – and gaming has rules about player agency and player choice. Gaming has a kind of contract between the player and the game, which allows for the player to make choices – constrained ones, certainly, but world-affecting ones. And IF … while it is enormously concerned with player agency – does not necessarily have to be about changing the IF-internal world.
If I had played First Draft of the Revolution without thinking it was a game – without thinking I was responsible for Juliette’s choices and happiness or success – I would have enjoyed it far more. I would have been able to interact with the process of revision-as-mentality better.
I can’t figure out if the problem is inherent in me or in the way First Draft is set up, though. Is it my expectations which did me wrong? Should I be approaching IF without the ‘game’ rubric held in my mind? Or could First Draft have been more explicit, earlier on, that the content of my revision choices wasn’t nearly as important as the process of choosing?
Cat’s review: “Interlingua”, Yoon Ha Lee
I chose Interlingua because I’m familiar with Yoon Ha Lee’s interactive fiction; the first game I played was Compass Rose up at sub-Q magazine. I might be the only person to find his SF via this avenue. I wanted to see what someone familiar with game mechanics had to say about why and how we play what we do, if writing games made it easier to write about games. And a lot of my work is concerned with weird aliens, so I jumped at Interlingua.
I wasn’t disappointed. Perhaps in one way I was: this is a story I wish I had written. Interlingua tells the story of a sentient ship, the Hwacha, which designs a simulation to keep its crew occupied on the way to intercept an alien ship which doesn’t seem to be responding to common linguistic assumptions in a recognizable fashion. Despite attracting a varied crew of testers and spending a great deal of time playing with the implementation, the ship hasn’t planned for how matters progress.
The plot sounds relatively straightforward from this summary, and it is linear. But like a good game, the success is in the implementation. The Hwacha is a sentient ship, monitoring and controlling all of the crew’s behaviors as if its interiors were a sim game, which has the potential to read as flat and tiresome–if the ship were presented as actually omniscient. The Hwacha, however, is foiled by the Sarissa, its sister ship, who draws attention to the gaps in our narrator’s vision. It’s a nice contrast with how the ship represents itself; I always enjoy unreliable ostensibly-controlled narrators.
The other crack in the ship’s facade, one which is slightly more complicated for me, is the development process which the ship details. On an aesthetic level, the ship’s griping about implementation is familiar to every developer; I found myself cackling aloud in sympathetic recognition at several moments, and I don’t usually laugh when reading SFF. Yoon Ha Lee reaches for universal frustrations of game designers, and this makes the ship both fallible and relatable. The suggestion of how well-implemented the game is does stretch the boundaries of credulity, but the point pays off.
If you’re a game designer, or if you play games, the moment where the Hwacha reports that all of the playtesters are enthralled is the moment at which you know something has most likely gone horribly wrong. As the Sarissa reminds us, no one likes every game; a game that enthralls players as different as the Hwacha contains is likely to have at least some detractors. But the story’s solution to Every Video Game Developer’s Power Fantasy is fascinating, and my favorite part of Interlingua. It’s also what propels my reaction from admiring appreciation into outright creator envy.
The answer is not that the Hwacha has built the fantasy perfect game, but created a game which harnesses the satisfaction feedback loop to actually change the players’ semiotic processes. Since the game in question is a contact simulation with a procedurally generated alien possessing a linguistic structure that is gradually refined by successful player input, player input too becomes refined. The process is so successful that the tester ends up adopting elements of the alien’s structural patterns. The game itself creates a new conlang between the player and the generated creature, one that persists outside the boundaries of the program. We might call this a game which satisfies empathy: it suggests the possibility of an experience that feels meaningful, which generates connection.
This isn’t, however, the only place this happens: while the Hwacha in the end begins to be absorbed by their own playtest, they have – in a very real way – been implicated in the same structures of gamified feedback since the beginning of the story. Introduce something new into the sim and watch your choice have profound consequences: isn’t that what the ship has been doing to the crew the whole time? My reading of this is shaped by the assertion that the game’s code is “scraped together from code I already had on hand”: every developer’s quick shortcut, and a wince of recognition from me – but from where did the Hwacha borrow the code?
The ship is playing games within games, because mastery of a system is addictive, and one of the things which keeps us playing long after we should close the window. “One more turn at Civ, I’ve almost got a diplomatic victory”; “I’m not going to die at this point in Dark Souls 3 again”; “I let a sentient machine gain supremacy over London and then lost my mind and sailed off the edge of the world”. Once you master one facet of a game, you reach for the next. But here, in a game where victory condition is “understanding”, it seems correct that the mechanics work by bringing the player into a similar state of mimicry.
Interlingua is very much about connection as addictive, and social interaction as play, and how we bridge boundaries, coupled with nuanced thoughts on gamification and contact. In short, it’s a story which is designed to work on me in similar ways to how the Hwacha’s game works on its players. I’m going to be thinking about this one for a long time.