[The following article was my contribution to the 2011 IF Theory Reader]
If we reduce interactive fiction to its essence, we can view it as a triangular relationship between three basic elements: Landscape, Character, and Action. It’s possible to write IF without objects, plot, NPCs or myriad other ingredients, but as soon as that first room description appears, it introduces a landscape, just as the first prompt ushers in the concept of Action.1 I would further argue that the interaction between these two elements inevitably creates some concept of Character. The character that emerges is the being that would perform the actions selected when presented with the landscape (and situation) at hand. Even if that character is not human, not organic, or not even embodied (an omniscient narrator, for instance, though that voice is almost never used in IF because of the form’s powerful insistence on connecting Action with viewpoint), Action must have an agent, and that agent is what we call the Player Character.
In this formulation, the only one of the triumvirate completely under the game’s control is Landscape. Action is entirely in the hands of the player, and Character lies halfway between the two. That last statement may require a bit more unpacking. If Character is determined by Action, why isn’t it entirely in the hands of the player as well? The answer is that while Action does determine Character, it isn’t the sole determining factor. The game itself can shape character by statements as blatant as “You’re Tracy Valencia,” or by something as subtle as a particular word choice in a parser response. However, I would contend that while blatant character-shaping statements and even subtle nudges from default responses are far from inevitable in IF, some sense of landscape must be included in any IF game, and that both the design and the description of this landscape are extremely powerful factors in determining character. It is my aim in this essay to examine the ways in which Landscape influences and creates Character, and to raise what I hope will be some interesting questions about the nature of their interrelationship.
[This section contains minor spoilers for Adventure, Planet Of The Infinite Minds, Strangers In The Night, and Suspect. It contains medium-level spoilers for Lost New York and Stone Cell, and major spoilers for Shade and 1981.]
Space is continuous. The landscape of interactive fiction, however, consists of discrete units, connected to each other in various ordinary and sometimes extraordinary ways.2 By convention we call these units “rooms”, but in fact they can be anything from a tiny subsection of a room to an entire town, country, planet, or universe. How does a game’s subdivision of continuous space affect our perception of the character in that game? Let’s look at some examples.
An illuminating comparison exists between two pieces of IF with urban settings: Neil DeMause’s Lost New York (1996) and Rich Pizor’s Strangers In The Night (1999). In the former, the character travels through Manhattan and other areas of New York City during various points in history. The game frequently compresses neighborhoods, boroughs, and other such swaths of territory into single rooms, albeit lovingly described ones:
Lower East Side
The scene around you is one unmatched in any other time and place in human history: Acres of identical four- and five-story tenements packed cheek-to-jowl with people, people who spill out onto the sidewalks and fire escapes in search of a little space, a little air. The el tracks continue down the street to the north and south; to the east, the tenements seem to stretch on forever, though you're pretty sure they eventually end at the East River shore.
Within each time period, these areas connect to each other directly, even though they may have been separated by miles in reality. Occasionally, a “traveling message” such as “You trudge north for close to a mile, finally arriving at…” will interpose itself between locations, but more often the traveling interval passes instantaneously and without comment.
Strangers In The Night, on the other hand, painstakingly sets out its generic city map as a street grid, and provides almost no description for the lion’s share of its locations:
Broadway and 11th
You are at the intersection of Broadway and 11th Avenue. To the southwest is the security door for your apartment building; the Broadway Sineplex (which a few downtown residents still consider an amusing name for a movie theatre) lies to the northeast.
Broadway (10th & 11th)
Broadway and 10th
One of the streetlights is dim here; the shadows that are cast against the sidewalk are oddly deformed, giving the corner an otherworldly feel.
Broadway (9th & 10th)
Somewhere in the distance, a car alarm starts blaring it's [sic] Call of the Wild to the concrete jungle. This is followed a few moments later by the sound of figerglass [sic] crunching and safety windshields shattering until the alarm ceases.
Broadway and 9th
Broadway (8th & 9th)
8th and Broadway
Carl Tuck's Coffehouse [sic] is to the southeast.
At first glance, it might appear that about half the locations contain room descriptions. In fact, however, only the first and the last do; the dim streetlight and the car alarm are random atmospheric messages that can pop up in any street location. In fact, the only time a non-random message, or a description of any kind, appears is when the location adjoins the entrance to a puzzle-solving area, or to the PC’s home. The game’s city grid is comprised of about 80 locations, all of which may well have been compressed into one room in Lost New York.
It’s a natural impulse to discuss these choices as they relate to game design, or to talk about their successes and failures in creating immersion or facilitating strategy. What may not be so natural is to think about how these choices influence the way we think about the player character; I would contend that consciously or not, we perceive these two characters differently based on the way the games construct their surroundings. What we know about the PC of Lost New York is that she3 knows New York City well enough to identify its various areas instantly, even as they appeared over a hundred years ago. In fact, the game’s easy recognition of areas such as “The Goats” and “Ladies Mile”, not to mention the copious historical detail infused into many room descriptions, creates a tension between the game’s identification of the PC as “a tourist” and what we know about her from her subsequent experiences.
Someone who could wander through New York’s past with so much information at hand must be intimately familiar with the city, either through experience or study. Her interest and perception is mostly broad strokes — she’s more interested in generalities of an area than in its specific details, and her sense of history is sweeping rather than finely grained — but her knowledge is quite comprehensive. Even if the game had insisted that this was the PC’s first trip to the city, we would have to conclude that she is someone who for whatever reason has immersed herself in New York City history; how else to explain such detailed knowledge in the midst of the extraordinary experience of time travel? If the game proved unable or unwilling to address and resolve this question, that lacuna could hardly be anything but a flaw in the work, just as it would be in a novel where the main character knows things she shouldn’t.
Unlike the PC of Lost New York, the character in Strangers has almost no interest in ordinary detail, let alone history. He never finds himself musing about ironies or architecture as he treads the streets, and in fact usually notices nothing but the bare identity of the location. Together with the game’s specification of the PC as a vampire, these facts can lead us to a few conclusions about this character. He sees the city not as human tapestry or even interesting backdrop, but rather as a sort of maze he must navigate in order to locate prey. The lack of room descriptions impels us to move quickly from one location to the next, replicating the urgency of the character’s thirst for blood. His disinterest in local color might even be seen as an undead disdain for the fleeting effluvia of mortal life. The game’s overall presentation isn’t quite strong enough to give this effect full potency, but all the same we know quite well that there is a significant difference between these two characters. The Lost New York PC, even if she were a vampire searching the streets for prey, couldn’t help but notice the landscape and be aware of its heritage, while the Strangers PC could be thrust into any time in the city’s history and would evince a similar disregard for anything but the most minimal details of place.
On the other end of the detail spectrum from Strangers is Andrew Plotkin’s Shade (2000), where the entirety of the action appears to be taking place in the player character’s studio apartment. In this one-room environment, however, movement is possible, and the game responds to this movement not by placing the character in a new room (as is the case with most IF), but rather by making a series of alterations to room description and scope for the current room. If the PC is in the center of the apartment, for example, the game first mentions objects close at hand, such as the computer desk and stereo, while reserving mention of the kitchen and bathroom areas for the later parts of the room description. When that character moves to the kitchen, however, text about the counter, the refrigerator, and such occupies the beginning of the room description. The desk and stereo are still visible from that location, and still mentioned, but are only visible, not accessible for touching or other manipulation until the character returns to the center of the apartment.
When Shade was released, this approach to map design was hailed as an innovative subversion of the conventional IF map, which it is. It is also a fitting choice for characterization purposes. The overlapping, connected nature of the apartment landscape makes clear to us that this is an environment with which the character is intimately familiar, and that even while he inhabits one area of it, his awareness of the other areas does not abate. The map design makes the apartment belong to the character in a way that it would not were it separated into discrete rooms. This sense of familiarity, of safety, and of enclosure makes the game’s later revelations all the more powerful, as the familiar dissolves into the strange, and safe enclosure into fatal exposure.
A similar effect, the subdivision of one room into many separate locations, appears in a variety of games, including Infocom’s Suspect (1984) and Steve Kodat’s Stone Cell (1999). In the former, it’s a grand ballroom that the game presents as nine separate locations, and the effect is to make the room feel enormous. The character in Suspect is a reporter at a party being given in a mansion, and the game’s map design underscores her sense of awe at the opulent surroundings — where the house’s owner’s perception of the ballroom might be closer to that of the character in Shade, the guest’s mind demands more concrete conceptual boundaries in order to take in the scope of the area.
Stone Cell achieves a different effect by performing the same gridlike subdivision on a much smaller room, the eponymous stone cell. Room descriptions and common sense tell us that this room is much smaller than the ballroom in Suspect, so the game’s partitioning of that space, rather than conveying immensity, instead reflects the PC’s awareness of the room’s tiniest details as a result of his imprisonment. What makes this design particularly effective is that the game initially presents the cell as one location, then expands it into a grid after the character sleeps, thus reflecting not only the character’s growing familiarity with his surroundings but also his growing desire to scrutinize each detail of the premises in hopes of escape.
The opposite effect is available, too, when games compress the extremely large, even the inconceivably large, into a single room description. One of the more extreme examples of this technique occurs in Alfredo Garcia’s Planet Of The Infinite Minds (2000), where the character might find himself here:
The Beginning of Space
All around you, distant suns flicker and twinkle. Painfully bright points of light seem to appear suddenly from out of the ether, as another retracts into obscurity. En masse, the effect renders a carnival of vibrant colours and astonishing beauty.
The simple fact of the character’s existence in this location tells us something about that character: that she has transcended humanity, attaining a sort of bodiless, godlike status. Since the game starts with the PC as a simple librarian, its transportation of her to such an abstract vista carries with it the implication of personal disembodiment and removal from reality as well. What’s more, her ability to know that the location is “The Beginning Of Space” rather than, say, a Christmas tree festival viewed through a hangover, suggests a metahuman omnipotence that we must assume has been granted to the character, at least temporarily.
The connection between map design and character stretches to the deepest roots of IF, for the majority of Adventure‘s (1976) map is named and divided in ways that would make sense to a spelunker. From the way that the game comfortably names areas of the cave as “rooms”, and indeed even the names of those rooms, which draw on caving vocabulary such as “Bedquilt” and “Y2”, we can clearly identify that the character in that game is an experienced cave explorer. Thus, even in the earliest days of IF, when games made virtually no overt effort to characterize the PC, character was already emerging as a function of landscape. The character in Adventure, while unraced, gender-neutral, ageless, nameless, and faceless, was nonetheless made distinct from the player herself by the way he perceived the landscape of the cave, seeing rooms and twisty little passages where a different character might have experienced the area quite differently.
In the hands of a skilled author, the effect of landscape on character can make for a portrayal that is very striking indeed. Take, for instance, Adam Cadre’s 1981 (2001)4. The first room description of the game is as follows:
New Haven, Connecticut
New Haven. The worst place on earth. The town is dirty and industrial, the students are sloppy, everything is horribly expensive. And you had to cash in $3600 of your stock to get here. But it was necessary. Four years at this place is enough to ravage anyone. You have to rescue her, your first true love.
Her dormitory lies to the north.
Already, we can see a dramatic narrowing of scope occurring. The character is so unconcerned with the details of his location that he compresses an entire town into one unit, dismissing all of it as “the worst place on earth.” Then the broad outlines of location gain sudden, sharp focus: “Her dormitory lies to the north.” The contrast between the vague, reviled whole of New Haven and the focus on the dormitory, set apart in its own line, suggests to us that the character’s concentration on his goal is unhealthy, perhaps even obsessive, and moving north confirms this suspicion:
New Haven, in her dormitory
You're standing in front of her door. It's closed. It's always closed. You've shoved approximately one hundred poems and letters under that door. You figure she's probably read about half of them.
Scope narrows even further here, from one building to the tiny area in front of one of that building’s doors. The room descriptions certainly confirm our impression of the main character’s unbalanced and obsessive nature, but even without them, the basic funneling performed by the map design would get the point across admirably. When we discover that the PC is John Hinckley, Jr., and that the door in question is to Jodie Foster’s dorm room at Yale, the revelation is terrifically powerful, because via its map design, the game has already taken us directly into the viewpoint of its would-be assassin.
[This section contains minor spoilers for A Change In The Weather, Heroes, Varicella, and Zork I. It contains medium-level spoilers for Once And Future and Wearing The Claw, and major spoilers for Nothing More Nothing Less.]
Of course, in 1981 it’s more than just map design that clues us into the character — the room descriptions themselves make it clear that we are seeing the game’s landscape as filtered through one individual’s highly idiosyncratic viewpoint. Short, choppy sentences give the text a jittery feel, contributing to the general tone of uneasiness. We know the character has some access to wealth because of the “$3600 of your stock” line. We also know the character is either a heterosexual male or a homosexual female from the reference to the true love as “her.”5 And we certainly know how he feels about New Haven.
Cadre is particularly skilled at bringing character across through room description, as in this example, the first room in Varicella (1999):
You've funneled the lion's share of the palace improvements budget -- and most likely the tiger's share as well -- into renovating the salon... not that the Philistines you live among are equipped to appreciate it. From the plush Quattordici chairs to the handsome volumes in the library to the imported Ming tea service to the steward you hired to attend to your grooming needs, this is an oasis of taste and comfort in what is otherwise a fairly uncomfortable and tasteless building. Ah, well. When you become Regent you'll have greater latitude to redecorate. The arched windows overlook the western gardens, while the exit leads east.
This description follows several paragraphs of introduction, which announce the player character as one Primo Varicella, Palace Minister to a recently deceased king, and Machiavellian schemer for the throne. Even without that introduction, though, this room description would frame the character aptly. From the “lion’s share” clause we know that the character is in charge of improvements to a palace, and from the room name we know that he is in the Salon mentioned in the first sentence; therefore we can conclude that he is employed by the palace in which the game begins — a succinct way to bring across Varicella’s position and occupation. Moreover, the phrase “live among” tells us that he resides at the palace as well. The “tiger’s share” clause gives us an example of his sardonic humor, and the “Philistines” reference an example of his snobbery. His identification of the chairs and tea service, and the contrast to the “uncomfortable and tasteless” remainder of the building, communicate clearly that this is a man of very strong preferences, a persnickety aristocrat whose refined tastes run to the extremely expensive. Finally, the character’s ambitions, and the drive behind them, are summarized neatly: “When you become Regent you’ll have greater latitude to redecorate.” Just by seeing one room through this character’s eyes, we learn all the essential facts about him that will carry throughout the game.
If there’s a continuum that measures the degree to which a game’s room descriptions blatantly shape character, it’s fair to say that Varicella is probably on the extreme end of it. Does that mean that the room descriptions of games on the other end don’t shape character at all? Predictably, my answer is no — the effect is just a bit more subtle. To illustrate, let’s compare descriptions from two different games, neither of which has character as its focus. First, from Andrew Plotkin’s A Change In The Weather (1996):
A wide angular tongue juts out from the hillside. The park stretches off to the north and west, a vast expanse of luminous meadowland, patched with the dark emerald of forest. The streams are already shadowed in their beds. In the distance, a lake reflects red fire, beneath the greater fire that leaps silently on the horizon.
A trail leads southwest down the hill, towards the bridge. From where you stand, it turns southeast and continues upward, deeply cut into the hillside. A narrower trail leads more steeply up to the east.
Zork I (1981) by Infocom offers a location that is very nearly analogous:
You are on a ledge about halfway up the wall of the river canyon. You can see from here that the main flow from Aragain Falls twists along a passage which it is impossible for you to enter. Below you is the canyon bottom. Above you is more cliff, which appears climbable.
Though their locations may be similar, these two characters are very different indeed. Weather‘s wanderer takes the entire first paragraph to describe the area with intense, poetic language. The words don’t directly narrate the emotions felt by the character, nor impute opinions like the descriptions in Varicella, but they deploy vivid adjectives like “luminous” and “dark emerald”, and powerful metaphors — the tongue of rock, the red fire of sunset reflected in a lake, the setting sun as a “greater fire that leaps silently on the horizon.” This is a character whose soul is moved by the grandeur of a natural landscape. Only after this reverent depiction does the character notice practical details: the trails and where they lead.
Zork‘s PC, on the other hand, goes directly for the practical. She mentions the river’s passage only in terms of whether she can enter it. What she notices about the cliff is that it is climbable. Though the natural scene — a canyon, a river, a waterfall — is probably quite impressive, the description is almost entirely mechanical. There are no rapturous sentences about the stark rock of the cliff or the sparkling river. Adjectives are almost entirely absent, and where they do exist their purpose is highly prosaic: “river” further identifies “canyon”, as “Aragain” does “Falls” and “canyon” does “bottom.” Other descriptors exist solely to describe travel options: “impossible” and “climbable”. Indeed, she sees every element of the scene only in terms of how it can be manipulated or traversed, and this viewpoint is consistent throughout the game, just as the intense description of natural phenomena is a constant in Weather. Both games’ main focus is puzzle-solving, but when we compare how their characters each view a similar scene, it becomes clear how different the characters are from each other.
Comparing the PCs of two different games illuminates important differences between the characters, and the effect is even more potent when several points of view are available within the same game — instead of seeing how two different characters view analogous locations, we get to see how they view the exact same location. Several recent games have made use of this technique: J. Robinson Wheeler’s Being Andrew Plotkin (2000), Stephen Granade’s Common Ground (2000) and my own LASH (2000) among them. The current apex of POV-diversity, though, probably belongs to Heroes (2001) by Sean Barrett. This game offers a minimal landscape of something like a dozen locations, but gives five different viewpoint options through which to view it. For instance, the opening location of the game as viewed by a Zork-like adventurer:
The grimy, ramshackle buildings of Oldtown dutifully try to reform themselves as you progress east down Temple Way, but nothing besides the temple itself makes any real pretense of belonging anywhere other than Oldtown. Or rather, nothing besides the temple and Baron Sedmon's nearby mansion.
This broad avenue leads right into Temple Square, the heart of fabulous New Oldtown. Towering over the square to the east you do perceive your stark white Temple of Justice, beautiful and well-appointed, offering a statement to the neighborhood: this, this is what progress is about. Sadly, the buildings around you are scarcely up to this new standard; Baron Ventillado's house north of the square is much more satisfactory. How you hate having to come here. This would all be so much simpler if Blackhelm were found dead one morning, but it's never happened yet, despite your best efforts.
Sturdy, functional buildings lie in and out of shadow on the road to the temple square. Simple architecture, devoid of handholds; closely spaced buildings, devoid of alleyways; uncut walls, devoid of windows: the builders in this area knew how to encourage amateurs to go elsewhere.
Randomly arranged paving stones form this street, proceeding east towards a more attractive arrangement. The darkened buildings lean sloppily over the edge of the street, reducing the energetic potential of the strict east-west layout. West the road leads back into the seething mess that is Oldtown.
and finally, a dragon:
We were surrounded by the man-things' structures, structures of dead trees and rock and distortions of iron. Beneath us we felt the arrangements of stone into a path for man-things' mobile receptacles. We could smell hints of the Crystal along the path to the east.
Where the adventurer just sees a temple, the King sees the temple as his own possession, a symbol of his attempts to renovate and improve the city. Where the mage sees leaning buildings distorting the street’s pristine geometry, the thief sees those same leaning buildings as a source of precious shadow. Through the use of a past-tense, second-person plural voice, Heroes renders the dragon’s viewpoint quite alien, and emphasizes that dissonance by showing us how the dragon sees the street: an “open tunnel”, contrasted with the more irregular shapes of nature and constructed by contemptible “man-things.” Heroes takes excellent advantage of Landscape’s ability to reveal Character, and through its use of multiple viewpoints, it leverages the power of the Landscape-Character axis to accomplish something more: the revelation of Landscape via accumulated details from a variety of characters. The descriptions coalesce in the player’s mind to create a picture of the location that is much more complete than any one viewpoint could provide, while at the same time establishing distinct portraits of each viewpoint character.
Other games have made use of changing room descriptions in order to demonstrate change or progression in a single PC, or to give us that character’s revised perspective as a situation changes. Nothing More, Nothing Less (2001) by Gilles Duchesne is a case in point. The first puzzle of this slice-of-life game takes place in a bathroom, initially described like so:
I’ve seen bigger bathrooms, but must admit this smaller one suits our needs well. There’s a small sink with a cabinet under it, a mirror, a bathtub (equiped [sic] with a shower head and curtain) and a toilet.
However, after the character urinates6, the toilet clogs and begins to overflow. Unprompted, the game reprints the room description, which now reads as follows:
I’ve seen bigger bathrooms, but must admit this smaller one suits our needs well. There’s a small sink with a cabinet under it, a mirror, a bathtub (equiped [sic] with a shower head and curtain) and a toilet.
Right now, my attention is also grabbed by: the toilet tank. Water keeps flowing from the tank, nearing the bowl’s edge.
The room description stays the same, but the game adds a sentence to demonstrate that the character’s attention has become focused on one particular aspect of the room: the toilet tank. This sentence serves gameplay purposes, indicating that the toilet tank is in fact implemented and thereby hinting toward the solution of the “overflowing toilet” puzzle. In addition to this, the attention sentence demonstrates a shift in the character, showing us his revised perspective as well as the fact that he’s quick-witted enough to think immediately of the toilet tank in this crisis. The other sentence is typical of IF room descriptions, indicating an action currently taking place in the room and lending urgency to the character’s desire to solve the puzzle. After the character opens the tank, lifts the toilet float, and fixes the stuck valve to stop the toilet running (alas, too late to prevent water flowing onto the floor), the game once again reprints the room description, this time altered considerably:
I’m now standing barefoot in some icy water. I’ve seen bigger bathrooms, but must admit this smaller one suits our needs well. In fact, at this very moment I’m terribly glad the floor isn’t bigger, as it would only mean more water to remove. There’s a small sink with a cabinet under it, a mirror, a bathtub (equiped [sic] with a shower head and curtain) and a toilet.
Right now, my attention is also grabbed by: my towel.
There are several changes, doing several different sorts of work within the description. The first, the “icy water” sentence, indicates a change in the room itself, one that is reflective of situation rather than character, though of course the way the character chooses to relate this situation — emphasizing discomfort by noting his bare feet and describing the water as “icy”, conveying a mood of urgency without panic — does accomplish some characterization. A later sentence takes a fact of the bathroom addressed by earlier descriptions (its small size) and relates it to the new situation, revealing a practical and rather optimistic side to the viewpoint character. This sentence also demonstrates that the character’s perspective, while pragmatic, is not particularly scientific, since a larger floor wouldn’t actually mean more water to remove, only a greater surface area from which to remove it. Later, we get a new “attention” sentence; the toilet tank is no longer in focus, and instead the character is thinking of his towel. Note that this towel was not mentioned in any of the previous room descriptions, because the character had no particular need of it. Nothing More, Nothing Less makes extensive use of this technique, heightening realism by filtering not only the general experience of landscape through the PC, but also specific points of focus as well. Finally, once the toilet is plunged and the water toweled and mopped, the PC has showered, and his feline nemesis has entered the room, the bathroom’s description changes to this:
This a bathroom, of which I’ve seen more than enough in the last minutes. Come to think of it, I’ve seen enough of it for the whole day. And the presence of that hairy pest doesn’t improve my morale. Azrael licks one of his paws, while keeping an eye on me.
The character’s perspective on the bathroom has changed once more, marking the end of his progression from bland interest, through urgent focus, and resting finally at mild exasperation. The emotional registers aren’t extreme, but the room descriptions convey very clearly the changes taking place within the character as a response to the changes that occur around him. In games like this, Landscape does even more shaping of Character than usual by virtue of its changing prose.
A final aspect of how Landscape reveals Character lies in the concept of elision: what rooms does the game avoid describing, and how do those gaps influence our understanding of the character? Many games take the character, via non-interactive cut-scenes, or even simple transitions, through landscape that we never get to see from the PC’s perspective. My experiences as an author have taught me about this phenomenon; in my first game, Wearing The Claw (1996), I elided an entire sea voyage. In practical terms, I made this choice because I didn’t have the time, energy, or skill to implement the journey as an interactive experience, but its absence from the game couldn’t help but affect the PC’s characterization. His reluctance to relate the details had to be explained somehow, so I made him someone who is deeply intimidated by the ocean, someone who would want to block out the experience of being at sea as much as possible:
Soon you find yourself at sea for the first time in your life, and you learn that the rocking and swaying of a small boat on a choppy sea does little to relax you. Nausea swells and recedes like the the [sic] waves beneath you, and though the journey to the isle of the Goergs takes little more than an hour, it ends none too soon for you.
I’m not willing to make the claim that elision always contributes to characterization — sometimes cuts are in place just to serve a story’s structure, leaving things unimplemented even though the character certainly would notice them. However, there are times that what isn’t described is just as important as what is. These sorts of gaps are particularly noticeable when they contrast with the player’s expectations, as happens from time to time in Kevin Wilson’s Once And Future (1998). One particularly memorable absence in that game is the matter of the cat: late in the game, Frank Leandro (the PC) is required to obtain a bit of cat hair for a magical recipe, and conveniently enough happens across a stray cat who sheds a bit into his hand and rides his shoulder for a while. A while later, that cat jumps into the chimney of a boarded-up house (chasing a bird) and disappears. Frank has a sword that cuts through anything, but the game forbids him from cutting through the boards to find the cat, saying “You could, but there’s not much point to it.” So however much the player may want to make sure that the kitty is okay, she is constrained by Frank’s disinterest; the inside of the house isn’t part of the map, because Frank doesn’t see the point of exploring it.
A PC-CENTRIC VIEW OF INTERACTIVE FICTION
[This section contains minor spoilers for The Beetmonger’s Journal, medium-level spoilers for Hamlet (the Shakespeare play), and major spoilers for Photopia.]
It’s possible that objections may arise to some of the points I make above, on the grounds that what I ascribe to character could just as easily be seen as a particular author’s writing style, a game’s depth of implementation, or even the formal constraints of IF itself. It’s quite true that I’m taking a PC-centric view — this is how I experience interactive fiction, and it’s easy to feel that it’s simply how the form works, but I certainly acknowledge that there are other, equally valid approaches. It’s also true that the PC is not the only possible point of view within a work of Interactive Fiction. In The Beetmonger’s Journal (2001) by Scott Starkey, for instance, some very nifty POV-jumping occurs in sections where the PC is the hero of some stories being read by the frame characters — from time to time those characters are interrupted in their reading, and we get a small cut-scene from their point of view.
However, what I would argue for is the extreme difficulty of disconnecting the point-of-view from the Player Character at the point of action. The IF prompt implies a certain kind of remote control: the player is to type in an action which will then be executed within the game. Invariably, this action is performed by the PC. Indeed, this is the very definition of Player Character. Similarly, landscape descriptions, especially when that landscape is available for traversal and manipulation from the game prompt, almost cannot help but be filtered through the PC, because all the knowledge conveyed in them is available for use at the point of action. If room description were to convey something that the PC couldn’t possibly know, such as the color of an object when the character is blind, the result would be severe cognitive dissonance for the player. If we type “OPEN BLUE DOOR” and the blind PC is able to do so, we must conclude that the PC is not blind after all — that’s how powerful the connection is between Character and Action. Because Landscape, Character, and Action are so intimately connected, it’s quite difficult to avoid making Landscape a function of Character, especially as the two get nearer and nearer to Action.
Given this PC-centric take on IF, it’s worth asking what possibilities reveal themselves as open or closed in its light. We’ve already seen some of what’s opened, from Heroes‘ cumulative place-building to Shade‘s resonant evocation of the familiar, and no doubt future games will continue to explore the power of the Landscape-Character axis. Conversely, one element that seems rather alarmingly curtailed is the possibility of dramatic irony. For instance, imagine Shakespeare’s Hamlet as an IF game, in which the player controls Hamlet, but is allowed (as a reader) to see Polonius stepping behind the arras in the queen’s bedroom. In order to retain the dramatic irony of the scene, Hamlet must stab the arras and inadvertently kill Polonius, but why would the player order him to do so, knowing what Hamlet doesn’t? In other words, how can the player be allowed to know things that the character doesn’t if that knowledge is expected to facilitate dramatic irony? The only answer I can think of is to force the PC’s actions, to make Hamlet stab Polonius no matter what the player orders, but as soon as that happens, the interactivity drops out of the IF game, and thus Action is removed from the equation. I’m not prepared to contend that this sort of dramatic irony is impossible, but the game that solves this problem will be a major breakthrough.
The work that’s probably come the closest to this grail is Adam Cadre’s justly revered Photopia (1998). Thanks to its fragmentation of the narrative line and its array of POV characters, when the climactic scene arrives, we know all the awful freight of what’s about to happen. We also can’t stop it — in order to achieve its dramatic irony, Photopia must remove our power to act. There’s an argument to be made that this sort of moment becomes even more powerful in interactive fiction, the useless prompt underscoring the inevitability of the character’s tragic fate. That’s as may be, but it doesn’t change the fact that PC and Action are still inextricably connected, and the only way the PC can be made to do something inevitable is to remove control from the player. Photopia cleverly makes the inevitable moment a car accident, thus giving the PC only a split-second to react (and thus providing a plausible context for lack of choice) and making his default desires identical to the player’s desires (STOP THE CAR!), but in the final analysis, the moment is still achieved by removing control from the player, and indeed the great majority of the criticism directed towards Photopia has been of its non-interactivity.
If Action is to retain its place in the IF triangle, Landscape and Character must remain inextricably connected. Their powerful bond to each other creates many exciting possibilities for the development of both, possibilities that have begun to be exploited in the last several years, and which no doubt will continue to yield opportunities for development. What’s also true is that noticing this connection and its potential still only scratches the surface of character development and landscape exposition in IF. Character can be revealed not just through landscape, but through objects, plot, direct narrative, and many other devices. In turn, while character is the primary lens for landscape, that landscape can alter greatly from the passage of time, from plot events, from NPC actions, or hundreds of other vectors, and each change to character and landscape deepens both. We’ve only just started finding the techniques, and it’s a heady feeling. We’re at the beginning of an art form — there’s much more undiscovered territory to explore.
1 A note about terms here: First, I should note that by “interactive fiction”, I refer to text IF. Some of the points here are certainly applicable to graphical or mixed-media IF as well, but some may not be. Secondly, the general concepts of Landscape, Character, and Action aren’t meant to be taken too literally. IF could be (and in many cases has been) created with a map of entirely abstract locations, or one location, or location descriptions that consist entirely of describing what’s absent. Similarly, actions might involve no actual action (WAIT, for example, or THINK), and a character can be anything from an intrepid adventurer to an ear of corn. However, I would contend that these elements are present in some form in all IF — indeed, the absence of these elements (such as the absence of landscape in Eliza) removes the work from what might reasonably be called interactive fiction.
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2 This trait isn’t entirely restricted to text games, but while no text game offers continuous space, some graphical games, such as Half-Life and Zork: Grand Inquisitor, do in fact offer a continuous, unbroken environment through which the PC travels. In that case, map design becomes a much less powerful factor in fixing Character, and in fact it might be argued that in those cases, the term “map design” has more or less lost its meaning, and might be better called “level design” or something similar.
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3 The subject of how description influences our perception of PC gender could occupy another entire essay, and is out of scope for this one. Consequently, in the case of games that don’t explicitly specify the gender of the PC, I’ll rather arbitrarily select one, trying to hit a more or less even ratio between the two.
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4 1981 is credited to the pseudonymous A.D. Mcmlxxxi, and Cadre has never claimed credit for it. In private correspondence, he explained that this is because the game was a bit of a rush job, not polished enough for something he would put his own name on. He agreed to be credited for the game in this essay on the condition that I put in a note explaining that he “wasn’t actually trying or anything with that one.” That 1981 is the game Cadre produces when he isn’t even breaking a sweat is a testament to his skill as an author.
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5 Or a bisexual of either sex, it probably should be said.
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6 This is one of the very few times that excretion has appeared in an IF game without being a function of rather dodgy toilet humor. Instead, the game plays it completely straight — just another element in its realistic scenario.
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