I wasn’t actually talking about ate and hamartia, or not only about them: there’s a simple logistical contradiction that lies at the heart of IF. You’re the hero. You’re in a tight spot. Things seem hopeless.
>What do you do?
Well, what would you do? What would James Bond do, or wily Ulysses? They’d do something brilliant, totally unexpected, something nobody would have thought of. They’d do the one perfect thing that only they could do to get out of this tight spot.
So, you rack your brains. And you come up with something incredibly clever, unexpected, and far-fetched. Something perfect! But I’m just a writer, not a hero: have I thought of your incredibly clever strategem? If I have, you’re deflated: it’s not heroic after all, it was just a puzzle and you’ve supplied the correct answer. A tough puzzle, maybe, but (obviously) the author was here before you.
And if I have not been here before, the game’s going to say, “I don’t understand.” So, heads you lose, and tailsyou lose.
I have several responses to this:
1) Bernstein’s characterization of “what a hero does” does not describe the role of the hero in tragedy. A tragic hero is rarely like a folkloric trickster hero. There are roles for such characters in ancient drama, but they appear more often (a bit transmuted) as slaves in New Comedy, or in satyr plays. Tragic heroes are more usually confronted with a terrible situation which they must resolve through determination and decision (Antigone making up her mind to refuse her uncle; Iphigenia resolving herself to death; Prometheus, Ajax, and Philoctetes refusing to be coerced or persuaded or shamed by people worse than themselves; Medea, Electra, and Orestes screwing up their courage to take fantastic revenges). Oedipus arguably is characterized as intelligent, but in the course of the play this is put to work mostly to find out a (long past) story, and it doesn’t resolve his problem; it only makes things worse. And, at that, I’m not sure that we’d say he invents a “really clever scheme”: he more falls into the truth by luck. Come to later tragedies: yes, okay, Hamlet thinks up a sly bit of business with that Mousetrap thing, but he is not essentially a character of wit; he in no way resembles Bond or Ulysses.
If we want to present tragic characters in IF, and make the player take the role of a tragic character, then we need to offer tough and painful choices. And indeed this is a direction taken by a good bit of recent experimental IF, though I think we have more to learn about how to do it well.
2) Bernstein’s description of the player’s emotional response doesn’t correspond to observed reality. This is a subjective matter, and if Bernstein says he himself feels disappointment when he pulls off a really clever solution to a problem in IF, well, okay: I believe him. Quite possibly some other people do too. But this isn’t my reaction, or the reaction of quite a few other people I know. Finding that the author has anticipated a crazy action doesn’t reduce my sense of my own cleverness; it makes me feel that I and the author have been clever together. A few such moments have given me quite a surprising flash of fellow-feeling or admiration for the author, while at the same time making me feel that I pulled off something pretty good in the role of my character.
3) The “I don’t understand” problem is a serious one, as I admitted in my original post, but much of IF design theory has to do with solving it. Part of the job is managing expectation: teach the player what kinds of things his character is likely to think of doing; teach the player what kinds of actions are possible and probable in the social world of the story. After all, world-view and culture are much, much more constraining than physical reality: maybe it would be possible for the hero to steal or beg to resolve his poverty, but we’re writing about a character whose sense of honor does not permit such actions. It’s perfectly fair not letting the player do something that is fundamentally out of character or beyond the conception of the player character. In other words, use the story to determine — and explain — the ways in which you constrain the player’s freedom.
The other part is thoroughly and deeply implementing those things that do fall into the game’s domain of action. If we achieve a deep implementation through simulation, then it’s entirely possible that the player will be able to find solutions that aren’t anticipated by the author. The chief challenge here is that it’s really hard to hand over social actions to the control of a simulator. It’s comparatively easy to write a physics simulation that will account for whatever the player does (once we’ve defined the problem domain to be small enough). It’s harder to write a conversation simulation that’s equally effective, which means that for those kinds of interactions the player really does have to depend on the author “getting there first” — but, again, if we define the problem domain to be specific enough, it’s then possible to fill it in pretty well. It just takes a hell of a lot of writing.
Summary: no, I don’t think we’re going to get Hamlet on the Holodeck, soon or in the long term. I don’t think that the Holodeck can be done, technically; I doubt whether it would be a medium of meaningful artistic expression if it could. But what contemporary IF attempts is smaller and at the same time (I think) more narratively promising.