People who were interested in Second Person but didn’t buy the hardcover copy may be interested to know that many of the articles are now being presented online over at electronic book review, as a continuation of the First Person thread. Since there’s a large amount of content here and it may not be immediately obvious which of these articles are IF-related, I’ve also added to the Second Person page over at ifwiki with links directly into the IF-specific stuff.
Along similar lines, Dennis Jerz has an interesting summary of Chris Crawford’s talk at Hypertext ’08.
Admittedly, a lot of this is stuff that Crawford has been saying, in various forms, for quite a long time now, and my reasons for skepticism remain unchanged. Still, there are some bits of quoted dialogue that are sort of revealing. E.g.:
Chris: “Why do I want more literary flavor?”
Mark M: “That’s what I want.”
Chris: “Then write a book!”
Chris — expecting a literary output is dismissing the primacy of ineraction. The level of interaction is where the richness. The visual and literary part aren’t expected to be rich. The medium has zero literary value, positive intearctive value. [sic]
I sort of sympathize with this, in the sense that I’m often frustrated by dismissive evaluations of interactive fiction and video games in general: critics often argue that because an interactive medium cannot provide exactly the same virtues as the uninteractive one of their choice (usually books or movies), games are categorically incapable of qualifying as art form or presenting a story “as well” as these more developed media. Repetition of content and pacing issues are often cited as particularly problematic for interactive fiction, often by people who feel that the transcript of an IF game should read like a novel if it wants to lay claim to novel-like artistic status. This essentially flattens everything that is interesting about IF — the give-and-take between the game and the player — and insists on purely formal aspects of good novel writing as being inherent in good IF writing. (I’ve argued before that good writing for IF does not necessarily have the same characteristics as good writing for a novel.)
But — and this is a pretty large but — I don’t think “interaction”, in and of itself, usually produces richness. You have to be interacting with something. You might say: fine; the player is interacting with the mathematical model that Crawford has built, which represents the feelings and attitudes of the non-player characters, and this model is so sophisticated that the feelings and attitudes can come out in many combinations and gradations.
Look at it this way, though: if we strip away the fictionality entirely, then what we have is the player putting some numbers in and getting some numbers out. Anger: 0.5! Lust: -0.37! Clearly we do need the fiction, which comes between the players and the numbers, and gives the model a meaning. (Fiction is not the same as “narrative” here. I’m using fiction in the broad sense that Jasper Juul uses in half-real, to apply to everything from the plot in Portal to the fact that some chess pieces are shaped like knights on horseback — everything that situates the abstractions of the game in some sort of relation to a real or imagined world.)
Once we admit the need for this fiction — something that goes beyond the computer’s representation of the “rules”, and gives them color and meaning to humans — then we also have to consider that the fictional aspects can be better or worse, more or less engaging. This is especially true if, like me, you’re interested in telling a specific story or set of stories with a given game; but it’s still true if, like Chris, you’re interested in giving the player a storyworld in which to come up with his own narrative. The quality of the fictional elements is not irrelevant, and it’s especially important when it comes to making the player care. The modeled character may have a wide range of emotional responses available, but if he doesn’t articulate these in a way that I identify as characteristic and at least somewhat human (with facial expressions or gestures or plausible use of language), I will always regard him as a toy or robot, not a person. I may have a fun time seeing what his response range is, but in all likelihood I will not be invested in his feelings and I may not regard the output as story-ish.
Making the player care is, in fact, an element that Crawford seems to have left out of a lot of his calculations — I’ve talked elsewhere about how his model of the ideal interactive story as just a string of choices is deficient because it doesn’t engage the player with the exposition and doesn’t give him a chance to build an investment in the story between crisis points.
And I sort of suspect that the unappealing vision of what gameplay will be like — mechanical interaction with an artificial-looking face, by means of artificial-sounding flowcharts drained of all personality — also explains some of the indifference Crawford gets from the very people he’s trying to bring on board.