Time for the decennial definitional post

Friday, April 19, 2013

Comments: 7   (latest 2 days later)

Tagged: interactive fiction, politics, experiential games, terminology, if

(This post is not about the definition of "game".)

Eleven years ago, I wrote a post entitled Characterizing Interactive Fiction. I wanted to put the pin in what I called "IF" and, more usefully, why I found that category to be interesting and distinct from other kinds of games.

My definition at that time -- here, I'll quote it:

A program which reveals a story (or related stories), created by an author (or authors), to a player (or players); such that the range of action available to the player is only partially known to him, and must be understood in terms of the story world; and such that the majority of important results of the player's actions are unique results, specifically created by the author to support that part of the story which the player is experiencing.

Notice that I don't say anything about a text parser, or even about text. This is because I was pointing at a structural similarity between (parser-based) text adventures and (first-person) graphical adventures.

I still find this a useful category. But it's not much of an observation these days, and designers have managed to incorporate those sorts of elements into lots of different kinds of games. (When I reworked the essay for the 2011 IF Theory Reader, I went with "a game that is controlled by textual input..." Mostly because the Myst-style adventure genre had more or less faded away.)

These days "interactive fiction" is a whole different argument. My 2002 essay relegated "those pesky CYOAs" to an end-note. That wasn't even controversial, because you could (at that time) still regard choice-based games as the genre of the simple branching plot tree -- Cave of Time on a computer. Those games that elaborated on the model did so in the direction of adding CRPG elements (potentially interesting, but not adventure-like) or by trying to become more like Zork (generally not interesting).

Okay, it's not 2002 any more. The 2012 XYZZY finalists include Twine, StoryNexus, and Inkle projects. Yesterday I saw Emily Short saying:

Got rid of the IF vs. CYOA distinction on my blogroll of tools and languages. It was getting less and less meaningful. (@emshort, April 18)

As an IF guy, I shake my fist and lightning cracks from the sky behind me. Or my cane trembles in my upraised hand -- pick your symbolic lading. (Nobody point out that I wrote one of those choice-based XYZZY finalists, that would just be embarrassing.)

As a student of the game world, anyhow, this is all sorts of interesting. How are people (other than cranky old bastards) now using the term "interactive fiction"?

Let me first block off a dead end. (Apologies to folks who know this rant -- this hasn't changed since 2002.) "Interactive fiction" is not the category of interactive works which are fictions. (Nor the category of stories which are interactive.) That's never been a concensus definition in any part of the gaming world. The literal denotation just doesn't work, because it encompasses nearly every videogame every made. Maybe not Tetris. But probably Missile Command, and certainly Prince of Persia, Halo, and Animal Crossing.

(When IF Quake -- a parser-based re-imagining of Quake -- appeared, everybody thought it was a good joke. Nobody said "Quake is interactive and has a storyline, therefore the IF version of Quake would have to be Quake itself.")

So, what now? I'll throw out a bare-faced hypothesis: people are now using "interactive fiction" to refer to videogames that are primarily text. Or, which focus most of the player's attention on the text. Let me go back and look at Emily's "Creation Tools" list... yes, fits so far. Fits with the XYZZY nominees. IF -> text games. Yes? No?

(I am intermittently cranky about this usage not because it's a change -- okay, partially because it's a change -- but mostly because it's a rather shallow division. I want to compare, say, Versu not necessarily to other text games, but to other games that are using similar techniques! How would you accomplish that sort of conversational in a graphical, or primarily graphical, game? Is that not an interesting question? But this is the descriptivist part of the post -- I don't want to argue against the term, just get a clear view of it.)

Let me swing around to come at an unrelated game category (or is it?) -- a category that I'm pretty sure we see, but which doesn't seem to have a name yet.

When I played Proteus, my first reaction was "This isn't a game!" Jmac jibed back "Uh-oh! Game police!" which is totally fair. Clearly Proteus is built with game-design tools, draws its UI from game interface conventions, and focusses on techniques used in games. (Procedural environment rendering. The shaping of emotional arc from environmental cues in a free-navigation simulated space.)

Going back, one could make all the same points about Dear Esther, except for the procedural-generation bit. And Journey has elements of it, although it's not quite the same. What we have here is a terminology problem -- an interesting and distinctive category of game which people aren't sure what to call.

What characterizes this category? Exploration in a simulated world, but no blocking challenges. You will reach the end if you keep moving. (Not necessarily moving forward.) This is, in fact, an excellent analog to the "puzzle-free IF" label that people were tossing around (or flinging down) in the late 90s, when Photopia and its ilk appeared. (And indeed, people in the IF scene questioned whether these things were games -- but we never had much doubt that they were interactive fiction, i.e. A Resident Of These Here Parts. A nice benefit of having our own term of art to sling around.)

I like to say "Game design is an exercise in controlled frustration", so you see where my "not a game!" reflex is coming from. But I also like to say that "puzzles" must be understood, in the broadest sense, to include all mechanisms of pacing in interactive work. Clearly these games give deep attention to pacing! In my Dear Esther review I argued that by focussing on the single interactive mode of "walk around", the designers had focussed me on the ramifications of walking: the attempt (or failure) to reach a goal, the learning of space, the time taken to move (no running!) It's interactivity, it's just in fewer layers than we're used to.

I'm not saying that these pure experiments are going to become the next AAA category, because that's not how gaming works. All genres hybridize. Future games will draw elements from these things, and that's the real reason why we talk about them as games. But it helps to have a label!

I tossed the question out on Twitter, and got a few not-entirely-satisfactory responses:
  • Ambient game: Doesn't get at the vital aspects of pacing and arc.
  • Experiential game: Perhaps. Easy to misread as "experimental", though!
  • Art game: Kind of taken already, by Gregory Weir and Jason Rohrer and that crowd. (That category overlaps this one, of course, but it's an aesthetic category rather than a structural one, and includes games with clear game-like challenges as well as those without.)
  • Non-game: Jeez, I hope not.

(Back in my really early adventure-reviewing days, I tossed around the term "interactive movie". I'm not picking that one back up at this late date, though. It was a mistake.)

I am cautiously leaning towards "experiential game" at this point. (Note that, just like "interactive fiction", it is wrong as a literal description. Sure, every game is "experienced" by the player. I don't care; it's a label. Ask me about "science fiction" and "fantasy" some time.)

As a side note: recently someone commented, "The definition of 'interactive fiction'... it seems almost political." Of course it's political! When the concensus of a community changes, that's a political process. When two communities brush up against each other, and try to communicate, that's politics. These things are happening in the IF world(s).

One could say the same about the definition of "experiential game", or in fact the definition of "game".

(This post is not about the definition of "game".)

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