Friday, April 19, 2013

Time for the decennial definitional post

(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".)

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Sam Kabo Ashwell (Apr 19, 2013 at 3:55 PM):

The literal denotation just doesn't work, because it encompasses nearly every videogame every made.

Yes. (I always grit my teeth when someone wheels out the 'if it's interactive and it's fiction, obviously it's IF' argument.)

David Cornelson (Apr 19, 2013 at 5:10 PM):

Before seeing apps from Inkle and Versu, I would have classified Interactive Fiction with the cranky old man argument that they were only of the Infocom-like games.

I think the UI/UX experiments happening are changing how we view IF, but also expanding the audience which in-turn will expand the definition of IF.

Emily Short (Apr 19, 2013 at 6:39 PM):


I'd say rather that my list of creation tools is more informed by the definition "these are the tools used by people or communities who have expressed an interest in including their work in the critical discussions of the IF community" than by any formal criteria. It's true that those people have mostly been rooted in text traditions rather than graphical ones.

What do I mean by that? Well, lots of Twine users have expressed a desire to participate in IF community competitions (by entering them) and awards (by posting about them) and conversations (by showing up in our forums). Failbetter, inkle, Textfyre, and Choice of Games have done explicit outreach of various kinds, and in many cases employ or work with people who have also written parser games, and posted blog posts talking about craft and theory concepts around narrative gaming that are generally relevant to the same things the IF community talks about.

But there are lots of things not listed there even though I would consider them tools appropriate for related projects -- gamebook makers, other CYOA systems for various platforms, and even some general-purpose tools relevant to text. (I have one design idea for which the closest tool I can think of is Prezi. Which is annoying, because it doesn't quite do everything I want, and because Prezi is Not A Game Format.)

Why did I leave those other possibilities out? a) I haven't heard anything about the tool myself though I can infer that some such tool must exist (e.g. tools for some of the Kindle CYOA that doesn't come from inkle); or b) I don't know of any community of existing users or collection of existing games to point people to, even though I think the tool would be suited to building some form of IF.

I realize "IF is the stuff made by people who want to call that stuff IF" is a pretty weak definition, and obviously some joker could create an IFDB entry for his interactive pet parrot and then express confusion about why this was widely considered an error.

But I'm finding that definition functionally more useful at this moment than others, at least when it comes to answering the question "what should my blog try to provide information and resources about?".

And forcing people to append more adjectives to define particular formal subtypes has the salutary effect of reminding them of the great variety within categories that used to be glomped together: choice-based fiction with an underlying world model or without? how sophisticated is the model and what is it even a model of? etc.

george (Apr 19, 2013 at 9:35 PM):
"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.

I agree, but I also haven't forgotten the reply of a twentysomething in line at PAX a couple of years ago; when I said I was going to an interactive fiction panel, they asked, "IF like Heavy Rain or IF like Galatea"?

Andrew Plotkin (Apr 19, 2013 at 11:29 PM):

"IF like Heavy Rain or IF like Galatea"?

That's fair. I had forgotten about that subset. We'll see how the consensus (or whatever) plays out.

"IF is the stuff made by people who want to call that stuff IF"

Oh, I've spent plenty of time arguing that all genres are discussions amongst an audience. It's not what I was basing this post on but I'll never pooh-pooh that approach.

I appreciate your description of your tools criteria. I have some hope that the groups interested in these critical discussions have something in common (besides being attracted by the term "interactive fiction". That'd be a little too circular). At the moment, what I see is text -- and it seems like people will wind up lumping the other gamebook/CYOA/visual novel tools in, whether they've been part of that discussion or not.

Or I could be wrong about that. Again, we'll see.

Felix (Apr 21, 2013 at 2:46 AM):

That reminds me of something I wrote in my article about the definition of computer games:
... the word ‘game’ does create certain expectations. Notably, neither the term ‘text adventure’ nor ‘interactive fiction’ contain ‘game’, and predictably enough nobody’s feathers are ruffled by linear, puzzleless works in the genre that are quite clearly just electronic literature. Some players might avoid them, but nobody will contest that they belong.

Ultimately, as you pointed out, many things in this world (such as "life" or "intelligence") have vague definitions at best, yet the concepts are still useful. So while words create expectations, we shouldn't get too hung up on them -- the concepts behind them are more important.

Rikard Peterson (Apr 21, 2013 at 8:08 AM):

I don't have a good term for the genre, but I want to mention that you were very correct in noting that "Experiential game" is easy to misread as "experimental". That's how I read it in your text, and then had to go back and read it again slowly after you pointed that out.

And as a datapoint to illustrate that any categorisation of communities (or genres) will have cases that fall on the outside (or the fuzzy edge) of the definition: I'm working on my second graphical adventure game. I've never made a text game, nor am I likely to ever do so. But I still feel more at home in the IF circles than at, say, the AGS forums or something. Not because my games have a special connection to the text games or something (and I'm certainly not claiming my games to be better or deeper than what's produced by the AGS community) - my games are pretty firmly rooted in the LucasArts tradition - but because I see more things to learn from the IF crowd, that's the community I'd rather be a part of.

I don't know if that second paragraph makes any sense, but I'm keeping it there anyway.

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