Nick Montfort responds in turn

Nick Montfort responds in turn

2004-04-02
Riposte to: 

Nick Montfort reiterates the value of multiple perspectives on, and in, New Media.

I’m very pleased to read replies from two theorists whose earlier writing and guidance has been so helpful in my work, theorists who both also create new media. I’ll start by addressing some important but more specific points.

Regarding Brenda Laurel’s reply:

· I mean to call IF (not all computer games) “a potential narrative” in a formalist sense, without appealing to theories of reader response. Thus, my reference to Gerald Prince rather than Wolfgang Iser.

· Some games contain good material for storytelling; providing such can be important. As Henry Jenkins distinguished, though, this isn’t exactly the same as a game actually generating a story.

· My definition of “game” may indeed be lacking. “Structured play” has appeal. Are catch, Hackey Sack, and tea parties all best understood as games? I’m unsure. Whatever the case, Laurel’s comments alert me that looking at IF as “play” - not just “game” - is clearly important, also.

· Fortunately, Murray has added to my few sentences on the riddle; my discussion was indeed incomplete, without even a definition. Chapter 2 of my Twisty Little Passages deals with the riddle vis-a-vis IF much more thoroughly. “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark” is not a riddle, though; no one is supposed to answer it. Murray points to the riddle in Hamlet: “What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?”

Regarding Janet Murray’s reply:

· MOO interfaces join hypertext and IF navigation; they certainly hold lessons for both forms. Since a MOO is a different sort of social and creative space, its interface, convenient for bringing you to chat with your friends, may not be best for reading and replying in IF.

· Natural language (only a small subset of which is “supported” in IF) can raise interactors’ hopes. My insistence on it as part of my definition belies my interests and my ideals for IF. I’ve been trying to improve this symmetrical interface, since I think the result will be rewarding. Also, I do, as Laurel suggests, think that graphical adventures should be considered alongside text adventures in some discussions, even though my literary bent leads me to prefer the narrower definition of “language” in talking about IF interfaces.

· Riddling can indeed be a “contest” (within that Venn diagram circle) but the wit and mastery of the riddler is not always the main point. May Swenson’s delightful Poems to Solve holds easy but excellent riddles; Emily Dickinson’s riddles are other fairly recent American examples that are not mostly about mastery but rather a new perspective.

To speak more broadly, Laurel’s equating the “world” of IF to the material of a play is tremendously enlightening. The equation isn’t a new one; its implications are described in Laurel’s thesis and Computers as Theatre. One important poetic question it prompts is whether the material causes of the action (the objects and locations in the simulated world) are exactly those required for the formal causes of the action (the overarching purpose of the IF). What’s wonderful is how this “world” and “material” equation shows the usefulness of multiple perspectives. Design of IF is informed by the dramatic perspective; since the IF world is also spatial in Murray’s sense, other approaches to space can be of direct help. If our space is difficult to navigate when it should be easy, or vice versa, the problem is one that - although it can be seen and addressed from the dramatic perspective - may best be remedied by consideration from another standpoint, perhaps that of architecture. Murray has pointed out several shared features of new media that can be understood better by being scrutinized in terms of existing forms. Laurel’s application of Aristotelian drama is not only useful by itself; it is also a model for how to see and better understand new media in relation to an older form.

Murray is right to point out that different new media artifacts share qualities, and that there are general insights (such as the many in Hamlet on the Holodeck that are applicable to IF) to be had about new media. I do find that overgeneralization can be a problem in characterizing new media forms, but I do not mean to rule out “new media” as a concept. Direct manipulation is one paradigm that has some general applicability, as noted. Still, an interface in which both user and system employ the same mode, such as natural language - one that is “symmetric,” as Laurel calls it - has its advantages, too. IF can, as Murray suggests, be profitably seen as “conversation” - another figure for IF, like “play,” that I sadly omitted in my original tour, but which highlights the value of this symmetry. Discussion of IF is also informed by principles of new media design, but it’s important in applying these principles to consider specific older forms that are related particularly to IF - as Murray does in taking up the matter of the riddle in more detail. Of course, IF is an invention of the twentieth century with its own essential nature. A theory truly native to the computer game (once “game” is defined) will provide insights, and perhaps even a framework for integrating what we know about IF - assuming such a game studies theory does not react against “story” so strongly as to not admit something like IF, which generates narratives in response to typed text.

To see IF as “new media,” and to add “play” and “conversation” to the ten perspectives I originally mentioned, offers thirteen ways of looking at interactive fiction, perhaps enough for a clear vision of sorts. The thirteen ways Wallace Stevens offered are, after all, also one way; they build on and speak to each other. Seeing IF as riddle reveals new things about IF’s nature. The word “as” is important - it’s not Computers Are Theatre, after all, and First Person ‘s subtitle isn’t New Media is Story, Performance, and Game. To reduce any new media form to something that it literally is not can’t be helpful. There are some things IF “is” and can be reduced to, such as a computer program or a potential narrative, but these too are each only one way of seeing. IF is not only a computer program; “potential narrative” is one of many circles.

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