Interactive fiction’s revival (if it was ever dead) gives us a new way to think about seeing and being seen in video games.
Have you ever played Zork? If you’ve only played one text-based adventure game, it was probably Zork. The 1979 game, built on a PDP–10 mainframe computer by a gaggle of nerds at MIT (he writes, with love) wasn’t the first. That honor would go to Adventure, designed in 1976 by Will Crowther, a programmer with Bolt, Beranek & Newman, a Cambridge-based technology firm. But it was Zork that, as Nick Montfort observes in his excellent 2003 book on interactive fiction (IF), Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, has captured the imagination of players from the late 1970s to the present day.
I never played Zork growing up. My first experiences with video gaming were on 16-bit systems, and I quickly graduated to 3D gaming. The idea of a text-based adventure had never occurred to me, past marathon sessions of Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, which sit, like many educational games, in a space between text-based games, point-and-click adventures, and “traditional” 2D gaming. When I first encountered Zork, through emulators when I was in my teens, my reaction was what I expect many people’s would have been in the mid–2000s: “You mean I have to imagine it?” My rubric for what constituted a “game” couldn’t handle it. A game had something you could see. If you couldn’t see it, how did it exist?
But the worm turns, and the wheel circles, and text-based gaming, oddly enough, isn’t nearly as foreign to mainstream “gaming” in 2014 as it was in 2004, or even 1994. Games like Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest and porpentine’s Twine games, while certainly not “mainstream” by even an expansive definition, are getting more attention now than ever, due to an increased interest in how low-cost, low-barrier-to-entry game tools can be used to make games (or IF, or interactive experiences, or whatever phrase suits you) that play with race, gender, and difference in ways that major game companies can’t/won’t.
Some of these games, unsurprisingly, make overly-vocal contingents of the Internet angry, and not just because they’re made by women, or deal frankly with questions of identity and power. As Leigh Alexander writes in The New Inquiry, these games, along with a whole host of other kinds of non-IF “narrative-driven, personal-storytelling games,” are often derided by “detractors, veteran game designers who look at [them] as ‘cool, but “not games”.’” As with anything defined in the negative, the phrase “not games” ends up saying far more about the person saying it than the imagined category of games or not-games. “Not games” says more about those detractors’ ideas of what constitutes a game, and less about the tricky and slippery nature of interactive fiction. There are presumptions of technological power, political arrangements, tone, aesthetics, and subject matter wrapped up in games and not-games. This is what Alexander means when she talks about how the Independent Games Festival “traditionally celebrates young white guys experimenting with the language of design through well-liked but increasingly familiar twee, retro aesthetics.”
Again, the question of aesthetics emerges. Text-based adventures—interactive fictions—are “not games” not only when they buck an accepted norm of how narrative should progress, or, in the case of this particular contemporary wave Alexander identifies, their thematic preoccupations, but also when they don’t look like games. It’s the same bafflement I had when I first encountered Zork. After all, aren’t we talking about video games here?
(Parenthetically, it’s worth saying that we in fact are talking about video games. At the very least, “games” in Alexander’s article operates as a shorthand for video games, rather than games in a Geertzian, anthropological sense. If we were talking only about games-as-structured-play, the divide between games and interactive fiction or structured narratives would be even more artificial.)
What a (video) game looks like, or how a game trains or invites us to look, are familiar concepts. How interactive fiction looks, or how it trains us to see, is a trickier question. Below is a screenshot of Zork running on my own computer in an IF interpreter program called Zoom. The program doesn’t quite mimic the mainframe computer experience of playing Zork in the original, but running it in an explicitly IF-interpreter program allows us to make some generalizations about IF that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to. (Also, I don’t have a mainframe computer. So that helps.)
The first major difference between this and a contemporary game like Assassin’s Creed is the primacy of text. In this section of Zork, I’ve wandered through the twists and turns of a forest and come out near a canyon. Maneuvering the canyon leads me to a strange location known as the “End of the Rainbow,” which, at this point of the game seems like a vestigial appendage, a small mystery put in as a confounding joke. (Spoilers: it becomes useful later on in the game.) I don’t actually see any of the Great Canyon, Frigid River, White Cliffs, or Aragain Falls. I have to imagine them through text, and maneuver through them by memory, or, in the case of more complex parts of the game, by relying on detailed maps that I draw myself.
Text takes on two key aesthetic roles in this section of the game. The first is the text’s capacity to assume aesthetic properties in and of its own right through choices of font, color, spacing, and other feature of typography. Text, as anyone who has waffled over font choices in word processor programs knows, has the capacity to function imagistically. While I am able, in Zoom, to change the font, its size, its color, and the background color, the game will always follow the same textual structure: a paragraph of text, followed by an empty command prompt, directly modeled after the computer’s command line. The effect is one of unmasking, of seeing the game’s code running, in real time (though even this is an illusion).
The second is that text mediates an imaginary, rather than specific, visual experience. The language is clear about some parts of what I’m seeing—generally those parts that have to do with directionality, orientation, and discovery—and vague in others. We know that the Frigid River is “mighty” and that it “flows out from a great dark cavern,” but how wide is it? How deep? Does it have rapids? Fish? Is it blue, or deep black, or covered in green growth? All of these are left for me to decide.
At no point in Zork does the game define who “You” are or what you look like. The obvious advantage of this is that it leaves the player free to map physical characteristics onto the player character in her own imagination. This isn’t to say that the omission of specific details about the player character’s race, gender, or lived experience is necessarily an advantage. Omissions can easily turn into slippery avoidances, and there is much to be gained, from a social justice perspective, from explicitly defining a character as black or queer or disabled. I’d rather draw attention to how games like Zork create clear space for the player’s imagination—how “looking” is not rendered passively, but becomes part of a larger matrix of visual generation. The player is a part of the game in a more dynamic way; a part of the code itself. Unlike contemporary gaming, which almost always situates the player in a first or third person view, Zork gives us the second person. It could use this second person to tell us specific, particular things about ourselves, to delimit the player character in clear ways, but it doesn’t. Instead, it opens up a space for us to choose based on what we can imagine, rather than the limits of programmability or the sociocultural assumptions of developers.