Narrative Variation (part 5)   1 comment

(p. 28) Emily Short’s essay “What’s IF?” makes several points of interest, although it does not define interactive fiction well enough to distinguish it from chatterbots and other programs.

(The full essay “What’s IF?” is here.)

I’ll grant the essay is digressive. I’d argue it’s simply taking the question of defining IF as the starting point to examine more general issues.

There’s a footnote that is highly relevant to nn:

In doing this, I developed a theory, which is: good simulation of a complex system often requires several layers of prose. The substrate is that which is pieced together from relatively generic bits; then over that there may be a level of additional customization; and, finally, the Unique Items. Enough variation in the way the prose comes about, and the player may be lulled, if not into thinking that you wrote every variation in advance yourself, at least into ignoring the fact that you didn’t.

The nn system (at least in the alpha version) is not concerned about unique prose, but in approach it seems to match the wish outlined above. I believe the greatest potential of nn is as a subsytem of a work made with unique prose. I have no desire to replace for the crafting of unique text, but I do want a way of making the spaces between unique texts more livable.

Narrative variation would allow authors to try new tricks, like including 30+ people in a room. This has been attempted before, in The Battle of Walcot Keep. With so many characters moving around, it is highly difficult to keep track of what is going on. If the text was condensed and included narrative variation the descriptions would flow naturally.

I could also see narrative variation working with the “object highlighting” system of Nothing More, Nothing Less. (Essentially, the game only describes objects when they become important, giving the impression of a house that is not as barren as your typical work of IF.) Perhaps every object can be modelled, and the narrative variation generator can automatically generate a hierarchy of importance based on the action of the game (so “some appliances” only needs to specify a “blender” when a blender is genuinely needed).

(p. 29) Rather than state, as Short does, that “IF *tends* to represent, in some form, an environment or imagined world whose physical space we can explore,” it seems better to say that a simulated world, the IF world, is essential to interactive fiction. The only counterexample Short advanced was Andrew Plotkin’s 1997 The Space Under The Window. This is a word of hypertext implemented in Inform; instead of clicking on a word as would be typical on the Web, typing one of the words displayed causes the appearance of a new lexia, in George Landow’s sense, indicating a section of hypertext.

I would like to present an alternative to The Space Under the Window: Astronomy Without a Telescope, by George Jenner. The interactor here is a psychologist who is having a conversation with a patient, forming questions in natural language.

Glancing back at my model of interactive fiction types, Astronomy Without a Telescope defines as a “chatterbot”. However, there ends up being both a story and puzzles, so it skirts close to what we tend to call “interactive fiction”.

Posted October 23, 2007 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction, Narrative Variation

One response to “Narrative Variation (part 5)

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  1. You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of IF as a ‘world’ lately, for two reasons — I read one of Montfort’s essays, (over here:, in which he gives his definition of IF as “a program that simulates a world, understands natural-language text input from an interactor and provides a textual reply based on events in the world”; and I played Deadline Enchanter.

    It seems like a like of the comments about DE have noted its under-implementation — in a sense its failure to model its world to a sufficient degree, i.e., “a simulated world […] is essential to interactive fiction”.

    However this made me think of another recent thing I read, by M. John Harrison: If you follow the trail of that you’ll see a lot of criticism of Harrison, but I think it’s pretty interesting to consider IF in light of what Harrison is writing there:

    Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

    Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

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