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Interfacing with Computer Narratives: Literary Possibilities for Interactive Fiction

Part II
The Role of Interaction

4. Interacting as Process

Like traditional reading, interacting is a process, and important insights are gained from looking at it as such. The process view comprehends much more than puzzle-solving. Consideration of process is even more important to interactive fiction than to traditional narrative, because the fixed textual product, which is the basis of the various experiences that readers of a traditional text have, need not exist in an interactive fiction. Instead, there is a process of textual generation in which both the interactive fiction and the interactor participate. Because of this absence of any fixed product, the experience of interactors can be extremely individual, and the narrative that unfolds may have much more meaning for the interactor who helped craft it than for someone uninvolved in its creation.

A computer narrative that was non-interactive would still rely upon process to achieve its literary effect. Italo Calvino described a machine that could simply enumerate all strings of a given language, but then went on to note that only through the collision of such language with a reader would any of this become literature:

The literature machine can perform all the permutations possible on a given material, but the poetic result will be the particular effect of one of these permutations on a man endowed with a conscious and an unconscious, that is, an empirical and historical man. It will be the shock that occurs only if the writing machine is surrounded by the hidden ghosts of the individual and of his society. (22)

In an interactive fiction, the development of a literary process takes a different track than it would with a traditional text or with a generative, non-interactive literature machine. The interactive fiction offers texts not in a fixed format but as a response to the interactor. There is a process on both ends.

A work of traditional literature is a textual product that can give rise to many different reading processes, since it combines with the experiences and idiosyncrasies of various readers. A reader who recently read An American Tragedy might see structural parallels and a conscious contrast between white and black society and upper- and lower-class crime when reading Native Son, while a strong pro- or anti-communist might find that the politics of the novel leave the biggest impression.

An interactive fiction has different readings, too, but no fixed textual product. What is invariant in all the instances of existing interactive fiction is a set of coded instructions to the computer (code) and text or other media fragments (data) which are arranged according to these coded instructions and the input of the interactor. The code and data are designed to facilitate processes of interaction, processes that will have commonalties but, like a reading experience, will differ from interactor to interactor. Even a hypertext document, which is a series of text fragments connected by static links (that is, the way in which the text fragments are connected does not vary from interactor to interactor), does not guarantee a shared textual experience between interactors, because there is no usual or typical ordering of these text fragments, as there is traditional literature. Traditional books composed of bits of text, like some Kurt Vonnegut novels, have an ordering to them that provides that all readers will experience the same product. An interactive fiction, in contrast, provides the same fixed rules of interaction to govern all interactors' processes (so all the interactions will have some similar qualities), but no common product.

There is some product, however, which results from interaction with a computer narrative. In Myst or other multimedia interactive fiction, this is a series of images, sounds and animation. In the textual interactive fictions of Infocom, this product is a "transcript of interaction," a string of English sentences that can be recorded or printed out. Later, this transcript can be read like a story. Unlike the experience of interacting itself, however, the transcript of interaction or animated sequence of images and sounds is seldom of much interest either to the interactor or to another observer, except perhaps as a source of clues to a puzzle. This loss of enjoyability is a curious feature of a text. The great satisfaction an interactor received from a particular juxtaposition of words, from the results of his or her input to the story, from the realization that wanderings through the interactive fiction have produced - none of these persist in the resulting text. This particular puzzle can be solved, however, by realizing that despite the existence of this remnant of text, a record of the interactive process, the interactive fiction is not at all oriented toward producing any final textual product. The interactive process occurs at the moment of interaction and has only the fiction and the interactor as its participants.

In an experiment in live "interactive drama" designed to help create computer interactive fictions, the findings of Carnegie Mellon researchers supported the idea that the process in which an interactor is involved can be fulfilling to the interactor yet uninteresting to non-participants. "During the experience, the interactors were caught up in the story .... In contrast, the observers did not find the characters believable and often lost interest when the action seemed to lag." This difference in interest levels is acceptable, however, since interactive drama, like interactive fiction, has an audience of one: "the interactor only." (Kelso et. al. 4)

An interactive fiction is clearly even more process-oriented than a traditional work of literature. Iser says that the center of a novel is found between the text and the reader: "[T]he literary work cannot be completely identical with the text, or with the realization of the text [by the reader], but in fact must lie half-way between the two." (274) To look for an interactive literary work in this spot would be futile; the text is absent. One might find it, instead, halfway between the process of the computer, directed by the rules and data constructed by the interactive fiction designer (the code and data which constitute the physical existence of the interactive fiction) and the interactor's activities and input. This halfway point, where interactor and interactive fiction program meet, is the interface.

_____________ Nick Montfort