IF, Visuality, and Other Bits of DAC

Among the many great presentations here at DAC 2009 at UC Irvine, the paper by Aaron Kashtan, “Because It’s Not There: Verbal Visuality and the Threat of Graphics in Interactive Fiction,” was particularly nice to hear. Aaron discussed my 2000 interactive fiction Ad Verbum, related it to Emily Short’s City of Secrets, and presented a nice argument about how these two engage (differently) with text’s ability to represent the visual. Here’s the abstract:

In this paper I analyze two contemporary works of interactive fiction (IF), Nick Montfort’s Ad Verbum and Emily Short’s City of Secrets, as examples of two contrasting ways in which IF reacts to the perceived threat of computer graphics. In the post-commercial era of IF, graphics represent a factor that, without being acknowledged, has profoundly shaped the development of the medium. Post-graphical works of IF may be distinguished according to how they respond to the threat or promise of graphics. Ad Verbum’s response to graphics is to emphasize the purely textual, and thus anti-graphical and anti-visual, aspects of the medium. The implication is that IF’s closest affinities are not with visual prose but with printed works of procedural textuality, and that IF is a visual medium. By contrast, City of Secrets activates a mode of visuality that depends less on immediate presence than on emotional affect and imaginative participation. Short suggests that IF is a visual medium, but that it differs from graphical video games in that its visuality depends on absence rather than presence.

I was also really impressed by Brett Camper’s discussion of the MSX-inspired “fake 8-bit” game La-Mulana and, on a very different level, the wide-ranging first talk of the conference, by Kate Hayles, which engaged cognition, tools, attention, and evolution.

DAC 2009 has proceedings which were handed out to attendees on CD-ROM and which will be (to some extent?) available. So, while I hope to mention a few more DAC highlights, I won’t aim to summarize talks.

2 Replies to “IF, Visuality, and Other Bits of DAC”

  1. Thanks for passing this along: I was really interested in Kashtan’s comments. In writing Metamorphoses I did think of what I was doing as specifically ekphrasis, and that’s one reason there are so many layers of detail within the scenery, especially the murals: I was trying to capture a little of the sense, found in Ovid and Catullus, that worked pictorial objects have astounding levels of detail.

    With City of Secrets, though, it’s true that I was trying to do something a little bit different: to hint at the protagonist’s perceptual filters by describing styles and trends rather than straightforward physical detail. I doubt whether many players encounter this, but there are even some examinable abstract nouns in CoS: for instance, confronted with a painting, you can EXAMINE STYLE as well as examining the literal objects depicted in the painting (because the painting’s description does mention “style”, and I thought, why not?).

    This was partly a thematic decision, to do with the idea that there are many layers of truth and illusion in the City.

    I don’t recall it being any kind of deliberate attempt to prove the value of textual IF as a medium as opposed to graphical adventures. (Though Jon Ingold, I believe, wrote “Make It Good” partly to make that argument, so it would be an interesting work to examine in this line.)

  2. Thanks very much to both of you for the insightful comments. I hope you won’t mind if I cite this blog post in the next revision of the paper.

    I wasn’t necessarily suggesting that City of Secrets was a deilberate polemic. I actually said in the talk that I wasn’t ascribing any deliberate personal intentionality to Nick, because I was talking about him as an author-presence, not a person. And the same applies to you of course. My argument, though, is that it’s difficult *not* to attempt to define the value of IF in contrast to graphics, just as ekphrastic poetry has difficulty ignoring the issue of its relationship to painting, photography or film.

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