Presence in Interactive Fiction

The first issue of the Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, from earlier this year, sports a nice article by Alf Seegert, “Doing there’ vs. ‘being there’: performing presence in interactive fiction.” In it, Seegert sharpens the existing discussion of reader-response theory and IF to explain how IF may need to balance between boredom and overstrain and how the writerly role allows for new sorts of presence. He then conducts some good discussions of Jon Ingold’s All Roads (highlighting how the body of the player character is indicated) and Paul O’Brian’s Luminous Horizon (looking particularly at the subjective narration).

Looks like a single issue of the Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds costs £18, unfortunately. (Institutional subscriptions are £150.) Too bad, particularly since there are least three peer-reviewed, open-access, no-page-fee journals in the field (Game Studies, Digital Humanities Quarterly, and eLudamos) that were up and running before this one was founded. Update: That is the advertised price, but the issue is currently available for free, as is the article.

Read and Jump in Silent Conversation

“I had with me many tools, and dug much within the walls of the obliterated edifices; but progress was slow, and nothing significant was revealed.”

– H. P. Lovecraft, “The Nameless City”

Gregory Weir, who fashioned the very nice piece The Majesty of Colors, has a new game with levels built out of existing texts, including “The Nameless City.” The new platformer is called Silent Conversation, a title taken from poet Walter Savage Landor’s description of reading.

The Prufrock level in Silent Conversation

The second Nameless City level in Silent Conversation

My impression is that this one is not as short and compelling as The Majesty of Colors, but is more elaborate and is, if not a success, at least a very interesting failure. It’s not a particularly good or fun platformer qua platformer and doesn’t offer a very good model of the reading process, but it reveals more about about the potential of games as digital objects that can be both played and read. I don’t think that making levels out of pre-existing texts works nearly as well as would original writing, but the setting of those texts into interactive concrete was certainly done with care.

The model of reading is one in which you have to touch every word with your eye (your “I”, in this case) to seek a good score (represented as a letter grade, believe it or not). “Powerful” words fire slow-moving letters at you, which clear away your accomplishments on the screen if they hit you. In some places you can fall to your death and undo the reading on the screen, too.

If this were done as a parody of the reading process as conceived of in the educational system, it could work effectively. Playing the game does suggest to me things that I do when I read – looking back over the text for a word I missed or misread, trying to progress by looking at at least each phrase along the way. But the reading of these texts is numbed, rather than heightened, by having them as elements of play in this way. Just to stick to the mechanics, rather than looking to deeper aesthetic questions about reading: Words are either powerful or not, and I need to simply tag them in either case, carefully if they might undo some of my progress, quickly otherwise. Whether in a long fiction work or a short poem, I can, when reading on paper or e-book, skip back to re-reread without slogging back past each word, as I have to go in this game. And I can re-read sections when I’m done, too. While the phrases used as decorations add color and visual interest, this game, perhaps surprisingly, makes a less unilinear reading experience into a more linear experience in reading and playing. It also rewards a perfunctory glance and touch rather than requiring discernment, figuring out, and comprehension, as do some other video games made entirely out of words – works of interactive fiction.

Reading and playing are not two great tastes that taste great together in this case, but I appreciate Weir bumping them into each other in this piece and trying to figure out how they might enhance one other. And for those interested both in gaming and in digital writing/electronic literature, Silent Conversation is certainly required reading.

A Machine to Play Pitfall

Carlos Diuk, Andre Cohen, and Michael L. Littman of Littman’s RL3 Laboratory at Rutgers devised a new way of doing reinforcement learning, using Object-Oriented Markov Decision Processes, a representation that looks at a higher level than usual and considers objects and interactions. They had a paper about this at last year’s International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML). Better yet, they demonstrated their OO-MDPs representation by using it in a system that learned to play Pitfall in an emulator. I don’t believe that the system got all the treasures, but watching it play and explore the environment was certainly impressive. It seems like the technique is an interesting advance. By trying it out on a classic game, the researchers suggest that it will have plenty of “serious” uses in addition to being used in video game testing and in game AI.

Playing the Irish Game, Talking About Train


I got to hear Brenda Brathwaite speak about her recent work yesterday. As you know if you’re read the Escapist article about her board games, she’s been developing a series of non-digital games about very serious subjects: The middle passage, Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland, and the Holocaust – so far. I also got to talk with her and some others about Train (upper right) at the GAMBIT Game Lab and got to play against her there in Siochan Leat (lower left). The latter, also known as “The Irish Game,” is a very playable game, although in my limited experience, it seems like it may have too many symmetries. I tried to play for a draw (since that seemed like a “fair” outcome), forgot about a rule and fell behind, and then caught up again to draw the game in the end. Since Train was “spoiled” for me and others, we talked about the play that had taken place in other sessions, and ended up having a very interesting discussion. I have no problem with games that rely on the players being naive, and which can be played only once, as long as that one experience is valuable. The verbal game Max and Nora is like this, and the way that some people play the party game Psychiatrist is similar, also. The latter game can easily be generalized, though, and can be endless fun (and insightful) if it is. Train is about something quite different: the drive for efficiency that obscures the ethics of one’s action. It is meant to provoke substantial conversation, and it does that well, helping us think about the nature of play and the design of games as well as about an important historical episode.

The Irish Game

These games impressed me as very thoroughly thought through on a material as well as a formal level. They also impressed me as original, unique art works, a quality which in some ways contributes to their ability to tackle difficult subjects. I do think that it works against their purpose in some ways, though. Many more people could play and benefit from these games if they were cheap or “open,” rather than unique. Still, I can’t complain about the project, and I’ll look forward to the next games in Brathwaite’s series.

Guardian Hails IF, Novelists

Keith Stuart’s provocative article in The Guardian plugs modern-day interactive fiction and suggests that novelists should be more involved in the making of video games, as they have been in the past. The article is on the right track. There is certainly reason for video game companies to license, or, less frequently, collaborate with those who make movies. But there are lots of things that games can do, and novelists could bring interesting perspectives, skills, and art to games – even they aren’t text-based interactive fiction. Of course, the right match has to be made and the writer has to be persuaded that video games are serious enough. I suggest Ubisoft grab Paul Auster, a dizzying writer. If he didn’t mind the association that come with writing and co-directing the movie Smoke, video games should be no problem.

Thanks to Emily Short for noticing this one.

Well Played

Well Played 1.0: Video Game, Value and Meaning is now out from ETC Press. It’s available in print from and has been offered to the creative commons and can be downloaded as a PDF or read on the Web.

My contribution is “Portal of Ivory, Passage of Horn,” an article comparing two of the top games of 2007. Thanks to everyone who discussed this comparison with me at Grand Text Auto when I first blogged about this pair of games. My article is, I think, both more extensive and more focused than what I originally wrote, and I hope it helps to advance the discussion of video games.

Editor Drew Davidson writes of the book:

Well Played

What makes a game good? or bad? or better?

Video games can be “well played” in two senses. On the one hand, well played is to games as well read is to books. On the other hand, well played as in well done.

This book is full of in-depth close readings of video games that parse out the various meanings to be found in the experience of playing a game. 22 contributors (developers, scholars, reviewers and bloggers) look at video games through both senses of “well played.”

The goal is to help develop and define a literacy of games as well as a sense of their value as an experience. Video games are a complex medium that merits careful interpretation and insightful analysis.

Well Played Table of Contents

Guru Meditation

Ian's Bogost new game Guru Meditation, also available for iPhone.
Ian's Bogost new game Guru Meditation, also available for iPhone.

Ian Bogost has just released his new game Guru Meditation for two platforms: Atari VCS and iPhone. Yes, really. The game is a reimplementation – a reimagining – of an in-house game created at Amiga, the developers of the Wii Fit’s granddaddy, the Joyboard. The iPhone game is 99¢; the object d’atari, which includes a console, Joyboard controller, yoga mat, and cartridge, is sure to be a bit more dear. (The price is available upon request.) But if it’s the only thing in the world that will lead you to your center … why not?


Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, Mia Consalvo, The MIT Press, 2007
Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, Mia Consalvo, The MIT Press, 2007.

Two main methodologies are used in Cheating to understand how and why people cheat at video games. The first is the analysis of how print publications and devices surrounding games (Nintendo Power, strategy guides, the Game Genie, and the like) help to shape our concept of these games, providing the axes along which they can be evaluated and how they should be played. Next, Consalvo interviews gamers and explores an MMO to find out what players consider cheating and what boundaries they draw as they play. What results is some real insight into single-player and multiplayer cheating and into various corporate, industrial, and legal perspectives as well as those of individual players. The book does not work toward a single definition of cheating; rather, it shows how players and game-makers are actively negotiating what’s fair and what isn’t, working to allow the enjoyment of the game, to map or adapt “real-life” ethics into the magic circle, and to build the gaming equivalent of cultural capital.


At long last, this is a discussion – a review, of sorts – of Violet, an interactive fiction piece by Jeremy Freese. It isn’t the sort of review that tells you whether or not you should go play the game. Violet is an excellent game, and if you’ve been waiting on my recommendation, spongemuffin, you’ve been silly. It won the 2008 IF Comp along with four XYZZY awards, including Best Game. Go play it if you haven’t. If you have, read on for my mildly spoilery but hopefully incisive comments.


As you know if you’re reading the text in this box, Violet is a game in which you try to defeat distraction and work on your dissertation. The things that happen in the simulated world are narrated to you by the (imaginary) voice of your Australian girlfriend, Violet. While Violet won the XYZZY award for Best NPC, she isn’t an NPC, at least, any more than Lord Flathead is an NPC in Zork. She’s a narrator, and her narration is both lively for its own sake (filled with hilarious and diverse pet names) and suggestive of a relationship that is meaningful and interestingly textured. For a game with no NPCs at all (in the simulation itself), there is a lot of information being provided about other characters: The PC’s ex, Julia, and the “dork” she is talking to, the zombie horde visible through the window, the former occupant of the office, and of course our erstwhile narrator, Violet. The game shows how other characters can meaningfully manifest themselves even when they don’t do anything in terms of picking up objects, manipulating the state of the world, or serving as an explicit opponent (as the Thief did in Zork) or helper (as Floyd does in Planetfall).

This delights me; Violet is the second IF Comp winner in a row that features very unusual and effective narration. The whole point of my in-development IF system, Curveship, is allow for even more radical and general types of wacky narration. Violet shows that you can do something powerful already, just as hypertext allows you to model and manipulate space, with effort. If there were facilities for narrating provided – the way that there are facilities in IF for modeling objects, containers, action, and so on – it seems to me that significantly more could be done along these lines.

Violet demonstrates that it’s more interesting if the game’s replies vary and have some texture, as one would expect when reading a novel or poem. Even if the difference is just in a pet name, it’s a lot better than nothing, and provides some pleasure to the player. Of course, there’s much more in Violet that amuses: The tone of polite refusals to do certain actions and the recollections of a pleasant relationship and a brilliant personality, all mentioned at suitable moments during the course of ordinary actions.

The characters (again, none of which are simulated) are certainly great elements of Violet. The overall situation is also an interesting one: The PC has to get rid of, rather than acquire, objects, and shut out distraction to focus on a task. There’s the trial that the PC go though, the degradation that goes along with that, and the fitting ending in which the day’s accomplishment reveals a different course of life. The narrative as well as the narration works well.

If there’s anything that’s a bit awkward in Violet, it’s the puzzles themselves. Manipulating objects reveals things about the main relationship in the story, which is nice, but it doesn’t seem to fit into the scheme of the world as powerfully as quotidian actions do in Shade, for instance. There’s a lot of trial and error and mechanical manipulation (of projectiles, of one’s head) that is required. In the end, it’s neither an indication that a profound riddle has been solved or a powerful, revelatory gesture – it’s just showing you the extreme, absurd ends that you shouldn’t be going to.

That’s a minor criticism, though, particularly given the good hint system that is included in the game. And it doesn’t stop the the narrated characters, the overarching situation of the day, and the concluding twist from having their effect. Most of all, Violet shows that brilliant narration can be done in a comp game and can be done in a very different way than Lost Pig did it, and that, in a different way, the joys of reading can work together with those of game playing.

Video Games Tending To Zero

I’ve been interested in testing the lower limits of digital objects, looking at how simple and minimal something can be while still being understood as falling into a fairly familiar category. My ppg256 series, which consists of 256-character Perl poetry generators, is in this vein, as are my attempts at very small stories and poems in forms, “Ten Mobile Texts.” In the realm of sound, Tristan Perich’s One-Bit Music and Shifty’s One-Bit Groovebox are somewhat similar projects that attempt to show that if you bring eight bits, you aren’t bringing eight bits too few – you’re bringing seven too many.

It’s also possible to wonder what the smallest possible video game is, or how to push video games toward minimality. First, let’s take a step back to see what the smallest possible game of any sort might be: The Game, in which one simply tries to avoid thinking of The Game, and, if one does think of the game, one loses. This one’s interesting because it can’t be won. Neither can Space Invaders, of course, but The Game is different: a player can’t even be conscious of playing without losing.

Somewhat akin to ppg256 and The Game is Jason McIntosh’s obfuscated (or at least very compressed) game, a 494-character Perl program in which you plunge down a canyon, inflecting yourself left and right to try to avoid hitting the walls of a canyon, which slant and are unseen until the last moment. is made of a very small amount of code, but there are plenty of games with less – Pong, for instance, is simply a circuit and doesn’t have any code. One thing I find interesting about and pleasing in some minimal games is the highly abstract nature of the visuals, something also seen in Pong. This Perl game actually has many of Pong‘s luxuries as well, including multiple lives and a report of your score at the end of the game.

Players wait for the next lightning strike in Ian Bogosts Thunderstorm.
Players wait for the next lightning strike in Ian Bogost's Thunderstorm.

Although made up of a whole 1024 bytes each – of assembly – Ian Bogost’s game poems for the Atari VCS incline toward minimality. The most recent entry, Thunderstorm, is a game about watching a thunderstorm and guessing, after a flash of lightning, how long it will take for thunder to sound. Simple as it is, this game uses audio as well as video channels, features color (although rarely), supports two-player competition, and is winnable.

As it has in music, physical computing has weighed in on minimal video gaming. Rob Seward’s three-person Tag is played on a 5×7 LED grid and has been hailed as “the simplest video game in the world.” Interestingly, Clive Thompson goes on to note that Seward’s game Boo is even simpler, with a single light bulb for a display. One player lights the bulb and the other attempts to hit a button as soon as possible afterwards.

There are some things that all of these games have in common: Something surprising happens in all of them, and that surprising thing is critical to the gameplay. Randomness provides the surprise in and Thunderstorm. The players provide it in Tag and Boo. A representational excuse (you’re falling into a canyon, we’re watching a storm, got you!) can be used, but it’s the unexpected, not the connection to reality, that makes these games work. And there’s just one last thing to note: I think that surprise even plays an important role in The Game. Ouch … I just lost The Game.

Have You Played Atari Today?

<i>Asteroids, Tempest 2000, Pitfall!</i> (for Intellivision!), <i>Air-Sea Battle,</i> and <i>Yars' Revenge</i> set up and waiting for players in the Trope Tank.
Asteroids, Tempest 2000, Pitfall! (for Intellivision!), Air-Sea Battle, and Yars' Revenge set up and waiting for players in the Trope Tank.

I have been wanting to have some sort of end-of-year fest, however small-scale and short-notice, and I was also looking for an excuse to unpack and reconfigure my office (a.k.a. the Trope Tank) after hauling much of my video game stuff back from the Boston Cyberarts Festival. So I decided to invite some MIT folks over, including CMS and GAMBIT game-players. Excuses to celebrate included this here new blog, Racing the Beam (not so new, but still a good excuse for a party), and MIT’s recent decision to promote and tenure me. I was very pleased to host a contingent from the Literature department, some CMS students and staff, and the person who has kindly loaned me that fine Asteroids cabinet, Jason Scott. There was an emphasis on the Atari VCS at the event. Players battled at Joust (and contemplated the symbology and implications of the game), played Space Invaders as a team, found Barnstorming simple but serene, figured out Yars’ Revenge, grooved with Tempest 2000 on the Jaguar, and failed to beat Ghosts ‘n Goblins on the NES. (Still, that was a lot better than I can do during an offhand attempt, Josh.) Thanks to all who stopped by.

Mario and the N64 Platform

Jason Scott speaks about Super Mario 64 and the N64 at Notacon.
Jason Scott speaks about Super Mario 64 and the N64 at Notacon.

Jason Scott, an archivist and documentary-maker who deals with creative computing, gave quite an interesting talk about Super Mario 64 at Notacon 6 in Cleveland on April 17. I believe it’s the first platform studies talk I’ve heard by someone other than Ian Bogost or me. Jason goes into the concept behind platform studies, pimps our book, Racing the Beam (special thanks for that one), and discusses how the substantial achievements and particular design of Super Mario 64 related to the corporate context of the time, the expectations of players, and the Nintendo 64 hardware. This was at an event that is a hacker conference, not an academic one – I hope we academics can keep up in terms of bringing technology and culture together. The talk is almost an hour long, with some questions at the end, and is well worth the bandwith and the time.