Crimes Against Mimesis, Pt. 1

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Roger Giner-Sorolla

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Apr 11, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/11/96
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[Warning: This essay contains references to plot elements (but no
spoilers) for "Theatre", "Christminster", and "Jigsaw"; and one mild
spoiler for a puzzle early on in "Curses".]

Continuing on my previous tack, here is my necessarily incomplete survey
of IF-game elements that detract from the work's reality as a piece of
*fiction*, along with suggested solutions. I hope this list will make a
worthy complement to the points raised by Graham Nelson in his "Player's
Bill of Rights" from his Craft of Adventure essays, which deals mainly
with the elements that detract from the enjoyment of the work as a *game*.
Some of my points also build upon Mr. Nelson's observations on game
atmosphere and puzzle construction, particularly in essays 4 and 5 of
"Craft."

As stated before, I see successful fiction as an imitation or "mimesis"
of reality, be it this world's or an alternate world's. Well-written
fiction leads the reader to temporarily enter and believe in the reality
of that world. A crime against mimesis is any aspect of an IF game that
breaks the coherence of its fictional world as a representation of
reality.

A general rule of fiction guiding these observations, which will be
reiterated later, is this: If the reason for something is not clear to the
Model Reader (a late-20th-century person armed with a reasonable knowledge
of contemporary Western life and literary conventions), it should be
explained at some point during the narrative. Even fantastic elements
must be placed against the background of known legends and lore. The ghost
who returns to haunt his murderer need not be explained; but if by
novel's end we don't find out why a ghost walks up and down the midway of
the abandoned carnival every third Sunday playing the kazoo, we are bound
to feel hoodwinked, unless the author claims the Absurdity Defense [which
will be discussed in the next installation.]

My remarks are aimed at game writers and players who judge an interactive
fiction game as a work of fiction, not merely a game, and want to know how
to write good games that will also be good fiction. That being said, the
prosecution is now pleased to present the first three crimes against
mimesis, which have to do with violations of context.

[The second set of three crimes are more subtle, having to do with
assumptions in the structure of the problems, or "puzzles", in an IF game.
These will be covered in my next installment.]

1. Objects out of context

>look

This is a tidy, well-appointed kitchen. On the table you see a chainsaw.

The object out of context is one of the screaming red flags that
indicates that the puzzle has taken precedence over the maintenance of a
coherent atmosphere. (As Graham Nelson would put it, "the crossword has
won.") In the imaginary example above, the game author needs the player to
pick up the chainsaw for later use, and has dropped it in any old place
where the player can find it.

This is fine for the gameplay, but damaging to the fictional integrity
of the game. In any coherent world, things are generally where they are
supposed to be. If they are not, there is a reason for it; and the work
of fiction further demands that out-of-place objects or happenings have
some significance that the reader (player) can guess at, or find out.

One solution to the chainsaw-in-the-kitchen problem would be to move the
chainsaw to a woodshed. But let's be more creative, and rewrite the game
so that the chainsaw has some reason to be in the kitchen:

This is a tidy, well-appointed kitchen. On the table you see
breakfast: six fried eggs, a foot-high stack of pancakes and about a
pound of fried bacon. A huge checked flannel shirt is draped across the
chair, and on the other end of the table you see a chainsaw.

Now, the chainsaw has a context: evidently, a lumberjack was called away
just before eating breakfast, and the chainsaw is his. Putting objects in
context can actually add to the gameplay, suggesting realistic obstacles
to getting the object. In this example, the author could put a time limit
on getting the chainsaw and leaving before the lumberjack returns -- you
might expect that he wouldn't be too happy to see you walk off with it!

As for why the lumberjack was eating breakfast in that particular
kitchen, and why he was called away ... well, a good work of fiction will
answer these questions too, in due time. The answers don't have to be
profound; they just have to make sense. (For example, "A large, burly,
bearded man stomps in, drying his hands with a paper towel" would give the
player a pretty good idea of where the lumberjack has been.)

2. Contexts out of context: Genre bending

If the object out of context is a hoary adventure-game tradition, the
"anything goes" jumbling together of contexts within the same game is an
even more established -- some would say beloved -- feature of the game
tradition started by Adventure. The original Adventure itself (to say
nothing of its 550-and-up point expansions) was an omnium-gatherum of
storybook characters, Tolkien refugees, and fairy-tale phenomena. Zork
(Dungeon) added thereto a raftload of anachronistic objects and locations
-- the flood control dam, plastique explosive, the Bank of Zork.

While the atmosphere common to these games and their descendants has a
rambling, Munchhausenish charm, it leaves much to be desired in the way of
fictional coherence. It's interesting to note, though, that the endgame
of Adventure (in which it is implied that the whole cave complex is a sort
of theme park maintained by Witt & Co.), and the extensive after-the-fact
elaborations on the history and setting of Zork's Great Underground
Empire, are partially successful attempts at explaining the diverse
elements of their respective games. Apparently, pressures towards
fictional unity exist even in a patently absurdist dungeon-style game.

For the most part, unless they are aiming to imitate Zorkish whimsy,
today's adventure game authors are very careful to place each game within
a single genre. Reviewers are alert to incoherencies as subtle as the
switch from ghost-story horror to Lovecraftian horror midway through
"Theatre." Where settings are intentionally diverse, as in "Curses" and
"Jigsaw", they are usually presented as a series of internally coherent
scenes, simultaneously separated and held together by framing devices. In
"Curses," the various modes of time/space/reality travel separate the
scenes, while the theme of the Meldrew family holds them together to some
extent; and in "Jigsaw," the framing device is quite literally the frame
(and pieces) of the magical jigsaw puzzle.

A more fruitful bit of advice to today's game designer might be to look
beyond the genre in organizing the game. "Theatre," in my opinion, is one
game that relies too heavily on the horror genre, and too little on the
specific plot and background of the game, to provide a context for its
array of ghosts and creatures. Some, it's true, are related to the
background -- the ticket-taker's ghost, the invisible monster -- but the
slug-thing, the entity under the stage, the living mannequins have no
reason for existing except that "this is a horror story."

Compare this to "Christminster," which (IMHO) is a much more satisfying
piece of fiction. Just about all the locations and personages in the
game fit easily with our real-world image of an old English college -- the
chapel, the cellars, the library, the cat, the professors. But more
importantly, the unusual elements are well-integrated with the background,
so that by the end of the game we know who built the secret passages, why
the telephone system is so primitive, and who put the bottle in the
cellar. It would have been easy enough, for example, to leave the
secret passages unexplained, relying on the genre convention that "old
English buildings have secret passages." The way the passages are
integrated with the background story, though, contributes a great deal to
the "reality" of Christminster's specific fictional setting.

3. Puzzles out of context: Cans of soup, or, "Holy conundrum, Batman!"

Most of the problem-solving in IF games is an imitation of the kind of
problem-solving we do in dealing with the real world -- or would do, if
we led lives as interesting as those of the average adventure-game
protagonist. Objects have to be manipulated, physical obstacles have to
be overcome, people and animals have to be persuaded or evaded or
defeated in a fight.

And then there are...

Mazes. Riddles. Towers of Hanoi. Cryptograms, anagrams, acrostics.
Etcetera.

These are the kinds of problems we normally play with to escape dealing
with the real world and its problems. So, when one of these "set-piece"
puzzles comes up in an IF game, we are in danger of being rudely reminded
that the fictional motivation for the game -- the efforts of the hero to
gather loot, get back home, save her family, town, way of life or universe
-- is itself only a trivial diversion. Or, to quote Russ Bryan's immortal
comment on a set-piece puzzle in "The Seventh Guest," what the hell kind
of villain thwarts the hero's progress with soup cans in the kitchen
pantry?

Mystery and adventure fiction, from Poe's "The Gold Bug" on, can capably
integrate set-piece puzzles into the overall mimetic goals of the story.
The cryptic message in "The Gold Bug" is actually a set of instructions to
a treasure; the cryptogram in Conan Doyle's "The Dancing Men" was devised
by two characters who had a need to communicate in secret. From Oedipus
to Tolkien, the riddle has similarly been used as a challenge to the
hero's wits in which the reader can share. But the convention of
including puzzles in the adventure story leads easily enough to excess.
Think of the intentionally ludicrous villains in the old "Batman"
television show, who always leave a coded clue to the location of their
hangout, and are indeed the kind to thwart Batman's progress with soup
cans. (Lucky for Batman, his utility belt can always be counted on to
supply a Bat-Can-Opener.)

Apart from the primitive, anti-fictional approach -- "answer this riddle
to open this door, just because" -- there are two main ways the IF writer
can work set-piece puzzles into a game. The less satisfying way is to
postulate some sort of 1) eccentric genius, 2) mad god, 3) warped wizard,
4) soup-can Sphinx, who has set up the puzzles out of a) pure native
goofiness b) a desire to test the hero's wits c) sheer boredom d) the
requirements of a bizarre system of extraplanar magic. This way is less
satisfying because, like the scheming of Batman villains, it refers too
obviously to genre conventions instead of to an original representation
of life. The advantage of this approach, though, is that it provides a
very broad excuse to work in a wide variety of puzzles.

Are there more fictionally coherent excuses for a set-piece puzzle or
two? Consider the anagram near the beginning of Curses; the cryptogram in
Christminster; the Enigma machine in Jigsaw. All of these puzzles are
related to credible real-world uses -- authors as illustrious as
Voltaire have used an anagram as a pseudonym; a maths professor may very
well keep his secret journal in code; and of course, the cracking of the
Enigma code was a historically vital conundrum.

I hope these examples will be more instructive than any actual rules for
guiding the tactful insertion of set-piece puzzles into a work of IF. The
basic principle recalls French critic Jean Baudrillard's theory that
Disneyland is only a decoy, an explicit sign of artificiality obscuring
the fact that all of America is a "Disneyland." Instead of calling
attention to the artificiality of the whole situation, a riddle or maze or
anagram should have a more or less realistic role in the context of the
game, serving to diminish rather than enhance the sense that the
objects-and-locations "action" of the game is itself a contrivance.

[Coming next: Three more subtle crimes, and the Absurdity Defense]


Andrew C. Plotkin

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Apr 12, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/12/96
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Roger Giner-Sorolla <gi...@xp.psych.nyu.edu> writes:
> A general rule of fiction guiding these observations, which will be
> reiterated later, is this: If the reason for something is not clear to the
> Model Reader (a late-20th-century person armed with a reasonable knowledge
> of contemporary Western life and literary conventions), it should be
> explained at some point during the narrative. Even fantastic elements
> must be placed against the background of known legends and lore.

Two footnotes to an excellent article:

1: The Model Reader is not always a late-20th-century etc etc. If
you're writing for a different audience, there will be a different
model reader. (This came up a few months ago.) In general this
newsgroup audience is a pretty homogenous Western-techie group, but
there are still gradations. Obvious example: locale games.
(MacWesleyan, Veritas, Lost New York, etc.) The authors of those games
had to make a decision about whether the intended audience was the
general public, or just people familiar with the locale. Neither
decision is wrong; but you wind up with two different results.

2: In some stories, the protagonist doesn't know all of what's going
on, even at the end. This can be done in IF as well. The result is a
game where not everything is explained.

--Z

"And Aholibamah bare Jeush, and Jaalam, and Korah: these were the borogoves..."

Andrew C. Plotkin

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Apr 12, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/12/96
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I should also point out that a really serious devotee of these
IF literary theories would be forced to write a game called Zork:
Mimesis".

Roger Giner-Sorolla

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Apr 12, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/12/96
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On Fri, 12 Apr 1996, Andrew C. Plotkin wrote:

> Two footnotes to an excellent article:
>
> 1: The Model Reader is not always a late-20th-century etc etc. If
> you're writing for a different audience, there will be a different
> model reader. (This came up a few months ago.) In general this
> newsgroup audience is a pretty homogenous Western-techie group, but
> there are still gradations. Obvious example: locale games.
> (MacWesleyan, Veritas, Lost New York, etc.) The authors of those games
> had to make a decision about whether the intended audience was the
> general public, or just people familiar with the locale. Neither
> decision is wrong; but you wind up with two different results.

Good point. Sometimes the author is unintentionally even more parochial in
constructing a Model Reader. Lost New York, for example, generally does a
good job of filling in the history of New York for someone who only knows
the city through its more famous landmarks (Statue of Liberty, the Bowery)
and associated stereotypes (the rude default). However, as a New York
resident and history buff, I was able to appreciate the cleverness of the
first time-travel transition in a way that most people probably could not,
because I already knew something about the history of a certain New York
landmark that only Neil DeMause and about 0.1% of the other people playing
IF games might know. It's not impossible to guess what is going on in this
transition but, as I told Neil in a private letter, it might help both the
enjoyment and educational value of the game if at some point the goings-on
were more clearly explained.

> 2: In some stories, the protagonist doesn't know all of what's going
> on, even at the end. This can be done in IF as well. The result is a
> game where not everything is explained.

The protagonist may not know everything, but the reader usually does.
Even where not everything is explained outright, a good writer will
either:

a) provide the reader with some "hunch" about what is going on. William
Gibson's "Neuromancer" trilogy is especially hard to straightforwardly
puzzle through because the atmosphere of a world manipulated by shadowy,
inhuman forces is more important than the exact machinations of these
forces. Still, he does provide enough explanation for a partial
understanding (Um, these AI's are, like, achieving consciousness by
merging with each other and, um, impersonating voodoo gods in cyberspace,
and everyone's looking for this floppy disk that contains the secret of it
all, yeah.)

or:

b) flag unsolved mysteries as unsolved mysteries. "Now some would say
that old man was just a bum; others might say he was Wotan; he might have
been God or Satan or George Burns for all I know. But whoever he was, he
saved my life on that rainy night in October, as surely as my name is
Pinocchio Von Munchhausen."

Roger Giner-Sorolla
New York University
Department of Psychology (S/P)


George Caswell

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Apr 13, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/13/96
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On Thu, 11 Apr 1996, Roger Giner-Sorolla wrote:

>
> [Warning: This essay contains references to plot elements (but no
> spoilers) for "Theatre", "Christminster", and "Jigsaw"; and one mild
> spoiler for a puzzle early on in "Curses".]
>
> Continuing on my previous tack, here is my necessarily incomplete survey
> of IF-game elements that detract from the work's reality as a piece of
> *fiction*, along with suggested solutions. I hope this list will make a
> worthy complement to the points raised by Graham Nelson in his "Player's
> Bill of Rights" from his Craft of Adventure essays, which deals mainly
> with the elements that detract from the enjoyment of the work as a *game*.
> Some of my points also build upon Mr. Nelson's observations on game
> atmosphere and puzzle construction, particularly in essays 4 and 5 of
> "Craft."
>

Hey, cool-- I realize such essays and such are already available,
but I'd like to thank you right now for posting this.. because...
1: It seems, (IMHO) to be a good essay: It was enjoyable, as a
soon-to-be IF author, to read this...
2: After reading this part, my plans for my game have changed. I'm
not sure just how subtle or pronounced the change may become, but I'm
sure the game will have been helped by reading this... (My goal is to
make a game that's enjoyable and fun.. but I think the way I do that
will be important in determining whether my game is cool, or an oddity...)

....T...I...M...B...U...K...T...U... ____________________________________
.________________ _/>_ _______......[George Caswell, CS '99. 4 more info ]
<___ ___________// __/<___ /......[http://the-eye.res.wpi.edu/~timbuktu]
...//.<>._____..<_ >./ ____/.......[Member LnL+SOMA, sometimes artist, ]
..//./>./ /.__/ /./ <___________.[writer,builder.sysadmin of the-eye ]
.//.</.</</</.<_ _/.<_____________/.[____________________________________]
</.............</...................


Magnus Olsson

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Apr 13, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/13/96
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In article <4lPbO2i00WB5Iw=0...@andrew.cmu.edu>,

Andrew C. Plotkin <erky...@CMU.EDU> wrote:
>1: The Model Reader is not always a late-20th-century etc etc. If
>you're writing for a different audience, there will be a different
>model reader. (This came up a few months ago.) In general this
>newsgroup audience is a pretty homogenous Western-techie group, but
>there are still gradations.

There are some very promising signs that IF is - for the first time
ever - reaching out beyond the "homogeneous Western-techie group". For
example, I've noticed it in the reader feedback I get on "Dunjin" and
"Uncle Zebulon's Will".

During the heyday of IF, when text adventures were about the coolest
things you could get for a home computer, the audience was severly
limited by the fact that basically only "techies" and teenage boys
used computers for recreation (the former for the same reasons as
today, the latter because many early home computers were games
machines aimed at that market). (OK, so I'm generalizing wildly - bear
with me for a moment...).

Then, when the commercial market for IF collapsed, the "IF underground"
continued to exist, but distribution was basically limited to the Net,
some BBS's, and to computer clubs - again, with the same audience.

A.D. 1995, however, was not only the year that saw a large number of
interesting new IF releases, but also the year when everybody and
their cat wanted a Net connection, and the year when CD-rom players
became a "must" for home computers. This lead to a widening of the
audience - it's still mainly "western", but not so much "techie"
anymore, and there seem to be many more women playing IF games now
than before.

I suppose this will lead to a lower tolerance among our audience for the
IF that assumes a "Western techie" background. This holds for plot and
milieu as well as for puzzles.

>2: In some stories, the protagonist doesn't know all of what's going
>on, even at the end. This can be done in IF as well. The result is a
>game where not everything is explained.

If it's done well, it can have a great impact. But doing it well is
difficult. If it's done badly, it will be very unsatisfying and give
a sloppy impression, as if the author didn't care to clean up the
mess he'd created :-).

--
Magnus Olsson (m...@df.lth.se)

Magnus Olsson

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Apr 13, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/13/96
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An excellent essay! Have you considered submitting it to XYZZYnews?

A question to Eileen: does XYZZYnews accept articles that have been
previously posted on Usenet, or articles based on Usenet postings?

--
Magnus Olsson (m...@df.lth.se)

Trevor Barrie

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Apr 14, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/14/96
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Roger Giner-Sorolla <gi...@xp.psych.nyu.edu> wrote:

>A crime against mimesis is any aspect of an IF game that
>breaks the coherence of its fictional world as a representation of
>reality.

> A general rule of fiction guiding these observations, which will be
>reiterated later, is this: If the reason for something is not clear to the

>Model Reader [...], it should be explained at some point during the narrative.

Sounds fairly innocuous, but I'm not sure I agree. There are plenty of
things that happen in real life whose reasons are never made clear to
me; why should having this happen in a work of fiction damage its'
realism?

>(Lucky for Batman, his utility belt can always be counted on to
>supply a Bat-Can-Opener.)

Just to go completely off-topic, I really want to get the sort of
input device the old Bat-Computer had... you know, the one where, when
he needs to search for an address, he just opens a chute in the side
of the computer and dumps in a copy of the phone book...:)


Trevor Barrie

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Apr 14, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/14/96
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"Andrew C. Plotkin" <erky...@CMU.EDU> wrote:

>2: In some stories, the protagonist doesn't know all of what's going
>on, even at the end. This can be done in IF as well. The result is a
>game where not everything is explained.

In IF, though, when you deny information to the protagonist, you're
pretty much guaranteed to deny information to the reader as well.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it should probably be used
sparingly.


Eileen Mullin

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Apr 15, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/15/96
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In article <4kod97$k...@news.lth.se>, m...@marvin.df.lth.se (Magnus Olsson) wrote:

> An excellent essay! Have you considered submitting it to XYZZYnews?
>
> A question to Eileen: does XYZZYnews accept articles that have been
> previously posted on Usenet, or articles based on Usenet postings?

The article referenced here is definitely interesting and would have been
a great article for XYZZYnews, but I doubt that I would ask to reprint an
article posted on Usenet in the 'zine. I'd like to provide new content in
the 'zine for all the readers, and there's some overlap between the
r.a.i-f audience and the XYZZYnews audience.

If you (or someone else) wanted to write a XYZZYnews article in response
to this article, you'd have to put the Usenet posting in context for
XYZZYnews readers who may not follow the newsgroup threads, but that's
easily summarized.

FWIW, I also don't run multiple reviews of any game -- I'm more interested
in including reviews of as many different games as possible, and printing
comments in response to a review as a letter to the editor, not a separate
review itself.

I think that a lot of the ruminating that goes on here in r.a.i-f.would
make great starting points for articles in the 'zine -- so I'd be glad to
run articles based on discussions tossed around on the newsgroups. I'd be
glad to develop any number of topics in XYZZYnews if people were
interested.

Let me just add that I do print many letters in each issue, another option
for folks who'd like to add their two cents but may not necessarily want
to write a formal article.

Eileen

Roger Giner-Sorolla

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Apr 15, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/15/96
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{CAUTION: This post contains spoilers for the major motion picture
"Executive Decision."}

I'm glad to see that my article is eliciting comment, and some of the
comments have made me think a bit harder about fiction and "mimesis" (or
fiction as a representation of reality).

In particular, Trevor Barrie writes:
>Sounds fairly innocuous, but I'm not sure I agree. There are plenty of
>things that happen in real life whose reasons are never made clear to
>me; why should having this happen in a work of fiction damage its'
>realism?

But this is the great confidence trick of fiction: to convince us that
we are reading a representation of reality when in fact we are reading a
"reality" that is more tightly structured and explicated than anything
that actually happens to us.

Look any set of guidelines for writing fiction -- including screen- and
teleplays. Books and magazines for professional writers stress over and
over again that motivations must be readily understandable, or specially
explained; solutions must not come out of the blue, but be foreshadowed;
character traits must develop through interaction; etc.

When clumsily followed, these structural guidelines lead to fictions that
themselves read like text-adventure games. I recently saw a by-the-book
action-adventure movie like this: the hero was shown learning to land a
Cessna in the first scene, and sure enough the climax required the use of
his pilot skills; one techie character had a prominently featured nervous
habit of chewing plastic straws, and sure enough his straw came into play
at the climax. Plots like this are not much different from adventure-game
plots where the chainsaw on the kitchen table foreshadows the necessary
demise of that tree you happened to pass in the forest. Or as the
playwright Chekhov said in explaining dramatic structure: "If there is a
pistol on the wall in the first act, it must go off by the fourth act."

I'm not saying that everything that happens has to be literally
explained. Some things can serve as symbolism, or convey an atmosphere,
or act as plot catalysts to show up the reactions of the characters.
Experimental and postmodernist fiction, too, may play by different rules
[my upcoming essay on absurdism will deal with this possibility]. But I
think the author of conventional fiction or literature needs to create a
sense of structure that's even tighter than in life, precisely to hide
that the work is a fiction. There's always the danger that the reader,
like the child in "The Emperor With No Clothes", will point at an
unexplained event ("Suddenly, six Ninja Assassins leapt out of Rico's
closet") and say to the author, "Hey! You just made that up!" To which
the author's only defense is, "No I didn't, because I told you on page 34
how Rico was blackmailing the Japanese mob." Or, "Stick around, you'll
learn on page 132 how ..." Of course, this is a con game, but a
crucial one. The enjoyment of fiction rests on the reader's ability to be
conned, momentarily, into believing that the author is not "just making
things up," but relating events from an ultimately internally coherent world.

Then again, as with that action-adventure movie, the sophisticated reader
will also be able to pick out a plot that is too pat and structured. To
me, though, when a fiction author needs to disguise something as
artificial as an adventure-game puzzle, the story structure needs to be
especially strong, or the sharp-eyed child will be even more ready to call
out, "Hey! You put that chainsaw on the kitchen table just so the hero can
cut down the oak tree and cross the stream!"

Magnus Olsson

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Apr 15, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/15/96
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In article <Pine.SUN.3.91.960415...@xp.psych.nyu.edu>,

Roger Giner-Sorolla <gi...@xp.psych.nyu.edu> wrote:
>In particular, Trevor Barrie writes:
>>Sounds fairly innocuous, but I'm not sure I agree. There are plenty of
>>things that happen in real life whose reasons are never made clear to
>>me; why should having this happen in a work of fiction damage its'
>>realism?
>
> But this is the great confidence trick of fiction: to convince us that
>we are reading a representation of reality when in fact we are reading a
>"reality" that is more tightly structured and explicated than anything
>that actually happens to us.

Indeed. Even the most realistic fiction is fundamentally unrealistic if
you scrutinize it closely. Fiction isn't *supposed* to be realistic,
it is just supposed to *seem* realistic, and that's a totally
different thing. All readers of this newsgroup should be familiar with
the argument "I don't want a simulation of reality, I want an
entertaining game!".

It is also a matter of conventions. The audience expects the author to
explain everything and not to leave any loose ends around, and if the
author chooses no to explain something, he'd better supply a reason
for not explaining it. At least in older fiction, it's common to see
things like "They never found out who the mysterious stranger actually
was", but then there are usually suggestions (by the author or by his
characters) who it was. Perhaps the reader can guess what the
characters can't? Alternatively, it may be obvious that it doesn't
matter who the stranger was, just what he did.

If, however, the author introduces a mystery that seems to be crying
out for a solution ("Who *is* that mysterious stranger?") and neither
supplies a solution or a plausible reason for not supplying it, his or her
audience is likely to feel cheated, because they expect it.

Of course, all conventions are there to be broken, and breaking this
one can be done to great effect. For example, I think that part of the
tremendous appeal of "Twin Peaks" and "The X-files" is that they are
detective series that intentionally leave a lot of mysteries unsolved
- especially in the X-files, the point is that there are things that
we can't understand and that we will never know.

However, as always, it's easier to follow the rules than to break
them. Breaking the rules without geting a lot of frustrated readers is
*hard*. To use the X-files as an example again, in some of the
episodes it is pretty obvious that the writers have simply been lazy:
they have chosen to introduce some plot device which they don't know
how to handle, and the mystery isn't resolved because the authors
chose not to do so for artistic reasons, but because they couldn't.

>Or as the
>playwright Chekhov said in explaining dramatic structure: "If there is a
>pistol on the wall in the first act, it must go off by the fourth act."

Wasn't it a shotgun? :-)

Chekhov's example is more about dramatic economy, though: don't introduce
plot elements just because they are neat - they must serve a purpose
in the story. I'm sure Roger will return to this in a later essay :-).


--
Magnus Olsson (m...@df.lth.se)

Kenneth Fair

unread,
Apr 17, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/17/96
to

Thanks, Roger, for a very interesting article. I've saved a copy to
reread once I get around to actually making a game and not just playing
around with Inform.

In article <4ktkon$n...@news.lth.se>, m...@marvin.df.lth.se (Magnus Olsson) wrote:

>Indeed. Even the most realistic fiction is fundamentally unrealistic if
>you scrutinize it closely. Fiction isn't *supposed* to be realistic,
>it is just supposed to *seem* realistic, and that's a totally
>different thing. All readers of this newsgroup should be familiar with
>the argument "I don't want a simulation of reality, I want an
>entertaining game!".

Absolutely. Reality is boring in many ways; our daily lives usually
make terrible stories. For example, my life today:


Your alarm buzzes, arousing you from a sound slumber. It's 6:01.

>SNOOZE

You hit the snooze button and fall back asleep. Nine minutes later...
Your alarm buzzes, arousing you from a sound slumber. It's 6:10.

>TURN OFF CLOCK

The incessant buzzing stops.

>STAND

You drag yourself from your bed.

>LOOK

Your Room

You are standing in your room. It has nice high ceilings and two desks.
You're glad you got the super single after all. There is junk on the
floor that you need to pick up. You tell yourself you'll do it later.

Glancing over by your desk, you see your Criminal Law textbook. You wince,
remembering that you have not read today's assignment yet.

>READ BOOK

You find that you are too tired and cannot concentrate on the assignment.
The words keep merging to say things like, "Srum, whes das heliop."

>NW

Bathroom

>TAKE SHOWER

You step into the shower. Luckily, you manage to remember to undress
before you turn on the water. You shower, then dry yourself.

>SE

Your Room

You feel a bit more alert now.

>GET DRESSED

You get dressed. You must do laundry soon. Whatta pain.

>READ TEXTBOOK

You can now focus on the words of the assignment. The text talks about
the legal aspects of conspiracy. You wonder again why you are in law school.

You feel tired again.

>SLEEP

A wise move. You climb back into bed and blissfully doze through your
morning class.

[You have gained five points.]


See? Accurate, yet completely uninteresting.


*snip*

>Of course, all conventions are there to be broken, and breaking this
>one can be done to great effect. For example, I think that part of the
>tremendous appeal of "Twin Peaks" and "The X-files" is that they are
>detective series that intentionally leave a lot of mysteries unsolved
>- especially in the X-files, the point is that there are things that
>we can't understand and that we will never know.

Well, that, and part of the appeal was watching for things that would
pop up again episodes later. It's one of the things that makes "Seinfeld"
and "The Simpsons" appealing to me, seeing characters or scenarios appear
again later, sometimes even in the next season.

--
KEN FAIR - U. Chicago Law | Power Mac! | Net since '90 | Net.cop
kjf...@midway.uchicago.edu | CABAL(tm) Member | I'm w/in McQ - R U?
"You're fooling yourself. We're living in a dictatorship, a
self-perpetuating autocracy..." - Dennis

Erskin Cherry

unread,
Apr 17, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/17/96
to
In article <4kod97$k...@news.lth.se>, m...@marvin.df.lth.se (Magnus Olsson) wrote:
> An excellent essay! Have you considered submitting it to XYZZYnews?

Although it may be inappropriate to post in XYZZYnews, I would still
love to see the complete and final product availble via FTP from gmd.

Even if you totally disagree with everything said (which I don't by any
strecth of the imagination) it is a marvelous place to start. We onyl have
a couple of works to look at as it is.


--
Erskin
ech...@warren-wilson.edu
Computing Services, Warren Wilson College
. . . __
/\ |\/| | / ' /\
/--\| | | \__7/--\
/__ __\
Out Of The Ashes...

Eileen Mullin

unread,
Apr 19, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/19/96
to
> Although it may be inappropriate to post in XYZZYnews, I would still
> love to see the complete and final product availble via FTP from gmd.

And I'd still be happy to put in a link to it from the XYZZYnews home page. :)

Eileen

Phil Goetz

unread,
Apr 19, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/19/96
to
In article <4kq34s$e...@bud.peinet.pe.ca>,

I once wrote a game which was intended to gradually reveal things to
the player. But my clues were too hard to find. Nobody finished
the game, because nobody was ever drawn in enough by the vague mystery
at the start.

Maybe you should decide early whether you are writing a puzzle-solving
Zork-like game, or if you want to write a mystery or a piece of
literature. If the point of your game is to evoke an atmosphere,
suspense, mystery, etc., then make the puzzles easier than you would
if you were writing a puzzle game. There is a group of players who
would try an IF game that gave them feelings like they have when they
read a book, but don't have the patience for hard puzzles.
(In fact, I'm probably one of them.) I would guess that this group
is potentially many times larger than the puzzle-solving group.

Phil Go...@cs.buffalo.edu

Thomas Nilsson

unread,
Apr 22, 1996, 3:00:00 AM4/22/96
to
Phil Goetz wrote:

>
> Maybe you should decide early whether you are writing a puzzle-solving
> Zork-like game, or if you want to write a mystery or a piece of
> literature. If the point of your game is to evoke an atmosphere,
> suspense, mystery, etc., then make the puzzles easier than you would
> if you were writing a puzzle game. There is a group of players who
> would try an IF game that gave them feelings like they have when they
> read a book, but don't have the patience for hard puzzles.
> (In fact, I'm probably one of them.) I would guess that this group
> is potentially many times larger than the puzzle-solving group.

I think this goes for me too. Actually I just alfa-tested a new game by Michael Zerbo
(I hope he will announce it, soon), and I liked the way that story read, some small
puzzles consistent with the story, but almost like reading a short story...


--
"Little languages go a long way..."
(ThoNi of ThoNi&GorFo Adventure Factories in 1985)
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Stenbrötsgatan 57 Phone Nat.: 013 - 12 11 67
S-582 47 LINKÖPING Email: th...@softlab.se
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