On how IF resembles poetry, and how that kind of sucks

I encountered this conversation a couple of months ago while idly thumbing through my list of saved Twitter searches, of which “warbler’s nest” is one. The first poster is Mark Sample, a humanities professor at George Mason University.

I found myself struck and unsettled by Mark’s qualified agreement with the “tech without a readership” comment, mainly because I recognized immediately that I had no ground to disagree with it myself. What an elegant way to praise a medium’s beauty and potential while condemning its prospects for widespread appeal: It’s like poetry.

Ever since the 2010 IF revival I’ve been among those insisting that parser-based IF deserves a wider audience in an increasingly game-centric world, and should strive to find novel ways to overcome its main obstacle to help newcomers jump its first, steep hurdle: the text prompt itself, with all its hidden expectations and assumptions. I still stand behind this notion.

However, between Mark’s observations and Emily Short’s thoughts from earlier this year, I sway also towards embracing the bittersweet truth that, even allowing that it has room to grow, IF might simply be unable to support an audience past a certain size — a vanishingly small size, if we wish to compare its audience to those of all other sorts of digital games. The medium must remain obscure by the very attributes that define it. Take the parser away, and you can make a much more immediately accessible work of digital writing that probably isn’t the kind of game I am thinking about.

But I write no eulogies here! I see a future where authors, including first-timers, will continue taking parser-driven IF in startling and wonderful new directions, even more than we see today. The world will not rush to play these works, but they’ll still find their way into the machines and minds of players who know how to appreciate them — many of whom make games themselves, and who will allow these works to influence their own.

This small audience shall remain just large and chatty enough to sustain a halo of new players — even if that means that a significant number of these newcomers will discover these works via university courses and other forms of formalized learning, instead of the day-to-day cultural-transmission channels that more accessible videogames get to ride. Just like poetry.

If most of the game-playing world forever assumes that IF is a long-dead form, suitable only for nostalgic pining for green-on-black, you-have-died maze crawls, then it brings its own silver lining: over and over, another influential member of that world will delightedly discover that this is not the case, and rush to spread the message. Those of us in the know will roll our eyes at the headlines but grin anyway and carry on, and so will be medium.

Parser-based IF will continue to revolutionize, astound, and inspire. Quietly.

This entry was posted in Jmac on Games  and tagged  , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to On how IF resembles poetry, and how that kind of sucks

  1. george says:

    I don't disagree with 'quietly', but I wouldn't be so fast to confine poetry to formalized learning (at least in my experience of people engaging with poetry) and to equate IF with poetry too much. The problem, expounded on in your links, is that the processual medium which is IF's strength also becomes quite the drawback when you're talking about dissemination and germination. Poetry doesn't have the problem of taking an electronic form from the 70s into the 21st century and keeping the body intact.

    • Jason McIntosh says:

      The similarity, to my eye, lies less with historical baggage and more with basic accessibility. Your observation that the parser is itself partially an artifact of the time it was invented -- an age of megfauna and command-line inputs -- is correct. At the technological level, poetry certainly has the leg up.

      But even if people are quite able read the words of a poem (or listen to it read to them) it still takes requires effort, experience, and focused attention to truly appreciate a poem versus a work that places more at the surface, such as a film or novel. And in this way I see modern poetry and modern IF in similar straits. They both lie adjacent to much more immediately attractive and accessible alternatives for one's attention.

    • Sam Kabo Ashwell says:

      I've been making the poetry comparison for years, and... I don't really think that IF has a qualitatively more-techy problem than poetry does.

      Before gramophones, radio and other forms of mass-communication entertainment, poetry was a standard entertainment form. Reading poetry to a small group of family or friends was a commonplace leisure activity. Poetry, these days, suffers because of social patterns: if you want to do something while you're hanging out with your friends, suggesting a casual poetry reading is going to get some blank stares. Of the ultimate reasons for this, some are technological (machines that provide less laborious forms of entertainment are abundant, diverse and cheap) and some aren't (memorisation and public speaking occupy less central roles in most people's education). But the proximate reasons are all about audience expectations, even if some of those are the result of technological change.

      Which is a long-winded way of saying: like IF, I think that the strengths (and fundamental nature) of poetry are also drawbacks when it comes to dissemination and germination.

  2. Alex Warren says:

    I am maybe slightly more optimistic about the future for IF. The experiments I've been doing with Quest show that people can play parser-based games if you give them some assistance with the UI - object hyperlinks which show a menu of verbs work well for this. Even 8-year-olds pick things up quickly this way.

    The future depends on us reaching out to people - more smartphone and tablet apps, as these are the perfect devices for this format. The reason I am optimistic about the future is that it's only in the past few years that everybody has started carrying a miniature computer around with them all the time, so at last people can read interactive works on the train, in bed etc.

    We should also be presenting IF works as digital books rather than games - the gamer audience is probably not the optimal one for this format.

  3. juv3nal says:

    "Take the parser away, and you can make a much more immediately accessible work of digital writing that probably isn’t the kind of game I am thinking about."

    Maybe this is a thorny topic in the IF community (of which I guess I'm like a unicorn in that I'm only a reader and non-academic/non-creator), but...the twitter conversation only talks about IF, yet you hone in on the parser here. Would you care to elaborate on why you dismiss the CYOA style stuff out of hand? It seems to me that the Inkle/Undum/Choice of Games/Story Nexus/Twine etc. stuff is both "interactive" and "fiction."

    In many ways, Aaron A. Reed's stuff is basically CYOA and several notable parser IF people have messed around with the format.

    • Jason McIntosh says:

      I took "IF" in this particular twitter conversation to mean "text-only, parser-based interactive fiction." You are quite correct that the label is undergoing a slow identity change in the face of rapid creativity and experimentation in new directions; I did not mean for my focus to be read as dismissal of tangential forms.

      If you haven't already read the Emily Short post I link to here, I encourage it. It shares many positive thoughts about how there's not just room but *need* for text-centric game media that are related to, but not the same as, traditional command-line IF. I agree with the ideas there.

    • If you want to talk about things that are both "interactive" and "fiction", you rapidly realize you're talking about *videogames*, as a class. Nearly. (Some videogames have no fictive content, but the fraction is so small as to be practically experimental error these days.)

      Therefore, literalism is a pointless way to approach the term "interactive fiction". Better to use it the way people use it. Which is, as Jason says, drifting -- but that's another show.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I'm ok with the idea that IF may not have much "room" to grow.

    What worries me is when people use this as evidence that, as a result, it's somehow more cultured or sophisticated than other genres of puzzles.

  5. Honestly, I think the root-problem is literacy. More people could definitely enjoy IF than currently do, but who knows how many of them can't enjoy reading and writing?

  6. I think the problem is a bit more macroscopic than "it's like poetry": the general populace doesn't even really read literature anymore. (Before you berate me, i said "general" populace).

  7. Anonymous says:

    More people read - and spend more time reading - now than ever before.

    Maybe they don't read as much fiction, but IF is far from traditional fiction anyway.

  8. I suspect that "people don't read" or "people don't read literature" is such a generalization as to be useless.

    (What does "literature" there mean? People don't read literature, but they do read SF/fantasy/romance/mystery/etc? I suspect that's true, although I have no hard data -- but IF's narrative side came out of genre-fiction roots *anyhow*, and remains deeply enmeshed in them.)

    But in any case one can point at all sorts of things and say "the general populace doesn't..." ("Ski", "play collectible card games", "eat Ethiopian food"...) The interesting question is how many people are doing it, whether the community is growing, whether it's socially connected to related or broader communities that might have overlapping interest, and so on.


  9. Suspect all you want, Mr. Plopkin, but to think that many people read simply shows that you surround yourself in a reading community. It's a common fallacy. The truth is, if it's not on their cell phone, NO, the GENERAL population does not read literature or fiction. General, in this sense (since I guess I need to define my terms), means the MAJORITY.

    • Rikard Peterson says:

      Do you have any evidence for that statement, or do you simply surround yourself in a non-reading community?

      (To avoid any misunderstandings, I'm asking this from a position of curiosity. I'm not familiar with any studies on the subject, but I suspect that people in general, at least here in Sweden, do read. Maybe not a lot, but they read.)

    • Anonymous says:

      More people read now than ever before.

    • Kevin Jackson-Mead says:

      Here are the results of a poll from earlier this year:


      So, according to this survey, at least among American adults 16 and older, something like 75% have read at least one book (either print or electronic) in the past year. And if you go look at the actual results from Pew (http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/12/27/e-book-reading-jumps-print-book-reading-declines/), you see that, for example, 54% of Americans 16 and older have read 4 or more books in the past year. So, it seems pretty clear that a majority of the general populace in the U.S. are readers of some sort.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>