Arisia: IF and gaming panels

I spent this past weekend at Arisia, an SF convention. Like many conventions, it's diversified its topics to SF (and fantasy) in comics, TV, movies, and gaming. So I wound up at a whole series of nifty panel discussions that mentioned interactive fiction.

Okay, it was the deadly trifecta of gaming discussions: Are games literature? Are games art? And what the hell are games anyhow? But the moderators all ditched the cliche questions and got on to interesting stuff.

(I was not on the panels -- just sitting in the audience. I got to throw in some comments, though.)

I do not have transcripts of these. I tried to take notes, but at some point in each panel I got caught up in the discussion and spent my time thinking of comments rather than writing down what people were saying. So you get a rather disjointed view of all of this. Sorry! I think it's worth copying my jottings anyhow.

Quotes are guaranteed not accurate. I attempted to get down what I thought people meant; errors are mine. I've also thrown in some of my responses that I wasn't able to get out loud in the panel. Editor's privilege.

Games as Literature

Emily Lewis, John McDaid, James Meikle, Mark Waks / Justin du Coeur, Alan Wexelblat (mod)

The moderator started off by declaring that the panel was about multi-player and other collaborative game forms. (Single-player games are equally literary, but have been discussed plenty elsewhere.)


  • JMcD: Wrote an old-school hypertext novel: Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse
  • EL: Worked on a group game/educational course, Operation LAPIS.
  • JMk: Designs roguelikes.
  • JdC: Writes LARPs.
  • AW: I missed what he does, other than "gamer".

JdC: When I create a LARP, I am writing the first half of a novel.

JMcD: The notions of character and story arc are baked into traditional literature -- but this is a bug, not a feature. They come from the affordances of written-down story as it evolved out of oral literature. Interactive fiction is not bound to them.

JMk: (Computer) MMOs are not literature; they're history or politics. (Just like history textbooks are not literature.) They're history of a fictional world, but this is not the same as fiction, because all the actors are real people wearing masks. (The goals are fictional, the struggles are not.)

AW: A game has failure conditions, literature does not.

JdC disagrees: LARPs are designed to not have failure conditions. Tragedies in the LARP story should be successes for the players, because the players' goal is to be true to their characters. Also, MMOs mostly don't have failure states, only short- and long-term setbacks.

(I also disagree, for a different reason: I simply think that literature may or may not have failure conditions. That may be a good criterion for deciding what a game is, but it's orthogonal to literature.)

JdC describes a combat system for an Oz LARP: Everybody has a combat strength, represented by a number. In combat, you compare your strength to the opponent, and the stronger takes the weaker captive. This is what combat situations look like in the Oz books, so that's how the game should behave. (Why the abstraction of numbers? Because it determines a result simply, without distracting players from the scene. Once the outcome is known, players can concentrate on role-playing to get there.)

JdC: A work is literary if the author intends it as literature.

JMcD: No, it's about reception. A work is literary if the reader (player) takes it as literature. (Describes a reader who didn't realize that Uncle Buddy was fiction; thought it was notes about an actual science fiction author. Eventually made that leap to reading it as a story rather than history.)

Some discussion of whether reality (real life) is vastly more boring than literature, or whether reality is the biggest, most exciting story possible. (Clearly these are Great Truths, since they're opposite and both true.) MMOs (think Eve Online) have long boring stretches, but interesting moments of story come out of them.

EL: What if you blend reality and game? (Leads to discussion of Ingress, an augmented-reality game.)

AW: Ingress is a terrible game, but a really interesting experiment. (Why terrible? Notes that Ingress has no representation of other players, much less any way to interact with them.) Augmented reality calls into question who the author of a story is.

JMk: The MMOs that seem most story-heavy are the ones where players compete for resources in a meaningful way. (Again, Eve. Players' time is always the base resource.) Competition is necessary for interesting cooperation.

EL: Is a work literary because players can follow a story, or because players can invent their own story, or what?

JMk: "Literature" is not a binary -- a work is literary to some greater or lesser degree. (General agreement.)

JdC, EL: The literary result of a collaborative game is the "war stories" that players tell afterwards. (It's an oral tradition, in the end.) The "literature" of Eve is not the day-by-day play, but the narratives in people's heads after some dramatic event. Therefore, game designers can't just design an experience; they must consider how players will remember the experience.

That's No Game

Izzy Peskowitz, Yitzy Abramowitz, Maddy Myers (mod)

I didn't get detailed notes on this one. It was a spirited discussion on the various kinds of games that get the "not a game" label, which seem to be heavily weighted towards interactive narrative: Gone Home, Dear Esther, The Walking Dead, choice-based IF, parser IF.

Everyone in the room was happy to adopt a broad definition of "game", so the discussion circled around why these things are contentious. Audience mismatch? Bad marketing? What expectation of a gamer is not being satisfied?

Maybe the whole question will subside as IF becomes more mainstream. Once "games like Gone Home" are a familiar category on Steam, players won't be disconcerted by them.

Much talk about when player choice counts as (or feels like) "real" choice. The panelists seemed to be evaluating everything by the ending -- a player choice which does not affect the final scene "doesn't count". I brought up Emily Short's notion of reflective choice (as a player, you can decide what you think of an event even if the game doesn't recognize that).

Also, games like Depression Quest convey meaning by how they offer choice -- meaning from game mechanics. Also, in literature, we commonly agree that how the protagonist gets to the end is more important than what the end is.

A reductio ad absurdum: if you add a non-interactive cut scene to the very end of a game, does it invalidate all the choices the player made up to that point? I say no.

Much discussion on how these categorization questions are political. Gamers like a particular kind of game, and when an unfamiliar category shows up, they push back: this new thing might drive out the stuff I like! (I didn't have a chance to mention how this exact political reaction has been playing out in the IF community.)

Does it matter whether these things get labelled "games"? It sure does if you want to make money on Steam. But on the other hand, Maddy Myers talked about failing to describe Gone Home to non-gamers. Maybe she should have been trying to describe it as literature rather than as a game?

Games as Art

Christopher K. Davis (mod), Maddy Myers, Izzy Peskowitz, Brianna Wu, Frank Wu


  • BW: Producing Revolution 60, a choice-based graphical adventure (upcoming).
  • FW: Doing artwork for Revolution 60.
  • MM: Videogame critic and journalist.
  • IP: Gamer.
  • CKD: Gamer.

Again, I didn't get specific notes.

Everyone agrees that games are art, sure, no problem. BW says that everyone on her team is an artist -- the art people, the sound people, the programmers, it's all high-level creative work. (I think programming is "design" rather than "art", but so what, really.)

The spectre of Roger Ebert still hovers above us. (After his widely-reported "games are not art" post, Ebert tried some games, and declared that Flower was art. Interesting that his criterion seems to be the opposite of what we got from the previous panel; hardcore gamers might say that Flower is "not a game". Is Ebert just stuck in a games-vs-art dichotomy?)

Games and game-related art are big in the New York gallery scene. Pixel art, interactive installations, etc. The Museum of the Moving Image has an indie-game exhibition; even MoMA has fastidiously stepped over the line.

Tangential comment by MM on how Boston indie game devs are spooked by journalists. Promote yourself dammit! Talk to the media! (I am terrible at this. I got her business card.)

Interactivity in Fiction

Heather Albano, Erik Amundsen (mod), Max Gladstone, Forest Handford, Carolyn VanEseltine


  • HA: Author of Choice of Romance and other choice-based games. Lead writer on Codename Cygnus. Two self-published novels.
  • FH: Director of Firefly Arts Collective (local Burning-Man-style hacker/art group).
  • MG: Published two fantasy novels, then wrote Choice of the Deathless (choice-based game in the same setting).
  • CVE: Working on Revolution 60. Several parser IF games.
  • EA: Gamer, writer, poet.

MG: Second person is exciting to work in. It's unusual in written fiction (though not unknown, Stross etc). It adds a storyteller or narrator voice. (I humbly add my lecture on this subject from a few years back.)

FH: Interested in stories that bleed over into real life -- books with in-character web sites, etc. (I tend to call this "alternate reality fiction", which is not necessarily a game. Although interactivity bleeds in whenever the reader starts exploring and engaging.)

CVE: Planescape Torment had a powerful moment when the game turns and asks you what you think about the game events. (Again, "reflective choice".) Interested in player investment -- a game doesn't move forward without some player commitment.

HA: There's a big psychological need to be the narrator, particularly in kids, but to some extent for everybody.

EA: Look all those online "which foo are you" tests.

MG: The fun of constructing a character -- defining the narrator through accumulated choices.

CVE: But there's also IF where you have to commit to a character without knowing who it is. (Mentioned Spider&Web, unreliable narrator.)

MG: Interactive stories about redemption. You have no choice about doing something awful; your choices are about how you deal with it.

MG: I'm a fast writer, so I've been able to do novels "by the seat of my pants". But building Choice of the Deathless required a lot more planning. Had to learn to outline. (Not to map out events -- the sequence of events is fixed -- but to map out the various ways a player can approach them. Which NPCs are allies, rivals, friends, enemies, etc.)

CVE: IF can place the storytelling "camera" at a large distance (cut scenes) or close-up (moment-by-moment interactivity). There's no middle range. This is different from traditional fiction. Also, in IF you usually stick to one viewpoint (or maybe two), to keep the sense of engagement strong.

MG: Right -- in novels I like to jump between character viewpoints, because they see things (and each other) differently. CotD didn't do that.

HA: Constructing a story arc in a game and in a novel are the same technique. But static fiction has more techniques available. The "Choice of" game model doesn't have cut scenes at all; the camera is always close in, making immediate choices.

MG: All types of IF have inherent illusions. Myst has the illusion that you can travel anywhere, without barriers. ChoiceOf games have the illusion that any life course the player can imagine is available. (Of course in both cases there are strict boundaries, and the game designer works hard to draw the player's attention to targets inside them.)

EA: This is very different from table-top roleplaying, where the GM is expected to let the players go off on any crazy tangent, and improvise to keep up.

Much discussion on "railroading" in game design. Audience comment: Railroading in games is like exposition (infodumps) in novels. You have to do some. It gets a bad rap, but it's not per se evil -- it's just really noticeable when it's done badly.

I made my standard point about multi-level game design: unless you're writing a tiny/experimental art piece, your game is doing more than one thing at a time. It's not a tradeoff between railroading and agency, it's a tradeoff between short-term, medium-term, and long-term agency. As long as the player's attention is on the level with plenty of choice, the player won't feel railroaded at other levels.

HA: Yes, that's why the ChoiceOf model is a series of episodes.

CVE: Similarly, that's how Fallen London works -- if you're focussed on long-term stat goals, you're okay with the simplistic short-term grinding structure. (Well, up to a point.)

HA: Shared-world anthologies (Thieves' World, Bordertown, some of the Darkover canon) are interactive in a sense -- interactive among authors, rather than between audience and author. (Mention of Alternity, a collaborative journal fanfic game.)

MG: Fantasy Powers League, a collaborative/competitive online story game that he got into as a teenager.

Game Developer Women (Carolyn VanEseltine, Brianna Wu, Maddy Myers): I didn't attend this, but it apparently got into Twine and indie narrative games. Hopefully someone will report on that one.

Not a panel, but worth noting: A friend turned me on to Torchbearer, a recently-Kickstarted tabletop RPG. It describes itself as a "love letter to Basic D&D", but I'm seeing a link to old-school IF as well.

Why do I say this? Because, as my friend described it, Torchbearer's three core mechanics are:

  • The light timer (your torch burns down quickly)
  • The hunger timer (you have to eat regularly)
  • The inventory limit (you can only carry so much)

These are the three Zork/Adventure-era tropes that modern IF has comprehensively dumped. (Everyone bitches about mazes, but we acknowledge that a creative twist on the maze can be cool.) I'm keen to see a game constructed around them.

And those are my gaming notes from Arisia. I will be at Boskone next month, but Boskone tends to be more book-focussed. We'll see.

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8 Responses to Arisia: IF and gaming panels

  1. Jay LaPorte says:

    Much discussion on how these categorization questions are political. Gamers like a particular kind of game, and when an unfamiliar category shows up, they push back: this new thing might drive out the stuff I like! (I didn't have a chance to mention how this exact political reaction has been playing out in the IF community.)

    Would you mind elaborating on this? While I have a deep interest in the things the IF community is learning and doing, I don't follow it so closely as to know what this particular comment means.

    • That post was addressing a small slice of the issue. Issues.

      Basically, "what people call interactive fiction" has been changing steadily over the past few years. You'd think that would be a mere contention over terminology, but no, it's politics. What gets entered into the Interactive Fiction Database and the Interactive Fiction Competition and the Interactive Fiction Archive?

      (And a host of more detailed questions like "Should IFComp be divided into parser-based and choice-based categories?")

      These are practical questions and the answers matter. But the answers cannot be derived from any objective, universal standard. They come from our community consensus on what IF is -- that is, what we are interested in playing and talking about. Changes result from changes in the community. Thus, political.

      This notably reared up... okay, this will be a biased description. And it's just one incident, not the entirety of the issue. But in the nominations process for the 2011 XYZZY awards, a choice-based game got a lot of nominations despite being essentially unknown in "our" community and possibly not that notable in the community it came from. It seemed to be a case of a bunch of people from one world flooding into another without engaging; that led to friction. (Also notably, this was right after choice-based game "The Play" got high IFComp marks, *without* this kind of friction, because the author was a known figure.)

  2. Emily Short says:

    Thanks for this.

    "Reflective choice" isn't originally my term, though -- I got it from Failbetter's blog.

  3. Jason Dyer says:

    You hear about Cosmology of Kyoto? Ebert reviewed/enjoyed it in the early 90s. (In fact, all I know about him in relation to games for a long time was that, so was surprised when I heard about the games-are-not-art thing popping up.)

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