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Trinity: design ruminations

This is not a detailed review of Infocom's Trinity, because Jimmy Maher has just finished that job. His sequence of posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) puts the game into its context in Infocom's history and, more broadly, in the history of the Atomic Age (remember that?) and the Cold War. Go read.

Inevitably Maher comes around to the question of the ending -- the "...what just happened?" denouement. (You can read just that one post if you're familiar with the game.) It's not the first time, of course. Maher links to a Usenet thread in which we went 'round this topic in 2001.

It's generally agreed that the plot logic of the ending doesn't really hold together. In fact, my teenage self was moved to write a letter of complaint to Infocom! I received a gracious response -- I think it was written by Moriarty himself -- which basically said "The game ends the way we felt it had to end." Which is unarguable. (This letter is in my father's basement somewhere, and one day I will dig it out and scan it with great glee.)

But today I am moved to be argumentative. If I were the author of Trinity, what would I have done?

(Oh, sure, I'm being presumptuous too. All due apologies to Moriarty. But we're both thirty years older; we're different people than the author and player circa 1986. It's worth a rethink.)

(I will assume that you've played the game and read Maher's post. If not, massive spoilers ahoy.)

As everybody has pointed out, Trinity is already constructed in the language of whimsy and metaphor; it starts out with a Lewis Carroll quote and builds from there. So expecting rigid logic is a fool's errand. Nonetheless, I do want a story to make sense when read at face value. (James Nicoll: "I don’t mind hidden depths but I insist that there be a surface.") Or, if the logic goes all Looking-Glass, it should do so in a thematic way.

Trinity offers the notion that the first atomic bomb would have "blown New Mexico right off the map" if we hadn't sabotaged it. Atomic bombs are vastly more powerful than we think. The little 20-kiloton blast that 1945 witnessed was "quantum steam", a side effect of changing history from a catastrophic New Mexino disaster to the timeline we know.

Maher discusses this in terms of eternal tragedy. Fine, I'd buy that -- except that it matters that atomic bombs don't work. Or work differently. Oppenheimer and Teller were wrong! All the physicists since then have been wrong. You can't just drop that into the story and not care what it means. Politics: all the mad calculations of MAD were orders of magnitude off-true. Science: the notion of fusion power, whatever that's worth, is built on quicksand. That's not a theme of "history is inevitable, we have come full circle" -- it can't be, because our history isn't what we think!

Or else the game isn't even about us, but about some other universe full of people. Sucks to be them.

But how else could the story have been cast?

Trinity could have followed through on its implied promise: you will prevent Trinity. Thus you prevent Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the nuclear detente of the Cold War; and the envisioned nuclear conflict which ends civilization. A game which goes down this road is clearly pablum. It trivializes every triumph and disaster of our postwar history with a jovial "Well, don't do that then!"

Alternate history is tricky at best. We've all seen "if this goes on" think-pieces, which project some pet peeve into (inevitably) some variety of jackbooted dystopia, all in three smug pages and a glowering byline. They're laughable. You can just about build a respectable novel this way, if you spend the pages to develop an actual world and characters; if you have the human insight of an Orwell or a Walton. Infocom's shot at this was of course AMFV, and we generally agree that it didn't work. The world they packed into 256k of Z-code was just too sketchy.

For Trinity, whose body was a solitary metaphorical puzzle-quest, to develop a vision of a nuclear-free utopia in the last scene -- it would be a joke. We'd have no reason to care, and no reason to believe it beyond the author's "I said so." Scratch that plan.

Trinity could have ended by snatching the candy out of your hand. You begin in our history, foreseeing a nuclear war. You try to sabotage Trinity to prevent it. But you cannot: the Laws of Time (or whatever) are immutable. Thus, all comes to pass. We got the Bomb, they got the Bomb, we are rushing towards the end.

This would be bleak. (Bleak is already on the table, of course.) It would fit Maher's discussion of the moment of the abyss, the Great Change in the midst of inevitable tragedy.

But, on the other hand, you'd have to make it work as a game too. It's hard to make failure work as a satisfying ending of a puzzle-quest. Possible, of course! But Infocom had already done Infidel (with mixed success, although teenage-me was satisfied). Repeating that ending would make it seem even more of a gimmick.

You'd have to rearrange the ending, anyhow. Infidel works because the final puzzle has powerful narrative momentum (Indy always finds the secret treasure!) and a direct link to the tragic ending (the tomb has One Last Trap). If Trinity's final puzzle is sabotaging the bomb, you're going to sabotage that bomb. Any other outcome would feel like a failure to solve the puzzle. If the puzzle were to reach the bomb -- and reaching it truly felt like a climactic moment -- then the player might accept some other denouement. But, more likely, it would feel like a cheat.

A variation would be for the protagonist to refuse to complete the sabotage. It's hard to imagine the player buying into this, though. You'd have to spend the whole game arguing for the preservation of history. Sure, erasing it all is empty polemic, but -- faced with the awful alternative -- the player engaged with the story has every motivation to try it.

So scratch that too.

We might leave the final choice unresolved; leave the future in the protagonist's hand, and thus in the player's imagination. This avoids both the unsatisfying failure and the just-so story of success. If done barefaced, though, it would be just as unsatisfying as an unsolved puzzle.

One can imagine ways to make it work. Perhaps build the entire story around choice, with visible glimpses of alternate outcomes for each scene. More ambitiously: have every major puzzle embody a choice, so that multiple solutions serve as multiple paths-not-taken for the story. These wouldn't have to form an exponentially-branching tree; a collection of independent (but irrevocable, in the story-world) choices would make the point. Have the paths-not-taken hover and haunt the player. Now the player, facing an unknown and unresolved ending, will do the work of imagining the alternatives for us. Or so we hope.

Being me, I have to suggest the indirect, metaphorical ending. You leave the conclusion open to interpretation: what was dream, what was metaphor, what was the hallucination of a brain being incinerated in nuclear fire?

Infocom went some distance in this direction, or we wouldn't have long blog posts about the ending to begin with. But I'd say they provided a single clear narrative for the ending -- terse, but clear. Other aspects of the story (such as the time-loop nature of the Wabewalker and their corpse) are left more open; to me, more satisfyingly open.

This stuff can be made to work, if you spend the game building up plausible hypotheses. And the author has to have a logical framework, even though it's not explained to the player. I'll admit up front that I have such a framework for Hadean Lands, and no, I won't talk about it... But I'll go through the process of imagining what might underlie this alternate Zarfian Trinity.

The hallucination-while-dying gag is even more of a gimmick than the Infidel ending. Go ahead, accuse me of using it anyway. Well, if Terry Gilliam can pull it off after Ambrose Bierce closed the book on it... But we won't try to repeat it here.

Nearly as common is the you-are-not-who-you-think-you-are gag. This, at least, can be varied to suit the storyline. We might decide that the protagonist is a guardian of history, a peer of the giggling narrator. Or that the protagonist is the giggling narrator, talking to themself across the timeline. Or maybe the protagonist is Oppenheimer?

Not Oppenheimer, let's say, but all of the innocent (or guilty) bystanders in each of the history scenes. You are not the London vacationer; you take their viewpoint temporarily, up to the point where they enter the explosion. Then you take the viewpoint of a Russian technician, and so forth. The realization that you are in a different body in every scene would arrive gradually. This would require a different approach to some scenes, of course. (There is no NPC viewpoint in space, and the Bikini test -- the dolphin perhaps?) Then, at the Trinity site, you are Donald Hornig, babysitting the equipment until -- contra real history -- you/he find yourself at risk. There's your crucial, personal choice.

I rather like this plan; it gives us a chance to read the story from a real person's perspective, rather than the Infocom-style everynerd. (Of course, at the time Trinity was being written, Hornig was teaching down the street at Harvard! There's a real-people-fiction discussion to be had there, but I won't get into it.)

All of these storytelling gimmicks, while certainly gimmicks, serve to refocus the player's attention on the story. That's why I keep coming back to them. Rethinking everything that's happened from a new perspective is, well, thinking about everything that's happened! And when your ending is difficult to accept, it always helps for the player to figure it out rather than being handed it on a plate. It gives 'em a sense of investment, right? That's the point of interactive narrative in the first place.

Finally (for this post) we have the ending in which you choose between our history and some more terrible one. This was Moriarty's option, and I think it's workable. My objection is to how Trinity framed that choice: as a forked history in which neither choice is really our world.

Can it be reframed? Not, I think, with "sabotage the bomb" as the final puzzle. If the winning outcome is our world, the bomb must go off as planned. Perhaps the player discovers some deeper threat -- aliens? time police? paradox itself? -- and must divert, at the last moment, from sabotaging Trinity to defeating this enemy.

"Paradox itself" is a tidy way to frame the threat: the bomb must go off, or history evaporates in a puff of logic! Except that this really falls back under the "immutable Laws of Time" scenario we covered earlier. It comes off as a cheat.

No, we need an enemy that the player will feel good about defeating. Aliens are too out-of-the-blue. Nazis are too Godwin (even in a WW2 game scene). Time travellers could work; a faction from the collapsing Soviet Union, perhaps. (Science fictional in 1986!) Say they pose an extreme threat -- say, a plan to change the outcome of the war, followed by a joint Nazi-Soviet hegemony of the world?

This would have to be developed at some length, and again, it's unclear whether Infocom had the resources to pull off a solid alternate history. But it's the option I'd try. If, you know, I knew anything about history.

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Upcoming Boston IF events

We have two IF events coming up on Saturday, May 7. They overlap, so you've got an opportunity to exercise meaningful player choice...

(Links narfed from the PR-IF meeting notes.)

Story and Play: Interactive Fiction for Children

(2:30pm to 4pm -- Cambridge Public Library, Whale Room)

An IF collaborative play event, for kids, hosted by Brendan Desilets. This is part of the Cambridge Science Festival. We'll be playing Mrs. Pepper’s Nasty Secret, a romp for children of all ages.

Adventuresome Creations: Interactive Fiction Graphical Adventures & Electronic Literature

(3pm -- MIT room 6-120)

A colloquium, hosted by Nick Montfort. This is part of the Purple Blurb lecture series and the Boston Cyberarts Festival. Speaking:

And as long as I've got the microphone, I'll recommend flipping through the Boston Cyberarts Festival event list. All sorts of cool stuff is happening or being demonstrated in the next two weeks.

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