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When I read a good novel I always imagine myself participating in the events, going on the journey with the characters. I can still clearly remember the first time I finished The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I was 9 at the time, and the books had a great effect on me. When the story ended, it seemed like I had been along for the ride. Yet I had been involved in the action only as a bystander, nothing more than a ghost watching things happen, unable to effect the events that occurred or interact with the characters I had grown attached to.
Not long after this I bought a copy of a computer game called Final Fantasy 7. It changed the way I viewed storytelling completely. In the first few moments of the game I was placed in control of a character where I made the decisions. I chose where to go, what to do, who to talk to, even what to SAY! For the first time, I was able to actually live out a fantasy that all readers indulge in - being IN the story! And what a story it was. The game experience was rich with great music and compelling graphics that worked together with the text. The effect was like a mix of novel and movie, with the radical new ability of user control. It was immediately addicting.
This new genre of storytelling is called interactive fiction, and is the newest frontier of writing. Taking full advantage of computer technology from sound, graphics and the internet, games create a virtual universe for the user. The line between spectator and actor is blurred. Computer-mediated storytelling is about what you do right here and now, while you are sitting at the keyboard. That's where the story comes from. It's not about what somebody else did, once upon a time, in a land far, far away.
Steven Johnson touches on this idea in his essay “Links”.
“Hypertext [fiction] would be … where the reader would create the narrative by clicking on links and following different story lines, like the old “choose your own adventure” children’s books. The work itself would be less like a narrative in the strict sense of the word, and more like an environment.” (Johnson, 205)
While it seems Johnson is unaware of the fact that computer games already embody his idea of “hypertext fiction”, he does make an important statement when he says that the work is “like an environment”.
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"Interactive Fiction: Computer Games." 123HelpMe.com. 17 Jul 2019
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Computer games work to create an environment for the user to experience in a real life way. In a novel you might read a description of places a character is moving through, but in a computer game there is a visual world that characters move and interact with. For example, you might see a car and decide to steal it, or notice a poster on a wall and approach to read it. Neither event is actually part of the overarching narrative story, but exists to create an environment for the user to experience. In this way the user is perhaps less aware of the scripting that creates the story because it is invisible, whereas in a novel a reader is constantly aware of the text.
The kind of writing that appears in interactive fiction, computer games, isn't really the same as the kind of writing you find in a novel or short story, because of this addition of user choice. Consider an interactive Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - the timeless story of a young white boy and a runaway slave. Some stories are going to be better than other stories. If it were really interactive, you could turn Jim in and get the reward money and spend it on beer. But that wouldn't make a classic American work of literature.
There are certainly still limitations as to how much control a user has over the narrative storyline itself. The oldest genre of computer game storytelling, RPG’s, or role-playing games, are constantly trying to try to expand on ways the user can create/change events in the narrative. As J.C. Herz points out in his book Joystick Nation,
“The mathematics of this quickly become nightmarish for the designer, who now has the delightful job of writing 256 versions of the same novel. Even if someone tried to do it (and God knows what kind of masochistic soul would undertake this Dickensian task), he'd end up with a narrative sand castle whose towers and turrets were continually toppling over. Some choices make better stories than others and constructing a compelling narrative is not a particularly carefree enterprise.” (Herz, 149-150)
Enter something new. I'm talking about democratized, distributed, networked, storytelling. I'm referring to massively multiplayer online games, where most of the action is improvised by hundreds or thousands of players. This kind of gaming has changed the role of the author, perhaps beyond recognition. Where traditional computer games have been a solitary experience between the user and the screen, the newest field of gaming lies in creating massive worlds where the focus is on interaction with other live human beings.
The result is less like a narrative, that is, a single coherent story related from one person to another -- a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end; and more like a virtual world, where you are the event and the event is you. This takes interactive fiction to a whole new level. Where the single player game was crippled by the number of different storylines written into the game, the massively multiplayer game has essentially no limits on the different stories that can be created. The stories are generated by the players themselves, interacting with each other and the game world. It is the ultimate realization of what Johnson describes as “reader centrism.”
“The Parisian philosophes of ‘68 had called for a revolution in reading habits, a kind of grass roots aestheticism where the reader shapes the experience of a text more than the author does.” (Johnson, 205)
There are quite a few MMOG’s out on the market right now, with player bases ranging from 100,000 to 500,000 people. These immense game worlds offer such interactivity that players can build their own cities, craft items to sell to each other in a fluid economy, hunt, fight, build political structures, and much more. Some people make a career out of selling virtual items to other players in the game for real life cash. Others meet their partners and have their wedding ceremony in the game world. All the while they communicate through text chat, give text orders to the game, and interact with a world that is written day by day. Teams of writers work constantly on MMOG’s, creating events in the world depending on what players do. How players, as a community, react to those events changes the very structure of the game world.
This seems to solve the problem Johnson points out with interactive fiction, the feeling of isolation in having no shared experience with other readers.
“We were talking, it turned out, about very different stories. Each reading had produced an individual, private experience. At these moments, struggling for common ground over the telephone, hypertext felt less like an exercise in literary democracy and more like an isolation booth.” (Johnson, 206)
This is obviously not the case with the most recent games. In fact, it seems that there is so much interaction and shared experience in these games that people sometimes abandon much of their real lives in place of the new, virtual world. There are even blog sites that post problems partners of online gamers have dealing with their addiction to the virtual world. One of the most popular has to do with the game Everquest, which has held the largest player base of all the online games to date. A sample post from the Everquest Blog shows the extent interactive fiction can have on people:
“I don't really know what to say, I've read a lot of posts and i can relate to a lot of them. My husband was an eq addict, he introduced me to the game, I guess he was tired of me nagging him to get off the computer for a while... lol. so yes I started playing, and for a couple of months I was on most of the time, unless I was taking care of my son or the house, then I started to realize that I was slowly getting sucked in, I lost my friends, my family, my husband, I even forgot who I was. So I stopped playing. I wanted to be a family again, but I guess my husband at that point had other plans, he had met someone on the game.“ (Everquest Daily Grind)
I could hardly imagine this scenario if we were talking about traditional novels instead of the interactive fiction of games. It is a striking example of how much computer technology has changed the way we view reading and writing. Online games where the storyline is driven by the day to day activities of the players involved in them are a very new technology, barely as old as the PC. Yet even in its infancy, interactive fiction has enhanced the way we work with writing immensely. No longer do we view stories as things that are necessarily separate from us, to be viewed and not experienced. We can, for the first time, BE the story.
Everquest Daily Grind. March 27, 2004 http://eqdailygrind.blogspot.com/
Johnson, Steven. “Links.” Writing Material: Reading from Plato to the Digital Age. Ed. Evelyn B. Tribble, Anne Trubek. New York: Longman, 2003. 315-335.
Herz, J.C. Joystick Nation New York: Little, Brown & Co, 1997