Posted by: Adam Strong-Morse | Comments (14)
Authorial intent is a slippery concept at the best of times, but it becomes even more so in the context of interactive fiction (IF), whether multiple-choice games like Choice of Games makes or text adventures with a parser. In a standard book (or a legal document, which is the context in which I’ve had most of my interactions with the concept of authorial intent), it’s usually pretty clear who the author is. The difficult questions are how do you determine what the author’s intent is and does it matter? When J.K. Rowling says that a prominent character in the Harry Potter books is gay, does that settle the question of whether that character is gay? Does it even mean something significant to talk about whether a character “is” gay, as opposed to how we the readers perceive a character? Those are significant questions, but I’m going to ignore them for now. Instead, I’m going to focus on the question of who the author even is in a work of IF.
If “Choice of Broadsides” were a (non-interactive) book, the question of authorship would be easy: Adam Strong-Morse, Heather Albano, and Dan Fabulich wrote it. We received a little feedback and editing advice from some friends and family, but we would clearly be the authors, without even the questions of authorship that a strong editor on the one hand or a ghost writer on the other can raise. But it’s not a book. It’s a game, and a work of interactive fiction, and the experience on playing through it depends on the choices made by the player as well as the choices we made in writing it. In a meaningful sense, the designers of the game collaborate with the player to write the story each time the game is played. This is similar to the reason that I don’t like terms like Storyteller to describe the game runner in a traditional pen-and-paper role-playing game: the story is the product not of a single “Storyteller” but of a collaborative interaction among a group of participants. If the player of a game has any meaningful agency, then they are part of the storytelling team. Not the whole part, not an unrestricted part, perhaps only a very limited part, but nonetheless part of the storytelling team.
So what does that mean in terms of our games? Here’s the way I think about it. Our target should be to offer every option that a reasonable player, playing within the norms of the setting/genre, would want to pick. We should then try to make all of those options play out in a way that is cool–perhaps not victorious, but cool. We can’t cover every option, of course, and we have to constrain which choices we offer at all–in “Choice of Broadsides,” you can’t choose to be a cavalry officer instead, even though that would (within a certain broad understanding of the genre) be a perfectly reasonable option. We just don’t present the choice at all. But if someone could, playing reasonably, want to pick an option, we should make that possible. Whenever a player says, “I wanted to do X, but the options wouldn’t let me,” we’ve failed a little. We’ve gone beyond the parts of the authorial role that we need to retain–what happens when you do X? What sorts of choices are possible at all? and gone into the parts of authorship that are better given to the player–what’s this character like? What will the protagonist do when faced with a tough choice. I think that shares the role of author most effectively.
By that standard, we failed initially in “Choice of Broadsides”, because people playing a gay protagonist wanted to have the option of taking actions to pursue a same-sex relationship at a point in the game where it appears appropriate. In recognition of that, we’ve added some new options and new text; people who played the game when it first came out and were disappointed about this issue may want to try it again. (The new version is up on the web and out for Android now; it will take a couple of days to show up in the iPhone version, because of their approval process.)
This isn’t the only approach to authorship possible in IF. Some IF games are intended to be played until the player has explored every last nook, with the later endings intended to be more meaningful in light of earlier endings already seen. In that paradigm, the game is really a single narrative that unfolds multiple times and the notion of shared authorship is less applicable. But I think the notion of joint-authorship with the players, while limited, is a good paradigm for our games. It provides a useful set of tools for determining what should be in and what doesn’t need to be developed, and it provides pressure to keep the choices meaningful and to allow real player agency.