Early Interactive Fiction: Ambiguity & Personalized Narrative

by Roz Foster | a Ruelle Electrique Reprint

aliceCaterpillar2Okay.  So, typing the command “KILL THIEF WITH KNIFE” in Zork because some shady, muttering bastard is trying to kipe your bejeweled egg might not have been as enriching an experience as reading about Alice in Wonderland facing off with a giant, hookah-smoking caterpillar who’s asking her THE philosophical question.

Alice in Wonderland (as it was and is for many) was the first novel I read and has never been demoted from its spot as My Favorite Book.  Still, Zork’s text-based adventure had something Lewis Carroll’s book lacked: interactive narrative engagement.  Sure, I could imagine the scenes in Alice—but I couldn’t affect them.

More significantly, these were Alice’s adventures, not mine.  She was blonde.  I was brunette.  She was British.  I had a thick New York accent.  And I wouldn’t have been caught dead in that kooky Sunday dress she wore all the live-long day.  Fahgedd’aboudit.

In Zork, I wasn’t just a pre-teen from Long Island imagining I was the adventurer—I was the adventurer!  I was a small brunette, wearing jeans and a blue hoodie.  Climbing down into that dungeon with my lantern lit, I was ready for that grue!

The universal ambiguity of naked text and the use of second person singular in Zork allows players to seamlessly imagine themselves in the role of the adventurer.  The narrative warns: YOU are likely to be eaten by a grue.  The grue is not at all interested in the taste of Alice on its tongue—it’s after you.  In other words, the experience is exceedingly “personalized.”

Interactive experience designers make gargantuan efforts to create immersive, emotionally connective, interactive experiences by devising complicated, cookie-heavy, database-driven personalized experiences.  That’s not to say these massive efforts don’t work.  But I’m finding a simple, powerful lesson in unadorned text and that faceless, second-person pronoun.  Ambiguity, ironically, is highly emotionally connective.

This was a Ruelle Electrique Reprint and was originally published at Glopilot.

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