Housekeeping and Homer: or, A Different Sort of Interactive Narrative

I’ve been meaning to use this blog as a place to write occasional reviews of IF pieces which have made an impression on me, but just about everything I’ve engaged with this month has been from IF Comp. So if you’re interested in my reviews, check this space on the 15th, when I can post them publicly.

Meanwhile, I’ve been considering the concept of interactive storytelling outside of what we (as the IF community) think of when we talk about interactive fiction/narrative. Yesterday, the Almeida Theatre staged an all-day reading of the Odyssey in a handful of locations throughout London, mapping Odysseus’ journey home onto the contemporary cityscape. It was a follow-up performance to their Iliad in August, which I was fortunate enough to see in person; for the Odyssey, I watched as much of the livestream as I could. But bearing witness to the performances–being part of the performances–both in-person and digitally, struck me then as crucial, and still continues to feel that way.

Whoever ran the Almeida’s Twitter account during the performances deserves both a raise and a promotion: modern, clever synopses sprinkled with tongue-in-cheek hashtags filled the official Twitter, which for the Iliad reading was displayed in real-time on a screen to the left of the reader’s podium. And a vast majority of us watching in person had our phones out and were livetweeting along. The effect was brilliant: the global community watching on the livestream and the crowd in the lobby of the British Museum created a collective experience dependent not on location but on witnessing, on participation. Livetweeting the Iliad and Odyssey felt, and still feels, like the intuitive modern response to the inherent social, communal nature of Homer’s poetry.

We don’t belong to a culture in which we gather to drink wine and hear recited verse; there was no krater next to the actors reading their lines yesterday or in August. In fact, there was a grueling quality present in the Iliad that wasn’t there in my experience of the Odyssey; spending 15 hours (off and on) standing in the lobby of the British Museum and then at the bar of the Almeida felt like a marathon. But Homer’s poems were social experiences, designed for engagement and real-time reaction, and hashtags now have the potential to curate a collective conversation.

Those of us tweeting along with the Almeida’s account and official hashtags weren’t controlling the narrative’s direction; no one expects to change the outcome of two of the oldest poems in Western culture. But we were creating our own simultaneous narrative of the particular experience, preserved in 140-character bursts. The performances and the livetweeting thereof are not what I think of when I think of “interactive fiction”, obviously. But it does remind me that the idea of what it means to participate in a narrative is complex.

Author’s notes: Invasion (Ectocomp 2015)

Invasion post-mortem, because I couldn’t resist the thematic resonance, and also because I want to talk a bit here about my intent in writing the piece, and about some of the design choices.

Before I do, there’s now a version up on that has some of the CSS I initially wanted to add, and hopefully more typos removed! Keeping the default stylesheet was a conscious choice, an homage to some of the Ectocomp games I’ve loved in years past. I knew I wanted to do Grand Guignol, but I wanted it to still be Speed IF and feel like Ectocomp of yore–I personally felt strange about submitting a finely tuned piece where all the sound effects and backgrounds worked in harmony.

Well, that turned out to be an unnecessary fear, looking at the other Grand Guignol entries. The cumulative effect with the rest of my work now rather looks as though I have an unfortunate fetish for status quo, or I don’t know how to code. I’m not sure which I feel more insulted by. I intend to add in sound effects, etc., after Ectocomp is over, but I’ve got some other projects that need attention first.

So. Invasion is what happens when several conditions are met:
  • you have a story idea scratching at the inside of your skull, but no time to do more than ponder mechanics
  • you suddenly have a very long plane ride with nothing more pressing to attend to
  • you know you can write really fucking fast.

I gave myself a limit of the flight (plus airport transit time on both ends) to see how much of this I could knock out. Not counting the editing done Sunday night (and thanks to Andrew Watt for pinch hitting on that; all remaining mistakes are my own, yes I know about the alt-text in the zip file), the whole piece took about 8 hours. I wrote Invasion on the flight to Los Angeles for Indiecade; not counting imtermittent dozing and airport milling, 8 hours seems like a pretty good estimate for how much time I spent hunched over my laptop typing. Including code bits but not borrowed stylesheets and scripts, there are about 10,000 words in Invasion. I don’t even want to do the math on words per hour. The point is: I write fast, and I know I write fast.

So I figured I could manage a mid-length game, and I suppose I was right; I don’t know how coherent it is as a mid-length game. I can see all the little pieces of truncated ideas I didn’t have time to implement, but I don’t know if it would be a better game if I had. I knew I wanted the early game to feel a bit like a bait-and-switch by subtly invoking some familiar parser tropes. (There’s a reason the field is described as being “east” despite me being terrible with the compass in both parser and reality.) I’m not sure how much of that sense remained after I rewrote the opening, though. The original intention was to make it feel like a game that would work better as a parser, to give the player a sense of wanting to explore the world more, examine and take objects that weren’t keyed by the author. I wanted a sense of puzzlement, even frustration, as you run around picking up everyday mementos from the forest floor while a slavering horror advances to devour you, until you figure out why you’re doing this. I don’t know how effective this was, admittedly, but I am curious.

Also, the “why isn’t this a parser” reaction also felt crucial to what happens in the later game, when essentially your freedom is further stripped away and you’re left with only unpleasant, confining alternatives. Invasion is about isolation, about not being able to reach out and tell people how you’re feeling, what’s happening to you. In my mind, Twine as a format is often at its strongest when it’s telling stories about constraint and pain. Invasion is a story about both. I needed that sense of claustrophobia, that feeling of all these doors and windows of possibility and ingenuity shuttering in an instant. You can’t KISS alien. You can’t ASK alien ABOUT interstellar diplomacy. You can’t PLEAD for alien to LEAVE YOU ALONE, HASN’T IT DONE ENOUGH.* So. Twine, not Inform.

The mid-to-late game is brutally linear. I’d have wanted it to be so even if this weren’t Speed IF. You always end up with the same three choices. Your selection of who you dream of does significantly alter the glimpses of backstory you get, in that dreaming of an individual causes you to ruminate on them in all places where it’s possible to do so, which is at least once per day. If you think of Lakshmi, you get a real sense of your relationship, but you don’t have much access to your mother anymore.

That’s intentional. This isn’t a game with a high degree of replayability, and so I wanted the choice to represent a loss, and not necessarily one where the entire significance of that loss could be realized in the moment. This is a game about losing your memories and sundering connections to your loved ones, and thus to parts of yourself. Knowing at all turns what you’re giving up runs counter to the experience I wanted to build.

The idea of the agalma runs heavily through Invasion: in Greek lyric, an agalma denotes precious gift object, carefully crafted and beautiful, beyond its usual common definition of a votive statue to the gods. The agalma of Homer creates appreciation and exaltation in its viewer, and through the curation of that experience, the conjuring of those emotions of delight, builds fond relationships between strangers, between the human and the divine.** The embedding of memory in an object that can conjure an absent ghost is an idea that I keep coming back to, and wanted to explore. The agalmata in this story forge links between individuals, to preserve memories that would otherwise be lost (I have a whole structural idea of how that loss happens, but I didn’t have enough time here to do the concept justice.) But they also act as links, as threatening bonds between alien and human. What nourishes you destroys you, etc.

Emily Short has talked about games as a medium for being able to talk about truth slant, to tell stories in a way that feels safe for both reader and author. Arkady Martine once said that aliens are full of allegory. I happen to agree with them both. Thus, Invasion was born. I was glad for the opportunity to tell this story, and I might like to come back and explore the world in greater depth at some point. We’ll see.

* Maybe another time! A piece with “KISS alien” and “ASK alien ABOUT interstellar diplomacy” does seem like something I would write.

**yes, this is a very particular metaphorical and not entirely Classicist-approved reading of the function of agalmata. But I’m taking poetic liberties.