Whenever I read the seemingly unkillable complaints about modern IF and its “uninteractivity,” I’m plagued with flashbacks to 1998. (Boy, I hated 1998. I had helmet hair.) 1998 was the year of Photopia, a near-universally acclaimed work of interactive fiction in which nothing you do will derail the crushing inevitability of the plot one inch, which is of course the point. Two years later came Rameses, a more brutal, polarizing sort of work, and its detractors delighted in pointing out that you can type WAIT dozens of times and let the narrative shuffle you listlessly through the motions without any intervention or initiative on your part — not that much could pierce through your inner defeated stubbornness. Which is, of course, also the point. To many of you I’m recapping oft-recapped history, surveying the long-dried battlefields of flame wars better off forgotten; and yet “uninteractivity’’ keeps appearing fresh, always an accusation of ineptitude and accidental failure, never deliberate or a deliberate point.
I was reminded of all this mess after reading Matthew S. Burns’ excruciatingly entertaining Twine piece The Writer Will Do Something. You’re employed by the AAA developer of ShatterGate, a Frankensteinally unwieldy shooter, as the lead writer of the latest sequel — a job you know you have no business doing. It isn’t imposter syndrome; you’ve neither played the previous games nor have any real intention to, and the current entry is a thicket of lore you can barely hack. You are as imposter as they come — and yet you’re no more an imposter than the rest of your team, a motley assortment of hopers, no-hopers, middle managers and babysitters talking and pacing through a morning meeting about the game’s inevitable prospects: “unambiguously catastrophic.” What follows are several hours of circling around cold opens, cinematic opens, Dark Souls, “visual quilts,” doodles on whiteboards, guns with swords on them – and absolutely no real progress.
Needless to say, most people with game dev experience are probably fighting off their own flashbacks, but you certainly don’t need that experience to appreciate the disaster. As someone who used to work on the production desk of newspapers, I felt a certain sad kinship with the poor harried audio tech who rushes in mid-meeting from Greenland – the nickname of the audio department, cold and distant: why can’t you tell <s>audio</s> copy about things that affect copy? (The audio tech, it should be noted, is female, which contributes to a certain subtext throughout the piece; while the PC’s gender is never mentioned, the way they’re continually talked over, around and past resonated with entirely too many stories from my female colleagues, not to mention myself.)
What The Writer Will Do Something isn’t, exactly, is fun. It’s funny, certainly – Burns is a good enough writer that it’s worth going through each path just to extract every last quip– and thoroughly polished, but it’s also an exercise in calculated frustration. None of your choices matter; the difference between a courageous action and a weaselly cop-out is entirely in the PC’s head. Keep your head down? Doesn’t matter. Stand up to your coworkers’ various haranguing? Doesn’t matter. Attempt the classic “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, you’re cool, fuck you I’m out?” Nobody even pays attention. The story has three endings, all of which drop like (and are accompanied by) a horror-movie audio sting and none of which seem to have much correlation to anything you’ve said; I’ve gone through about a dozen times now and I’m still not convinced they’re not random. You quite literally cannot win. And it doesn’t take too much searching to find people’s complaints about this, which derail quite readily into complaints about Twine and interactivity in general.
Your first clue should be the overwhelming quality of the work, the snappiness of the writing, the polish of the design (I like to think it’s a little joke about the pecking order that the audio is particularly effective); this is not an amateur’s product. Your next clue, and really your last, should be the title: the writer will do something. Much like (again) Rameses, which devotes a significant portion of its runtime trapping the PC in a not-quite-two-sided conversation with his friend (“friend”) rhapsodizing about the free will the player consistently fails to have, Burns milks the game-dev arguments for every drop of comedy and dramatic irony and the choice-based medium itself for every drop of vicarious pain. Take one passage toward the middle of the game, after a couple protests have gone nowhere and after your boss delivers what sure looks like an ultimatum:
Your mind is a bright, glittery cascade of thoughts. Unfortunately, you’re not able to isolate or hold any single one of them. Everything in your head is water. Making a decision, in this room, has too many implications.
What follows is another choice point: three decisions, every implication and worry and possibility laid out in your head. The entire thing is over 500 words, and it’s rendered in text that scrolls faster than even the quickest reader can keep up with. As the prose goes on it gets steadily angrier, more earnest, closer to a grand statement – but you probably won’t get that far on your first playthrough, as before you can keep up, the screen advances to:
“I vote cold open,” says Shawn, before you can speak.
Mike nods. “Yep. Agreed. Cold open.”
Troy says, “Okay, done. Cold open. Next issue?”
(The final nail into the reader: everything in the story up to this point was about how sucky that cold open was. Wait, no, one more nail: the remainder of the story is… more discussion of the cold open. Ultimatum, my gunsword.)
It’s among the most maddening uses of macros I’ve encountered lately. It breaks most of the rules of player friendliness and accessibility and satisfaction that are endlessly hashed over in the plot; it undermines its own writing — the point of which is to get to be read, right? And yet it’s as much a setpiece as any elaborate puzzle or intricately designed object; it immerses the player totally and viscerally in a setting and feeling, in this case mind-searing bureaucratic frustration. In real life, that’d be, well, mind-searing; conveyed by fiction, it’s high praise.