Command Lines: Dissertation on Interactive Fiction and New Media at WRT: Writer Response Theory

Jeremy Douglass has published a Creative Commons dissertation on interactive fiction. I recently brought a printout into my “Writing about Literature” class in order to help my undergrads (English majors, some of whom want to be professional writers or literature professors) see their homework assignments as points on a scale that includes books and beyond.

I ran the PDF through a text-to-speech program, and have been listening to it during my commute. I’m currently at 7 hrs 49 minutes of a 10-hr document. (I didn’t include the index and the bibliography when I converted the file to sound.) 

Douglass does an excellent job acknowledging the debt that IF scholarship owes to the pioneering work of Janet Murray and Espen Aarseth (each of whom have treated IF as part of a larger study on digital narrative), and he also offers a good analysis of the full-length studies of IF by Buckles, Sloane, Montfort, and Maher.  He politely but unflinchingly points out how the limited number of IF works chosen for close readings has led to oversimplifications and assumptions in later scholarship.  Because IF is a rather obscure topic, scholars have to present a lot of formal exposition and generic exposition in order to clear a path to their more advanced insights, but Douglass moves beyond the basics very quickly, so there is much of value to ponder. (I will give it a traditional read-through when I’m finished listening to it…  depending on the audio version for the first read is an experiment that I’m rather enjoying.)

For me, the greatest pleasure in reading this work is the insightful close readings of moments, scenes, puzzles, and specific interactions that illustrate the greater theoretical point. I also felt challenged (in a good way) by his re-thinking of the categories into which the history of IF tends to be placed.  I will very likely assign at least

The Interactive Fiction (IF) genre describes text-based narrative experiences in which a person interacts with a computer simulation by typing text phrases (usually commands in the imperative mood) and reading software-generated text responses (usually statements in the second person present tense). Re-examining historical and contemporary IF illuminates the larger fields of electronic literature and game studies. Intertwined aesthetic and technical developments in IF from 1977 to the present are analyzed in terms of language (person, tense, and mood), narrative theory (Iser’s gaps, the fabula / sjuzet distinction), game studies / ludology (player apprehension of rules, evaluation of strategic advancement), and filmic representation (subjective POV, time-loops). Two general methodological concepts for digital humanities analyses are developed in relation to IF: implied code, which facilitates studying the interactor’s mental model of an interactive work; and frustration aesthetics, which facilitates analysis of the constraints that structure interactive experiences. IF works interpreted in extended “close interactions” include Plotkin’s Shade (1999), Barlow’s Aisle (2000), Pontious’s Rematch (2000), Foster and Ravipinto’s Slouching Towards Bedlam (2003), and others. Experiences of these works are mediated by implications, frustrations, and the limiting figures of their protagonists.