|Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media|
|author||Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Editors)|
|summary||An exploration of the "You" in RPGs and Interactive Fiction|
To that end, co-editors Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin have collected 47 essays on various topics related to the second-person, dividing the lot up into three sections covering "Tabletop Systems," "Computational Fictions," and "Real Worlds" (the latter somewhat of a misnomer, as you will soon see). The essays range in tone from highly informal to quite technical, from practical to theoretical, and (in the tradition of old Infocom games) from terse to verbose, the sole uniting theme being the focus on You.
Section One, "Tabletop Systems," contains 15 essays devoted to a discussion of traditional, old-school RPGs, including standout bits penned by the likes of Greg Costikyan, George R. R. Martin, Erik Mona and Ken Hite. It's the most accessible part of the book, and without a doubt my favorite.
Costikyan's "Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String," starts out with a discussion of the early days of the pen-and-paper industry and their influence on interactive fiction, and moves all the way to MMOs and the current indie RPG movement, spending some time on Paul Czege's My Life with Master. It provides a good overview of the IF industry in its entirety, and might have fit better as a sort of "meta-essay", but still works here as a good introduction and exploration of many of the issues surrounding game narrative, player freedom and IF in general.
Erik Mona and Ken Hite's pieces are more on target. Mona's "From the Basement to the Basic Set: The Early Years of Dungeons & Dragons takes D&D up to the late 70s just before it split into D&D and AD&D, providing an interesting historical perspective on the Gygax-Arneson years. Hite's "Narrative Structure and Creative Tension in Call of Cthulhu talks about the evolution of language within various editions of the CoC RPG, as well as the standardized form of their adventures, and how these things serve to create a narrative tension that has helped the game survive and prosper.
One essay worth mentioning for its terseness is Jonathan Tweet's essay on character creation in Everway, barely managing two pages, and then only by the addition of four pieces of artwork. Another oddity is Rebecca Borgstrom's "Structure and Meaning in Role-Playing Game Design", which addresses Exalted's story structure; the piece is filled with numerous subheadings and language that occasionally makes it read like an outline or a proposal, rather than a finished piece (e.g., repeated references to "this chapter" such as "This chapter views gaming as a computational process."). Both pieces are written well and cover interesting material, but feel unfinished in their own ways.
Other essays in this first section discuss the World of Darkness and the Storyteller system, storytelling and collectible card games (in particular, A Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulhu), Arkham Horror, Mystery of the Abbey, George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards books, and the gamebook On Life's Lottery. Not discussed, and notable by their absence: Steve Jackson Games, and any edition of Dungeons & Dragons after 1980.
Section Two, "Computational Fictions," is comprised of 17 essays by authors including Jordan Mechner, Chris Crawford, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern. The material here is somewhat denser and more technical, but aside from some linguistic stumbling blocks it's also filled with excellent insights.
Mechner's essay on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time opens things up with an excellent look at the making of a video game: rules, some broken; discussion of how dialogue works within the context of a game; even a sample from a dialogue spreadsheet that shows why screenplay format is inappropriate.
Somewhat crunchier are essays by Chris Crawford ("Deikto: A Language for Interactive Storytelling") and D. Fox Harrell ("GRIOT's Tales of Haints and Seraphs: A Computational Narrative Generation System"). The former discusses Crawford's early attempt to draft something akin to a programming language for IF, complete with flowchart diagrams and pidgin-sounding syntax, such as "Mom command Billy that Billy not go to lake." Harrell's essay likewise talks about "developing computational techniques for representing an author's intended subjective meaning and expression." Yikes.
The longest piece, "Writing Facade: A Case in Procedural Authorship" by Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, discusses Facade, a game wherein the player can either break up or save the marriage of a digital couple. Ample screenshots and samples from the game accompany an explanation of the situation as it unfolds, with later discussion of the procedural architecture and subsystems behind the game. It's an excellent piece that nicely ties together what a player sees with what a developer has to deal with.
Aside from the generally less accessible language, the section's only major flaws are that the essays from Steve Meretzky (on Floyd from Planetfall) and Lee Sheldon (on the computer adaptation of And Then There Were None) are rather terse considering the rich subject matter. Surely Floyd and Agatha Christie deserve more than a couple of pages a piece.
Other games discussed in this section include the Flash storytelling game Solitaire, Book and Volume, Shade, Savior-Faire, the somewhat surreal art piece Pax, the hypermedia Magritte-esque work The Brotherhood of Bent Billiard, the cinematic Mission to Earth, the audiovisual hypertext Juvenate, Twelve Easy Lessons to Better Time Travel, The Breakup Conversation and the multiplayer IF The Archer's Flight.
The third and penultimate section, "Real Worlds", focuses on shared, IF experiences, the unifying factor being a persistence that runs counter to the transience experienced in both weekly RPG sessions and most computer games. Despite the section title, virtual worlds and MMOs are also discussed here by the likes of essayists including John Tynes, Ian Bogost and Gonzalo Frasca. For the most part the material is engaging and interesting, if a bit esoteric at times.
John Tynes' "Prismatic Play: Games as Windows on the Real World" explores escapism and engagism in games as diverse as D&D, Millennium's End and his own Unknown Armies, concluding that engagist works are those that expand our knowledge through immersion in real world ideas and cultures as opposed to escapist frolicking in EDO (Elf-Dwarf-Orc) fantasy games. As an interesting not-quite-counterpoint, Sean Thorne covers John Tynes' Puppetland in the next essay, and discusses how he incorporated the rather escapist game into a writing curriculum for his eleven-year-old students.
Ian Bogost and Gonzalo Frasca include an essay titled "Video Games Go to Washington: The Story Behind the Howard Dean for Iowa Game," which is about as self-explanatory as a title gets. The duo discuss the launch of the game in December of 2003, development challenges and time constraints, demographics and politics, and provide an excellent post-mortem on the game and its effects (or lack thereof) on Dean's campaign.
Several chapters in a row delve into fantasy MMOs, including World of Warcraft. Torill Elvira Mortensen's "Me, the Other" talks about role-playing in MMOs, the difference between IC and OOC and the controversy of role-playing (which seems somewhat anachronistic; aren't people more worried about GTA than D&D nowadays?). Jill Walker's essay covers Quests in World of Warcraft, and how they introduce and support the overall storyline. Celia Pierce and her alter-ego Artmesia discuss(es) social identity and persistence in exploring the case of Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, an MMO that, when it shut down, caused its player base to propagate to other MMOs such as Second Life and There to keep the community alive.
The one odd bit here is a chapter on Santaman's Harvest by Adrine Jenik, an exploration of a digital performance piece from Desktop Theater that includes more sidebar than text as it reprints dialogue from the play ("sman:: Think Big; farmer #1: Big?").
Other essays discuss the use of role-play in prepping political canvassers, Nick Fortgno's A Measure for Marriage LARP, the evidently crass unexceptional.net ("Guy playing with himself," reads a part of one caption), the Boston-based Itinerant, the I Love Bees ARG, the basic rules of Improv Theater, the interactive play Adventures in Mating, and the collaborative work Eliza Redux, "an interactive telerobotic work couched in a virtual graphical representation of a psychoanalyst's workplace" as well as a revisitation of the Eliza program.
The book's rather sizable Appendix includes three playable tabletop RPGs: Puppetland by John Tynes, wherein players take the roles of puppets; Bestial Acts by Greg Costikyan, which is based on the dramatic theories and aesthetic of Bertolt Brecht; and The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen by James Wallis, a tale-telling game written from the first person perspective of the Baron himself. This is followed by biographies of the contributing authors and a helpful index, always a good thing to see in a book of this size and density.
As is often the case, the book's back cover copy is at best misleading; though terse, it manages inaccuracy in saying that the book features "three complete tabletop role-playing games." However, Costikyan's "Designer's Note" for Bestial Acts on page 357 explicitly says "I've never bothered to finish writing up acts II and III." Not quite complete, then. The same error is reprinted on the front flap; a minor gaffe, but noticeable in a book with few other notable flaws save a few silly typos in obvious charts and tables: "Challange" instead of "Challenge", "real-rime" instead of "real-time." But this is nitpicking. As a whole the book is well-edited, well-laid out and amply illustrated to boot, with over 200 images; would that they were in color.
My only real complaint is not with anything in the book, but with the underlying assumption — prevalent in many places, touched upon here in the jacket copy, and assumed to some degree in many of the essays — that the gaming industry is still an "emerging field" that needs to prove its own maturity. While it might be true that not much in the way of academic discussion exists when it comes to games, it still seems all too comfortable to continue hiding in the soft golden field of "emerging." How much longer can the industry (of which I consider myself a part) continue to use that word?
Consider television in the '50s after it got through its own period of emergence and acceptance: shows like Candid Camera, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts and Break the Bank were on the air. And 60 years later, what do we have? Shows like America's Funniest Home Videos, American Idol and Deal or No Deal. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Pick any medium and you'll find much the same — for every Citizen Kane there will be a dozen Scary Movies; for every Empire Falls there will be fifty Da Vinci Codes.
Pong was emerging; Zork was emerging. We are no longer emerging — we have emerged. Sure, we have quests in World of Warcraft where you have to collect poop, but we also have Portal; we have the Hot Coffee mod in GTA: San Andreas, but we also have a Dystopian Objectivist narrative in Bioshock.
The 47 essays and 3 games in this excellent book show us where we've been, where we are, and where we're headed when it comes to role-playing games and interactive fiction. That's 50 pieces of evidence to prove the case that gaming is as deserving of attention, acclaim and criticism as any other medium. As an industry, we've been emerging for 35 years now; by my reckoning, that puts us squarely into adulthood. Let's start acting like it.
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