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IF and the Subtitle at WRT: Writer Response Theory

IF and the Subtitle

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You can learn a lot about an interactive fiction from the subtitle.

The subtitle has been with IF since almost the beginning, starting with Infocom’s decision to split Crowther and Wood’s “Adventure” into three parts with corresponding episode names: “Zork I: The Great Underground Empire,” “Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz,” and “Zork III: The Dungeon Master.” Since the 90s revival of independent IF, adding a secondary title has become quite normal - even conventional.

Baf’s Guide is an amazing resource for IF titles, authors, reviews, awards, and classifications of all kinds. One thing you won’t find cataloged, however, is the headline information, including the subtitle text. I’d always been vaguely aware of the subtitle when reading a new work for the first time, but because the secondary title doesn’t commonly appear in any listings the pattern never made an impression on me until I began doing some of my own cataloging, using an iTunes-like interface called iFiction that comes with the Zoom Inform player.

By far the most common subtitle by far is “an interactive X” - where X is evocative of the premise, the conceit, the genre - anything except a spoiler. Consider the the following list of subtitles to works of IF:

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- an interactive allegory
- an interactive catharsis
- an interactive conspiracy
- an interactive diversion
- an interactive excursion
- an interactive history
- an interactive investigation
- an interactive misdirection
- an interactive mission
- an interactive night of horror
- an interactive one-room absurdity
- an interactive punishment
- an interactive sculpture
- an interactive search for loot
- an interactive self-discovery
- an interactive short story
- an interactive theodicy
- an interactive theosophy
- an interactive tussle
- an interactive vice-trainer

Although I haven’t surveyed TADS subtitles yet, this pattern for a secondary title may be a phenomenon specific to the Inform programming language, beginning with the creator Graham Nelson. Nelson’s first major game (“Curses!: an interactive history”) was preceded in 1994 by the first game file compiled in Inform (“Deja Vu: an interactive demonstration”). Subsequent example files distributed with the Inform language and documentation included “an interactive short story” “an interactive companion to the designer’s manual” etc., and the use of those files as templates by new IF implementors may have been one reason the convention was (playfully) taken up and spread - template use creating a default aesthetic effect.

This is by no means to say that every Inform IF has a secondary title, or that one always take this form. Some other examples:

- a cave crawl
- an immersive gallery
- an instant in the life of a man
- a portrait of a reflection

Mouse-over or click-through some of subtitles in the two lists above. If you are widely read in IF, did any surprise you or make you laugh? Even when familiar with specific work of IF, understanding the connection to the secondary title can sometimes require lateral thinking.

Common to both lists is a particular style of expectation management. The subtitle often refers to what makes an IF fictional - that is to say, what rhetorical significance it has, above and beyond the fact of it occurring as a simulation and thus being a game. That Lucian Smith’s “The Ediface” is a simulation of human evolutionary stages becomes clear within a few minutes of play. Yet the secondary title is not “an interactive human evolution” but “an interactive allegory” - a different and perhaps a larger claim. Likewise, Andrew Plotkin’s “So Far” predominantly involves interaction with a progression of surrealist or alien situations. However, rather than indicating the method of simulation (“an interactive sequence of surrealism”) the secondary title “an interactive catharsis” alludes to the intended meaning of that simulation, which relies on the frame-tale surrounding those experiences and the significance of the subtext.

The opposite gesture is also possible, making quite modest claims about what is actually simulated. Yet here too the strategy of expectation management is the same. Plotkin’s “Hunter, in Darkness” is subtitled “a cave crawl,” a phrase which evokes either a spelunking simulation in Crowther’s original “Adventure” style or the “dungeon crawl” treasure-hunting simulated in classic role-playing games. Any such expectation will be betrayed within minutes of beginning the text itself, despite the fact that “cave crawl” is technically an accurate description of what is being simulated. Similarly, Emily Short’s “Savoir-Faire” does in some sense simulate “an interactive search for loot” - however, in telling you this, Short purposefully obscures her tale of complicated desires that define what “loot” is and ultimately imbue it with purpose.

Whether grandiose or self-deprecating, IF subtitles are generally calculated not to indicate genre but rather to manage player expectation - sometimes to inflect reading, sometimes to mislead and thus surprise. My sense is that this is quite unusual, and might be particular to the puzzle-nature of the IF experience. It would be interesting to see how it compares to novel titles, film titles, or 3d console game titles. My first guess would be that it is a convention on the extreme end of the mystery genre, perhaps best comparable to the chapter titles of mystery novels, whereas graphical games tend to follow film industry taglines in using descriptive or topical subtitles that help clarify the product in the marketplace. Pulling up the All Game Guide and reading off the first five subtitles I see:

- Crash: Tag Team Racing
- Animaniacs: Lights, Camera, Action!
- Total Overdose: A Gunslinger’s Tale in Mexico
- Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects
- Trauma Center: Under the Knife

That “Trauma Center: Under the Knife” simulates performing surgeries is unmistakable (despite the confusing implication that it simulates undergoing surgery). What would it look like as IF? Let’s imagine:

In “Trauma: an interactive second chance,” the game is a simulation of performing surgery. However, during the course of the surgery, you (the surgeon) discover your connection to the patient, and realize that you have an opportunity to atone for a past wrong - some sin against them that ironically led to your operating table. The stakes are high, and during the drama of the surgery, deciding which impulses to follow involves reacting to both the patient’s physical trauma and your own emotional trauma. The subtitle conveys not the means of simulation, but the mode of experience.

The IF “Trauma” thus imagined might indeed be a simulation of a second chance. What it means to simulate an allegory, or a catharsis, or a second-chance, however, is bound up in the artist’s aspirations for us to learn or be changed in some way by our experience… and whether we feel those aspirations succeeded.

2 Responses to “IF and the Subtitle”

  1. 1 peterb

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    Actually, the “subtitle” aspect of modern Inform games has always bothered me. It feels, frankly, like near-mindless repetition of a bit of form. I’d be willing to bet most of the authors would describe it as “homage,” but to me it feels more like…well, like bondage, actually.

    I know that’s not a very clear explanation. Sorry.

  2. 2 Jeremy Douglass

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    While I don’t see it as ‘mindless,’ I think we are on the same page about it being a convention, if not a constraint. After all, there is nothing forcing you to have a subtitle - it is that filling one in is suggested by various libraries and templates. To me, the tagline in a movie poster is a good comparison - it has nothing to do with the cataloging data of a movie, and is not required, but has become a stock convention of the movie poster format.

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