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It Plays Adventure at WRT: Writer Response Theory

It Plays Adventure

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When a digital artwork, game, or story exists in many forms across many hardware and software systems, what is the ‘real’ work, and do we experience it differently?

Right now I’m thinking about that ur-interactive fiction, Adventure (a.k.a. ADVENT, Colossal Cave Adventure, etc.) - which through its complex history has been both massively cross-platform and massively varied in adaptation and implementation. Adventure adaptations are a pretty interesting example of the varying relationship between code and human-computer interface - in part because of ubiquity of Adventure makes it one kind of Rosetta stone not just across operating system but across devices including PDAs, watches, and more.

Yesterday I downloaded the ‘Advent’ Apple Dashboard widget, which plays the 430-point version 2.5 of Adventure. The interface has an “enhanced UI” with an inventory tool tray, a compass rose that indicates current exits, and a score status line. Looking at a transcript of my play, I can see how these enhancements change the way I interact - I bumble about for exits and call up the inventory less when both are constantly displayed. Compared to other versions of Adventure, the appearance of the widget is different, and the experience of the widget is different, but the structure of the experience as simulated - the underlying code, with its inputs, outputs, and states - is almost entirely the same the same as other Adventure implementations.

This similarity and difference of electronic adaptations is not unique to interactive fiction, of course - rather, it is our normal expectation of how “display” works for digital devices. HTML and CSS use the same structure to create different displays on different screens. Computer desktops shift and reshuffle in reaction to having their dimensions and color depths changed. Visible computing is always a visualized medium, with some act of (variable) presentation manifesting the binary content as screenic form.

The interest in Adventure (and IF more generally) is that, like the Linux operating system or the Java interpreted language, it aspires to the status of “runs on everything.” In the archive of interpreters are solutions for server or PC, desktop or command line, web page or telnet or MUD, IM chatroom or IRC channel, PocketPC, Palm Pilot, or other PDA, wristwatch(!) or even iPod.

Some of these adaptations such as the iPod one are arguably not IF, as there is no command line interface, only gamebook-style choices. The baseline for IF is incredibly low (computation, text input, text output), but no matter how low the baseline, adaptations will push at our sense of what constitutes a minimum implementation.

The result is perhaps not so much cross-media as it is pan-media - a particular sense of a work that, through a multitude of adaptations, asserts the independence of underlying concept from any particular implementation, and eventually the possibility of an “implementation” which is in fact just an extended reference to other implementations.

This is certainly true of another contemporary it-runs-on-everything phenomenon, It Plays Doom, which lists ports of the “Doom” 3d first-person shooter to the latest super-powered cellphones and PDAs - but also to cameras, and even a black-and-white HP 48 calculator. The menu of It Plays Doom has a tongue-in-cheek wishlist of future ports - including ATMs, Cash Registers, Ovens and Refrigerators - that gives a good sense of the “because we can” sensibility of port hackers.

Perhaps ubiqutous computing will mean that someday soon your microwave oven Plays Doom. However, given the textual nature of many of these interfaces, it may be sooner that your microwave Plays IF.

Of course, at that point you could just play the sequel. After all, the microwave plays IF… and IF Plays Quake….

4 Responses to “It Plays Adventure”

  1. 1 Christy Dena

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    You’re onto my favourite topic Jeremy. :)

    Since there are so many platforms available now, and at the same time an ever increasing amount of arts types, it is inevitable that stories and games will find themselves adapted over and over again. These factors, coupled with the networking power of the Internet (more people find out about more things) and the ease of grassroots production, make for an entertainment eco-system that sees clones and love-childs popping up everywhere.

    You pose the idea of ‘pan-media’ which seems to lean on the side of the awareness of the transmedial aspects of the work: the storyworld as opposed to the original instantiation of it. Is that correct? Then you mention an implementation that is just an extended reference to other implementations. Are you meaning this in a different sense from Kristeva’s “intertextuality”?

    Have you found an answer to your question, what is the “real work”? ;)

  2. 2 Jeremy Douglass

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    Christy - my sense is that neither cross-media nor intertextuality quite fits my purpose here, but I’m trying to tease it out - maybe you can help me.

    Kristeva’s “intertextuality” refers to a mosaic of quotations - that is, Adventure as constituted by its references and allusions to Tolkein, Mammoth Cave, and so on.

    “Storyworld” refers to the larger assumed reality within which a fiction or set of fictions occurs. Middle Earth and Narnia are storyworlds originally constituted by sets of books - later authorized film adaptations were set in the same storyworld neccessarily as part of retelling essentially the same story. By contrast, the Transformers storyworld is constituted by cartoon series, movies, comic books, toy pamplets and more. These media routinely do not adapt or retell the same authorized story - rather, they all tell different stories set in the same storyworld. Fans evaluated the fidelity of a “Lord of the Rings” films to the story. However, fans evalute the fidelity of a “Transformers” film to the storyworld.

    As I understand it - please feel free to correct me - a particular narrative arc can be said to be “cross-media” if it has distributed events - for example, introducing a character in a comic book, killing the character in a movie, and having the character’s ghost return to haunt the TV series. Only by crossing media can the audience follow that narrative arc, the narrative is cross-media.

    In this sense, the massive adaptation of Adventure (although it does vary significantly between versions) is neither intertextual nor cross-media in the sense I’m considering it, although it does have elements of both, as do most media. A player’s sense of Adventure as pan-media arises out of experiencing many version, implementations, and adaptations - one need not consider Tolkein, or King Arthur, to get this sense, and so it is not an intertextual experience in the way I understand Kristeva to mean when she says “quotation.”

    Similarly, one need not follow any complete narrative arc from the the 430 to the 550 point Adventure, nor from the 350 to the 501 point version - one does not experience narrative closure by crossing media. Instead, I’m considering a kind of abstracted sensibility - like the work of Jason Salavon, or the project 50 people see, that asks “in what sense are all of these things the same thing?” Salavon’s Every Playboy Centerfold, The Decades modestly proposes that the centerfold image genre has a median and mean - that the genre is a thing in itself, with all instances mere deviations from an invisible common center. I wonder, is it more radical or less to consider Adventure as a thing in itself, a pan-media entity with many manifestations? By inclination and training, I know that we are all more inclined to study differences than similarity, but this is where my thinking is leading me….

  3. 3 nick

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    Nice discussion here, Jeremy. I see the distinction you’re making between this phenomenon, intertextuality, and cross-media storytelling. One can also distinguish porting a game from reworking it, although platform differences among other things can mean that the former often implies the latter.

    From one perspective, it makes sense that Adventure is both ported and reworked (extended, modified, or compressed) by programmers. If you can reimplement it on a new system, you can also change it, so, why not go ahead and change it to try to improve it? But from another perspective it seems a bit odd. Claiming that “it plays Adventure” doesn’t seem as meaningful if you’re allowed to make arbitrary changes to Adventure to make it into a condensed version (Scott Adams’s Adventureland), a menu-driven game, a text-and-graphics game (Level 9’s Colossal Adventure), or even an all-graphics game (Warren Robinett’s Adventure for the Atari VCS).

    On the other hand, commercial ports of video games, particularly early arcade-to-console ports, have traditionally changed games around in pretty severe ways, so there are precedents from outside of hacking and recreational computing for proving “it runs X” while changing the value of X.

    I know that someone at MIT (Dave Lebling?) ported Space War to the IMLAC vector-graphics smart terminal in the 1970s, and that the first first-person shooter Maze was reworked and ported around to some extent long before Doom. I wonder, more generally, what the early history of recreational porting was like?

  4. 4 Christy Dena

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    I bundle within ‘cross-media entertainment’ the porting you’re citing and the experimentations with narrative arcs. Here is a quick guide to the different ways I think content can be produced in the Age of Cross-Media Production:

    Repurposing: republishing the same content on each platform. An example would be a pdf of a chapter of a book you can buy.

    Altering: commissioning, editing and redesigning content according to the affordances and limitations of each platform. Which is where I think your examples come in Jeremy.

    Adaptation: a version of the same content (same story, characters etc) in different formats on different platforms. For example, Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Tolkien’s LoTR.

    Augmentation: providing additional, complementary and contradictory information in different platforms and formats. An example is The Matrix universe. Vital narrative information is distributed in the anime, comics, websites and videogame. Each component has a relatively high degree of dependency of each other (in terms of the overall coherence) but they are self-sufficient.

    Stretching: distributing a plot/message across platforms. Examples of this form can be seen in ‘alternate reality games’, where the story is distributed across websites, emails, videos and so on. It is not located in one single ‘text’.

    For me, ‘polymorphic narrative’ comes into play when you are augmenting and stretching.

    And as for intertextuality. I meant in the sense that each experience of Adventure is not isolated. Each iteration for each device is not necessarily for new audiences, I’d presume they’re for audiences who are already aware of Adventure. In this sense they all refer to each other…

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