Agency, Empathy, and the Call of the Other in AMFV

A Mind Forever Voyaging and the need for a broad conception of the “interactive fiction” designation.

Framework for an Intertextual Model of Interactive Fiction

As the ever-helpful Jimmy Maher has pointed out, Infocom did not coin the term “interactive fiction.” That honor goes to Robert Lafore, whose games were published by Scott Adams’s Adventure International. This marketing language was first spied in magazine advertisements:

Traditionally, literature has been a one-way medium. The information flow was from the novel to the reader, period. Interactive fiction changes this by permitting the reader to participate in the story itself.

The computer sets the scene with a fictional situation, which you read from the terminal. Then you become a character in the story: when it’s your turn to speak, you type in your response. The dialog of the other characters, and even the plot, will depend on what you say.

With only a few additions, Lafore’s basic definition would remain applicable for two decades. When Infocom began using the term, four years later, it was also in the service of marketing. While their language was more effusive than Lafore’s, the specifics were largely unchanged.

It’s like waking up inside a story! Load Infocom’s interactive fiction into your computer and discover yourself at the center of a world jam-packed with surprising twists, unique characters, and original logical, often hilarious puzzles.

For the first time, you’re more than a passive reader. You can talk to the story, typing in full English sentences. And the story talks right back, communicating entirely in vividly descriptive prose. What’s more, you can actually shape the story’s course of events through your choice of actions. And you have hundreds of alternatives at every step. In fact, there’s so much you can see and do, your adventure can last for weeks and even months…

…Then find out what it’s like to get inside a story. Get one from Infocom. Because with Infocom’s interactive fiction, there’s room for you on every disk.

This essay invites readers to consider the promises made by companies like Adventure International and Infocom. What did they offer potential customers? In the first place, they promised text: text input and text output. In other words: they promised an interface. If you’ve been reading Gold Machine for long, you’re already familiar with Infocom’s interface. It was built on their groundbreaking parser technology, which could handle such natural language features as compound predicates and indirect objects. Up until 2012 or so, definitions of interactive fiction focused (sometimes exclusively) on text inputs and outputs.

Interior of Infocom's "passport" catalog, which was designed to look and feel like a united states passport. On the displayed pages, besides featuring form fields like "name" "sex" and "address," also has marketing language promising to grant the owner entry into "a whole new universe."
Interior of Infocom’s “Passport” Catalog. Retrieved from MoCAGH

However, Infocom’s ad copy does not emphasize the mechanical nature of their games. It focuses instead on subjective experiences of play. Infocom promised experiences of freedom, agency, and a wide possibility space of outcomes. They promised to make customers the center of a constructed fiction (as a reminder, this critical study does not consider fiction to be the same thing as plot). In other words: Infocom promised to simulate subjective experiences. It’s aims were phenomenological.

Forty years later, what is meant by Interactive Fiction? Just asking the question might be looking for trouble. In at least one online venue, conversations about definitions of IF are graced by preemptive reminders from forum moderators: be civil. While, leading up to 2012, there was a rich amount of published and community-maintained content regarding the nature of IF, much of it assumes (if it did not explicitly state) that interactive fiction is another word for “text adventure”—that is, a game with a parser interface. Nick Montfort added to that definition a “simulated world” (“Preface,” Twisty Little Passages). I call this model the cuckoo clock definition of IF—it is largely defined by its clockwork, its machinery, its interfaces. And, of course, by the figures that emerge from it. Note that his is not a critique of Montfort. At that time, his definition was the best and most succinct characterization of IF as it then was.

I call this model the cuckoo clock definition of IF—it is largely defined by its clockwork, its machinery, its interfaces. And, of course, by the figures that emerge from it.

However, looking back at Infocom’s marketing materials, it seems that the parser technology, which is only briefly mentioned, is a means to the higher objectives of immersion, agency, and simulated subjectivity. In other words, text interfaces were, at the time, the best way to reach those goals. What other computer technologies available to Will Crowther could have simulated the experience of exploring Bedquilt Cave? While I am open to correction, I cannot think of a competing approach in 1975 that could match Crowther’s achievements. A model of interactive fiction that emphasizes simulated, agentic experience rather than mechanical elements is one that is grounded in phenomenology. That design goal, baked into the earliest, well-known examples of interactive fiction, is the thread that remains after 2012’s fragmentation of platforms, subject matter, and audience.

It is also the thread that rightfully places IF in conversation not only with games and gaming history but with matters of ongoing cultural and social interest. While emphasizing specific interfaces (both then and now) has a tendency to isolate IF, interactive fiction’s capacity for simulated subjectivity makes it, without question, a part of the world.

More on Human Experience and common Objectives of Interactive Fiction

As Jason Dyer has pointed out, simulation was not the sole objective of ADVENT. Rather, it synthesized fantastic and simulated elements:

A long held-belief about Crowther’s Adventure was that it was designed as a “cave simulation” and it was Woods who came along added magic and treasures and turned it from interactive simulation into interactive fiction.

We know, from the hard work of Dennis Jerz locating the original source (before Don Woods started modifying it) that this is not the case: the original Adventure included puzzles, treasures, and fantasy. (Dyer, “Observations about Crowther’s Original Adventure 1985]”)

It’s important, here, to identify two types of simulation at work in ADVENT, interactive fiction’s foundational text. There is, in the first case, the simulated geography of Kentucky’s Bedquilt Cave. While Adventure, from its very beginning, was a work of fantasy, it was also a product of painstaking, real-world exploration and documentation. Many—perhaps most notably Graham Nelson—have remarked that because the geography of Advent was based upon Will Crowther’s own experiences caving, it is the “best” of the well-known, early IF games (Zork, Adventureland, and the like). While this type of simulated element undoubtedly does make a game’s world more credible, it is ultimately a different sort of simulation that concerns this study.

This second case—that of simulated subjectivity—is an end in itself, though it clearly benefits from the kind of narrative veracity afforded by ADVENT‘s geography. What is intended or meant by the term “simulated subjectivity?” In Crowther’s case, it began, yes, with his own joy of caving. In this case, though, experiences of the real were mingled with the fantastic to create something entirely new:

Back in 1975 a programmer and spelunker named Will Crowther had just gotten divorced. Missing his children and feeling somewhat at loose ends generally, he started to write a game in his spare time with the vague idea that he could share it with his two daughters, who now lived with their mother and whom he missed desperately. The game, which he named Adventure, combined his three biggest interests at the time: programming, caving, and playing a new tabletop game called Dungeons and Dragons.

How so? Well, the player would explore a geography loosely based on the Bedquilt branch of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, a place Crowther had spent years laboriously exploring and mapping; she would encounter treasures and creatures drawn from D&D in the process; and to win she would have to solve intricate puzzles while always maintaining close attention to detail, just like a programmer. Crowther had just invented the world’s first text adventure, in the process prototyping much that remains with the form to this day. (Jimmy Maher, “Will Crowther’s Adventure, Part 1”)

What can thinking of Adventure in terms of estranged familial relationships reveal? Is it meaningful that the first influential interactive fiction game was an attempt to close the distance between a father and his absent children? So far as I can tell, Crowther’s earliest, high-level design goal of ADVENT was sharing things that he loved with people he loved. In other words: Crowther wanted to simulate for his daughters a subjective experience of joy.

This image shows cropped detail from a map that was part of a Dungeons & Dragons adventure called "In Search of the Unknown." It's an overhead map of a complex and irregular system of caves.
Detail from the Dungeon Master’s map for TSR Module B1 In Search of the Unknown

Narrative perspective and the Foundational Subjectivity of Interactive Fiction

Some reader might remark—rather dryly—that Zork reflects no such intent. Its tone is sardonic, and the experience of being, for instance, “fluoresced” in Zork II hardly feels loving. Sadly, while this study sees subjectivity generally as a defining trait of interactive fiction, it is not by nature a loving subjectivity. Having broadened our scope, what are the implications of protagonist-as-subject in Zork and its descendents?

Zork would solidify ADVENT’s practice of using a second person voice. The “you” addressed by its narrator is the protagonist: “You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.” Those Zork players of old (1980) would have been all but certainly sitting at a desk someplace, and nowhere near an open field or a boarded door. You—not the you, some other you—stand someplace, do something, receive this or that sensory data. This storytelling tactic would have been familiar to Crowther as well as to Zork‘s Dave Lebling—Dungeons & Dragons players—but there are important distinctions that set apart the D&D “you” from the “you” of interactive fiction.

You—not the you, some other you—stand someplace, do something, receive this or that sensory data. This storytelling tactic would have been familiar to Crowther as well as to Zork‘s Dave Lebling.

Existentially speaking (as opposed to the usages in the fields of social and cultural studies), the capital-O “Other” is a separate, free subjectivity. The Other is, then, a person separate from ourselves with a separate experience of life. They see the world through their own eyes, as it were. Attempting to put oneself in the shoes of an Other is what we commonly called empathy. To do so requires that we recognize that, in Jacques Derrida’s formulation, “every other (one) is every (bit) other [tout autres est tout autres]” (Derrida, The Gift of Death). We do not know what the life of the Other is like, but through empathy we can try to share in their subjective experience. The question to ask, with regard to various narratives and narrative games that make use of second-person perspective is this: is the “you” an extension of the player? Or is it an Other that requires a simulated subjectivity?

While people enjoy tabletop role-playing games in all sorts of ways with all sorts of characters, I will assert—welcoming correction, as always—that the quintessential role-playing experience in Dungeons & Dragons is an improvisational extension of the player’s own subjectivity. The player creates a character—it cannot be wholly Other because it rises from their own imagination. Moreover, the player and their character enjoy almost limitless freedom. While the rules of the game may govern success, a player may attempt any act that human language can characterize. This role-playing “you” is ultimately defined by the player’s imaginative powers and not by the qualities of an external Subject or Other. Even when players are committed to role-playing as a fixed, external character, the boundaries of play are internal and not external.

A black and white drawing from an old Dungeons and Dragons rulebook. It shows four characters (a paladin, a fighter, a wizard, and a thief) standing at a table covered with treasure.
Image from the 1st-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons player’s manual

Interactive fiction, by way of its rather strict boundaries, must engage with the Other. There are hard, programmatic limitations to what the “you” of interactive fiction can do. Certainly, the protagonist of Infidel can leave the pyramid, but he can never go home. There is only one beginning, middle, and ending to Infidel. The act of leaving is not an act of character agency, it is merely the player’s decision to quit playing. The character can only do what he is destined to do. The player might imagine that Enchanter’s protagonist could conspire with Krill to defeat the Circle of Enchanters, but in practice that character can do no such thing. At a fundamental, programmatic level, the “you” of those old text adventures was by nature an Other rather than an imaginative extension of the player’s own subjectivity. Even in games whose protagonists were self-inserts, they remained Other by nature of their construction.

There is only one beginning, middle, and ending to Infidel. The act of leaving is not an act of character agency, it is merely the player’s decision to quit playing.

A Mind Forever Voyaging, on the other hand, would go even further to simulate the subjectivity of the Other, defining through its browsie the personal history, life goals, and subjectivity of its protagonist, Perry Simm. While other Infocom games would feature characters defined by their narratives (Border Zone, Sherlock, Seastalker, Arthur, Shogun, Journey, Plundered Hearts, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), AMFV is unique in that its gameplay consists almost entirely of the simulated experiences of Perry Simm as a consciousness separate from our own. We are, more than once, invited to empathize with Perry, to share in his lived experience. Through A Mind Forever Voyaging, it seems clear that the defining, necessary trait of interactive fiction is its capacity for simulating subjectivity and the experiences of the Other. In this sense, it is a bridge between the parser games of the commercial era of interactive fiction and the post-howling dogs choice games that emphasize empathy and the lived experiences of the existential Other in a way that no other Infocom game can.

Note: Naturally, this essay cannot summarize the diverse fields of tabletop role-playing games and interactive fiction. Instead, the goal is to consider the origins, as well as the median experiences, of these modes of storytelling in hopes of determining a defining, signature quality of Interactive Fiction that has persisted from 1975 to today. In doing so, we can uncover the qualities of A Mind Forever Voyaging that make it a genre-defining work whose influence is felt even now.

You and Me: The Scott Adams Exception

Since we are talking about such a large number of games that it would not be practical—if possible—to count, there will be exceptions. Rather than view them as arguments against our thesis, it is more profitable to see what they have to teach us. In Infocom’s Suspended, for instance, the protagonist’s lack of differentiating personality or subjectivity is a fascinating subversion. Without the player’s expectation of simulated experience, Suspended‘s hook would be far less sharp.

The classic games of Scott Adams pose questions of their own. As a reminder, they generally did not use second person perspective in the same way that most parser games do. At the command prompt of Adventureland, for instance, the game asks:

Tell me what to do?

Adams games are, after a fashion, metafictions. The “you” that the game addresses is the player—not the protagonist—themself. The narrator talks to the player about game mechanics and reports the facts of the game world. Those early Adams games do not feature a continuous stream of text, where the narration and player commands scroll together, in-line, up and off of the screen. Instead, they feature a split-screen interface.

A screenshot of the Apple II version of Scott Adams's Adventureland. It is a black screen with large, blocky text. The top quarter of the screen is divided by a dotted line. Above it is a static display of the room description. Below it is a section that contains player input and respoinses from the game.
Screengrab from an Apple II version of Adventureland.

It’s interesting to note that, despite the precedent set by ADVENT and Zork, Adventureland goes out of its way—even going so far as to implement a more talkative command prompt—to stave off the kind of subjectivity discussed so far. As we might note from the narrator’s occasional wisecracks—“occasional” because jokes require precious memory—that narrator is not us. They are not a stand-in for our own consciousness, and we are not meant to see ourselves in them.

Writers have not been kind to the prose of those Adventure International games over the years, and while it is easy to see why, such criticisms seem beside the point. I think Jimmy Maher is right when he states:

It’s not really fair to judge Adventureland‘s text by literary standards, since every “the” and “a” use precious memory (and thus were often dropped entirely). Still, Adams does at times achieve a sort of minimalist poetry.

Considering that, in 1979, Adventureland‘s most visible relatives were mainframe games, one has to admit that the exercise of fitting a text game on a 16K computer would be, in fact, like writing in a highly constrained poetic form: a sonnet or a haiku, for instance. I view the Adams games as successful implementations of the form of the text adventure as opposed to lesser attempts at its rhetoric. They brought pleasure to many and remain technically impressive, even if first-person narrative ultimately fell off as a strategy early in the development of IF as a medium. There is little more to say beyond recognizing that ultimately the approach does not sway this study’s argument one way or another.

Meanwhile, Over on Steam

If we subscribe to the core idea of interactive fiction as a simulated subjectivity, then it is possible to follow a thread that leads from ADVENT through A Mind Forever Voyaging to contemporary games like Computerfriend and New Year’s Eve, 2019. Games as different as Starcross, Make it Good, and Bee call players to become “you,” to become an Other, and we can answer that call. This is an idea of interactive fiction that can persist while technologies, aesthetic values, and audiences shift through the years. Certainly, there will be works of interactive fiction that do not suit this definition. Very well, so they don’t fit. There can be no edge cases without a center, and such exceptions only make themselves—and the genre in total—more interesting by virtue of their trespasses.

Certainly, there will be works of interactive fiction that do not suit this definition. Very well, so they don’t fit.

As a last hill to get over, though, it is necessary to examine the wide—and quite publicly visible—use of the term “interactive fiction” on the Steam gaming storefront. It’s a user tag, which might lead us to respond, noses aloft, that the general populace cannot appreciate interactive fiction in the way that we do. They lack our sophistication, seeing as they neither read nor write 4,000-word essays about the definitions of our terms. Perhaps, we might say, it is best just to ignore such people.

A screenshot of the Steam store, featuring many colorful images representing different video games. They are a visual depiction of the games listed in this article.
A screen grab from the Steam Store based on a search for “Interactive Fiction”

That would be obnoxious, of course, even for a know-it-all like me. I’d rather reconcile my usage with Steam’s user community. Isn’t a call to imagine oneself as an Other ultimately a call to reconcile one’s conceptions with those of another? One cannot get into the spirit of this essay by setting oneself apart. Let’s take a moment to examine twelve titles that Steam’s storefront identifies as popular, well-reviewed games frequently tagged as “interactive fiction”:

  • Happiness Double Room
  • To Be a King
  • Our Life
  • Sally Face: Episode One
  • The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow
  • Robin Morning Wood Adventure
  • Paper Bride 3
  • Heavy Rain
  • Immortality
  • I Was a Teenage Exocolonist
  • The Walking Dead: The Definitive Telltale Series
  • Corpse Factory

Sadly, there isn’t time to play these games presently, though a future study might take a closer look at them. For now, we can examine their promotional text and trailers for some key features:

  • In nine of the twelve titles, the player assumes control of a specific, defined character.
  • Three of the games are erotic, and another is a romance, two classifications new to this study that intuitively suggest a relationship to the subjective. Perhaps this topic could be explored further at a future date.
  • One title is a visual novel, another genre that warrants special attention. I feel that visual novels are clearly interactive fiction, but that must be a subject for another day.
  • There is a general tendency to emphasize multiple endings, which simultaneously affirms player agency while possibly destabilizing the concept of a fixed other.
  • The games that do not feature a fixed and well-defined protagonist–an Other that can serve as an object of empathy–are role-playing games. Role-playing games, which in some (not all) cases allow the player to define the protagonist–seem separate but closely related to interactive fiction, as in the Dungeons & Dragons discussion above.

Despite widespread misgivings over general use of the “interactive fiction” descriptor on Steam, preliminary investigation suggests that use of the term could lead to productive discussion, despite the games’ prominent use of graphics and other characteristics widely considered disqualifying.

Interactive Fiction, Intertextuality, and the Empathetic Other

I have participated in online conversations in which it has been suggested that the interactive fiction games of the 1980s, while interesting as historical curiosities, are evolutionary dead-ends that have no influence on the wider gaming landscape of either the past or today. Last week, I argued for a model of influence that is more a web than it is a bloodline. Works and artists participate in a culture that is analog, not digital, and influence can be indirect and elusive.

This study calls readers to reconsider their conceptions of influence and additionally reevaluate their own ideas of “interactive fiction.” While we could go on shrugging, as if to say that we can’t define it, but that we know it when we see it, that would do little for our ongoing efforts to discuss it as art. It would also present a missed opportunity to celebrate interactive fiction’s ability to do something that we seem to need more today than ever: call us to empathy, call us to share in the gaze of the Other.

A Mind Forever Voyaging is, of course, a crucial pivot point in this history of games, teaching a number of invaluable lessons. In the first place, it is the only Infocom game that, with its near total absence of puzzles or mechanical challenges, is almost exclusively concerned with empathy for the Other. In this sense, it connects those early text adventures with the expressionistic choice games that emerged in the early tens. Its structure also asks us to consider what interactive fiction can be in the absence of puzzles. Because A Mind Forever Voyaging is interactive fiction, we know that we must look elsewhere for the unifying thread that connects 1975 to now. Without AMFV, how might we have known?

What could be more modern, more immediate, than Perry Simm’s inability to console his wife?

What could be more modern, more immediate, than Perry Simm’s inability to console his wife? Or than the deterioration of his relationship with his son? He does not need to speak of his horror when the armed thugs of the immigration police kick in his door. It is our horror, too. We are called to feel it, and it is A MInd Forever Voyaging‘s lasting triumph that we must answer its call. While we all have our favorites in the Infocom canon, perhaps we might be convinced that, of all their interactive fiction, AMFV is the most “interactive fiction” of them all.

Our Work Is Never Done

This is only a beginning. Where do gamebooks fit in? If an author took a gamebook and digitized it in twine, we would call it interactive fiction. It seems that the book would be, too. What is the best critical approach to interactive forms of traditional media?

How about agency? There is a wide variety of capacities for the player to achieve different outcomes in IF. While visual novels tend to offer few choices, they do generally feature many endings. Zork has countless choices, but only two endings: death and victory (the many deaths are treated the same way). What is the relationship between agency and empathy in interactive fiction?

There is clearly more to say on the subject of empathy-centered IF, but our study of AMFV must continue. Stay tuned for an assessment of the political critique at the center of A Mind Forever Voyaging. I’ll examine critical responses to it over the years before volunteering my own take. Don’t miss it! As always, I welcome your comments and questions.

7 thoughts on “Agency, Empathy, and the Call of the Other in AMFV

  1. When you’re looking at that list of Steam games, it’s surely worth noting that one of them was written by a guy who wrote parser IF in the 90s.

    (Maybe more than one? I haven’t checked every credits list.)

    As for the first-person vs second-person POV: If you look at Jason Dyer’s trek through very early parser IF (1979-1982), the Scott Adams style is really very influential. (Way more so than I realized as a young Infocom fan.) For a couple of years there, Adventure International had more games on the market than Infocom did; plus other developers who either used the same format or copied the layout. And I think a lot of them copied the Scott Adams “WHAT SHALL I DO” style as well.

    Infocom’s style won out by the mid-80s, and all the 90s hobbyists used it as a model. But Scott Adams format wasn’t an obscure dead end at the time.

    1. SB was the only one I recognized, but I wasn’t kidding about sampling a few and really diving into them. Who made them, what they’re made of, etc.

      I actually reached out to Jason last night for his take on first person. He had some thoughts about its use as a way to acount for parser/vocabulary shortcomings, which really interested me. It’s a short comment exchange:

      Another commenter mentions that third person, past tense was a familiar approach in early Spectrum adventures, but I don’t think I’ve played any of those games.

      So far as the thesis goes, I think 1p and 3p fell off because ultimately IF (or the median IF or something) wanted to do something else. It had a different goal. But that doesn’t make those efforts bad or wrong. All of these approaches needed to be proven out, and they undoubtedly influenced many authors that followed.

      1. The “person perspective” thing has some interesting wrinkles when you look at non-English IF where the verbs themselves include what person is being referred to. (It’s been a while but I remember Italian actually going through a phase where it was mostly first person conjugation and then a phase where it was imperative.)

        btw, of the Steam games, Hob’s Barrow just came out and is very good.

      2. I’m glad you mentioned non-English games. I should probably acknowledge in the post that it’s an English-centered reading. I do know someone who could speak knowledgeably about Spanish language games, though it’s a busy month for him.

        Great to hear about Hob’s Barrow! I’ve been following it with interest.

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