TWIR: Okay, more than a week.

It’s been a while! I have read quite a few books recently. For example, my first Charlie Parker* mystery, but not my last. Also a book by a blogger I have long read. And I read Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, just before going to see him talk to Lauren Beukes about her new book, Broken Monsters, which I have not read and am looking forward to.

Plus: A YA fantasy book for book club, which I did not love as much as the rest of my book club, and a YA fantasy book not for book club, which I did love. (Unspoken did not hit enough of my Beloved Tropes to overcome the pacing issues, and I am less won over than others by the Everyone Is Clever And Funny Here sort of world-building. The Diviners, on the other hand, did hit some Beloved Tropes so I was blind to many of its faults.)

There are always things that, when present in a work, will make me forgive a certain number of other things. Is a movie really, incredibly pretty? Then who cares about that “plot” thing? Is the book set in 1920s New York with speakeasies and hints of the labor movement and class unease? Well, I guess I can ignore the overuse of slang. It would be an unending project to try to list out all of my tropes, and it wouldn’t even be accurate because ever trope would probably have a caveat. But The Diviners had tropes for me, and Unspoken didn’t.

Currently: Re-reading We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson as my bedtime reading (it’s soothing to me). Plus a handful of other things, as always.

*Not the KC jazz great, though I’d read the heck out of that mystery series.

You may be eaten by a grue.

Cover of a random Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book from the 1980s.
You have died.

Choose Your Own Adventure books were big when I was a kid. I don’t remember anything about them, except the tension as you stuck your finger between the pages and peeked ahead to see if your choice meant life or death. Or pirates, possibly aliens.

In high school I discovered Hamlet: The Text Adventure. Later, the Hitchhiker’s Guide game, and when I had my hands on an iPad for a while, I discovered an app for interactive fiction, and Emily Short, and the difference between parser and link-based interactive fiction (IF), and a book about it and– you see.

Starting with Hamlet, I was into parser IF for a while — Parser is the interactive fiction that presents you with a short passage, and then a cursor. And you type. You type until you figure out what the valid commands are, what verbs the game understands. You type until you start to get your bearings within the game, understanding what your goal might be — get out of a room, find the treasure, explore.

What is the benefit of parser-based IF? The illusion of agency? The mystery to be solved? It is more like a game than it is a story. You wake up in this world, whether that’s how the narrative starts or not. You wake up in a strange world and are only told about it in snippets. You are walking toward a castle where a beast resides. You are in a landscape, and in the distance is a tower. You have stumbled into a dark area, and may be eaten by a grue. The discovery of things and solving of puzzles are, by and large, the most compelling draws for parser IF. You want a mystery. You want something to unfold as you type your way through it, half-blind.

I say illusion of agency because it is. (If you want to get really weird, let’s start talking about how all agency is an illusion. Your brain is a computer running a program! Your free will is just a complicated subroutine! Or is it predestined by a god, and only revealed to you as you live it? OH NO–) The general view is that there’s more agency in parser IF than there is in hypertext, where you’re stuck clicking links, and unable to make up your own choices. And of course, in traditional narrative there is no agency at all. As the player in parser IF, you might think, “I can do anything! I type a command, the game responds, and things happen! I have such agency, such control over the story.”

Okay, sure. Yeah, I guess so. Except you only have agency insofar as it’s programmed in. You can choose to TAKE, USE, LOOK, THROW, or any number of verbs, but only the ones that the game understands. And not even all of those — a command depends on the object, the situation.

And your action may not affect the story at all. The path of the story is wide enough to account for your slight wanderings to the left or right, your persistent investigations into the history of an object, but the path is still there. It’s large enough to make you think you’ve taken a left turn, when really all you’ve done is veered to the left side of the narrative path. You’re still marching inevitably toward the ending that the game author has set in front of you.

If there is any agency, it is simply in how deeply you engage the story, not the story itself. I could make an argument for that being present in traditional narrative, too, but it would be a very Lit Major-y thing to do and who has the time for that? Not me, not when I could be pretending to have agency in some parser IF.