Update on that no-media experiment

Things I successfully avoided in my experiment: Fiction. Surprisingly, that was the easiest thing to do. Mostly because there is such interesting nonfiction in the world! Podcasts were easy to avoid, too (with one exception that I knew I couldn’t quit. PCHH, I love you too, too dearly.)

Otherwise, I cheated a whole heck of a lot. I did occasionally still watch things, but I tried to keep it as a reward at the end of a week, or documentaries. I found myself replacing my TV-downtime with games, which I honestly hadn’t thought about. I replayed most of The Talos Principle, which was not the best use of my time, but oh well.

(Sidenote: Seriously, if you haven’t played The Talos Principle, maybe you should?? And then we can talk about it??? It’s about consciousness and puzzles and what it is to be a person and free will and lasers and a storm-engulfed tower and robots, so I don’t know how there isn’t something for everyone in there.)

And then I played through Botanicula and was this close to replaying Samorost and the Submachine games…

So instead, since it’s been about a month, I’m taking a moment to look back on the experiment.

Among other small accomplishments, I did write messy drafts of two new stories, and I got two of the three workshop stories out on submission. That’s not bad. I’m not really attempting to write poetry so much as literally playing with it — I took some paragraphs of stories I’ve written, and pages out of books I was reading, and I cut them into their component parts (copies! don’t worry) and have, occasionally, while listening to music, been reassembling them into poems. And realizing that magnetic poetry is a form of dada cut-up, and yet somehow misses the spirit of the game entirely.

As September creeps into view, I’m going to shift the experiment a little. After a month, I was craving some fiction. So I picked up The Sundial and am reading it, nice and slow.

As for TV: does anyone have some willpower they could loan me?

The problem with people, if I may be so bold, is that you’re all convinced you’re people from the inside, but there’s no cast-iron way to confirm as much from the outside.

— The Talos Principle

This game is so good, friends. Except for the three spots I keep rebooting due to laser mines.

the project of civilization

Firstly! The Talos Principle is an amazing puzzle/exploration game and is only $10 right now on Steam.

To expand:

I am a weird gamer, in that I’m not one and kind of wish I were. For console games, I peaked at SNES and have barely so much as looked at a console since. (Nothing will ever beat Chrono Trigger.) I have loved certain computer games in my time, but nothing from, say, this century.

But I do look at games now and then, and want to play them. Beautiful visuals, interesting stories, great work being done. But. Then there’s fighting, or whatever. I get frustrated when you have to manage quick keystrokes during high tension (like getting hacked at by a monster), or you just have to get killed a lot, or get good at physical mechanics of the controller through rote repetition. Also, I don’t have a controller, and playing on a keyboard and mouse isn’t the best.

Anyway, this is all to say that I finally bought The Talos Principle when I had a snow day and, boy, friends, do I love it.


First of all, look at the pretty! It’s so pretty! Ruins and varied skies and plants and shiny portal things and a few laser guards that kill you, and all of it is gorgeously executed.

Secondly, it’s puzzles and exploration. This appealed to me so much about Portal, but Portal became too quickly about maneuvering and dodging and all the dangerous substances. This, though it has some of that, is moving slowly into it. It’s not the point of the game.

THE TOWER (ominous music)

The world is the point. The philosophy. The story. The choices you make, I think, and what it makes you think about.

There is a voice booming from everywhere. There is a prohibition on a certain Tower. There are notes left by other unseen people. There are time capsules telling a slow story. There are questions of personhood, of civilization, of purpose, of intelligence.

And also there are puzzles!

I’m only a little ways into it and I’ve been playing almost 4 hours, so I’m excited about the amount of gameplay I have ahead of me. At the rate I go, this’ll probably do me for, oh, all of 2016.

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.