Playing With Words

The examination of words and design.

By: Lana Polansky

Filed Under: Books Editorial Mechanics Story-driven


We sometimes think of the act of reading as a passive experience, where we, the recipients of information, appeal to the authority of a writer to guide us through a story, a poem, a tract, a manual. On the other hand, we know on some level that this authority isn’t really stable. We need to be able to interpret what the writer is trying to convey through their arrangement of words—this in itself is an interactive, conversational process that’s vital to reading comprehension. We need to be “active readers,” not just to try to parse the work’s intended or accidental meanings, but to develop our own insights about what those meanings signify.

In short, to be able to read, we have to be able to understand and take advantage of a series of systems—be they syntactical, grammatical, linguistic, ideological or stylistic. Linguists and semioticians have been hailing to us about the systemic nature of language for decades. The writer, therefore, can perhaps be thought of in terms of a kind of designer, using the tools inherent in these systems to convey themes and concepts according to a personal vision, to the reader. This might sound like a moot point: if we can think of writers in some of the ways we think of game designers, can we not say the same about painters, or sculptors, or musicians, or city planners?

Well, yeah, we can. The point isn’t to say that there is no distinction between these different crafts—they all work within vastly different frameworks to produce vastly different creations. But what thinking about other crafts in terms of this nebulous concept, “design,” can demonstrate to us is our own attraction toward systems. We live on a system, we’re made up of systems, we construct societies within systems, as Richard Lemarchand pointed out in his 2011 IndieCade talk, Beauty and Risk.

In critical circles, we talk about what game design can learn from other kinds of media, including literature. But because systems often intersect and contain feedback loops, it’s likely that writers can stand to learn a thing or two from design. And because writing is my primary craft, I’m going to give it that kind of consideration.

Writer and literary critic Joan Didion wrote, in her essay “Why I Write,”

“Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene.

It tells you.

You don’t tell it.”

Here, instead of comparing writing to the system of a game, Didion compares it to systems of music and photography. But she’s getting to something fundamental about grammatical composition as a thing which is deliberately designed—its parts arranged—to convey a specific idea or meaning, not wholly unlike the way a living room might be designed to convey a sense of openness or a game might be designed, using rules and space and relationships, to convey a specific mood, or goal, or theme. The rules of grammar are not just arbitrary and lifeless things cobbled together to make language sensible: it’s also a system we can work within and reconfigure creatively as a way to make language meaningful.

Hypertext games made in programs like Twine probably provide the most obvious representations of game systems and writing systems working together, creating their own kind of grammar. Often, “text” in videogames is maligned as obtrusive, getting in the way of “gameplay,”—what we understand as our direct relationship with the game’s rules, spaces and objects. But in Twine, the needs of creative writing converge with more game-like design concerns like interaction, choices, rules and consequences. In hypertext games, the text isn’t obtrusive because the text is the primary tool from which gameplay configurations are made.

On his blog, Andrew VandenBossche wrote about the specific way games like Bloody Princess Farmer and Bubblegum Slaughter use text to create game experiences, saying of Twine,

“Words don’t have to be narrative and frankly I think they’re much better used to non-narrative ends in video games, or at least, we should rethink the purpose of words in games which is currently being used mostly for “exhaustive dictionary-esque setting details” or “boring expository dialogue,” all stuff the designers clearly want to get out of the way in the most efficient way possible. Dictionaries aren’t art. Writing in games sucks because no matter how many writers they hire and how good they are, they still treat writing like a chore instead of letting it express some pure aesthetic joy the way the game art and music tends to, which is probably the reason why musicians and visual artists love making fan stuff out of games but writers are just embarrassed by it. Okay sure I guess IF has done that but who reads IF. More seriously, IF is narratively oriented (which is great) but I like this direction a lot better. I’m going to say it’s a bit more like poetry. Technically, not romantically.”

Twine is a compelling marriage of the tactile, sensual experiences of games which language so often fails to describe, and the contemplative, prosaic, introspective qualities of language which are so often discarded when creating a game experience. To name a few, games like Mastaba Snoopy, Jonas Kyratzes’ Moonlight, or Christine Love’s Even Cowgirls Bleed, because they use text to construct connecting paths, demonstrate how text itself must be designed to serve both game-oriented and story-oriented conceits simultaneously. In Twine games, text must be designed and arranged.

Text can be broken up, rearranged, offer different choices, lead to different endings, altered to shift the meaning of the “object photographed,”—or in this case, the object played. Hypertext can do this even more explicitly than the static literature of Didion, because it requires a reader that is not only interpretively, but literally, interactive within it.

In Even Cowgirls Bleed, for instance, Christine Love makes use of the “Jonah” story format—which causes text to cascade down the page like a scroll—to create a sense of precariousness and permanence that the player experiences through the trigger-happy protagonist. The cursor is a crosshair, and the player can only communicate by shooting or not shooting. Hovering the cursor over a word will cause you to “shoot,” no clicking required. The slipperiness of this mechanic takes the player by surprise, and may encourage playing with delicate restraint to avoid a sour ending. You don’t want to be reckless with a loaded gun, and the text will thematically and even typographically reveal the consequences of that kind of recklessness. Even Cowgirls Bleed makes you a silent protagonist in an FPS where your own inability to communicate is a major handicap. You can only connect with the text violently, and the way in which the text is arranged narratively, grammatically, thematically and visually reflects that.

Games like Mastaba Snoopy, on the other hand, or Moonlight, make use of strong, often surreal imagery to produce not only a sense of theme and atmosphere, but also as a way of constructing, in both cases, dreamy and abstract environments that the player is both compelled to explore and is forced to imagine as one would in with a book. Both games are actually relatively short, and concise, in which each word seems to have been chosen with the economy of a poet to suggest a deeper meaning than what’s presented. The interlocking nature of paths in hypertext IF, however, allows the reader to shift and rearrange that meaning while still coming away with a strong sense of the overarching themes (Mastaba Snoopy invites us to explore a hyperreal, fragmented universe populated by perverse mutations of Peanuts characters, while Moonlight uses the power of dreams to uplift us from monotony, loneliness and despair.) Moonlight even opens on the Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem.”

Attempts at treating words like design objects have a heritage beyond hypertext, or parser-based interactive fiction, or Choose Your Own Adventure books. It can be seen in Joyce’s aspirations to have almost every word tell its own story in Finnegan’s Wake, or free verse poetry, or a great deal of writing by Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino, who, respectively, explored choice and possibility in fiction, or tried to bring in the reader in an explicit way to the text. This isn’t to say that these proved to be perfect analogues to games: in fact in many ways, despite being extraordinarily innovative, these attempts demonstrated many of literature’s limitations when it came to things like interaction, space, time, choice and empathy.

But perhaps these works approximated something in explicit terms that’s already true about text on an interpretive level—something that explicitly interactive systems like Twine can show a little more clearly. That text is mutable, dynamic, composed, designed. That a clever shift in wording or grammatical structure can change the sense or pace of a passage. That the author is not the final authority, and the reader must never just be a passive receptacle for information. We can converse with text, and by extension, with the author. We can seek to uncover meaning, reinterpret meaning, rearrange meaning—even if it’s just in our own heads.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Books Editorial Mechanics Story-driven

About the Author:
Lana Polansky is a game critic and writer peddling her wares at Kill Screen, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and here at Bit Creature. Also, a ludonarrative disco-dancer.

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