Saturday, January 5, 2013
What I'm Playing: First Draft of the Revolution
Emily Short's First Draft of the Revolution is a unique digital fiction for the inkle platform told through a series of letters. Rather than control the main character or choose between branches of story, here the reader's agency concerns how the characters choose to express themselves through their writing. The process of revision and the many small and large decisions (about how much detail to include, whether a certain phrasing goes too far or not far enough, what tone a sentence should take, and so on) reveal a deeper layer of the characters than is found purely in the text of the letters themselves. It's a unique mechanic and a refreshing take on interactive text. The production of the app by Liza Daly is also beautiful and well-polished.
First Draft made me think about the difference between absolute and perceptual changes in interactive narratives. To explain I need to say a bit about the work's structure. The story unfolds over a series of about twenty letters, each a seemingly self-contained unit, and the reader must alter a certain number of passages before being allowed to move on to the next letter. Previously completed letters cannot be altered. While some edits within a letter can be reversed, the majority cannot; and often, perhaps half the time, a passage provides only a single option rather than a choice between alternatives. At times this makes the experience come close to feeling on rails: in some letters you simply click to expand each section of text until most have been revealed and you can move to the next letter. In addition, while the project's website implies certain choices can have an effect on subsequent letters in the web-based version, it wasn't clear to me what that effect was. Inkle's first release, Frankenstein, also seems to be based largely around choices that have no permanent effect on the story, focusing more on asking readers how they feel about or interpret what's happening to the central characters.
So does it matter whether a reader's choice has some concrete effect on an interactive story, or just that the choice is an interesting one to think about? I also recently played the first episode of The Walking Dead, which flashes notifications after certain choices indicating that they were important and will be remembered. This was pretty reassuring; it made me feel like I'd accomplished something, rather than just clicked through another consequence-free dialogue tree. The downsides of this technique are that it's tricky to do without breaking the fourth wall; if kept honest, it can reveal how few choices actually have significance; and it implies choices that don't change some variable in the game state aren't important. I'm not sure this is true; in the best moments of First Draft, I certainly felt connected to the characters, and deciding how domineering a husband or how vicious a sister-in-law to be was a fun bit of role-playing. At the same time, the sequence where the main character needs to successfully forge a letter from her husband felt strangely flat when I realized there was no gameplay present; I couldn't actually play -- win or lose -- the game of imitating the style established in earlier letters that was implied by the narrative. The edge here between gameplay versus story providing the driving interest in an interactive narrative was brought into relief in an interesting way, and I'm not sure there are any clear answers -- but it's great to have experiments like this to make us think about the questions.