Open the Pod Bay Doors: Conversational Interfaces in an Epistolary Literary Style
This post is the second in a series about interactive stories.
Read the first post.
In some of the earliest novels, the story unfolds in an epistolary fashion; it’s told through a series of letters. In this way, the reader can see some raw, and personal narratives, such as what they would say to their loved ones, or their immediate impressions of lived experience. Sometimes the text presents letters from one author, but sometimes there are many. They write back and forth, between and among each other, and the story becomes more conversational, more simlultaneous, and arguably more interesting as the subjective accounts coexist, complicate, and contradict. The letter, in these stories, is a technology, although perhaps primitive by today’s standards, that provides an interface for conversation, across distances. That’s an important job for a tool to do, and so many of our newer tools are also approaches to that same job.
In some of today’s hypertexts (I’m including some video games as hypertexts) there are conversational interfaces that tell a story in an epistolary way. Here are some examples.
Event is an award-winning video game that is, by its own description,
“about building a personal relationship with a machine.You type messages into a computer, and Kaizen answers. As in any relationship, you experience gratitude, disappointment, and sometimes jealousy. It is by working through fears and anxieties of your virtual companion that you will find your way back to Earth.”
The setting of the story is one that I’ve encountered a few times, an abandoned space vessel, devoid of crew, with only its computer to converse with. The game is a mix between a first-person exploration of the vessel, some puzzles to solve by interpreting the environment, and conversations with the computer at the computer terminals positioned throughout the place. These conversations are done by typing questions or commands to the computer, which I found to be more tempermental than emotional. (Incidentally, the computer’s name, Kaizen, is the Japanese word for a philosophy of continual improvement.) During these conversations, a story unfolds. What happened to the crew? Which objects did they leave behind and why? What do their logs have to say, about their conversations among each other and with the computer? The Event experience is about 4 hours or conversational reading and setting-exploration, with multiple endings. The initial sequence, where you choose among details for the protagonist does seem a bit out-of-place, and the controls can occasionally make the navigation more tricky than necessary, but overall the gameplay is enjoyable. Does the story have “gravity”? Yes and no. The story is delivered in a compelling way, being a mix of real-time conversation and logbook reading, but the story that’s revealed is not a terribly complex conflict and the characters within it are less-detailed than they could be. Nevertheless, Event won the Independeng Games Festival award for “Excellence in Narrative.”
As an aside, I’m delighted to discover this award for games with excellence in narrative. I look forward to exploring the visual novels, text adventures and all the other stories that were nominated or awarded this distinction, and I’m glad to know that it exists.
Analogue: A Hate Story
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. There’s a ship drifting and abandoned in the outer reaches of space, devoid of its crew, with only the ship’s computer remaining to tell the tale which is told through conversation with that computer. It’s a common premise, and present also in a game called Analogue: A Hate Story.
This game also presents a story through a conversational interface with a computer, who grants access to the crew’s logs and diaries, but in this game there are multiple computers, and they do not always agree or cooperate.
Wikipedia describes the game well,
Analogue: A Hate Story (Korean: 아날로그: 어 헤이트 스토리) is a visual novel created by independent designer and visual novelist Christine Love. It was created with the Ren’Py engine. The game’s themes focus similarly around human/computer interaction, interpersonal relationships, and LGBT issues; but focus primarily on “transhumanism, traditional marriage, loneliness and cosplay.” … Set several thousand years in the future, Analogue revolves around the Mugunghwa (Hangul: 무궁화; RR: Moogoonghwa), a generation ship that lost contact with Earth some 600 years prior to the events of the game. For reasons initially unclear, society aboard the ship had degraded from that of modern, 21st Century South Korea, to the intensely patriarchal culture of the medieval Joseon Dynasty.
The visual experience of this visual novel is more static, like a manga, than that of the video game Event. Some reviewers have said, and I’m inclined to agree, that the cartoon illustrations undermine the otherwise dark and introspective experience of the story. The story shines though anyway. The story is more complex and more precient than that of many visual novels, as it delves into the meaningful social conditions behind the conflicts in the story. I found it to be an enjoyable read.
In these stories, the “interface” isn’t always between faces. Today’s readers are becoming more-or-less accustomed to something like conversation when we write or speak to a command line, a search engine, a smart phone, a television… a microwave? And wherever there’s language, a story’s sure to follow. These stories, while employing similar interfaces as literary devices, are also about interface itself, and the tools we use to do it.