Are you familiar with Victor Gijsbers's experimental Figaro? It's an IF in which, at specific points, the game asks the player what s/he would like to see in the story. For example, you're spying on a scene, and a guy walks in. Now the game pauses to ask you whether you want the guy to be, say, your shady uncle or your romantic interest's boyfriend. You choose which way you want the story to go, and the narrative continues. It's a normal IF in every other respect. Victor wrote a short paper explaining the thinking behind this idea, and I wrote something on raif explaining why I absolutely hate it. Is it hard to see why? It's vaguely promising for some applications, perhaps, but for the most part in any title where you play a character with all the mortal and finite restrictions that apply to being a person, you absolutely should not have godlike control over the narrative. Some things are just out of your control--that's life! Who that guy is that walks in should be just as much out of your hands as the fact that there's a guy walking into the room in the first place."Some things are just out of your control-that's life!" It sounds like a truism, but in this context it is nonsense. In Figaro, the identity of the person who enters the room is not out of your control, and it is a forteriori not "just" out of your control either. It is within your control, although your control is admittedly limited to choosing between three pre-programmed posibilities.
In the previous paragraph, the word "you" is intended to refer to the player, not to the character Figaro. Obviously the identity of the person who enters the room is out of his control; but the character is not the player, and I'm sure we can all keep the two apart. Those who cannot should never play an interactive fiction, for bad things might happen. (Just imagine someone who thinks he is Varicella!)
Perhaps the crucial statement in the quoted paragraph is this: "in any title where you play a character with all the mortal and finite restrictions that apply to being a person, you absolutely should not have godlike control over the narrative". But this is a very puzzling statement. In any title where you play a character with all the mortal and finite restrictions that apply to being a person, you do not have godlike control over the narrative. If you had, you wouldn't be playing a title of the indicated kind, but some other kind of title, a title in which you have more, or a different sort of, influence over the unfolding narrative. So the whole argument has the form: "If something is green all over, it shoudn't be red all over; and Figaro is red all over, so I hate it."
Bad as the argument may be, it nevertheless points to a prejudice that is perhaps prevalent among players and designers of interactive fiction, a prejudice from which it is very hard to free ourselves, and which it will be fruitful to discuss. This is the prejudice that the player of an interactive fiction must necesarrily take what I will call the actor stance, that is, that he must identify with a certain character in the fiction, and think of his interactions with the game as corresponding to fictional interactions of that character with the game world (and thus subject to the same limitations qua power and knowledge).
The actor stance has never been ubiquitous. Saving the game at dangerous moments, consulting the score and letting changes in the score affect our behaviour, restoring in order to try something else, these actions were never interpreted to be actions done by the fictional character. But in the gross and scope of our interactions, we did use the actor stance.
We don't have to. The player of an interactive fiction can be given a more authorial role ("author stance") than the character within the fiction; and I know of no prima facie reasons why this could not lead to satisfying games. Figaro is only a very modest example of a game in which the player is not confined to the actor stance; but I think great and interesting things can be developed along these lines.
Indeed, great and interesting things were done in the field of pen and paper roleplaying games after people stopped relying on the actor stance. Letting the player be actor, director, scenarist and dramaturgist all at the same time, while nevertheless subjecting him to certain structural constraints, turned out to work very well. (If people would like to hear more about this, just ask. It would be fun to discuss some examples.) All the innovative indie RPGs of the past 10 years have dropped the exclusive reliance on actor stance for something much broader, and could not have been made without this change in our conception of what it means to play a roleplaying game. Perhaps we will say the same about interactive fiction in one or two decades. Perhaps not; but it has to be tried.
Now one important lesson from early experiments in roleplaying design is that "godlike control over the narrative", as Internisus calls it, is not a good thing. There must be some limitations; total freedom does not make for good gameplay. Again, these limitations do not have to be the limitations of the actor stance; they may be something else entirely; but they must be there.
However, this lesson seems to be not very important for interactive fiction. There is just no danger that we will let freedom get out of hand and forget to implement constraints; and this is one of the great differences between interactive fiction and pen and paper roleplaying games. In a roleplaying game, the default situation is that everything is possible; people can say anything they want; and the task of the game designer is to impose fruitful constraints. In an interactive fiction, the default situation is that nothing is possible; the program reacts to nothing with more than a parser error; and the task of the game designer is to create possibilities--and he always thinks of many more interesting possibilities than he has time to implement. There is in interactive fiction, pace Stephen Bond, no real danger of making the freedom of the player too great.
So, let us experiment with going beyond the actor stance, and let us see what happens!