Tuesday, March 01, 2011

IF Theory Reader: "Crimes against Mimesis" by Roger S. G. Sorolla

So, after a decade the IF Theory Reader has finally appeared. Great news, obviously; but, as the editor (Kevin Jackson-Mead) warns us, it may "not necessarily represent the state of the art in interactive fiction theory". IF ten years ago was different from IF today. Which is not to say that we cannot learn anything from these essays, of course, only that we have to approach them with a certain caution. (As well as with a certain laughter and a certain step of the dance, as always.)

The first article in the reader is the famous Crimes against Mimesis, by Roger Sorolla. For the greatest part, it reads as a discussion of what was wrong with old-school adventure games:
  1. Objects that make no sense in the fictional context, but are just there to enable the player to solve puzzles.
  2. Different literary genres mixed together without rhyme or reason.
  3. Puzzles that have no connection with the fiction -- especially gratuitous mazes, riddles, and so on.
  4. The lock-and-key syndrome, where the whole world is ordered by a one-on-one correspondence between movable objects and puzzles to be solved.
  5. Shallow NPCs that are obviously just a puzzle that talks.
  6. Charaterisation of the PC.
I will come back to the sixth point in a minute; but the other five are basically things that we have solved. As puzzle solving has become less important, problems 1, 3 and 4 have become less prominent. Expectations for coherency of story and responsiveness of NPCs have soared, which has taken care of 2 and 5. In other words, it seems as if Sorolla's complaints were widely shared among the community, and the medium has been developed to the point where you cannot get away with committing any of these crimes.

Sorolla's proposed solutions to the lock-and-key problem bear additional scrutiny. He suggest that we (a) have solutions require more than one object; (b) have objects be necessary for more than one problem; (c) make sure that problems have more than one solution; and (d) incorporate irrelevant objects and problems. This is good advice. But it is also advice that doesn't address the real problem, which is the whole "here is a problem, now go and find the right object"-design of puzzles. Let's look at the nominees for the "best individual puzzle" XYZZY of this year (mostly free of spoilers):
I didn't manage to get the lighter from Kai, so I cannot comment on that puzzle. What I want to point out is that the other puzzles all solve the lock-and-key problem, but not by creating more complex relations between objects and solutions. They break free of the entire design strategy that led to the lock-and-key problem by testing the player's understanding of the game world. This is especially clear in the case of The Warbler's Nest, where the decision is everything and the execution is nothing. Oxygen requires us to grasp the physical and political situation on the ship, and our own role in that situation; the execution is not trivial, but it is not the main puzzle. The 12:54 to Asgard has one million objects, but repairing the roof is more a test of daring than a real puzzle. Saving Dr. Ephart requires some object manipulation, but far more important is figuring out how the plot of One Eye Open works. And Aotearoa gives us an elegant puzzle which only requires us to understand an NPC, and literally leaves it up to us which object we want to manipulate. The solution to the lock-and-key problem, then, is not having more complex locks and keys; it is dispensing with locks and keys (as central elements of the puzzle) altogether.

In this context, it is also worth commenting on Roger Sorolla's claim that one way to solve the problem is to have 'false' solutions, as long as these are well-clued; and that:
[a] good example of a well-clued “wrong” alternative solution would be feeding a hungry swine with a rare string of pearls that’s needed later on, when the beast will just as gladly wolf down a handful of acorns.
A contemporary reader would be very dismayed to find out that the rare string of pearls she had fed to the swine was needed later on in the story! As our tolerance for unwinnable situations has decreased, so has our perception not just of what fair game design is, but also of what counts as a clue.

The most interesting part of the piece, in my opinion, is that about the player character. Some of Sorolla's discussion is about the relative virtues of the everyman and the strongly characterised protagonist; surprisingly, he weighs in on the side of the everyman, because this helps "identification".
Such a protagonist would be experienced more as a “he” or “she” than as an “I,” robbing the second-person narrative of its potency, and character identification would suffer at the expense of character definition.
The idea here seems to be that IF gains strength from the player identifying with the PC; and that such identification becomes problematic when the PC is evidently not the player. I doubt this is the case in general; but there is probably some truth here. Perhaps the important thing for identification is that the player's decision equal the protagonist's decisions? We identify with whatever the character may be as long as what we decide is what the character decides. (This theory receives support from the fact that in games like LASH and Fail-Safe, we identify with the 'commander', even though he/she is only a very small part of the fiction.)

Sorolla also makes a distinction between the "Game Protagonist" and the "Story Protagonist". It is the former who walks into a full kitchen and notices that only the cab opener is "relevant" and should be taken in order to solve problems later; it is the latter who walks into the kitchen worried sick about the fate of her crazy uncle Zarf who mysteriously disappeared last week. On the one hand, this is a distinction we have been making less important by having less puzzles and having better integration of puzzles and story; on the other hand, it is a distinction we silently accept as a gameplay convention. Perhaps we mentally filter out some of the interaction with a work of IF as "not really part of the story", for instance, most inventory management?

Not all of it is relevant anymore, but Crimes against Mimesis remains an interesting article.


  1. [in The Warbler's Nest] the decision is everything and the execution is nothing

    Well, not quite. On my first playthrough, I didn't examine the right object, and so I wasn't even able to try to implement two out of the main three solutions.

    The 12:54 to Asgard has one million objects, but repairing the roof is more a test of daring than a real puzzle.

    I don't know -- this is another case (along with the award for Earl Grey last year) where I found myself desperately out of sympathy with the nominators/voters. This was the puzzle that drove me out of this game (well, it drove me to look for the nonexistent hints, and then to the useless walkthrough, and then out of the game). I put the roof tile on the hole, then I put something else on the whole, and then since the water was running out the sides it seemed as though I ought to put the tar paper on the hole -- to seal the sides, right? Except when I tried to do anything with the tar paper, I got a message like "the tar gets all over your hands" even though I had put the gloves on.

    I suppose I could've gone on to try the other hundred objects to see which ones the author meant me to use, but this looks like a good old try everything-on-everything puzzle to me.

    ...which is partly to say, I don't think that problem's been solved as much as you think.

  2. Matt, I see what you mean, but in both cases the problem is more a matter of hinting and implementation than a matter of puzzle design. I assume that the author of The Warbler's Nest did not want you to be locked out of those endings. And I assume that -- well, no, I don't know about the author of Asgard, but I think those of the players that enjoyed the puzzle were the ones who (like me) happened to kit on the right solution more or less immediately and got their pleasure from willfully throwing all common sense and all union regulations to the winds.

    I'm not saying that we don't make mistakes in our implementation of puzzles, but I do think we have developed a big toolkit of non-lock-and-key puzzles.

    Which isn't to say that no lock-and-key games are being made nowadays. Fragile Shells, Hoosegow and The People's Revolutionary Text Adventure Game are some obvious examples. Those do implement some of Sorolla's suggestions. But just because this style of puzzle design has become optional, we can be more or less sure that it will only be used in games where it works.

  3. Such a great article which This was the puzzle that drove me out of this game.It put the roof tile on the hole, then It put something else on the whole, and then since the water was running out the sides it seemed as though the tar paper on the hole. Thanks for sharing this article.