24 February 2009

HyperStudio Talk: Nick Montfort on Curveship

(Cross-posted from the HyperStudio blog. I'm traveling a lot of the next two weeks, so posts will be intermittent/cross-posts.)

Curveship poster

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

For HyperStudio’s first studio talk of the spring semester, Nick Montfort spoke on “Curveship: Interactive Fiction + Interactive Narrating.”

Nick’s blend of literary, historical and technical interests and skills makes him the perfect model for the new digital humanist as described by Elli Mylonas at last fall’s HyperStudio workshop. Poet, programmer and scholar, Nick is currently Assistant Professor of Digital Media in Writing and Humanistic studies here at MIT — a title which speaks to his interdisciplinary interests — and is the author of the first book-length study of interactive fiction, Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (2003). His latest work is Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (2009, co-authored with Ian Bogost), the first in a new MIT Press series Platform Studies, which he also co-edits.

Last Friday, Nick shared his current project: a new system for writing interactive fiction (IF). Every work of fiction distinguishes its content (the events happening in the story) from the way the narrator relates that content (the expression), usually through a change in story order, pacing, the time of narration, or the focalization (from whose perspective is the content examined?). Of course, there are other ways the expression of a story juggles its content, as readers familiar with Gerard Genette’s work on narratology know — but for now, focus on a few of the ways the narrator can change how a story is told.

As a limited, designed “microworld” that operates through a natural language dialogue, IF is (as Nick argued) the perfect sandbox for playing with the basic tenets of narrative systems. Yet current interactive fictions don’t allow for more than one narrative voice unless each alternative focalization or tense is hand-coded. In other words, the player’s command is parsed (”TAKE LAMP”) and processed through the world model to generate a set output (”You have now taken the lamp.”). However, Curveship — the system Nick is designing — incorporates a narrator into its underlying structure, so that the player’s commands are parsed not only according to the world model, but also according to a narrative voice that can change the order of events, shift tense or focalize the narration according to a particular character’s point of view.

At HyperStudio, our project work demands that we consider the affordances (and foreclosures) of particular media forms. For instance, to use the Serial Experience Project as an example: how does the process of serializing fiction change how authors told their stories in the nineteenth century? Dickens was confined to 32 pages per month and 20 installments for most of his novels; how did this change the order in which he told the story, or the voicing and tense he used at the beginning and end of each installment? And how does posting these serials online as facsimiles, viewable along a timeline, remediate the original? What does the reader gain by experiencing serial fiction online — and what does she lose?

It’s exciting, then, for us to see Nick put similar questions to traditional interactive fiction systems. How has the difficulty of changing narration influenced the kinds of stories that get told in IF? That is, how have the limitations of expression influenced the content of IF? And how will the new affordances of Curveship shape IF of the future? By combining humanist theory with a deep knowledge of programming and its relationship to storytelling, Nick’s talk was able to analyze not only the artistic value of IF, but how the underlying structures of its medium, its language, can shape those values.

Many thanks to Nick for an interestingtalk. He plans to release a version of Curveship by August 2009; in the meantime, you can read more about it here, and read more about Nick at his website, or follow him at the group blog Grand Text Auto.

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