Arthouse Games
Review: Book and Volume
by jcr13Thursday, December 7, 2006 [5:37 pm] This is the second in a series of Slamdance Finalist reviews.

Upstairs in the house of your childhood, in your room, and it must be time for school because---no, it's the weekend, you remember, but your alarm is going off anyway. You should have been awake already. You're going to miss the bus. Your mother climbs in the window. You're dreaming.

You're a grown-up: It opens to you again, a sluggish window summoned by a mouse click. Waking up now in your own apartment, your new apartment. Your pager is buzzing and vibrating both, serious. It is in fact the weekend, but you're not in elementary school. No one is crawling in through the window. You're a system administrator for nWare. Waking up urgently, here in nTopia.

The constellations on the ceiling are as you left them: Pisces, Cetus, Aquarius,and the ones without celestial referent, left by some crazed astronomer in residence here before you. What could you call them? The Cradle, The Way, The Burning Book...

That's roughly the first screen-full from Nick Montfort's interactive fiction piece Book and Volume.

For me, reviewing interactive fiction (IF) is tough: I'm so new to the genre that almost all of it is 100%-pure magic. I'm too young to have really played Zork or the other Infocom text-adventure classics. I did fiddle with the Hitchhiker's Guide game (put fish in ear) a bit when I was in grade school. Back then, I don't think very many people were hip enough to use the phrase "interactive fiction." These classics were adventure games, right? The were made obsolete by graphical power-houses like Kings Quest, right?

Again, IF is all new to me, but here's my take on it: an almost palpable world comes to life right inside your head. Because you can explore the world actively, it feels even more compelling than what I've ever experienced while reading non-interactive fiction. The result, for me, is incredibly powerful---almost to the point of making me feel like my mind is coming unhinged. Perhaps because of this power, I have explored IF in only a limited way so far. In fact, Book and Volume was the first IF piece that I actually read (or... played?) to completion.

That general IF experience, by itself, seems to catapult the entire genre right into art territory. IF raises lots of interesting questions about different types of reality. In fact, I would say that creators in the IF community are already on the front lines of the arthouse games movement. This is high-brow stuff, for sure.

Of course, it's what the creator does with the medium that really counts. Mr. Montfort is obviously a solid prose writer, and his descriptions are what bring the 24-block city of nTopia to life. Within this artificial world, he tells a relatively simple story, at least in terms of surface-level plot points: Some servers in the city are down, and you need to reboot them; a user needs tech support; another server is down. Beyond completing the various maintenance tasks that are assigned by your in-game boss, the rest of the story---I'll call it the sub-plot---seems to be optional.

The piece plays on a fixed in-game time schedule, and it always comes to an end eventually, no matter what choices you make. Thus, you can't get "stuck" at an obstacle half-way through that will keep you thrashing for many real-world hours. You always get an ending of one kind or another after reading for a while.

One ending, it seems, is the "winning" ending, although the piece does not make this very clear. That ending ties the whole work together with a some nice prose flourishes and a heavy dose of post-modern self-referentiality. I'm still thinking about the piece, mining the experience for meaning. Issues such as illusion, reality, creators, creations, and corporate culture are explored nicely.

The main weakness of Book and Volume is in the "gameplay" department. The tasks you are assigned in the main plotline are rather trivial and don't mesh with the more interesting sub-plot. That may be part of the point---an exploration of the monotony of working life---but I don't seek monotony when I read fiction. The sub-plot is so well-buried that most people will never find it (again, this may be part of the point, but it still makes for a not-so-interesting experience). To uncover the true core of the piece, you need to explore the city with a fine-toothed comb and closely examine objects that, upon their first mention, seem unremarkable.

Indeed, after thrashing around for a few hours, playing through the not-so-good ending repeatedly, and knowing that there had to be more, I finally searched for hints online (and found them). Only in this way was I able to explore the whole piece. I normally don't resort to "cheating," but I didn't want to write a review about the joys of menial sysadmin tasks.

These flaws won't trip me up when I answer the three-dollar question: is it art? It sure is.

In general, I would like to see the IF genre rise above the inclusion of "puzzles," which they seem to have inherited from their adventure game ancestors. I'm not sure about how to craft puzzle-free IF, exactly, but I'm still hoping that it can be done.

Even so, the "gamer" inside me must have compelled me to keep "playing" Book and Volume repeatedly until I "beat it." If I was really approaching the piece as interactive fiction, I guess I would have just "read" it through once, to whatever ending I got, and left it at that.


[Submit Comment]
by AlexFriday, December 8, 2006 [8:40 pm]

I highly recommend checking Photopia by Adam Cadre for a highly praised piece of puzzleless (or near-puzzleless, I can't recall exactly) IF. One of my favorites.

And for one that's almost the opposite, where the puzzles are so incredibly well integrated that they become part of the story, look at Spider and Web by Andrew Plotkin.


by jcr13Sunday, December 10, 2006 [6:23 pm]

I had actually just downloaded Photopia right before you posted your comment. I haven't had a chance to play/read it yet.

Thanks for the tip.


by ValziThursday, October 25, 2007 [2:27 am]

Photopia is an EXCELLENT recommendation when seeking out puzzle-less IF. After playing it, I would suggest Galatea, which might be even more puzzle-less. If you want good, simple, short IF (the best place to start for newcomers, I think) here's a short list:


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