Arthouse Games
Interview: Nick Montfort
by jcr13Wednesday, December 13, 2006 [8:14 am] Nick Montfort is the author of the interactive fiction (IF) piece Book and Volume, which was recently reviewed on Arthouse Games. He is also the author of four other IF pieces, all of which are available for download. Book and Volume was recently chosen as a Slamdance Finalist, and it will be the only IF piece screened at the festival. Not only is Nick an active IF creator, he is also the field's chief theorist. His book Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (2003, MIT Press) was the first to analyze the form.

Nick is currently finishing his Ph.D. dissertation, which deals with IF, at the University of Pennsylvania.

The following interview was conducted by email on December 12, 2006.

Jason Rohrer: You chose to enter your most recent IF piece, Book and Volume, into the Slamdance game festival, but not into the recent IFComp. What factors contributed to this decision?

Nick Montfort: As far as the IF Comp was concerned, it was just the timing. I thought Book and Volume was a bit long for the Comp, but I'm sure I would have entered it anyway if I had finished before the deadline. Once I did complete it, I didn't want to wait several months to release it so I could enter in the following IF Comp.

I thought that entering Slamdance was a long shot for an all-text game, even though Whom the Telling Changed made it to the festival last year. But everything I'd heard suggested that Slamdance was a great event with a lot of interesting people and work, so I thought I might as well give it a try.

JR: In your book Twisty Little Passages, you discuss the use of puzzles in IF as a mechanism for withholding the entire narrative from the interactor and revealing it gradually. Do you feel that puzzles, or other "game" mechanisms, are necessary for successful IF?

NM: I don't think puzzles are mandatory, nor do I think that IF authors have to go out of their way to create puzzleless work. There's a very successful and long-lived tradition in poetry of the riddle poem, which the reader or listener is asked to figure out, to solve -- while also appreciating the beauty of the language that makes up the riddle. Seeing IF in this context has led me to believe that puzzles can contribute to the literary value of IF instead of competing with it.

JR: Can you give us a one-sentence definition of art? In other words, how do you differentiate works of entertainment from works of art?

NM: For a one sentence definition, I like Scott McCloud's---any activity that isn't based on survival or reproduction. There is a difference between art that exists mainly to pass the time or to amuse and that which is transformative, which helps us to understand new things about the ways we see, or about the language we use to communicate, or about the nature of the world and our relationship to it. But there's no simple test for telling one from another. By itself, being a blockbuster doesn't make a movie just entertainment, and being in an art gallery doesn't make something profound or beautiful. You can't even find out whether something is art (in the transformative sense) by interrogating the artist. You have to see if it transforms you.

JR: By Scott McCloud's definition, asking a question like "where are the art games?" is akin to asking "where are the wet oceans?" No game creation or playing is directly connected to survival or reproduction, so every game must be art. When we're talking about "art games" in a more specific sense, would you say that the key ingredient is the power to transform the player?

NM: I mainly think of as "art games" as indicating video games created by artists---for instance, visual artists who exhibit their works in galleries. That's not your usage, of course. This group may have the potential to take gaming in new directions, but it's one of several such groups.

Transformative power is something I strive for in my work, but there are other goals, or maybe other ways to state that particular goal---a game could be sublime and beautiful, it could give some insight into the way we see, read, write, or interact with each other. I suppose for any of this to happen effectively, the way the system works has to come together with the things that the system represents.

JR: What kinds of transformations might be possible through games that would be difficult to affect through other media?

NM: Certainly, it's important that digital media can be interactive. Digital work can accomplish a lot by simulating a system and inviting a user to figure out how it works. Or, by simply letting people play around in it in a pleasing way. People can be motivated either by challenges or by how enjoyable free play and exploration is. Even without user interaction, digital pieces might be effective by working with data feeds in surprising ways.

JR: IF obviously has a leg up, in terms of artistic merit, because of its close relationship to non-interactive literature, a time-tested vehicle for artistic expression. The same might be said, however, for graphical games that have storylines sewn into them through cut scenes (for example, Metal Gear Solid 2). In other words, we could say that the art is lurking in the game's story, and not really in the "game" itself. Are storylines crucial for artistic expression in games? What other kinds of game elements might be leveraged to make art?

NM: The problem with relating digital media to previous art forms---you could look to movies for graphical games or novels for IF---is that this prompts you to notice all the things that were present before in pre-digital media and none of the things that are new. Yes, the interplay between simulations and stories is very important to the art of video games. Storylines are not essential, however, and neither are words, images, sounds, or any particular old media element. The essential thing in video/computer games is the computer, and using computation in new, creative ways.

There can be art in the (possibly liquid) architecture of a level, the soundtrack and how it reacts to your moving through this level, or the physical laws of the game world. In IF, there can be art in a puzzle, a virtual space, and the way that space and the events in it are described. There are plenty of other elements of interest besides those that are commonly thought of as "story."

JR: What is, in your opinion, the very best IF piece in terms of artistic achievement?

NM: Dan Shiovitz's Bad Machine, TADS, 1999.

JR: Excluding IF, what electronic game do you consider to be the pinnacle of artistic achievement?

NM: Tetsuya Mizuguchi and United Game Artists' Rez, Dreamcast and PS2, 2001.

JR: Why do these pieces rank so high artistically?

NM: Bad Machine and Rez both succeed along many different dimensions or levels. Bad Machine has an extremely effective style (using code fragments, error messages, and other computer-like language) as well as having a great simulated world with great puzzles; Rez is great visually, has great music, and offers a very nice flow-state challenge. So they excel along several different lines, and on top of that, each of their aspects fits together very well and is appropriate to the game overall. It's no coincidence that both of these games have computing as a theme---I'm sure that's a factor in why I appreciate them so much.

In both of these cases, I didn't feel that by playing the game, I learned some direct lesson about the world. Bad Machine can be seen as a typical IT office environment and embodies a theory of consciousness, but I wouldn't say that these things changed my life. The best thing that could be said about the "story" of Rez is that it's not obtrusive. More important to me was seeing how their elements worked together and how they drew a connection between the human and the computational.

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