by Anonymous

Episode 3 of A Study in Stateful Media with Narrational Agency

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An experiment in agency, November 21, 2022
by Draconis
Related reviews: Ectocomp 2022

As the author explains on the main page:

This is a study in stateful media with an emphasis on narration-based agency. To avoid breaking a reader’s suspension of disbelief, this work eschews story-based agency.

What’s this mean for you? An interactive fiction experience that is more “literary” and less “game” made by combining quintessential elements of parser-based, choice-based, chat-based, and templated-based works under a new theory of agency in stateful media.

In other words, this is an experiment, intended to explore a new style of interactive fiction. Rather than giving the player any influence over the story (which risks “breaking a reader’s suspension of disbelief”), they’re allowed to choose which word is used for certain descriptions—changing the way the story is described to the audience.

It’s an interesting idea, and indeed the same basic story told from different perspectives could give an entirely different result. But after that grand, artistic description, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed by the work itself.

As best I can tell, it’s a short story published by Charles Henkle in 1916. One noun has been deleted from this story, and the player is encouraged to fill in the blank. The following paragraph changes depending if a positive or negative word is used.

The problem is, this one noun—and the following paragraph—doesn’t really have much impact on the narrative. It shows us what one character thinks of another character for a brief moment, and that’s it. It was a good, well-written short story, but it certainly didn’t seem like I had much agency over the narrative at all. My personal thoughts on the character aren’t any different than if I had just read this short story in a paper-and-ink anthology, and the narration’s viewpoint on him isn’t really either: would the experience have been much different if the author had just omitted that character’s thoughts completely, letting the reader fill in the blanks in their mind?

While I liked Henkle’s writing, and I’m glad to see people pushing the bounds of the medium and testing new types of “agency”, the interactive parts of this work just didn’t really work for me. To put it bluntly, it just didn’t feel different from reading a non-interactive short story, any more than a “click to turn the page” prompt would change the fundamental experience of a book. I do look forward to seeing further experiments in this vein, and what “narrative agency” will look like once the concept has been further developed.

I would also like to invite comparison with Something Blue, a game from the same ECTOCOMP that gives the player a similar degree of agency. It's told through a series of letters, and all you can do in the game is edit certain passages, changing the tone of what you're conveying. Yet it ends up feeling significantly more satisfying than Restitution did. Is it because of the story-based agency in the ending? Or simply because the interactive and non-interactive parts mesh together seamlessly, and it gives the player so much more authority over the story's tone?