I’ve decided to withdraw my review.
I found this to be a really illuminating piece of analysis- it put to words some nebulous thoughts I’ve had floating around when inspecting Passer’s posts/work as well. The example of the two poems and demonstrating the difference between the accessibility of the work (in terms of the amount of work slogging through references and allusions to be able to feel like you understood what was on display) was one of those ‘click-y’ moments for me, where things just sort of make sense. It sort of vaguely reminds me of the difference in reading Shakespeare, and seeing it come to life on the stage- or the thick, obscuring jargon of the sciences: sometimes necessary, always puzzling to outside observers.
I really liked this post. It reminded me of the sort of English lectures I used to drag myself out of bed for, one day out of an abysmal week- with a professor who is still my very favourite, because he had a really magical way of speaking to you like you were a friend or colleague and breaking down really high level concepts and making them seem super understandable. He was always very encouraging. In the depths of my very worst depressive episodes, I’d show up disheveled and embarrassed, but longing to be swept up in that sparkly dialogue of smart people who just seem to get the world, and who want to share it passionately with their students.
It used to be the highlight of my week- I laughed at all of his silly little dad jokes, and smiled so often when he was speaking about the Gothic, that it actually came as a shock to him when I attended his office hours to confess that I was struggling badly. This was back in second year- and I remember the grace he gave me in a generous extension, the ‘assignment’ to have a good dinner and safe walk home, and to follow up with mental healthcare through student services. He was a real gem of a guy- and I’ve since expressed my thankfulness to him in a series of e-mails.
Anyway- all of that is to say that I really appreciated the bump of nostalgia there. You sound like you would’ve been a teacher I really liked, and I’m sure your students appreciated learning from you. The analysis outlined here is aces, and I really like the suggestions part you added- now that reminds me of getting our essays back, haha.
This is a great post, Drew. I’ve thought a lot about Dorian’s engine, because I too think it’s capable of great things with some experimentation. I haven’t been able to put my finger on what isn’t working for me about the current games, and this is helpful in corralling my thoughts. I think IF players are generally smart, literate people, and much like Eliot, we are tempted to show off our erudition (and it is such a pity that The Wasteland is so pockmarked with footnotes, because it’s such a juicy poem that people would enjoy more if it didn’t have blaring red signs all over saying, “TOO COMPLEX FOR YOU TO READ WITHOUT HELP”).
I think such displays are so didactic that it turns readers off, and run counter to what I consider the purpose of both IF and poetry: autodidacticism. We learn best when we teach ourselves, and generally speaking, IF should give the player some ground rules and then let them work out what’s happening and what it means. You often point out that the player wants to feel smart, and good IF manipulates that desire and gives a little endorphin rush of pleasure for having figured it out. That’s what’s missing in The Lottery Ticket– and in many games for many reasons. Probably the biggest reason is that it is a difficult balancing act as an author to make something impenetrable enough that you feel smart for solving it, but not so impenetrable that players feel stupid. And this is precisely why so many people don’t like poetry either. Wallace Stevens aside, most canonical poetry is probably way more accessible than it is perceived to be.
** Edit-- one more point: the extremely literate people (I could not believe how many players are Gerard Manley Hopkins fans after writing my first game on one of his poems) here will be tickled by figuring out literary references on their own. @DeusIrae took one look at the blurb and cover art for my new game and identified the inspiring poem immediately. Other poetry-heads may need to get into it a little bit before tweaking to it, but I hope it gives them pleasure to figure it out. And speaking of Wallace Stevens, I myself got a little frisson of satisfaction recently while listening to Nick Cave’s “We Call Upon the Author” and recognizing the literary reference.
There’s a lot here to think about and react to, but for now I’m just going to make a post so the thread goes on my watch-list since I first want to re-play the game with my critic’s hat rather than my tester’s hat and organize my thought.
I will say, though, that on the general point about footnotes and lampshaded references, I think there’s a different side of it too which is that they can actually function as a tool for demystefication, letting a reader in on the joke and pointing to other avenues of exploration.
I suspect this side of things has gone somewhat into eclipse in the Internet era, where everything’s only a Google search away, but I know when I was growing up I was excited when a book I liked told me what other books it was building on so I could check those out too and learn more – there often weren’t great alternatives (I remember asking one of my high school teachers to tell me about the Talmud because Foucault’s Pendulum didn’t really give me enough to go on). And for all that Eliot can be a pompous, elitist kind of writer, I actually confess I enjoy the Waste Land footnotes; they seem to me to be showing the reader how the trick is done, showing off his cleverness, sure, but also providing a guide to the bricolage method and giving enough context for folks who know their Shakespeare but not their Fraser, or vice versa, to come to grips with the poem.
The rub, I think, is that these aspects of the approach don’t exist so much simultaneously as sequentially: if you’re just coming to a genre of literature or way of reading, the last thing you want, as you say, is the feeling that you need to do more homework before you can start doing your homework. But once you’ve got a grounding, they can shift from barriers to foot-holds for future exploration; the key as an author, I think, is figuring out who your audience is and trying to speak to them in ways that invite them in. Eliot’s assumptions about who would be reading him were presumably much narrower – unjustifiably so! – than the present reality. Though even so, he doesn’t spell everything out and leaves room for some entertaining laughs of recognition: he doesn’t mention that he stole Madame Sosotris from Aldous Huxley, where “she’s” the cross-dressing fortune-teller alter-ego of a male character, setting up a punning parallel with Tieresias.
(And per your note, Drew, about Graham Nelson, it turns out Madame Sosotris’s tarot cards are in Curses; they also wind up being referenced in Anchorhead, and as a result they’re a small Easter Egg in Cragne Manor, too, in an epic literature/IF relay race – which I believe is explained in the author’s note for the relevant room).
Anyway all this is not very connected to the Lottery Ticket or what y’all are actually talking about, but I guess what I’m trying to wrestle with is that I think there is value in providing some guide to the intertextuality and webs of inspiration that give rise to a work, for newcomers to a genre/community as well as to the old hands, but the trick is how to do that in a mindful, responsive way that doesn’t wind up shutting people out.
I think that can happen when the writer views their work as a bridge to the reader, and that the process is a negotiation between them both. Lots of good stuff and positive magic happens then.
My (naive?) impression reading “The Waste Land” was that Eliot was showing his work, like a schoolchild demonstrating on the page that he double-checked his math before turning it in.