Victor Gijsbers has uploaded a novel type of file to the IF Archive: a self-collated Collected Works , replete with fragments, correspondence, ideas, the various files that attest to over a decade of creative output. Looking through it, I was reminded of the mercurial, magnetic, almost mystical attraction of an author’s papers collected at some academic library, how there’s a tangible experience not just of art but of the artist, their journey, their victories, their failures, the humanity gestalt of self unto creation. While this archive has been carefully arranged by the author, one still gets the exploratory thrill of sorting through, say, Kafka’s papers, searching through fragment after fragment, yearning desperately for some silk thread to carry you from the surging underworld howling before you…
I had previously played his Turandot (which appears to be the one game not included in this archive), which had moved me in a way that I hadn’t expected. I got the lampoon of the ridiculous, gendered mores of the traditional heteronormative paradigm: the young man spends wild years in pure hedonistic nonsense, but then sobers up, chases the Lady, whose influence (reified in physical beauty, a beauty that is both for itself and yet safely symbolic of all the proper buzzwords approbated for love) baptises him into a newly responsible social mode, so that he moves through a kind of death into a sanctioned life. All this is played up with a level of camp that can only be described as operatic paired with a bubbling sludgestream of gutterspeech and foul deeds, resulting in a viscerally repulsive rebuke, and yet this very condemnation seemed also to refuse the underlying paradigm, that we presume ourselves anew through the assumption of veils, that who we pretend to be is also as ridiculous as who we wake up as each and every day, and because in very personal ways I find myself complicit in a similar emotional paradigm, I found that I could not safely extricate myself from the rebuke, meaning that I ultimately felt rather humiliated by association. Ultimately, the line, uttered in Turandot’s contemptuously sceptical tone: “I am sure escaping from your self-built prison is both wonderful and worthy of rhetoric rare and resounding, but what’s in it for me? Why do you think I would be interested in entering your inner sanctum and overseeing an ambitious rebuilding project?” made me cry.
Compelled by the experience, I then tried a bit of Fate , but found the conceit of a queen having her water break then immediately going on an IF puzzle adventure to be so silly that I couldn’t get properly immersed in the story. Thus, it was with a sense of Gijsbers’ oeuvre but not a deep familiarity with it that I entered into his archive, unsure of what I would find.
I began with a helpful Table of Contents, which promised a dizzying array of content. I was particularly excited for Jason and Medea , as I’d found the source material so fascinating that I’d included it in the climax of my own IF story, as well as for an unfinished trilogy about Clytemnestra, as I’d found the source material so fascinating that I’d included it in the climax of my own IF story. I was also excited, and perhaps rather intimidated, by the inclusion of fifteen years of correspondence and essays thinking about IF and its evolution.
Ultimately, I decided to proceed through the archive in the serendipitously alphabetical flow that seemed intended by the author: complete games, incomplete games, reviews and essays, then various posts and fragments.
This flow did, however, begin with a quick look into Gijsbers’ Inform 7 extension, “Attack”, which adds a template that facilitates basic RPG-style combat mechanics. A lot of work seems to have gone into this mechanic, yet I came away feeling that perhaps the extension did not necessarily play to the strengths of text as a game interface. Moreover, the ubiquity of violence as a key form of interaction in video games has always struck me as one of its jejune idee fixes. Playing through actual RPGs, even the story heavy and artistic ones, is rather frustrating: I would get some story, then the thematic development would immediately stop, I would proceed onto 30 minutes to an hour to several hours of mindlessly desecrating the natural world and murdering thousands of people, then return, be given some clutter variously attuned to allow me to murder more people, then presented with some vague nod to how the world had changed because of my actions, a change usually expressed only in reference to the story (“thanks so much for rescuing my cat, I’m happy now”) and not what I’ve actually experienced (nobody cares about the entire tribe of goblins I genocided from the planet to retrieve said cat). The sheer disjunction between myself as a character who makes moral choices and myself as the massest of murderers in the area stymies and degrades many of the genuinely profound experiences these kinds of games have presented to me. One of the things about text games that most appeals to me is precisely their preference for a world immersion in which meaningless mass violence is not foregrounded as my primary method of interaction. I am proud of the countless inventive ways that IF develops a sense of place outside of normative mechanics of killing and looting every creature we stumble across that does not have a dialogue tree (and even a good chunk of the creatures that do). To be fair to Gijsbers, he specifically states in the manual that this extension is intended primarily as a starting point from which others can begin to experiment, and indeed in an abstract way one can imagine some valuable use for these kinds of invisible dice rolls governing a delicate balance of player agency with world hostility. For instance, I can imagine an interesting version of Eat Me by Chandler Groover in which one is not an all-devouring force but is rather engaged in a tight interplay of scalability, how such a cadence could make the experience more symphonic. The problem, however, is that in that example much of this foundation provided by Gijsbers wouldn’t be particularly useful; you would probably have to write your own version of its vision from scratch.
What I did appreciate about “Attack” was the tinkering creativity of Gijsbers poking around at a development system, trying to imagine what could be possible beyond the original design module. The code here is systematic and thoughtful in ways that far exceed its actual nominal use case. It buzzes with ideas, even if it struggles to find a form for those ideas. The result is a trace drawing of dreaming itself: a sheer creative anticipation, a spark, an idea, and a relentless animation towards that idea, that, like so many of our creative endeavours, fizzles in the shadow of the terrifying immanence of actuality, of some definiteness that must swallow all the potentiality, the open-ended drive, the heart-breaking narrowing of progress towards the possibility horizon.
There’s no easy way to segue from talking about an Inform extension to talking about De Baron , so I won’t try. This was my first time playing it, although I knew in advance what the subject matter was. This story is an austere philosophical confrontation with the sickness unto death of the sickest and most life-destroying. The central conceit is to take the problem of lust, a desire that compels us beyond the barriers of morality, a thirst which breaks our bonds to any other desire in a narrowing obsessiveness, and to stage it as a drama of recursion, a fate loop in which the players haplessly bear their prewritten lines as they play and play, the idea being that, just as lust compels us to do what we desperately hate ourselves for doing, so too does the drama unfold according the lines we wish we could not say towards a denouement we wish to avoid but choose not to. (We, of course, as an abstract pronoun germane to interactive fiction, similar to the abstract use of you; I use these second person pronouns for the sake of fluency.)
The fairy tale setting, reminiscent of the kinds of creepy and depressing stories that used to terrify children like that of Bluebeard, plays rather obviously on the idea of the innocence of the child crumbling into a ghostly miseria, but it also cleverly subverts the gendered tropes of the fairy tale: the father presents himself as an exaggerated masculine, with “heroism shining in your eyes” and a “macho lumberjack outfit … [that] accentuates the heavy muscles of your arms”, and both Hilde (the wife) and Maartje (the daughter) are given trope-infused femininities which are implicitly entrusted to the protective patriarch. That this patriarch is the very cause of their suffering demonstrates the way that sexuated male violence is precisely the antagonism that it tasks itself with protecting women from. The photograph album, which shows Maartje’s childhood memories, has its later years ripped out of it, suggesting how her childhood has been stolen from her, a theme paralleled by the Baron’s letter about stealing her: the male conflict of who gets to possess Maartje (father vs. Baron) is precisely the very thing that dispossesses Maartje.
This inner divide between the father qua father and the father qua abuser (which, thankfully, the game exposes as a fiction, preventing the mewling defence of the father about how he somehow isn’t really the abuser, that it is somehow an externalizable figment that can be manifested into the Other of the Baron) projects a confrontation with the gargoyle, whose vampiric lust (for life, in this case) symbolically reiterates the same tension; the dialogue is an objectification of the inner conflict. However, the play of the mirrors, in which our heroic visage becomes replaced by our baronial visage, already, I think, accomplishes this; to me, the gargoyle scene overdetermines, a tendency that proves tangible in the prose itself: for instance, we get a profoundly haunting image of the Baron and the father merging into one in pseudosexual language, but then the prose immediately explains what we just witnessed to us, blunting the effect: “When the two of you fall into each others arms, you feel how his body, his spirit, his essence merges with yours… after a few moments you are alone in the room. The baron has returned to where he came from: your soul.” That last sentence, explaining in a cruder form what the writing has just told us in a better way, demonstrates an anxiety about piling on details until we get the point. Take this frustrating sentence, which adds on imagery that never once actually adds anything: “But being alone has disadvantages too – the black emptiness of loneliness has more than once threatened to devour you.” Yes, being alone can make you lonely. We also get lines like “It is ice cold in the unheated room” which seem rather excessive.
This tendency is unfortunate, because the writing can be really evocative and tense when it allows the images to simply be. I think this style would benefit from being a bit more clipped and spare. Take the sentence: “A penetrating, dissonant sound twice breaks the silence of the night, waking you from restless sleep.” The first part of the sentence is chilling and effective, but then we get a clumpy addendum reminding us that we’ve awoken which dulls the razor sharp abrasiveness of the first part. I am resolutely not against wordiness (as my own writing suggests), I am very polytheistic about literary style, but in this case I think erring to the sharpness of the prose’s imagistic elements would be beneficial. Also, the work needs some editing in general: a climactic line is ruined by a typo (“I know what I have done. I know what I have destroyed. I have no justification. But by God, I sweat that I will do anything that is possible in order to hurt you no more.”) and a couple of unfortunate mistranslations occur (“heaps of half-molten snow”). However, when the work carefully arranges its images to sharpen the thematic blade, then simply stands aside to let us as intelligent readers absorb them, the results are absolutely delightful, as in this great sentence: “The snow gives the world a pristine appearance, except in the streets, where it has degenerated into a dirty brown sludge.”
I remain uncomfortable with the ending, in which we are presented with the abuser in the bedroom; you can break the mirror and kill yourself, or you can promise to leave forever and never return, but all of these choices seem to me to be in a hurry to give us, the readers, a reprieve, a way of believing that the horrible man will learn his lesson and enact justice on himself in some way. I kind of wish the story ended after the talk to Maartje, without offering us a chance to stab the father or make him promise to leave forever, because giving the father a chance to be subject to the player’s correction borders on the dangerous possibility of actually believing his self-recriminations as somehow genuine, that in some sense he is actually in a battle against a lust capable of overpowering his agency, rather than simply affirming that he is a pathetic monster who routinely chose to hurt an innocent person to gratify a brute impulse. I don’t know, maybe all that’s wrong, maybe the work needs the final sundering in order to complete its vision, it’s just, I was exegetically uncomfortable with the ending, I’m not sure it functions perfectly.
The archive presents us with a brief essay about De Baron , in which Gijsbers presents the work as being an attempt to envision interactive fiction where the primary choice is one of literary perception about theme and meaning. I’m not so sure that this “narrativism” is substantially different from simply the idea of interactive fiction that takes itself seriously as literature, in which our engagement is always artistically considered. To me it reads more like a response to accusations than an explanatory essay. The included reviews help to explain why that response was necessary, with readers being beguiled by the idea that there could be an action taken in IF unrelated to solving a puzzle. We must be cautious about reading history only in the context of its retrospective arc: we can look at the fact that Photopia came out in 1998 and wonder why these conversations are still appearing in 2006, but that ignores the reality that these conversations specifically appear in these nodes that lead towards general community agreements (in this case, towards the recognition that IF is not just a puzzlesolving game genre), that ongoing community conversations are not solved by one or two works that challenge a norm but rather by the solidification of trends over time. Lest we get too modernity haughty, we might look around and see all the ways that the general assumption about IF from many players is still that it will be a fun game…
Many people describe De Baron as a crucial marker in IF’s turn to moral choice works, but I’m not so sure that’s accurate, as it’s not really about making a moral choice but reckoning with a legacy of immoral choices. Perhaps the “moral choice” moniker might be better applied to the next game, Fate , which features a queen going through contractions trying to ascertain the future of the soon to be born child. Again, the central framing of the game is rather silly, with a sense of false urgency that detracts more from the atmosphere than it adds.
The greater issue with the moral choice aspect of the game, however, is we have no idea who the queen is as a person. In De Baron , we had enough contextual clues to understand that the father was a man who had tried to externalize his guilt into a fantastical other in order to avoid taking moral culpability for his crimes, but in Fate , Catherine is so abstractly developed that I really didn’t know what she would do for a vision and why. We see that she is a queen in name only, we see that she is nine months pregnant at barely 20, she feels like she cannot trust the servants, that her child is perceived mostly as a threat to dynastic sovereignty, there are enough hints about the predicament she finds herself in that we can get the gist of what might happen in this world, but we get no flashbacks or reminiscences or dialogue clues about the emotional heft behind her experiences, such that, when presented with the choice of what Catherine would do to see how her child fares, I wasn’t sure what exactly I felt she would do, because I wasn’t sure who she was. I also wasn’t sure why she even cared so much about having such a vision, like is she fantasizing about the success of her child as a way of deriving meaning from a broken life, or is she hoping for some kind of vengeance to be foretold, or is she hoping to find a way out of her current predicament so that she can live a fulfilling life, or is she just worried about the immanent possibility of death, or what? The game offers the player of choosing a vision through their actions, which gives us the task of deciding what the queen is after, and yet the band of possibilities is relatively limited: there are four negative outcomes, all of which are pretty straightforward, and four positive outcomes, three of which are that your child is a good warrior for x faction (so you’re basically deciding which faction matters to you, for reasons we can only guess), and one which is that your child goes to live in the country and has a happy life. We can triangulate certain qualities from each ending; that last ending suggests a strand of escapism, for instance, though we can’t truly be certain whether that’s Catherine’s escapism or the child’s escapism, or maybe even just the child’s natural desire, since perhaps he doesn’t know about his royal past? It’s all a bit mercurial.
However, the saddest thing to me is that the delightful strain of imagism present in De Baron is missing in this game. We still get some great sentences, like “Blood and skin have been suffused into a disgusting mix, with fragments of bone sticking out of it.” Occasionally, we do have some evocative ideas, like “The demon emits a sound like screeching metal, which might be its equivalent of laughter” which provokes a fascinating train of thought about how demons sound . Also, at one point we can obliterate our mind and enter a permanent state of “blue forgetfulness” which I thought was delightful phrasing. For the most part, however, the writing contents itself with faintly sketching things rather than bothering with developing atmosphere or theme. Even the stories that Sir Charles regales us with aren’t actual stories but just random sentences that imply that a story is being told, which felt like a missed opportunity. There’s also a tendency to cliché in some parts, like being told that a battlefield has “a river running red with blood.” If we’re going to get a cliché, at least dazzle it up a bit, put an original twist on it. Also, the riffs on the gendered tropes in the dialogue are fine enough in their sardonic tone, if a bit overdone, but I did find that the conversation with Amy rather unfortunate, where two women have three topics on hand: pregnancy, cosmetics, and men.
With these first two games, I think we can see Gijsbers trying to create IF as a viable literary art where the choice mechanisms serve as the enabling function of an intended literary effect rather than a coincidental or even opposed (solve these three puzzles to turn the page!) function. Whereas De Baron was linear, with our choices along the way being indicative of how we wanted to characterise the character, Fate innovates by opening up the realm of choices to articulate what the character feels and values. We are, in a sense, choosing the fate of our child, which shows what we feel Catherine values. Although I ultimately felt dissatisfied with Fate , I think the ambition behind it is a noble one, and it paints a picture of Gijsbers’ authorial arc towards creating stories in which our participation is a thematic engagement with a text world that lenses the agency of its characters according to how we experience them in such a way that the artistic effect occurs through the redoubling of our Weltanschauung through an orienting Weltbild directrix. The promise of an interactive fiction encounters the somewhat daunting nature of the creation of a fiction in which our interaction is equally a thematic engine capable of generating the artistic current; Gijsbers, in these first two games, is trying to blueprint just such an engine.
I say that, because he says as much himself in an essay entitled Co-authorship and Community . When launching the “About” page for the next game in the list, Figaro , we are told that this is a small proof of concept experiment intended to accompany the aforementioned essay, which is, thanks to this lovely collection, provided for us in the essays folder (imagine the difficulty of having loaded up Figaro from IFDB only to be told that this game was intended to accompany an essay, then having to spend thirty minutes googling through who knows what 2000s-era websites in the desperate and increasingly vain attempt to find the essay not distributed with the game; these are the very things we should be thinking about in terms of long-term IF archival, and I’m glad this collection addresses that very issue). After articulating the basic premise about the need to reconsider the relationship of the reader to the work to truly envision the manifold possibilities of interactive fiction, Gijsbers immediately hits on a dizzyingly bold and rather anarchic idea: what if an IF game was a direct appeal to your coauthorship, and you entangled your vision of the game directly into the work itself, such that, from a single seed, we end up with dozens of works, each one a fictional response to the generative gambit! This wild-eyed pioneering is fun to dream about, but I think it takes away from the purpose of authorship, which is to craft an experience worth experiencing. When reading War and Peace , I don’t get mad that Pierre accepts the duel with Dolokhov, then decide to write the remaining 800 pages as a version where he doesn’t accept the duel. That kind of election isn’t even a meaningful engagement with the work; the power of fiction is precisely the ability to be immersed in another human soul, to participate in the experience of an other, no longer to be existentially alone. If I rewrote Fate , I wouldn’t participate in Fate , I would simply have rewritten it, created something else, and whatever experience Gijsbers developed, and moreover the comments we can derive from it, would be lost. Indeed, it is that very responsiveness to Fate as it was developed that’s infinitely more engaging than just creating my own tangentially related work; writing critically about a text is far more interactive than writing your own work. The direct relation we have with a work is paradoxically lost the second we become a part of it. I find value in this archive, the oeuvre of Gijsbers, precisely because it is a series of possibilities, experiences, and ideas that I did not already have floating in my own mind. I read Stendhal not to decide how best the characters can resolve their tensions but to experience that very network in its fraughtness generative of an infinity of response, such that we still talk about Stendhal today, about what his work made possible . Indeed, the best way to interact with Stendhal is simply to create yourself in the wake of Stendhal, as perhaps Proust does: that is, Proust creating Proust is the vision that Gijsbers feverishly envisions in his essay, just as anyone creating IF today can incorporate the echoes of Gijsbers in their work. That is much more valuable than ripping the work itself open and going in to tinker, which seems to me such a literal interpretation of interactive fiction that it misses the joke, as it were.
As for Figaro itself, it’s not really much more than a brief prototype of a game that invites you to decide what the plot is. You are a jealous husband who suspects his wife of infidelity. You have hidden yourself in your bedroom, and you get to choose with whom your wife returns. None of the ideas are actually explored to any effect, it is in some sense entirely arbitrary which outcome you choose, and we are merely presented with the possibility of a game that could have such an option to it. In that way, what Figaro actually accomplishes is the idea of branching as incorporated into parser IF at a time prior to Twine and the digital renaissance of choice IF. I agree that branching is a valuable tool for creating compelling interactive fiction experiences, and so in a sense I don’t disagree with Figaro nearly as much as I disagree with its accompanying essay. I think you could incorporate this very sequence in an intriguing bit of IF; nevertheless, that is not what we encounter here.
Gijsbers appears to have entered a very experimental phase of his IF career at this point, because we are presented with many games that require essays to explain. The next work in the archive is the very confusing Hidden Nazi Mode , which appears to have become The Game Formerly Known as Hidden Nazi Mode . The whole thing is essentially a provocation about the problem of the presentation of non-open source games in academic settings, as, given that they are closed systems, you do not, in essence, know exactly what you’re putting before your students. There could, conceivably, be some horrible code hidden within, waiting to poison your student’s experience. I think, in general, there’s an interesting point here about the unique issues games and other software present for instructors that other media do not. However, I don’t think Hidden Nazi Mode does anything of value in making that point, nor do I think any of this is constituent of something more intellectually significant than a forum post. I actually think a more constructive way to do this would be to write an essay highlighting real world examples of innocuous games that have unsavoury easter eggs or optional content; there are plenty of things in games that are in bad taste and have aged poorly. The general idea, of ensuring that your instruction is presented as a closed garden in which everything is safety tested, could be more convincingly argued in such a way, rather than this outlandish offering.