There was a long thread about IF theory and criticism recently, which I don’t want to resurrect, but one of the themes that came up there and that I’ve seen come up before is that we don’t currently have a very good space for IF theory and criticism. (Where I mean ‘criticism’ in the sense of ‘literary criticism’.) This forum is great for technical questions, organising things and competitions, but if you were to post something truly substantial on it, it would too quickly disappear in the depths of history. IFDB, on the other hand, is perfect for reviews, keeping them in one place forever, but not for theory and criticism.
I think we want theory, because we want to think about what does and does not work when we write interactive fiction, and about what we have tried and what we haven’t tried yet, and we want to do that beyond the boundaries of talking about a specific work of interactive fiction, as would happen in a review. Theory – and articles about applied theory, that is, about craft – are good for our understanding of the medium and for our ability to write great or innovative works.
I think we want criticism, because we want to really understand the works that we read and play and hopefully love; we want to understand the individual works, and we want to understand how different works hang together, because this gives us greater understanding of both. I think that as authors what we really really want is a chance for our works to get serious attention beyond the boundaries of the original competition – and this is what criticism allows. It’s nice to have another short IFDB review, sure, but what you really want is someone taking an in-depth look at what you’ve created.
(Speaking purely for myself, I feel that The Baron had a serious life-beyond-the-competition back when there was more criticism/theory discussion on the newsgroups, whereas since the IF Comp 2019 Turandot has been surrounded by nothing but silence. And yet the later works seems to me the more serious subject of sustained analysis.)
So that’s what I want. But how to get it? I want to sketch a vision. I think it’s a vision that could easily become reality, but it’s not something I could make reality by myself. And I don’t know whether the vision strikes anyone else as worth pursuing. So for now, I’ll just sketch it.
What I envisage is a website – a very simple website – that publishes theory and criticism articles. Not necessarily many. I’d be already happy if there were ten articles every year. It would not have a discussion section; that’s something this forum could be for, or Mastodon, or wherever. It’s just a permanent home for articles. The articles could perhaps be numbered: this makes it clear that, yes, what we have here is not some ever-changing list of the hot and new takes, but a permanent catalogue of things worth reading.
- Worldbuilding in Skybreak! and Lost Coastlines
- Engaging players in linear choice narrative
- Attack troll with sword: a brief history of parser combat
- The structure of Hannah Powell-Smith’s Crème de la Crème
- On the meaning of howling dogs
- Cutting all the fat: using PunyInform to fit your game on a retro-computer
I can imagine that such articles might start at, say 1500-2000 words, and could be much longer than that. Many ways of approaching these topics, and articles about many different kinds of interactive fiction, would be welcomed of course. It would be lovely if you could read them on the webpage but also download them as a nicely formatted PDF. The website would not be an academic journal, but be a hub for the amateur community – although academic researchers would in no way be excluded.
To make sure that what was on the website was indeed worth reading, there would be some editors who made joint decisions about whether to accept or reject (proposed) pieces. I think you would want joint team decisions to generate some anonymity – we’re a small community after all. I’m not thinking of this in terms of ‘rejecting almost everything so only the best of the best will be published’. I’m thinking of this in terms of ‘make sure that the topic is right for the website, that the article is of the right kind and length, that the argument can be followed, that it doesn’t engage in nastiness, that the language and spelling are good’. For some of those aspects, the editors could act as, well, editors, helping the author to improve the piece.
Since the editors would probably be the people most likely to also want to write articles, and since they’d all be doing this as a side activity next to their no doubt already busy lives, it would be good to have a moderately large team that can divide the work. (And if person A wants to write something, B and C could act as editors, say.) Again, it needn’t be too formal. It’s an amateur venture meant to strengthen the community!
Some thought would be needed about how to ensure that the website remains online into perpetuity. Possibly, once things turn out to be successful, the IFTF could play a role there.
So, that’s the vision! I would love to read those things numbered 1 to 6 up there, even if some topics are of course closer to my own heart than others. I would also love to be part of making this happen, but I couldn’t do it alone and also wouldn’t want to impose my vision – in general lines or in details – on others. Let me know what you think.