Theory and criticism: a vision

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.

  1. Worldbuilding in Skybreak! and Lost Coastlines
  2. Engaging players in linear choice narrative
  3. Attack troll with sword: a brief history of parser combat
  4. The structure of Hannah Powell-Smith’s Crème de la Crème
  5. On the meaning of howling dogs
  6. 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.

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I don’t think I’m someone who could write literary criticism, but that sounds very cool… I’d be willing to do the technical/layout/hosting side, or help with it. And maybe proofreading/copyediting if anyone wanted.

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Would like to read this one:

  1. Engaging players in linear choice narrative
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theory and criticism? sounds icky

I love it

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Trying to poke some holes in this, not to be negative but hoping it’s constructive and clarifies the need. I would totally subscribe to such a website.

In practice it sounds a lot like a journal, and also like a lot of work. Is About the JGC — Journal of Games Criticism a good example of what you envision, only focused on IF? Could we piggyback on an existing effort like this? Ten IF theory articles a year in a wider games publication also seems like a win.

What, in your view, is the benefit of the centralized publication over a curated list of links to a canon of theory and criticism all over the web? My guesses:

  • Encouraging quality writing on certain topics, like the list you provided. This might require the publication to provide some compensation or prestige.
  • Encouraging quality writing on IF in general. It’s probably worth asking what would motivate folks to write more. I don’t expect “nowhere to publish” to be a common barrier these days, but I also have low confidence in that feeling.
  • Discovery. Personally I love RPS’ “The Sunday Papers” column for this, and would probably be as happy with a monthly link roundup as a journal.
  • Preservation. Would it be beneficial to archive (with permission) existing IF writing as part of this process?
  • Other?
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I think this is an awesome idea and would prove really valuable. To the point where I’d definitely volunteer some of my time to help out do whatever.

Ade

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Thanks for the questions, Brad! I wasn’t familiar with the Journal of Games Criticism, but going over there and clicking on the first article gives me a text that starts like this:

That’s not what I’m envisioning. This might be a great article! But it requires you to already know a lot about the academic field of game studies, including having picked up specific jargon like ‘autotelicity’ that I don’t think you’ll pick up just by being involved in a community of game makers. I totally respect this kind of scholarship (and I sometimes write on teleology, so I’m not too scared by the jargon), but it’s not what I’m after. I’m after the kind of writing you might find in a well-written, well-informed IFComp review, but then applied at more length or somewhat broader. Does that make sense?

To your second question: I think having a centralised publication could be a powerful impetus for people to write things. I know that in the past, when SPAG was still a thing and accepted longer articles to publish as ‘SPAG Specifics’, it made me write perhaps the best IF criticism I ever wrote. (I’m thinking in particular of my analysis of Photopia). In part, this thread may help to find out whether other people feel the same way! By the way, I think it is an excellent idea to republish (with permission) great IF writing of the past on such a website/journal.

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As far as motivating people goes… I think having a place to publish is a motivation. A feedback loop is nice, too. Not everybody wants to make a Wordpress site then write for basically nobody for months, waiting for an audience to develop. That’s daunting! Making space for this type of writing is not only a service to readers, it’s a service to writers, too. There’s a clear track for people who write games and reviews, but IF can probably sustain another sort of discourse without a lot of enticements.

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The devil’s-advocate position is “This is a directory on the IF Archive. And a curated wiki page.”

I realize those things are entirely unmotivating because they’ve been around for decades. But we have Index: if-archive/articles , for example! It’s got articles! And people stopped adding new ones around 2013, except for recent contributions from Hugo Labrande and Felix Pleşoianu.

Assuming that’s not good enough (and I’m not saying it is…)

The website would not be an academic journal, but be a hub for the amateur community

I think it is possible to run a journal without it being an academic journal of the stripe you’re imagining. The IF Theory Reader book (from 2011) was created from the amateur community and I think it is the tone you’re looking for. (As a broad range, anyhow. We do have academics in our hobbyist field!)

It is some amount of work no matter how you cut it. You have to at least commit to (a) hitting people up for articles and then (b) editing and posting them. But if you do that much, I think it is worth calling it a “journal” no matter what the jargon level.

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The advantage of the journal approach is that it is discrete. That is, it is a snapshot of a moment in time when x people thought y thing was an interesting (good, even!) article to read about IF theory.

With community stuff, you have a less visible assessment of what is and isn’t “notable,” which is different from “worth reading.” I think that notability is influenced by things like platform size, recognizability, etc.

I do agree that some amount of editing is inescapable to enforce the Oxford comma if nothing else.

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If you do that, here are one or two possible ideas (among many!):

  • Brian Rushton wrote many great articles here on this forum, for instance his Author Highlights series.
  • Many articles were published on the French IF site; certainly not all of them would be appropriate for your site, but a few might (they would have to be translated, of course). Maybe some non-English webzines would have suitable articles, too?
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I am very into this idea - I think it would fill a real need in the contemporary IF scene and could catalyze some valuable, interesting conversations. So I’d definitely be down to help out in whatever form I can (web design and hosting and all that is well outside my skill set so it’d just be different versions of word-slinging, I’m afraid).

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I’d like to contribute, too. I would probably be most helpful doing editorial work

I may or may not write this kind of thing sometimes

Critical Distance might be a good model for acknowledging work published elsewhere.

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I would absolutely read this and would be willing to contribute financially to support it. I’m less certain of my ability to do any work for it.

To get things rolling, it might be best to invite specific authors to write articles on the subjects in the OP. Otherwise, either no one or everyone will be contributing.

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Yes! Only reason I didn’t mention the IF Theory Reader is that… I don’t know, I don’t think there was a reason. It’s a great example of a bunch of articles that would all fit right in.

Absolutely. If I gave the impression that I didn’t want to call it a ‘journal’, that was the wrong impression. Very good term. I’m pretty convinced, though, that the ideal form here is not to have issues which appear X times a year and need a minimum Y of content, but to publish individual articles as they are ready. (This is actually something that many academic journals have switched to in the past years.) I feel it cuts out an unnecessary layer of complexity which only serves to hide the actual articles.

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Obviously. Our great strengths are community engagement, depth of analysis, and the Oxford comma.

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From my brief time as editor of SPAG I think organising content for issues was part of the difficulty of keeping it running. Rolling releases is what I’d recommend too.

Static sites are easy (markdown and GitHub pages is such a great way to publish), but if you want on site comments then you might want a more traditional CMS.

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I probably won’t have much to contribute, but I’d certainly be an avid reader.

Can I suggest… a Substack, or some other newslettery thing? I suspect the group of folks who will sign up for emails is larger than the number who’ll check some website every few weeks in case they have anything new. And you still get a normalish website with comments / RSS / other conveniences.

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But Substack is rather annoying for having a subscription popup blocking the article. I think perhaps because it’s focused more on paid subscriptions? (Or maybe it can be disabled, but most of the Substack authors I’ve seen haven’t done so.)

Don’t pretty much all the blogging systems support emails? There are better options than Substack’s anti-reader UI.

That said, having email subscriptions would be very good. And one thing a static Github Pages site couldn’t do.

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I don’t recall running into one on https://if50.substack.com/, but I’m not certain.

Anyways, I’m not here to shill for Substack! They’re just the best-known example of a popular format which feels like it might work well for this sort of project.

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