"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 27 January 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Interactor's Nightmare



It's not just smut that has been

spurting from members of the

Pacific Rim's upstart multimedia

industries. The more innocent

genre of "love simulation" games

presents artificial girls for

game-players to woo. These

high-schoolers are far different

from the those disrobing and

excreting in the digital

products our senators and

representatives like to talk

about. Still, it's easy to

misunderstand when the hit game

in this "love" category (Konami

Co.'s Tokimeki Memorial) has a

title which literally translates

to "Throbbing Memorial."


But the object of the game is

banal, not... well, you know.

Sure, the atmosphere borders on

pedophilic, but no more so than

Saved by the Bell. In order to

win the heart of Shiori, the

most popular girl at school, you

relive an entire high-school

existence. Whether Shiori will

say "I love you" depends on your

popularity, as well as its

attendant skills of grooming,

athletic ability, and knowledge

of the arts and science.


One might imagine this exercise

to be rather tedious, or perhaps

at best a form of harmless wish

fulfillment. But there is a far

more sinister reading of this

digital book of love.



If the grandmother of these

SimLove games is Princess Maker,

a 1991 Japanese prototype of the

Young Lady's Illustrated Primer,

the grandfather comes from a

line of adventure and

role-playing games, usually in

some dungeon rather than in high

school. Much like in high

school, however, there are

usually only two ways to exert

your influence. Either you

follow the obscured path the

designers have constructed, or

you plunge headlong to your

death (as in high school, death

is more or less metaphorical).



A major advance was made in games

like Myst: The main character

couldn't die during the course

of the story. No longer did the

game's major source of tension

stem from the threat of death;

rather, the dread was

metaphysical. Replacing the

frustration of deadly error was

ennui, as unskilled players

faced endless inactivity and

stagnation, unable even to

digitally off themselves when

the game's tedium became too




It's all a little too familiar:

To match Zork's Wizard of

Frobozz we have the Presentation

Wizard, the Letter Wizard, and

even the Applet Wizard. These

and their cousins from Microsoft

gently guide us in our

applications down the path Bill

knows we should take, helping us

create spinning globes and

letters to mom. And speaking of

mazes of twisty little passages,

all alike, there's also the web

to consider. Although

purportedly a participatory

place, the commercial site is

really just a way to let us act

out our roles as consumers.



Infocom's packaging copy boasted

of their "interactive fictions"

in which "you can actually shape

the story's course of events

through your choice of actions.

And you have hundreds of

alternatives at every step." And

if you believe that, I've got a

new media company for you to

invest in. The player of one of

these games is not really

getting to be an author, to

direct and orchestrate the

events like a writer writing a

novel or a director directing a

play. At best, the player seems

more like... well, a player.

That is, an actor, although the

role is at first unknown.



The adventurer in Zork and the

wooer in Throbbing Memorial are

like the protagonist of

Christopher Durang's "Actor's

Nightmare." Stuck on a stage

without knowing his lines, the

rube has to do the best he can

to get through the play, using

the hints he gets from the other

players and the whisperings of

the stage manager, who traipses

by in costume every once in a

while. He can't change what play

he's in - the only freedom he

has is the ability to screw up.

Likewise, you can't really

choose to play the role of a

nonviolent hermit in Zork - not

if you want to get to the main

part of the story, which

requires you to break into a

house and slay a troll. You

can't choose to be a queer in

Throbbing Memorial. (Of course,

the role of a queer in Japan is

probably not the easiest one to

play, anyway.)



Funny how life reflects art. Love

simulations and adventure games

train us to discover our

appropriate roles and then act

them out - just as we have do

when we're really going through

high school or exploring the

twisty passages of civilization.

We play out our gender and

professional roles without any

recourse to a hint booklet. In

that they teach us to figure

this sort of thing out more

quickly, interactive media

experiences, varying by culture

but constant in the way they

achieve their training,

certainly have their use. When

it's time to play your part as

the secluded network

administrator, you can rely on

those earlier illusory

experiences of interaction to

help you socialize yourself into

your new, antisocial role.


There may be some other new media

experience, yet to appear, that

offers true participatory

authorship. Sure, a system that

really empowered people's

creativity may not be as handy

as the traditional interactive

game for helping us make it

through high school. But there's

something to be said for acting

like we have free will, even if

we don't.

courtesy of The Internick


The Internick