What is good in IF?

Can a work be good but unpopular?

Most of us think so.  Victor G. has recently raised the shades of Homer and James Joyce to defend this notion.  But it raises questions about how we can measure a work’s goodness.

The IF Comp is great, because it allows us to rate works against one another.  We know then how good a certain work is, in the Comp-playing public eye.  But if we conceed to Victor that a work can be good, but unpopular, then all bets are off:  especially if we also accept that a work can be popular, but bad.

Now, I’ll make an ugly little confession:  I really don’t care for _Ulysses._  Not much for the _Illiad_, either, although bits of it I quite enjoy.  Maybe I’ll change my opinion when I’m an old man; presuming I should be so lucky.

But nevertheless, I like the idea that unpopular works can be good.  When I moved to Cambodia, I brought a boxed set of Shakespeare, because I guessed (rightly) that there’d be no books here. 

A couple years ago, going through airport security, some steroid-heavy guard saw I had several copies of _Hamlet_.  He said he couldn’t get into Shakespeare, because of the language.  Steering a course between apologizing for Shakespeare’s language and telling him, “That’s because you’re a moron,” which wouldn’t have been nice and might have caused me some trouble, I told him the language is difficult.  But, Shakespeare didn’t write novels; he didn’t write to be read; he wrote to be performed.  So I suggested he watch enactments.

I also like the idea that unpopular works can be good because my very own _LAIR of the CyberCow_ scored abysmally last year.  So I would be delighted to be able to argue that, like the _Illiad_ or _Ulysses_, it was simply under-appreciated.

If we unlink saying a work is good from saying that it is popular — that it has a good Comp score — what is this “good” we’re talking about?

If we know a game’s Comp score, we can predict pretty well how much a group of players will like it.  If the game’s rated at a 4.6, then people will say, “Eh.  It wasn’t terrible, but I have complaints.”  If it’s rated at an 8, they’ll say, “That was pretty good.”

A large group of players is likely to rate it, on average, at its Comp score.  A small group is less likely to.  One person is pretty unlikely to.  The smaller the target sample is, the more unlikely an accurate prediction is.

Numerically, a case like _Ulysses_ is like this:  most people would rate it low, but a few people would rate it high.  So the book would have a low score overall; but if you only looked at its score among lit geeks, it would be much higher.

As a practical question, how do you filter in those people who give scores that are highly predictive of _Ulysses’_ true quality, and filter out ignorant slobs like me who think it’s an incoherent mess?  — Well, you need a “lit geek” filter, and that amounts to the education-and-evaluation system that we have in the humanities.

Keep in mind, both of those are going on:  You are both indoctrinating people into the literary culture and rejecting people who don’t conform to that indoctrination properly.

Now, once you’ve done that, and you have a bunch of Ph.D.s in English lit, you can poll them and they’ll give _Ulysses_ a score that reflects its true quality.  And you know it reflects its true quality, because the people you’ve indoctrinated on the basis of liking apparently-incoherent works like _Ulysses_ tell you it is.

— I’m not being sarcastic there:  you get the same problem setting standards with any unit of measure.  In the case of literature, it’s more complicated:  but since lit Ph.D.s generally tell us one work is better than another, and another is still better, and we can agree with them on these and they can point out things we missed, then when they go on to say a fourth book we dislike is best of all, we can take it on their authority that we’re missing something.

Now, to apply this to IF — there are a certain number of people who are broadly acknowledged to be expert IF authors.  If these people were all to tell us that, even though _LAIR of the CyberCow_ got a terrible score in last year’s Comp, that was only because most judges didn’t understand its extreme cleverness and pathos, and it *is* nevertheless an excellent game — I think most of us understand that we would be *obligated* to take that on their authority.

Sadly, none of them *have* said that.  Not only have none of them said that about _LAIR_, but they haven’t, to the best of my limited knowledge, said it about _any_ work of IF.  From this I gather that IF is still a young enough art form that it hasn’t hit the snob barrier yet.

If you don’t know what the snob barrier is, that’s the point at which the rules around an art form become sufficiently complicated that you have to have years of training and a certain inborn talent to appreciate the art.  Nobody without an extensive education (even if self-educated) and a good knack for literary criticism is going to pick up _Ulysses_ and declare it a great book.  And the book is intentionally designed to rebuff any such attempts, in contrast to _Dubliners_, which is far more, to use Victor’s word, accessible. 

Ironically, I’m told that JJ has picked this elitist form to write a work that elevates one day in the life of an average man to mythic status.  Apparently lit Ph.D.s like to be made to feel in sympathy with the average man from time to time.  I don’t care much for post-snob barrier art; I don’t think that’s the way to do it.

I much prefer the Poes and Shakespeares:  these artists wrote popular works in their own day, which average people can still read and enjoy immensely.  Even the airport guard could enjoy Shakespeare if he gave a good production a chance.  Average people will not be able to unravel *why* they like these stories — understanding how the stories are constructed to generate such appeal *does* take a great deal of study.  And Homer, remember, was the Shakespeare of his day:  a bard come through to strum on his lyre and chant by the fireside about Achilles was a trip to the cinema.  Ancient Greeks would rate him highly, for better reasons than lit geeks.

Another Mr. Lizard didn’t fathom Eric Eve’s _Snow Quest_, and speculated that it was a series of inside jokes.  He thought that Eric was making fun of other games, but his hypothesis basically was that Eric had created a snob barrier — that you couldn’t understand his game unless you had an exhaustive background knowledge of IF.  To my knowledge, that’s not true — or if it is, nobody else has detected the references either.

I don’t know of a snob barrier in video games, either.  Possibly its development has been retarded by the fact that video games require the coordination of a large number of people; but then, so do movies, and we have plenty of snob cinema.  (Some of it quite good.)  Over the past 10 or 15 years, we’ve seen Ph.D.s in gaming, so we can predict that video games will develop a snob barrier sooner or later.

In fact, we can consider it an attempt to create a snob barrier every time someone tries to do something that only the cleverest players will catch — like _The Ascot_, or some time ago _There’s a Snake In The Bathtub._  But these haven’t caught, partly because the snobbery required is good game-play, while those who advocate for games — people like Victor or myself; snobs, in other words — often miss the snob-payoff, and then when we get it don’t value it enough to adopt the game as a cause.

Perhaps the closest thing we have in IF to a snob barrier is the Xyzzy Awards.  These are more prestigious than the IF Comp.  But, they don’t seem to have broken away from popular taste.

Therefore, because there is no well-defined snob subgenre of IF, I am taking the IF Comp scores to be definitive of good, well-crafted IF.  As IF continues to develop, we may see the development of well-defined genres, each with its own audience and conventions.  That will probably happen when the playing population grows large enough to sustain splinter-groups, such that all the puzzle-players form a camp quite separate from the others.

But, until the creation of sub-genres and the formation of a snob barrier, the only criteria we have to robustly measure “good” in IF is popular response; and therefore I believe I am justified in generalizing from the IF Comp reviews and scores.

Published in: on November 13, 2009 at 9:25 am  Comments (6)  
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  1. “As a practical question, how do you filter in those people who give scores that are highly predictive of Ulysses’ true quality, and filter out ignorant slobs like me who think it’s an incoherent mess?”

    What is “true quality?” Why are “lit geeks” better able to judge true quality? Lits geeks have created a set of standards that they judge books by, but those standards are not universal ideals by which quality can be judged.

    Quality in fiction, interactive or not, depends on the audience. There is no particular benefit in trying to satisfy one particular audience unless you’re the author and that’s the audience you want to satisfy.

  2. What is “true quality?”

    Defining a property outside of your strategy for measuring it is not meaningful. Certainly not before you can measure it reliably.

    There is no particular benefit in trying to satisfy one particular audience unless you’re the author and that’s the audience you want to satisfy.

    Of course.

  3. Why are there no works of IF that are unpopular with most players but declared masterpieces by the elite? Why no snob IF?

    I am not totally convinced that this kind of unpopular but good works are solely the result of a geek filter indoctrinating the admitted geeks and rejecting those than can’t be indoctrinated. I’m not saying that there is no snob barrier; I’m only saying that I think there can be good works of fiction that are not highly popular with most readers even without the barrier — just as I think works of fiction can be highly popular with those that passed the filter and yet no good.

    Still I am generally in favour of the idea that good fiction (including IF) can be defined in terms of what a certain kind of readers/players tend to like. Only I don’t think that “reference group” of readers/players need be defined by a geek filter.

    What I have in mind is readers/players with a certain approach to reading/playing: who don’t read/play because they have to or are supposed to; who likes to return to their favourite works and read/play them again; who linger in the fictional world of their current (and perhaps past) reading/playing, being mentally occupied by them, daydreaming about them, savouring the sweet taste of solving an elegant puzzle etc.; who to some extent relate their favourite playing/reading both to real life events and to events in other fiction (“Wow! This could have been the attic in _Curses!_.” “Why did she do that?! The woman in _Aisle_ didn’t react like that!” “I’ve seen this maze before”) — etc. Pretty much an escapist approach to fiction. And not, I think, the one specifically taken by Ph.D.s.

    A good work of fiction (in the relevant sense, that is — for, of course, fiction can be good in any number of ways and for any of an indefinite number of purposes) will simply be a work that lends itself to that kind of approach, preferably even over a long period of time so that an individual reader can continue to appreciate it as he grows older. You can read it for pleasure; you can profitably return to it; they can engage your thoughts and feelings even while not reading; you have happy memories of them long after …
    On such an account, I suppose, both Homer and Tolkien and _Slouching_ and _Blue Lacuna_ may be deemed good literature.

    Perhaps there are no generally unpopular good (in that sense) works of IF and no generally popular bad (in the corresponding sense) works simply because IF-players generally have that same kind of approach to IF.

  4. If I remember rightly, the IF comp scores show a graph of score distribution, not just the average. If there’s a Ulysses in there, you should see a peak of 9s and 10s (from the snobs) to the right of a large bell curve around 3 or 4 from everyone else.

    In other words – yay for a competition run by geeks; they’ve solved the problem without even thinking about it. :)

    Also, it’s mainly a (self-) selected elite who play IF in the first place. Looking for the ‘common voice’ among people who STILL PLAY TEXT ADVENTURES IN 2009 may result in a long search.

  5. A few scattered thoughts:

    One thing about good-but-unpopular books (and bad-but-unpopular books) is that most people don’t read them unless they’re forced. As opposed to movies, which people will often watch even if they don’t like them, because walking out of a movie is an affirmative act. IF is more like books in that respect — except that in the comp, a lot of people do feel obliged to play the works.

    I think most people who like good-but-unpopular books would claim that what makes them unpopular is their difficulty. Interestingly, difficulty doesn’t seem to make works of IF unpopular; everyone seems to agree that Broken Legs is very difficult, but most people like it anyway, or at least acknowledge it as good (and many bad reviews that I’ve seen focus on other aspects, like the PC’s sociopathy). Though many people do say that the difficulty (or at least the lack of clues) is a flaw. But I think one reason that people are accepting of this kind of difficulty is that most games come with hints or walkthroughs, so it’s not an insuperable obstacle to finishing. I haven’t really played it because I find the puzzles so intimidating and I don’t want to just hit the walkthrough yet. (Outside the comp, something similar seems to happen with some of Andrew Plotkin’s games; So Far seems to be acknowledged as a classic, and I couldn’t get past the first area without exhausting a set of hints for it that I found online.)

    There’s another kind of difficulty, one that’s more like the difficulty of books, in which there’s something going that’s easy to miss, independently of how difficult it is to progress through the game. That’s possible in Duel in the Snow; I certainly appreciated it a lot less before I read everyone else’s theories about what happened, often based on clues I hadn’t found. This was also my initial reading of the game Victor had us test; I thought it was a game that was silly on the surface with a sinister hidden meaning, only available through a couple of surface clues (and the title).

    And The Ascot seems to combine both approaches (haven’t played it myself, because of interpreter issues); there’s a puzzle whose very presence is easy to miss, and without which the game seems somewhat superficial. So I’d expect that The Ascot would be a good candidate for a game that’s good but unpopular. But it’s hard to figure out exactly who gets the right to call it “good” under those circumstances.

    BTW, I’d say there’s already a snob barrier in games more broadly; a lot of gaming blogs seem to occasionally have commenters attacking posters for advocating for “art games” with lower production values. See here for instance. Though I’m actually kind of torn on the merits of “Passage” myself.

  6. It seems as though “Deadline Enchanter” is a game that some people think is good even though it didn’t do that well in the comp (12th place). And its difficulty is definitely difficulty of writing, not of playing.

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