In collaboration with Uncanny Valley, Artifice Books is releasing EXITS ARE, an ongoing collaborative e-book by Mike Meginnis “and many players” (player #1, up now, is Blake Butler, author of the novels Scorch Atlas and There Is No Year, as well the memoir Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia).
EXITS ARE is updated weekly.
Explain EXITS ARE. What’s the idea here?
Basically, I’m using text adventures as a model for collaborative writing as a mode of play. The way I explain it to the writers I play with is that the only rule is that we take turns — a rule I follow very strictly, even when I realize that I’d like to change or correct something. I tell them that I’ll default to impersonating a text adventure, like Zork, and they can default to interacting with me as a player would. That means that I mostly describe rooms and situations to them, and they mostly say what they want their character to do. They’re free to step out of their role, though, and I’m free to step out of mine. Sometimes they narrate, and sometimes I ask them questions or speak to them directly. When the game is done (usually it takes 2-4 hours) I save the transcript and come back to it weeks later. At this point I gently massage the text, correcting small errors and occasionally making more substantial alterations, in an attempt to make the resulting story a better experience for readers.
Every player approaches it differently — which is what makes it so much fun. I feel really intensely, intimately engaged with each player, a tremendous and productive stress that forces me to reach for weird images and surprising ideas. Some players come from a D&D background, and you can see that in the way they approach it more purely as collaborative storytelling. Others really commit to the text adventure conceit, to the point where I’ve simulated bugs, errors, and misunderstandings common to the language parsers that text adventures use to discern a player’s intent. And some have no experience with any of this stuff, which makes their reactions to the framework especially interesting.
Tell us a little about text adventures. Which ones did you play growing up? Is there a particular game that sticks out in your mind, or that you feel a particular nostalgia for?
I’m atypical among geeks in that I don’t feel a lot of nostalgia for much of anything. Even in my formative years, it was easier for me to look at things from a critical remove than to embrace them without reserve. I still love a lot of the goofy stuff I enjoyed when I was a kid, but it’s a pretty honest love: I knew more or less why super heroes and NES games sucked when I was a kid, I know why they suck now, and I like to spend time with them anyway.
There were a couple of text adventures on my first computer, this old black and white thing that looked like a keyboard attached to a television, that were my first, and I think formative. One was a Zork game, I think maybe Zork II, and I never got anywhere in it. There was a house in a field, the door was ajar, I went inside, there was nothing happening in the house. I think a Grue ate me if I hung out for too long in the chimney, because it was dark. I also played Asylum, which had vague graphical representations of its environments, rendered in these clumsy, thick white lines. If you looked up at the wrong time a piano would fall on your head. I don’t think I ever escaped the cell, though I did load up some old saves stored on the disk, getting a glimpse of the world outside the cell. These old games were full of arbitrary death, like a choose your own adventure game (they needed an element of danger, but you couldn’t have exciting action sequences), and it was often next to impossible to discern a goal without the game manual, which I never had. Wandering around in these totally mysterious environments, collecting every item I saw, waiting for death to claim me — it was exciting! It was weird.
In high school I took a renewed interest in the form, and I played a really good non-commercially released game that used the Cthulhu mythos as its backdrop. I can never remember the name, but you had a husband who was pretty well programmed, and eventually I found a meathook.
Why text adventures? What about the form appeals to you?
On a practical level, the text adventure provides a good model for collaborative storytelling. By following the rules and conventions of the games, I limit the potential space of the story to things that can be described within that framework. It also gives me a set of conventions for resolving “disputes” between myself and the player, or rather, a means of negotiating my narrative desire and his or hers. As a game, Exits Are is strongly influence in its design by Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death, which uses turn-taking and similar player/storyteller roles to help people collaborate in telling a visual, comic-like story.
Text adventures are special, though, because of the way they use language to create an environment. A text adventure is sort of fractal: you get a general description of a room when you enter it, and then you can study parts of the room more closely. Some of the parts are interactive in some way. Some of them aren’t really there: the game doesn’t know about them as objects, it just reports that they exist, and if you ask for more information, it won’t know what you mean. The space feels both real and unreal. It’s drenched in mystery — in the refracted intentions of its creator, in the desire of the player to know and understand the world. Just as in fiction, the world exists at the intersection of its creator’s desire and its player’s, but the game is never as smart as either of them. It can’t be. If you try to do something it wasn’t programmed to anticipate, it won’t even really acknowledge your effort. So it never becomes pure play in language; the game doesn’t know how to play. That’s the shortcoming I’m trying to address.
EXITS ARE seems to be as much about process as product. And yet the product that results is pretty damn compelling. Are there any particular moments in the games you’ve played so far that really stuck out at you?
Great stuff happens when I give a player an objective and let them decide how to reach it. In my game with Tim Dicks, which is going up next, a character wouldn’t let him through a door unless he said a password. When I asked for the password, I didn’t have any idea what he would say; if he gave me a stupid answer for some reason, I would have rejected it, but there wasn’t a right answer. What he said, though, was perfect. He used a phrase I had been using on him throughout the game: “Full privileges.” You’d have to read the game to understand why it was the perfect answer. I laughed out loud, I was so happy. Little surprises like that are what make the game great.
I love the things that happen when a player corners me, too: I like to set traps for myself throughout a game. In my game with Matt Bell, I gave him an “implement of torment.” When I gave that to him I had no idea what it was going to be, and I knew that at some point Matt would make me tell him. When he did, I said the first thing I thought of: a talking Donatello action figure. It was such a weird choice. And I loved how Matt used the Donatello, too.
Have you done a lot of other collaborative work?
Nope! I always wanted to, though. I keep trying to find an artist to work with on a comic book (I’m talking to one now, even) and so far it’s never worked out. With writing, it’s a little harder for me to know where I would start start, how I could share the power and negotiate a narrative voice with another person, so it really helps to have the rules of Exits Are, so the roles are clearly defined, but with enough fluidity to consistently produce surprise.
I like to think of my fiction writing as a collaboration between myself and the reader. The trouble is that I can’t know what the reader wants. The players in Exits Are tell me what they want to see and do in the story all the time. It’s been teaching me a lot about narrative desire — how to accomodate it, how to manipulate it, how to help it grow. I hope it’s making me a better writer generally.
How does the writing of this project compare to other projects you’ve worked on? (Like, is it more fun? More work? More preparation? Less?)
It’s less work and preparation than a novel by far: because of the way the game works, I really can’t prepare. When I’m writing a novel there’s always this long period of revving up, reading and thinking and so on. I usually have long breaks between sections of a novel for the same purpose (I’m trying to get out of one of those on my current manuscript right now). But it’s much more intense. Normally I have to imagine my reader. I’m worried about boring them, but I know that I can “fix it in post” — i.e., revise the shit out of anything that doesn’t work. I don’t have that option with the text adventures. I have to be interesting and surprising and scary and fun right now. It’s mostly terrifying.
What else are you up to these days? Where else can we find your work?
Right now I’m looking for a home for my novel Fat Man and Little Boy, the story of what happened when the atom bombs we dropped on Japan were reincarnated as people. I’m also writing a novel, as yet untitled, about two brothers who believe they might be super heroes. I keep a frequently-updated list of my publications at mikemeginnis.wordpress.com/publications/, but a lot of that stuff is in print. My bodies project (also a manuscript I’m looking to publish under the name of Some Bodies) is all over the place online, though, so you can check out those links, and I think my most popular piece is a story-essay-poem about the game Angband that I wrote.
Beyond that, I spend most of my days looking for work, as I am currently unemployed.