Brass Lantern
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Being Literate Computer Game Players

by Stephen Granade

Let's talk, you and I, about becoming literate gamers. The genre can use people who are familiar not only with what's going on in our tiny sub-section of computer games, but also with what is happening to literature.

You don't have to be literate to play IF. If you're only looking for entertainment for a few evenings when you play adventure games, why go through the trouble of becoming literate?

The thing is, I think that IF can be more than entertainment. It is an art form, and at its best it does what all good art does: it sheds light on the human condition. But for IF to be art, IF must have its cadre of literate critics and creators.

It is both good and bad to be a literate gamer. As you grow in experience, it becomes harder and harder to just "enjoy a game." Bad games seem ten times worse than they are; reasonably good games become disappoinments. The reward, though, is a heightened enjoyment of IF when it works. You'll be playing a game, going through the motions, when you'll hit a scene which works. All the drudgery of playing IF, all the time you've spent suddenly become unimportant. For a brief moment a glow will surround you, and you'll marvel at the craftsmanship and artistry of the author.

The most important role of the literate gamer is to help establish IF's place in the larger tapestry of art. One problem which plagued science-fiction criticism for the longest time was that works of SF were compared only to other works of SF. Little attempt was made to connect SF to the larger realm of fiction. We can fall prey to the same mistakes when critiquing IF. It's not enough to say that a game was good "for an adventure game." We need to be willing to subject works of IF to the harsher standards of literature in general.

How do you become literate? The most obvious way is by playing as many games as you can get your hands on. While playing, pay attention to how the designer put it together. Train yourself to see the underlying structure in games. There is a lot to the craft of creating IF, and learning to recognize the tricks of the trade is part of becoming literate.

But you can't stop there. You need to be aware of the other art forms from which IF has borrowed elements. If you play text adventures, read. Fine writing is fine writing, whether it be in service to poetry, prose, or adventures. If you play graphic adventures, watch plays and movies. These other art forms have been around a lot longer than IF. Learn what works for them and you'll learn more about IF.

Finally, you can't be a passive devourer of entertainment. You must be active. Think about games you've played. Look for common and dissimilar elements. Build up a knowledge base of games. When you're tired of thinking on your own, discuss IF with others. Jump into a Usenet discussion. Corner a patient friend and tell them what you've done and seen.

Everything I've said goes double for those who would design IF. The games you design might revolutionize the genre even though you've never played many games...if you're a one-in-a-million savant. The rest of us have to learn the craft and the artistry as we go, and becoming IF-literate can speed that process.

Above all, remember that being literate is an on-going process. There is no set goal, no definite peak above which you cannot continue. Personally, I take comfort in this fact. If becoming literate was a final destination instead of a journey, there would come a point in time where I would no longer need to play IF.

And, really, who wants that?

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