Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thoughts about feelies

"Feelies" from Deadline, Infocom, 01982 | Images via Infocom Gallery

Here's a rather wonderful example of creating in-story artifacts to help augment immersion in a narrative. Worldbuilders, take note.

In the 01980s, computer software publisher Infocom produced works of interactive fiction, avoiding the primitive graphics of the day in favour of a text-based interface with a relatively sophisticated parser (grammar interpretation engine), enabling users to type in more complex, speechlike instructions. Says Wikipedia, an authority on such geeky arcana, "Whereas most game developers sold their games mainly in software stores, Infocom also distributed their games via bookstores." We also learn that "Three components proved key to Infocom's success: marketing strategy, rich storytelling and feelies."

Wait a minute -- feelies?

It seems that one of the most distinctive and clever elements of Infocom's narrative strategy was to include fragments of the game world -- that is, props from within the story's universe -- inside the box with each game. A presentation by USC GamePipe Labs instructor Victor LaCour on the history of early videogames gives some examples (slide #25): these "feelies" included such objects as the protagonist's diary (Planetfall), the menu of an in-game restaurant (Ballyhoo), and a scratch-n-sniff card (Leather Goddesses of Phobos). In addition to upping the tangibility ante for the narrative world, they would also serve as an elegant form of copy protection (a disincentive for software pirates) since certain puzzles in the game could not be solved without those items.

A detailed history of the rise and fall of Infocom was produced in 02000 by some MIT students (appropriately enough, since the company was an MIT spinoff to begin with), and although it doesn't mention feelies by that name, the paper captures a sense of the games' successful storytelling strategy in this era of early computer-based entertainment (p. 21):

The attraction of Infocom games was multi-faceted. At times, the games could bring the simple pleasure of reading a light, fast-paced novel, whose course could be affected by the reader. Other times, the games provided the intellectual satisfaction of solving a complicated logic puzzle. Without an image of the protagonist, players could identify with the main character and even imagining [sic] themselves in the role. A typical Infocom game allowed the user to feel as though he or she were living the life of a police detective, medieval hero, or space ranger.
Infocom’s games were extremely well written, and they provided uses [sic] with hours of enjoyment. But to claim this was the only reason for the success of their games is to tell only half of the story. The other half of the story lies in just how Infocom got people to buy their games in the first place: Infocom’s unique publishing and marketing strategies were crucial factors in the success of their games.

According to the company's marketing director, Mike Dornbrook (quoted in an Infocom FAQ -- thanks, Internet Archive -- cited by the MIT paper, pp. 23-24, FN 32-33), the story behind the feelies runs as follows:

The first exotic package was for Deadline (the third game, after Zork I and II). It was created because Marc Blank couldn't fit all the information he wanted to include into the 80K game size. Marc and the ad agency, Giardini/Russel (G/R), co-created the police dossier which included photos, interrogation reports, lab reports and pills found near the body. [See images at the top of this post.] The result was phenomenally successful, and Infocom decided to make all subsequent packages truly special (a big benefit was the reduction in piracy, which was rampant at the time).

The first 16 packages were done in collaboration with G/R.
We were spending a fortune on package design ($60,000 each on average in 1984 - just for design!), so we eventually decided to bring it in-house. I hired an Art Director, Carl Genatossio, a writer, a typesetting/layout person, and someone to manage all () "feelies" in the packages.
An unsung heroine of Infocom was our Production Manager, Angela Crews. She was responsible for acquiring the scratch-n-sniff cards, ancient Zorkmid coins, glow-in-the-dark stones, etc. which made the packages so distinctive. It was often an incredibly difficult task.

As for who oversaw all of this, again, there were many responsible.
I would estimate that each Infocom package had 1.5 man-years of effort invested in its creation.

For those curious not only to read about, but also to see, some marvellous feelies (actually feeling them online is however, technologically, still a bit of a stretch), the miraculously still-kicking Infocom Gallery (last updated in 02004) comes to the rescue with an archive of the company's releases that contains game descriptions and images of the artifacts included with each. It jumps out at me that two of Infocom's games were worked on by the brilliant British humorist Douglas Adams; the first being an adaptation of his famous Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, feelies for which include a microscopic space fleet: order for the demolition of Arthur Dent's house:

...and a parallel order for the demolition of planet Earth:

The other Adams game is the intriguing Bureaucracy, which sounds like Kafka meets Monty Python:

When the bank refuses to acknowledge your change-of-address form, you'll find yourself entangled in a series of bureaucratic mishaps that take you from the feeding trough of a greedy llama to the lofty branches of a tree deep in the Zalagasan jungle.

This could be the most fun anyone will ever have with a tale of bureaucratic hell (outside of Gilliam's Brazil, perhaps). Accompanying feelies included a letter from your new employer, Happitec:

...and a copy of Popular Paranoia magazine:

Now, while the purposes may be different, I trust the creative parallels between feelies on the one hand, and "evidencing", reality prototyping, and future artifact creation on the other, are obvious. All are about concretely manifesting the paraphernalia of an otherwise imaginary, absent world, the better to inhabit it -- or at least to meet it on its own terms -- for a while.

There's much more in the Infocom back catalogue that we could explore here, but already it becomes clear how these games might have garnered a loyal following, and there's something inescapably sad that they seem to have died such a sudden death. As the Douglas Adams website puts it:

[G]raphics games came along and the computer using portion of the human race forgot all about 500,000 years of language evolution and went straight back to the electronic equivalent of banging rocks together - the point'n'click game. Infocom and most of its competitors went to the wall - signaling the arrival of the post-literate society.

(It makes me pleased to have been able to attend the Long Now's Funeral for Analog Television last week in Berkeley -- the passing of our once-cherished media should not simply go unnoticed.)

However, the Adams site goes on to note that with the Internet, "People have learned to type again and are taking an interest in interacting, via their computers, with other people and with content." Moreover, a dead genre turns out not to be entirely dead, but rather to have retired to remote corners of the Web like this (Infocom games still playable online include the Hitchhiker's Guide).

Even if the golden age of "interactive fiction" has passed, and its feelies are now the glorious preserve of only the most committed boffins, I can't shake the feeling that feelies have a future, too. It's curious that seeking antecedents to the future artifacts meme takes us down an overgrown path into the not-too-distant past, there to find that feelies -- tangible auxiliaries to a cutting-edge storytelling technology, concessions to meatspace -- may have a transreality staying power that as a practice, seems timeless, compared to the wonderfully quaint electronic games they were created merely to supplement.


Jake Dunagan said...

Blogging at its best!

Tangible artifacts as a stalwart against the 'destabilizing effect of the copy' is a goldmine. Won't be hearing the last of that concept, I'd wager.

James Wallis said...

Have you not come across Dennis Wheatley's Crime Dossiers, released in the 1930s? They were basically DIY CSI: here's the documentation of the crime scene, here's photos of it, here's the witness statements, here's the fingerprints, here's the telegram, here's the strand of hair we found, here's the lipstick-stained cigarette end... Awesome stuff. I've got the first one; you can pick them up from ABEbooks reasonably cheaply.

Stuart Candy said...

Thanks, Jake! I'd be curious to read more from you about how this fits into your thinking on intellectual property regimes.

James, I can't say for sure that I had heard about Wheatley's Crime Dossiers before. Thanks for sharing. Perhaps it rings a faint bell because I'm vaguely aware of other interactive publications -- but the detective story is really an ideal site for the practice of evidencing a narrative world, isn't it?

Jesse F said...

The Infocom games' production wwas fantastic: the feelies for Suspended almost crossed the line over to some sort of hybrid interactive-fiction-board game, and even the invisible-ink hint book for Hitchhiker's was chock full of jokes and false turns.

As much as I love Adams, though, his comment was a little blinkered: the problem wasn't language, but--as he alludes to by noting that people seem to enjoy talking to other people on the computer--the complete inability of IF to replicate natural language. I'd still rather play an Infocom game that most point-and-click adventures, but there's nothing inherently wrong with the form: Zack & Wiki on the Wii is just as clever and fun as any Infocom game, albeit in an entirely different way. No feelies, though, although the Mario Kart Wii Wheel is kind of a useless-yet-perfect feelie in its own way...

Actually, my most immersive experience from that era was with a straight-up graphical RPG. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar also came with some heavy-duty feelies: cloth map, metal ankh, fake lizard-skin cover for the "spell book," the works. But it was its ethical slant that really encouraged character identification: instead of allowing you to choose your character class, your answers to a series of tricky moral dilemmas determined it for you, as you "were" the character in the game. (In fact, this where "avatar" (as a computer term) comes from.)

The goal of the game is to hone eight ethical virtues; this also led to enormous narrative immersion, especially for a gullible 11-year old: even though the algorithms behind it were laughable in retrospect, at the time it did feel like every action I took was being judged by 64K of pure panopticon. Immersion through guilt!