Carl McKinney argues that Jeremy Douglass’s analysis of Shade suggests a presence/absence dynamic useful for understanding interactive fiction in general.
Patterns and Shade
Patterns and Shade
Jeremy Douglass draws our attention to the (sometimes) subtle play of light and dark in Andrew Plotkin’s Shade, and thus to the dynamics of presence and absence that structure our experience of the narrative that unfolds as we play not only Shade, but other interactive fictions as well. It is possible to extend this perceptive frame from the specificity of IF to a general understanding of interaction with many other types of computer games in which play involves discovery - the making present of what was absent, the (sometimes metaphorical) shedding of light onto darkness. We could generalize even further and notice that many of our life pursuits are structured within a dialectic of absence and presence: lack or loss leads to search and discovery, and longing - desire - is the motive and motor that sets in motion the synthesis of making present. Of course presence, defined as inclusion in either our gameworlds or our lifeworlds, always inscribes the outlines of exclusion, and thus makes present as virtual potential all that is absent, regenerating the desire that drives the endless quest of/for discovery.
But as Douglass points out, all is not as it seems. The process of discovery that moves the narrative of Shade is not so much the making present of that which is absent as the realization that what is apparently present is actually absent. Playing Shade is the working through of an illusion in which you, as the player, discover who you are, where you are, and how you got to be there. The play of light and dark - a mainstay in the interactive unfolding of IF narratives that undergirds character agency in the gameworld - is subverted in Shade. Rather than enacting agency through shedding light, light is here unavoidable, a harsh glare that at first traps you within the illusion of your apartment, and then kills you in the reality of the desert. Spatially constrained by a subjectivity constructed in antithesis to darkness (“what light you have would just leak out into the night,” “you have no desire to look night in the face,” “you do not want the dark”), your agency - to the extent that it exists - is reduced to pacing your apartment and fumbling with the scant objects at hand.
Just as Shade subverts the dialectic of light and dark that structures the agency of discovery, it also subverts the dialectic of absence and presence. Agency does not merely shift from a process of making present to a process of making absent - after all, nothing the player does specifically dispels the illusion - but rather agency is temporalized. On the one hand, this means that playing Shade is to some extent a matter of waiting for one’s inevitable destiny. Only the passage of time - marked by the taking of turns - allows certain changes to take place in the game state. On the other hand, this means that Shade is not so much about presence and absence as it is about pattern recognition. The discovery of space through agentic player-character interaction - making present - is overshadowed by the discovery of the character’s subjectivity through the temporal discernment of patterns.
More specifically, the player-character’s subjectivity is constituted through a limited set of actions that only trigger changes in the game state synchronously with the passage of time - changes which are revealed through events that unfold within a pattern/random dialectic. In Shade, the motor that moves the narrative forward is - rather than the desire to make present what is absent - the need to distinguish patterns from randomness. The sand that slowly subsumes your apartment, the hyacinth that morphs into a cactus - these are crucial clues that structure the arc of narrative tension in which the character’s identity, location, and backstory emerge; and key to the “slow reveal” in which narrative tension is built is the dawning recognition of patterns from what might have initially been random events. On first pass, the sand might be something previously overlooked; but over time - not in response to a particular player interaction but along a timeline structured by any interaction (a frustrating form of agency indeed) - it begins to pile up. Similarly, on looking around your apartment yet again for any sort of overlooked clue, do you remember that the spider plant was once a hyacinth? Certainly when it becomes a palm you begin to see the pattern. Unraveling the illusion of presence and discovering the player-character’s story requires recognizing these events as not only nonrandom but also as hinged on your temporal agency and then playing through the patterns these events establish. The motivation that drives the player through the narrative of Shade is not the discovery of objects in space - making present - but the discovery of information coded within patterns that unfold in time.
I opened with a generalizing move from the presence/absence dialectic suggested by the play of light and dark in Shade to the psychoanalytics of desire emerging in our lifeworlds within this dialectic. A similar move may be made within the dialectic of pattern/random, where desire is constituted not by lack, but rather by randomness, which drives the search for information in patterns of events. The key shift I want to highlight between these two moves is from object to event, from space to time. Not that one does away with the other, but rather, that their underlying dialectics are intertwined. Presence and absence - objects in space - are only important to the extent that they constitute events (in time) and thus allow for patterns to emerge within randomness. The pattern/random dialectic that structures information, conversely, requires presence and absence as a material substrate for its articulation.
To make this less abstract, imagine you are in your apartment (you might want to keep an eye on that potted plant). You have lost your keys. They are, ostensibly, absent, and you desire to make them present. But what you really want is information - where are they? At a deeper level, the materiality of the keys is not what you want either - you need the information encoded in them, the patterns that allow them to mesh with the patterns encoded in the lock of your car, your office, and your apartment door. The keys are the material substrate for the articulation of information within patterns of presence and absence (the notches and grooves cut in the keys); but also, their absence is an event articulated within a pattern that forms the superstructural information of their presence.
You may assume that their loss has not been articulated by randomness, and thus attempt to locate them informationally within a pattern of events, i.e., to reconstruct the logic leading to their loss - “I walked in the door,” “I took the bags to the kitchen,” etc. Eventually, either through successful reconstruction of this logic, or through the brute force of a thorough ransacking, you find your keys… in the freezer. “Hmm,” you say, “I must have left them there when I put the ice cream away.”
In Shade you face a similar circumstance with the misplaced plane tickets. What you seek is information - where are the tickets? But also, what can the tickets tell you about the story, your story, you? Here, your subjectivity is constituted around not knowing yourself, and thus memory cannot aid you in reconstructing the logic leading to the loss of the tickets. Hence you ransack the apartment, not only familiarizing yourself with it, but also creating an affective bridge of frustration between you, the player, who is already familiar with this type of loss from such lifeworld events as misplacing your keys, and the subjectivity of the character, which is largely shaped by a lack of information. Experiencing Shade, then, is not just interacting with an unfolding narrative, but rather coming to occupy through such affective affinities an unfolding subjectivity shaped largely by the pursuit of information through patterns of events.
What is interesting, and what Douglass points out, is that the plane tickets are not hidden randomly. They specifically occupy the third appropriate place you look. Moreover, this is not apparent to the first-time player. For all you know - if you have never played before or never encountered a spoiler such as this or Douglass’s article - the location of the tickets could be random - not only in space but also in time, as they may well turn up somewhere you’ve already looked. Douglass focuses on the breach of contract between player and game this mechanic suggests, which opens a “gap between vision and the world” - further disrupting your sense of presence - but I would like to suggest how interaction with this game mechanic reflects on the example of your lost keys.
Discovering the pattern behind the location of the tickets requires a move outside the diegetic space of the game - either the encounter with a spoiler, or replay, which is necessarily extra-diegetic in that the player brings in information from a previous interaction with the game. Understanding the appearance of the tickets as nonrandom, and thus discovering the information behind the event of their “becoming present” necessitates stepping out of the system that is the gameworld of Shade so that you can reflect on how it functions. Likewise, understanding how your keys got into the freezer requires that you step back from some of the systems of your lifeworld - the many rote procedures that structure your daily existence, such as walking in the door, taking the bags into the kitchen, etc. - and reflect on how they function. The information that you seek is caught up in patterns that are not always apparent within the systems that you occupy. Focusing on presence and absence often obscures the dialectic of pattern and random structuring the information needed to make the absent present.
And just as player-character subjectivity is shaped by the affordances of the gameworld’s underlying system, we can think of how subjectivity in our lifeworlds is shaped by the systems that structure our everyday experiences. It is precisely at moments of loss or lack - absence - that we are driven to reflect on these systems, to attempt to recover presence by seeking information in the temporal unfolding of patterns. What may have seemed random within the systems in which we were operating - putting keys in the freezer - only makes sense when we extricate ourselves from these systems, when we pry our subjectivity from their spatial logics (“Where are my keys?”) through a temporal agency that shifts desire into the dialectic of information where we can move from randomness to pattern and thus discover what we need to know.
And so, by not only playing games, but by also analyzing the underlying mechanics of gameworlds’ systems that structure our interactions and thus shape a subject position within an unfolding narrative, we can gain insight into our lifeworld interactions, narratives, and subjectivities as deriving from a complex play of the intertwined dialectics of presence/absence and pattern/random.
[NB: Mad props to Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999).]
On the social context for endless exploration in game narratives, see Jan Van Looy, who suggests that endless, inconsequential “discovery” could be an end in itself, consistent with a culture of flexible work and endless capital accumulation.