Always a pleasure.
Hounds & Heroes: Control, Closure, and Exploration in Games
Games fetishize heroes.
Traditionally, games devote their attention to the Hero and the details of their epic quest. We players, bloodhounds slavering for plot, fixate on this Hero. We tear into them, inhabit them, and through their agency, we exert change on an authored world.
Killing is often involved. (The bloodhound metaphor still holds.)
“No matter how dissimilar one image may be to another, there is a kind of alchemy at work in the space between panels which can help us find meaning and resonance in even the most jarring combinations. Such transitions may not make ‘sense’ in any traditional way, but still a relationship of some sort will inevitably develop. By creating a sequence with two or more images, we are endowing them with a single overriding identity, and forcing the viewer to consider them as a whole.” 
The linear juxtaposition of images forces us to assign meaning to this juxtaposition, a meaning that is greater than the sum of the individual images.
While McCloud is talking about images on the page of a comic book, it isn’t hard to make the conceptual leap to images in your imagination. Because humans operate in linear time, our stories are consumed in a specific linear order. Be they spurred by the interpersonal storytelling of a tabletop RPG or the prose of a piece of interactive fiction, the linear juxtaposition of images forces us to assign meaning to this juxtaposition, a meaning that is greater than the sum of the individual images.
Interactive fiction, in its various forms, can uniquely take advantage of this fact. By allowing players to determine which portions of the story to consume, interactive fiction assigns an alchemy of meaning unique to each player, informed by their choices (or perceived choices, as I mentioned in my last essay ).
Rather than tell a singular hero’s journey along a predefined path, the branches and detours of a piece of interactive fiction allow for a more meandering, exploratory experience.
Interactive fiction offers to players a rich means of exploring a world. Rather than tell a singular hero’s journey along a predefined path, the branches and detours of a piece of interactive fiction allow for a more meandering, exploratory experience, where the setting, the side characters, and the environments take center stage. Stories are often told through their environments, after all .
Not all these paths need be fully mapped. McCloud also talks about “closure” or the mind’s ability to fill in the gaps of a story, even when the eyes cannot see it . Allowing players to come to their own conclusions, to create their own links between parts of the story is its own alchemy. In order to make sense of two elements juxtaposed in a “jarring combination,” the mind must build a bridge spanning the occluded areas and be forced to create story where none is visible. Reading such a piece of interactive fiction, thus, becomes an even more creative act.
With the growing ubiquity of game design tools, especially in interactive fiction, I’m heartened by the unconventional stories independent designers are telling. Rather than tales of bloodshed and conquest, we’re seeing more games that make use of these affordances that interactive fiction gives us to create stories of wonder and exploration, of learning about others worlds and other people. Hounds no longer, we metamorphose into bees, into birds, into graceful, flying things that soar to the upper atmosphere of human imagination, and then out further still.
 L. Simpson, A Companion’s Tale, Sweet Potato Press, 2018.
 S. McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.
 S. Biswas, “Rituals, Cheating, and The Dream of Possibility,” sub-Q, February 2019.
 C. G. J. C. O. W. Alexis Kennedy, Fallen London, Failbetter Games, 2009.
 S. Biswas, “Videogames and Art of Spatial Storytelling,” Kill Screen, 1 March 2016.
Sharang Biswas is an award-winning game designer, an internationally exhibited artist, and a published writer based in New York. He has exhibited work at numerous museums, galleries, and art fairs including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and the Toronto Reference Library. He has designed curricula for the Museum of the Moving Image, created learning games for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and written about games, interactivity, and culture for publications including Kill Screen, Sub Q, ZAM and First-Person Scholar. His two food-based games, “Feast” and “Verdure”, have garnered numerous accolades, including an IndieCade Award and and IGDN Indie Groundbreaker Award. Sharang has lectured or taught courses on game design at various universities and cultural institutions including Dartmouth, Columbia Teacher’s College, New York University, The International Center of Photography, and the Museum of the Moving Image, as well as spoken at conferences such as Game Devs of Color, GaymerX, Living Games, IndieCade and Boston FIG Talks.
Sharang holds a bachelor’s in Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering from Dartmouth College and a master’s in Interactive Design from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He is the Experience Designer for The Medici Group, a consulting firm focusing on diversity and innovation.