“A conversation is a journey, and what gives it value is fear.” So says Anne Carson.
Exits Are is a series of text adventures conducted by Mike Meginnis published on Mondays and Wednesdays by Artifice Books and Uncanny Valley. So far, adventures from Blake Butler, Tim Dicks, and Matt Bell have gone up, and the list of forthcoming adventures keeps growing (but, at this point, includes Aubrey Hirsch, Nicolle Elizabeth, AD Jameson, Brian Oliu, Elisa Gabbert, and Robert Kloss). The site’s PLAY page has one of the better descriptions of the project I’ve come across: “Note that the games are designed to be occasionally very uncomfortable for both participants. If you’re not up for that, we probably shouldn’t play.”
I was intrigued by the form and the process, and asked Mike a few questions back in January (thus my boring talk of Zelda). He was kind enough to respond.
Gabriel: How do you conduct these? What are the mechanics of producing one of these adventures?
Mike: What happens is I occasionally think of someone who I would like to play a game with. I e-mail them and they make some vague gestures toward one day eventually planning to play. Occasionally one of these games actually happens — I’m on a weekly schedule with a buffer of about a month, so in theory I need this to happen about once a week. We do the games in gchat. I try to explain as little as possible to the players about what’s going to happen, but now that the project is actually going to be published I’m not sure I can maintain that secrecy anymore.
I have a list of “games” that are really just names in an e-mail that I sent myself. Things like “Your Brother Isn’t Talking,” “Don’t Kill Him, Even if He Asks,” and “Incredible Journey Into the Only Body of Famous Mike Meginnis.” (Nobody’s asked to play that one yet. Who knows why!) I let the player choose from a subset of that list and then I use their choice as a starting point. That way we both start out blank. From that point on, the only rule is that I take turns with the player. I default to the mode of traditional text adventures, improvising descriptions and puzzles and so on, and they respond how they respond. Some play it very much as a game; others help me narrate and take more command of the narrative. This takes between two and four hours. A few days or so later, I take the game and massage it just slightly — format it to make it readable, iron out any distracting inconsistencies, and occasionally revise the language (mine and the player’s) to make it read a little prettier.
Hopefully the results read well for other people. I can’t really imagine what it’s like from the inside: the process of collaborating in real time, trying to entertain the player, is so intense and stressful and weirdly intimate that I can’t imagine what it looks like without that experience. Hopefully the reader can feel some of that striving.
Gabriel: Do you think of these adventures as stories or as games or what?
Mike: I have a series of prose-poem-sorta things that I’ve published as short fiction, “flash,” and poetry. In other words I call them what it’s convenient to call them. Personally I think of them as bodies. The name of the collection, which I’m looking to publish, is Some Bodies. It’s probably silly to think of them as their own genre but I do a little. The text adventures are similar. I think of them as text adventures. When I’m making them with the players I think of them as games, and what I publish is really the record of that game. The reader may be able to imagine the experience of playing the game — a reality that might be more immediate for that reader given that I am in fact eager to play games with the project’s readers, too. I think that some of these records succeed as stories from a reader’s perspective, and that some of them probably fail. I’m not sure which of them do which. But they’re all, in any case, text adventures, so that’s how I think of them.
Gabriel: I’ve been playing Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. As Link, you have a stamina gauge; running, climbing, picking up heavy stuff, and executing certain attacks all expend “stamina” (I am constantly being reminded of male enhancement by this game, searching for a treasure chest that looks like a 7-11 counter display). Your stamina replenishes itself automatically if you don’t do anything too strenuous for a little while, but if you keep running or have to climb something really tall, eventually you get winded and Link moves really slow and can’t attack or defend at all for twenty seconds or so. When I first played the game, this seemed really intuitive and I liked the idea of it (not at all original to the game, I know, but still a nice touch); it seemed more “realistic,” and it added a level of challenge to the game– it’s a limit, a constraint, and those are good when they’re carefully thought out by the designers. But as the game goes on, Link’s weapons and defenses all get more sophisticated and powerful and his stamina never changes. Which led me to wonder why it didn’t. I think it’s that, if it did, there would also have to be some sort of in-story challenge testing that raised level of stamina, yet another task for the game’s designers to anticipate and incorporate. It would also make a number of the challenges already in place too easy to complete. Were you conscious of something analogous when creating these adventures? Conscious, that is, both of the possible avenues branching off from the small set of details that your “player” is presented at the beginning (his or her “attributes” as it were), and of your player as an entity with certain constraints/behaviors/abilities inbuilt?
Mike: The main limitation the players have is the same one I do: there’s a sort of time limit imposed by the need to keep the other person entertained. They don’t have enough time to really game out what could potentially happen because the format of the game implies that they’ll be sending brief messages, usually (I’m responsible for a lot more text than they are, since I take the position of the “game”) and so they feel, I think, a pressure to work quickly. I mainly depend on that to keep them from doing anything that I can’t handle. One exception was Matt Bell, who was pretty comfortable making me wait as long as I made him wait in order to write something a little more deliberate and contribute a greater amount of text. That game was really interesting and intense. I changed my whole approach to fit with what he was doing and as a result I think we got something cool. But so the stamina bar in the text adventures is basically our sense of responsibility to the game and to each other, and our shared, unspoken sense of the rules of the collaboration, which have to be negotiated freshly every time I play with someone new.
The other thing I do in every game is that I create circumstances at the outset of the game that will provide the player with an obvious goal (not necessarily the right goal — a lot of players ignore it — just something obvious that they can use as a goal if they’re not sure what to do) as well as several provocative objects that they can fixate on if they want. In the game with Matt, for instance, the title was “Interrogate Your Family,” and it started with the player character in a room with his brother bound to a table. The player character also had an “implement of torment.” So there was one obvious direction to take. There was some other stuff in the room, including a bunch of perfumes in differently shaped glass bottles, which grabbed Matt’s interest pretty quickly. In a recent game with Elisa Gabbert, the game was called “The Phone Rings.” It started in a cave with a phone in front of the player character. The cave was also slowly filling with water. This gave her two things to deal with: the phone, which began to ring soon thereafter, and the possibility of drowning. Whenever either of us wasn’t sure what to do, we could return to the phone or the water and things would definitely advance in some way. These little hooks help to hold everything together and allow the player to feel a bit of gentle guidance, which I think most of them want.
Gabriel: Early computer games were text-based adventures, of course, but there are also similarities to older technologies in this project: I think specifically of the cardboard screens, many-sided dice, and imagination of traditional RPGs, like Dungeons & Dragons. Were you a gamer? How did you come to conceive of this project or where/how did it start?
Mike: I played Dungeons & Dragons for a couple years in college before I had a falling out with the people I played with. For a while we played every Saturday, five or six hours, late into the night. When it got to be too much for our DM, I started running a series of games that featured as its villain a big giant pile of interdimensional trash that had, by virtue of its complexity, become sentient. (This was partly an excuse to give my players random items that amused me: at one point we had a night elf would-be necromancer running around with a poncho and a ray gun.) I wasn’t great with the rules but I was good at letting the players take control of the story. I think one of the things about writing fiction is that you become aware of how thin it is most of the time. The manipulations are right out there for anyone to see, but readers don’t look too hard unless you want them to because they came to get manipulated. They want to play along. I had faith in that as a DM and so I was very comfortable letting the story do what it wanted to do. Nothing ever went according to my plan. It was chaotic and fun. A lot of the approach I bring to the text adventures comes from that experience, and from the guy who taught me how to DM. It plays a lot like D&D without dice or any sort of combat.
The other big inspiration for the format is Sleep is Death, a game by Jason Rohrer, the independent game developer who might be best known for his game Passage. In Sleep is Death, you have a story teller and a player who interact through a game-like interface to collaboratively tell a story. The person who’s telling the story makes art and maybe even music in advance, trying to sort of predict how things will go, and then the player can move his character around in the environment and write dialogue, say what he wants to do, etc. A custom time-limit (which defaults to way too little time) keeps both participants on their toes. The game is good. I think it has some real issues and limitations, but the idea of using multiplayer as a solution to the limitations of games as a means of storytelling is really brilliant and inspired. The idea of the text adventures and the implementation owes a lot to Rohrer.
But really it comes down to the fact that I wanted to do a text adventure for years, but it would take so much time to do a good one and the results would still be disappointing and maybe played by several dozen people. I can play with just as many people in less time, have more satisfying experiences, and then share the results with a lot more people this way. Traditional text adventures have always been so dull in comparison to what I wanted them to be. They only use language in the one way. That way can be pretty fun! At its best, it’s really mysterious and strange. But a lot of the time it’s just clunky and tedious.
Gabriel: These look like dialogues on the page; there’s you, “Mike,” and then there’s the player (“Tim,” “Matt,” “Blake,” etc.), and you seem to be responding to each other, even when the response is actually a command. I think one of the things that I like most in these is the weird tension they have as a result — it sometimes feels like you’re unwilling to allow your “players” to do something not because it isn’t part of the game, but because you know that it would result in a boring outcome. How do you see yourself during your exchanges with your players?
Mike: When I was in college one of my creative writing teachers told me to think of myself as an entertainer. I found it really liberating. When I’m writing a story or a novel, my goal is to create a really fun, exciting experience. I have a lot of anxiety when I write about this, though: I’m constantly trying to one-up myself for the reader’s entertainment. Sometimes this gets counterproductive and I can be overbearing about it. Sometimes I get blocked because I’m so worried about entertaining the reader. That same anxiety fuels my work in the text adventures. I try to act as a co-author and collaborator, but some writers are more comfortable acting as equals in this situation than others, and I’m the one who got us into the mess in the first place, so ultimately I feel responsible for the player’s experience. And I’ll twist things and cheat a little here and there in order to produce a better experience, certainly. The fear of boring someone who’s right there with you, waiting to see what you make in real time, does the opposite of blocking you: it makes you practical and sharp, I think.
It’s ultimately the sort of experience I want to have with my novels. I want to make fun and entertaining experiences where the reader has as much agency as I can give them. I want to think of myself and the reader as players making something together. The text adventures are nice because it’s a lot easier to reach that place.