LACUNAE


People often talk about amazing characterisations, stories, ironies, atmosphere and so on in Infocom games, but when I look at them (and I admit I haven't played many) all I see is perfunctory prose, characterless PCs and long stretches where the player is just manipulating objects and no story is advancing. When people attribute literary interest to such stuff, I've always assumed that rose-tinted glasses are being worn, that the games are being looked at through the improving lenses of nostalgia. Players spent so much time in these games, which excited their childhood imaginations so much, that they believe there is more to them than is actually there. Looked at unsentimentally, set against the best of contemporary IF, I suspect that most of the 80s "classics" would fare rather badly. And if I could somehow remove their rose-tinted specs, I've always suspected that Infocom diehards would agree with me.

But then I happened across a review which made similar claims of literary interest for the recently-released game The Ludicorp Mystery:

"... the [player] character is intended to be a technologist of some sort -- either an employee from a rival company, or a disgruntled fan of Ludicorp's products...."
"What I liked about TLM was the atmosphere, which ranged from being a satire of high-tech firms to completely surreal."
"There are definitely elements of this game I will not forget, and in that sense the author did an excellent job."
"It would be impossible to discuss the storyline in too much depth without giving away the ending."

The reviewer appears to be hallucinating a game that isn't there. I played The Ludicorp Mystery and found a thinly-implemented, barely-written thing with absolutely no atmosphere. The game is a standard office crawl, with the standard lazy-corporate mix of bland workplace environment and half-assed surreality. The player spends essentially all the time wandering around featureless rooms, and the PC is essentially uncharacterised (unless saying "Urrgh!" counts as characterisation). It would indeed be impossible to discuss the storyline in too much depth, because the game does not have a storyline of any depth at all. And as for satire, I'm sorry, but one location called "chocolate room" does not a satire make. There's nothing memorable about the game: I played it yesterday, and had to download it again just now to remember a damn thing about it. (I'll ignore the reviewer's claim that "technically, the game works quite well", when in fact it's a mass of severe parser problems.)

I find it interesting that the reviewer thought some characterisation, story, satire and atmosphere were going on, because The Ludicorp Mystery is a new game and I can't dismiss the review as nostalgia. Instead, I'm reminded of the theory of "lacunae" often propounded by genre fantasy fans, and much beloved of Tolkien. Tolkien would never write "Frodo sat on a low-backed armchair of rustic oak, with a firm seat of woven straw", but instead "Frodo sat on a low and comfortable chair" and would leave the reader to come up with the rest. The idea is that since details are left undescribed or vague, the reader must fill in the gaps (i.e. lacunae) with his imagination. And so, the idea goes, prose with lacunae engages the imagination much more, is much more immersive, and even perhaps more "interactive".

I've always thought this was a crock argument, and still do. In my opinion, gaps in the text remain gaps. At best they're filled in by hazy, intangible, elusive wisps of imagination. If challenged to fill in the gaps, I'm sure most readers either wouldn't be able to, or would spin some ad hoc description after the fact. Indeed, the intended effect of lacunae in genre fiction is most often not to excite the imagination, but to keep it confined to existing templates. As Fighting Fantasy author Paul Mason says of the prose in the series: "'Flowery' language was not liked. The purpose of [Ian Livingstone's lacuna-ridden description of a marsh] was not to 'separate this marsh from any of countless featureless fantasy marshes'... but to invoke those very marshes."

It seems IF fans have taken lacunae to heart, however, and that a key part of the IF experience is filling in the gaps. And so we have this review of The Ludicorp Mystery, where the whole game is one big lacuna that the reviewer has filled in with atmosphere and story. There's nothing in the game's writing, for example, to indicate that the PC is a "disgruntled fan"; the reviewer has spun this out of the detail that the PC is carrying a gun. This is not characterisation through writing, but through props. (As if to characterise someone as intelligent, it's sufficient to give him a pair of glasses.) Maybe a more thoroughly written character, with some details actually filled in, on whom the author had actually expended some imagination, would turn the player off. It would make the game seem less immersive, less interactive, or maybe even too confrontational. It would force the player to square up to someone else's imagination, and leave the safe confines of his own.

Is this part of the enduring appeal of Infocom games? I note that Infocom's publicity made a big deal of encouraging readers to use their imagination, in a manner that would be highly unusual in the advertising for a printed book. "Your imagination makes you part of our stories", they said, and "Infocom's IF stories grow out of your individual imagination". While this no doubt originated as a marketing device to cover for the lack of graphics in Infocom's games, now it looks more like a cover for the inadequacy of their prose. Perhaps unwittingly, this (and similar marketing from other companies) made "filling in the gaps" an essential part of the way to play 80s IF, which latecomers like myself never realised. Maybe, by the standards of the true IF fan, The Ludicorp Mystery is a good game, and I'm the one hallucinating that it isn't.


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