Rebooting Electronic Literature: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

Traversal of Thomas M. Disch's "AMNESIA"

This live stream Traversal of Thomas M. Disch's' "AMNESIA" took place on Friday, January 26, 2018 at in the Electronic Literature Lab. It was performed by Trevor Dodge, faculty in the Creative Media & Digital Culture program at Washington State University Vancouver. The Traversal documentation includes four video clips of the performance itself along with introductory comments and the question and answer session with the audience that followed the performance. For the performance we used the Apple IIe and a copy of the 5.25-inch floppy disk from Grigar's collection. Handling the technical setup on YouTube was Greg Philbrook, the Creative Media & Digital Culture program's technical and instructional assistant. All four research assistants––Vanessa Rhodes, Mariah Gwin, Veronica Whitney, and Katie Bowen––oversaw the social media engagement and photographed the event.

Traversal of Thomas M. Disch's "AMNESIA," Introduction

The traversal of Thomas M. Disch's "AMNESIA" was performed in ELL (the electronic literature lab) on the campus of Washington State University Vancouver on Friday January 26th 2018. The traversal was live-streamed on YouTube using the Pathfinders eLit channel. Audiences participated in the traversal and the following question and answer session using YouTube chat, Twitter, Facebook, and in person in the audience gathered in ELL. Before Dene Grigar introduced the day's work and Trevor Dodge led us through the traversal, the audience, both those participating in ELL and remotely through social media accounts, took in the pre-show soundscape. The soundscape was created by Dr. John Barber.

Traversal of Thomas M. Disch's AMNESIA, Part 1
ELL Lab director Dr. Dene Grigar introduced the live traversal of Thomas M. Disch’s adventure game Amnesia. She thanks our sponsors: WSU Vancouver, and WSU’s Louis G. and Stella E. Buchanon Distinguished Professorship, and the Electronic Literature Organization. Grigar goes on to define the Traversal methodology and to give the historical and technological contexts for Amnesia. She also explains some of the steps the ELL production staff have taken to capture video from  the screen of the Apple IIe computer used for the traversal. The Rebooting Electronic Literature book project is explained along with our method of capturing the traversal video, social media, photographs, and conversations. ELL staff are acknowledged, these staff are: Nicholas Schiller, associate director of ELL; Greg Philbrook, instructional and technology support specialist; Vanessa Rhodes, elit research assistant; Veronica Whitney, e-lit catalog content specialist; Mariah Gwin, games research assistant; Katie Bowen, document specialist. Author Sarah Smith, who provided the copy of Amnesia used in the traversal (and the recommendation to traverse Amnesia for this series) is thanked as well as today’s performer, Professor Trevor Dodge.
Trevor Dodge now begins his traversal. He begins by booting the game up and also by displaying the software packaging to the camera. In addition to maps and materials to guide the player through the fictional city of the game, the packaging also includes a list of verbs the player can use to interact with the text of the story. The Apple II version of the game comes on two five and quarter inch floppy disks, both of which have data on both sides. The production credits for the creators of the software are included in a statement from Electronic Arts, which Dodge reads. Continuing his examination of the packaging, Dodge points out that images of males dominate the coverage and notes that Disch’s perspective as a gay man is reflected in the text.
“You wake up feeling wonderful.” The opening words of the text start the traversal. Several screens of text provide background context to the player.

Traversal of Thomas M. Disch's AMNESIA, Part 2

Dodge begins with an explanation of his standard method for navigating text-based adventure games. He looks around his environment, checks his inventory, and explores the interface options. Dodge notes that the game’s text descriptions serve to answer the question of who are you? He then goes through the process of giving the game a physical description of his male (the only option) body. The game offers him back a different image of the character in the mirror than the description provided by Dodge. Dodge notes that the language in the descriptions, especially the adverbs, is rich.
The traversal continues with a exploration of the hotel room and its contents, which includes a computer, which raises the question: “have computers become standard equipment for hotel rooms in the same way that TVs are?” Dodge comments that the presence of the computer in the game (the same model of computer the player in the world is using to experience the game) introduces a metafictional element.
The narrative of the game presents Dodge with a first puzzle: there is a knock at the door, but the character in the game is not dressed. Dodge explores his environment and his inventory to solve this problem. Thus the narrative of the game is commenced. Dodge notes that he will use a pen and paper to take notes as he plays the game. In these early stages the character’s name, or a least a name is learned and Dodge interacts with several members of the hotel’s staff.

Traversal of Thomas M. Disch's AMNESIA, Part 3

The narrative continues as Dodge directs his character out of the hotel room (after tipping the bellhop) and explores the surrounding environment. In his attempts to explore the hotel and add items to his inventory, the game gives Dodge a series of failure messages. He cannot conceive of the use for the items he attempts to pick up. He cannot possibly take the maid’s trolley. Other attempts to interact with the game world prompt him to reword his requests, so Dodge refers to the list of acceptable verbs that came packaged with the game. The list gives several intriguing possibilities, which Dodge explores. Next he spends several minutes pursuing several iterations of navigational techniques. In the process the learns more about the lexicon and navigational system of the game. In the process his character finds his way to the hotel’s health club. Dodge finds parallels between Disch’s descriptions of the run-down hotel pool and health club to a short story by David Foster Wallace, Forever Overhead. Both describe signs or lettering where letters have fallen off, leaving partial remnants of words.
As Dodge explores the environment, he repeats many of the techniques used earlier. He looks around, he takes items, he checks his inventory. He is able to open a door and enter the health club, at which point he is prompted to flip the disk over. Dodge notes that physically interacting with the disk is a satisfying experience. The other side of the disk continues Amnesia’s narrative and soon Dodge’s character has a moment of DEJA-VU, where the lost memories of his past supplant the game-world’s present. Dodge comments on Disch’s text’s descriptions and laments that contemporary game text-objects are often not written to this same standard.

Traversal of Thomas M. Disch's AMNESIA, Part 4

This section of the traversal video takes us away from the earlier New York hotel environment and the player is caught up in a memory of time in a prison cell. In this memory, the player is addressed by a different name and the person addressing him, a prison guard, speaks with a Texas twang. Dodge notes the new setting and again sets about to explore and learn about this new environment. In this memory, the player is not able explore using the commands that worked previously. Dodge has his player go to sleep and the game takes him back to the previous setting. He is left wondering if the prison sequence was a memory or a waking nightmare.
This section of the game is full of exposition. Dodge notices the word choice and vocabulary used to describe the environment. In the story, the player wakes to learn that he has passed out in the health-club’s sauna and has been rescued by hotel employees. He is recognized and his clothing is returned to him. Dodge uses his repertoire of adventure game techniques to explore this area, but the narrative restricts his choice at this point and the story returns him to the hotel room. At this point the traversal ends and we move on to the question and answer portion of the traversal event.

Traversal of Thomas M. Disch's AMNESIA, Q&A, Part 1
Grigar now announces the shift to the question and answer portion of the traversal. She notes that acclaimed eLit author Sarah Smith is participating in the YouTube chat, and Dodge thanks her for donating the copy of AMNESIA that is being used in the traversal. Grigar and Dodge note that the donated copy is in pristine condition and begin to examine it more closely. Grigar notes that the map of 1986 Manhattan is very detailed while Dodge notes that there is a copy protection device in the packaging. In this case it is a wheel, similar to a secret-decoder-ring, used to generate information that only legitimate game owners would have access to. Grigar notes that the packaging is all branded as the Sunderland Hotel, the in-game setting. Dodge & Grigar note that this attention to detail is a kind of world-building. Placing artifacts from the game world in the hands of a player adds to the player’s immersion in the game world.
Dodge shifts the conversation to the fixity of the gender roles in the game. The character in the story is male and all of the details that lead to the world-building and immersion discussed previously hinge on the player performing the male gender while playing the game. Dodge points out that the out-sized reward, in terms of points awarded by the game, is for fulfilling societally approved gender-roles. He also points out that Disch himself was a gay man who lived with a partner and does not fit into these same socially approved roles. Grigar notes that the marriage ending of the game was a shot-gun wedding and not consensual. This ending is compared to other paths that end in dire results for sexually-linked or nudity-linked player choices.

Traversal of Thomas M. Disch's AMNESIA, Q&A, Part 2
The second question and answer segments opens with a comment and question from Sarah Smith through YouTube. She comments that the only way to win is to be morally courageous, which is difficult to do. Smith then asks if Dodge or Grigar have had a chance to read Disch’s programming notes to see more about his intentionality. Grigar comments that these notes are the source of much of the content tweeted or sent through Facebook during the course of the traversal. Grigar then focuses on the subject of moral bravery, noting that a hero has agons (struggles or contests) and the more agons the encountered, the more heroic they are. In this game, failure is possible (likely) and not every play through is heroic. Dodge extends the conversation here to include how Amnesia’s plot revolves around discovering who the character is and how the game interrupts this from time to time, limiting the player’s agency. Grigar builds on this with a reference to Nick Monfort’s book Twisty Little Passages, noting that Amnesia is an attempt to create a work that is both novel and interactive fiction. Some have criticized Amnesia for being too much of a novel and not enough of a game, but Grigar counters that Amnesia’s success as a novel, especially in the richness of its descriptions, is a factor that sets it apart from other works of interactive fiction.
Dodge returns the conversation to Smith’s comment that success in Amnesia requires moral bravery and compares this with contemporary games such as games made by Bethesda Softworks. Amnesia is a game that has a path for the player to follow, if the player strays from the path, the game is over. This is contrasted with open-world games, where a spectrum of choices and behaviors are allowed, Dodge posits that Amnesia sends the player on a linear path because Disch chose this rhetorical style. Grigar follows this up with comments about the cost of failure in the narrative, noting that choices can send the player to Catholic purgatory or hell from Greek mythology.
At this point the conversation shifts from the game to the hardware the game is playing on, the Apple IIe. Grigar notes that the IIe was the longest produced Apple computer and Dodge shared story about explaining 1980s era computing to his son. He notes that the IIe is a single-use device. The user can only run one program at a time, unlike contemporary phones or computers. Additionally, physically interacting with the computer, changing floppy disks or interacting with the documentation provides a material or physical relationship with the software. Grigar notes that as our software purchases become digital, as in purchasing a game through Steam, we are losing this physicality in our interactions with digital art and this is a significant thing. This section closes with Dodge connecting this loss of physicality with the game’s introduction where the player is asked to describe their physical body and is told they are wrong.

Traversal of Thomas M. Disch's AMNESIA, Q&A, Part 3 
A comment is raised from the ELL audience about humor in the writing and Disch’s digs at himself. It is noted that at one point the character finds scraps of writing and comments: “Oh G*d, I hope I’m not a poet.” It is noted that the text is rife with self-referential comments, yet Amnesia was marketed, not to a literary set, but to the video game set and that there is some dissonance there. Grigar notes that Amnesia was reviewed in a gaming magazine, the advertisements and tone of the magazine revealed a younger audience, and the reviewers were clear that Amnesia is not a story for children. Continuing on this thread, Dodge and Grigar discuss the adult orientation of the story. There are sexual and violent scenes, but also situations that are tailored to an adult with disposable income and a lot of time to spare to explore the game world. Dodge takes this thought and turns it to the historical juncture that Amnesia was published in. It came after the Atari bust and just as Nintendo’s 8-bit system was having an impact. Computer games were becoming important, but were largely considered to be toys for children. This makes Amnesia, a novel-like game full of adult oriented content somewhat problematic in that context. In the early days of personal computing Dodge notes that computers had not yet been determined as office, home, or gaming devices. Grigar now closes the traversal, thanking the audience, thanking Sarah Smith for the donation, and announcing that the first chapter of this Scalar digital book has been released to the public.

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