The Maze and the Other in Interactive Fiction

Albayzin from Alhambra

I’m spending July in Cádiz, Spain, with my family and a bunch of students from Davidson College. The other weekend we visited Granada, home of the Alhambra. Built by the last Arabic dynasty on the Iberian peninsula in the 13th century, the Alhambra is a stunning palace overlooking the city below. The city of Granada itself—like several other cities in Spain—is a palimpsest of Islamic, Jewish, and Christian art, culture, and architecture.

Take the streets of Granada. In the Albayzín neighborhood the cobblestone streets are winding, narrow alleys, branching off from each other at odd angles. Even though I’ve wandered Granada several times over the past decade, it’s easy to get lost in these serpentine streets. The photograph above (Flickr source) of the Albayzín, shot from the Alhambra, can barely reveal the maze that these medieval Muslim streets form. The Albayzín is a marked contrast to the layout of historically Christian cities in Spain. Influenced by Roman design, a typical Spanish city features a central square—the Plaza Mayor—from which streets extend out at right angles toward the cardinal points of the compass. Whereas the Muslim streets are winding and organic, the Christian streets are neat and angular. It’s the difference between a labyrinth and a grid.

It just so happened that on our long bus ride to Granada I finished playing Anchorhead, Michael Gentry’s monumental work of interactive fiction (IF) from 1998. Even if you’ve never played IF, you likely recognize it when you see it, thanks to the ongoing hybridization of geek culture with pop culture. Entirely text-based, these story-games present puzzles and narrative situations that you traverse through typed commands, like GO NORTH, GET LAMP, OPEN JEWELED BOX, etc. As for Anchorhead, it’s a Lovecraftian horror with cosmic entities, incestual families, and the requisite insane asylum. Anchorhead also includes a mainstay of early interactive fiction: a maze.

Two of them in fact.

It’s difficult to overstate the role of mazes in interactive fiction. Will Crowther and Don Woods’ Adventure (or Colossal Cave) was the first work of IF in the mid-seventies. It also had the first maze, a “maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” Later on Zork would have a maze, and so would many other games, including Anchorhead. Mazes are so emblematic of interactive fiction that the first scholarly book on the subject references Adventure‘s maze in its title: Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (MIT Press, 2003). Mazes are also singled out in the manual for Inform 7, a high level programming language used to create many contemporary works of interactive fiction. As the official Inform 7 “recipe book” puts it, “Many old-school IF puzzles involve journeys through the map which are confused, randomised or otherwise frustrated.” Mazes are now considered passé in contemporary IF, but only because they were used for years to convey a sense of disorientation and anxiety.

And so, there I was in Granada having just played one of the most acclaimed works of interactive fiction ever. It occurred to me then, among the twisty little passages of Granada, that a relationship exists between the labyrinthine alleys of the Albayzín and the way interactive fiction has used mazes.

See, the usual way of navigating interactive fiction is to use cardinal directions. GO WEST. SOUTHEAST. OPEN THE NORTH DOOR. The eight points of the compass rose is an IF convention that, like mazes, goes all the way back to Colossal Cave. The Inform 7 manual briefly acknowledges this convention in its section on rooms:

In real life, people are seldom conscious of their compass bearing when walking around buildings, but it makes a concise and unconfusing way for the player to say where to go next, so is generally accepted as a convention of the genre.

Let’s dig into this convention a bit. Occasionally, it’s been challenged (Aaron Reed’s Blue Lacuna comes to mind), but for the most part, navigating interactive fiction with cardinal directions is simply what you expect to do. It’s essentially a grid system that helps players mentally map the game’s narrative spaces. Witness my own map of Anchorhead, literally drawn on graph paper as I played the game (okay, I drew it on OneNote on an iPad, but you get the idea):

My partial map of Anchorhead, drawn by hand
My partial map of Anchorhead, drawn by hand

And when IF wants to confuse, frustrate, or disorient players, along comes the maze. Labyrinths, the kind evoked by the streets of the Albayzín, defy the grid system of Western logic. Mazes in interactive fiction are defined by the very breakdown of the compass. Direction don’t work anymore. The maze evokes otherness by defying rationality.

When the grid/maze dichotomy of interactive fiction is mapped onto actual history—say the city of Granada—something interesting happens. You start to see the the narrative trope of the maze as an essentially Orientalist move. I’m using “Orientalist” here in the way Edward Said uses it, a name for discourse about the Middle East that mysticizes yet disempowers the culture and its people. As Said describes it, Orientalism is part of a larger project of dominating that culture and its people. Orientalist tropes of the Middle East include ahistorical images that present an exotic, irrational counterpart to the supposed logic of European modernity. In an article in the European Journal of Cultural Studies about the representation of Arabs in videogames, Vít Ŝisler provides a quick list of such tropes. They include “motifs such as headscarves, turbans, scimitars, tiles and camels, character concepts such as caliphs, Bedouins, djinns, belly dancers and Oriental topoi such as deserts, minarets, bazaars and harems.” In nearly every case, for white American and European audiences these tropes provide a shorthand for an alien other.

My argument is this:

  1. Interactive fiction relies on a Christian-influenced, Western European-centric sense of space. Grid-like, organized, navigable. Mappable. In a word, knowable.
  2. Occasionally, to evoke the irrational, the unmappable, the unknowable, interactive fiction employs mazes. The connection of these textual mazes to the labyrinthine Middle Eastern bazaar that appears in, say Raiders of the Lost Ark, is unacknowledged and usually unintentional.
  3. We cannot truly understand the role that mazes play vis-à-vis the usual Cartesian grid in interactive fiction unless we also understand the interplay between these dissimilar ways of organizing spaces in real life, which are bound up in social, cultural, and historical conflict. In particular, the West has valorized the rigid grid while looking with disdain upon organic irregularity.

Notwithstanding exceptions like Lisa Nakamura and Zeynep Tufekci, scholars of digital media in the U.S. and Europe have done a poor job looking beyond their own doorsteps for understanding digital culture. Case in point: the “Maze” chapter of 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 (MIT Press, 2012), where my co-authors and I address the significance of mazes, both in and outside of computing, with nary a mention of non-Western or non-Christian labyrinths. In hindsight, I see the Western-centric perspective of this chapter (and others) as a real flaw of the book.

I don’t know why I didn’t know at the time about Laura Marks’ Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art (MIT Press, 2010). Marks doesn’t talk about mazes per se, but you can imagine the labyrinths of Albayzín or the endless maze design generated by the 10 PRINT program as living enactments of what Marks calls “enfoldment.” Marks sees enfoldment as a dominant feature of Islamic art and describes it as the way image, information, and the infinite “enfold each other and unfold from one another.” Essentially, image gives way to information which in turn is an index (an impossible one though) to infinity itself. Marks argues that this dynamic of enfoldment is alive and well in algorithmic digital art.

With Marks, Granada, and interactive fiction on my mind, I have a series of questions. What happens when we shift our understanding of mazes from non-Cartesian spaces meant to confound players to transcendental expressions of infinity? What happens when we break the convention in interactive fiction by which grids are privileged over mazes? What happens when we recognize that even with something as non-essential to political power as a text-based game, the underlying procedural system reinscribes a model that values one valid way of seeing the world over another, equally valid way of seeing the world?

Header Image: Anh Dinh, “Albayzin from Alhambra” on Flickr (August 10, 2013). Creative Commons BY-NC license.

“Africanization” Disappears from NYT Headline

I’ve written before about the way Africa still functions for the news media as a “dark continent” of primitive savagery. So what a sad gift this headline was the other day in the New York Times: “Warming Leads to Water Shortage and ‘Africanization’ of Spain.”

I was getting all psyched up to write about this new symbolic use of Africa — intended by the article as a metonym for desertification, but suggestive of a whole host of fears of the foreign Other, such as the dangerous continent of Africa invading the shores of Spain, the gateway to Europe and Western Civilization — when I went to reread the article and discovered…the headline had been changed!

In the space of three days, somehow the word “Africanization” was dropped from the headline, and the article title now reads: “In Spain, Water is a New Battleground.”

So here I have another gift, another example of the seeming impermanence of new media coupled with the ubiquity of saved or cached data, which allows us to reveal the revisions that the online world feels no need to mention. In this case, the original headline is saved in my TimesFile.

On the one hand, I applaud the Times for yanking a word from their headline which plays upon European fears of African invasion. On the other hand, I wish the Times had made note of the revised headline, and perhaps even explained the reasons for the revision, rather than pretending like it had never happened.

If The Newspaper of Record is so fluid about its online presence, I think we need a new definition of what counts as a “record.”

Google Mapping Spain

I’ve been experimenting with a good way to incorporate a dynamic Google Map into this blog, specifically one that plots key points in our travels in Spain. Don’t ask me why. I really don’t expect anybody to ever look at this thing, but I’ve been inspired by the possibilities of geomapping memories (see the Center for History and New Media’s September 11 Digital Archive map of “Ground Zero” to see the most evocative use of the same tools I’m using).

I’ve only charted one point so far, trying to test the map while I figure out how to have the map appear “live” on my front page (in this very space). But for now, the beta version is available at Google Mapping Spain.

Guernica, through a child’s eye

The Museo Reina Sofia is Spain’s modern art museum, and my son and I went there yesterday to see one thing and one thing only: Picasso’s Guernica, depicting the brutal aerial bombardment of the Basque city Guernica by the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War.

Showing the painting to my son was an antidote to our trip to the National Air and Space Museum in D.C in October.

Of course, an eighteen-month-old can’t be expected to have a sophisticated reaction to a powerful work of art about the monstrosities of the twentieth century.

But he comes close.

My son pointed at the mutilated bodies lying fallen on the ground and he said, “Uh-oh.” And then he made the hand sign for fall down.

Uh-oh is right.

I wonder if right now, somewhere in Falluja or Najaf, an aspiring artist is painting a successor to Guernica, honoring the 30,000 Iraqi civilians killed so far in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

If so, I hope my son sees that painting and is just as aware of suffering then as he is now.

Two Old Women Eating from a Bowl, Goya (1821-1823)


Two Old Women Eating from a Bowl, Goya
(Larger Image)
Posted to Flickr by samplereality.

Yesterday, while my wife was digging through national archives in Spain, my son and I went to the Prado, one of the great art museums of the world.

This was my third trip to the Prado, and every time, I make sure I visit a few key paintings. The Prado has, fittingly, the greatest collection of Goya work, and I am always haunted by his “black paintings.” His Saturn is enormously evocative, and I’ve referred to it before on SampleReality to talk about The Sopranos, of all things.

As long as you don’t use a flash, you may photograph the works in the Prado. I learned this the hard way, when I was almost thrown out a few years ago for accidentally using a flash on Velazquez’s Las Meninas.

So, with my son patiently watching from the stroller, I snapped a few shots, and you can see my Prado stream on Flickr.

Niko and Quijote

Niko and Quijote (Larger Image)
Posted to Flickr by samplereality.

Don Quijote was on our street again, much to my son’s delight. I snapped this photo as my son was dropping some change into the “statue’s” chute. Moments later, Don Quijote was galloping in place and my son was in awe.

I was surprised to find on Flickr, in addition to my own photos of this particular Don Quijote, another visitor to Madrid had taken some snapshots of the very same street performer, a few weeks earlier.

One Year Later…

Back from Spain, where, toward the end of our trip, our son celebrated his first birthday. What a difference a year makes! On the left is a picture we took in the hospital, two days after our son was born. On the right is our son, “calling” on the in-flight phone on our transatlantic journey from Spain, one year and a day later.

In Madrid…

Sorry, but it’s going to be hard to blog for a while. I’m in Madrid. Plenty of internet cafes around, but it’s not so easy to bring a 1-year old toddler along with me as I spend hours composing deep, reflective posts (yeah, right, that’s what my posts are). Plus, I don’t have any easy way to upload photographs, so I don’t even have any way to share good photos of the trip.

I’ll try to comment on anything interesting that happens, but until jet lag subsides, even that’s going to be a challenge.

For now you’ll have to content yourself with the knowledge that a 1-year old can produce mucho mucho vómito when airsickness strikes in the last ten minutes of a transatlantic flight.