Counterfeit Monkey, Inform, and Storyspace

January 7, 2020

I've been playing through Emily Short's interactive fiction/word puzzle game Counterfeit Monkey, both to learn more about the creative possibilities of Inform and to dive into the world of text-based games. Short has been instrumental in the current world of interactive fiction -- as writer, toolmaker, critic -- and so Counterfeit Monkey seems like a great jumping off point into this genre and creative community.

In the tradition of the meta-fiction works (like Borges' short stories or Cortazar's Rayuela) that electronic literature is often situated within, Counterfeit Monkey reflects on the power of text and language to shape reality, intentionally emphasizing the ways in which the written world is malleable. For all interactive fiction, the player/reader is a kind of author -- typing in commands to drive the narrative -- but Counterfeit Monkey makes this authorial activity integral to the mechanics of the game. At the start of the story, the reader is equipped with a letter-remover that, when waved at various words, transforms the nature and substance of the items. Waving the h-remover at a thicket transforms the bush into a ticket, for example. The reader gains additional tools and abilities throughout the game and craftily applies these to solve puzzles needed to progress through the story.

Counterfeit Monkey offers many examples of the postmodern refrain that has been at the core of e-lit/new media studies since the 1990s: the reader of these works becomes another author of the text. This is true, in a sense, although with the corrective that the author (Short) has still created this world, laid out the puzzles, and structured the overall framework through which the reader plays. This is an agonistic exchange, as Bolter and Joyce (1987) describe in their early discussion of the hypertext reading/writing system Storyspace (more on this later).

In particular, though, I've been struck by how the word-puzzles and word-tools in this game have substantially altered my reading practices. I scour each snippet of text -- each description of a new room or environment, each exchange with another character -- for words that can be manipulated, always anticipating their potential use for a puzzle I haven't even encountered yet. Likewise, when I'm stuck on a puzzle, I return to previous rooms, intensively rereading things I've already read half-a-dozen times to see if I've missed some bit of text that can be warped for new purposes. There's a lot of potential for this (and other) interactive fiction games for use in the classroom. Of course, hypertext writing/reading environments have long been used in the classroom (for instance, the pioneering work done with FRESS at Brown). In future posts, I want to think more about how interactive fiction games, in particular, might help students approach writing in new ways (as a game with various conditions and parameters) -- this could potentially make writing more fun and approachable for some students who otherwise are intimidated by written expression.

Before Counterfeit Monkey, my main experience with something like interactive fiction has been Storyspace. I have read through the canon of hypertext (Patchwork Girl, afternoon, a story, etc.), and I'm a huge fan of those works. While Storyspace boasts an incredible catalog of hypertext works, many of these are barely functional in current computing environments. As I've revisited these works in recent years, I've had to do so through emulators of 32-bit Windows environments. I don't have a good sense of who is currently using Storyspace to write interactive/hypertext literature, but I do observe a marked contrast between the stagnant albeit rich Storyspace catalog and the thriving community of readers and writers of works created with Inform (as well as the similar writing software Twine).

Storyspace seems firmly situated in world of Literature. For instance, it's telling that the about page for the software is headed by a 30-year-old quotation from literary heavyweight Robert Coover that first appeared in The New York Times. In contrast, Twine and Inform represent a more generative intersection of literary and gaming communities. Not only are these works often presented as games and distributed on gaming platforms like Itch and Steam, but readers partake in practices common to gaming communities, such as sharing walkthroughs and hints and comparing play experiences. Readerly and writerly practices for more traditional literary forms are also shifting (for example, poetry twitter is quite active, with people posting and commenting on images of lines of poetry), but this kind of living engagement seems to be lacking for canonical hypertext works.

All of this has implications not only for how writers create and readers consume these works, but also for the long-term preservation. As I noted above, it's becoming increasingly difficult for new readers to encounter and experience classical hypertext works published with Storyspace. Consider the difference between downloading a game from steam and waiting for a CD-ROM to arrive in the mail before realizing that it won't work on your computer... I know that people in the e-lit community are deeply concerned with keeping these works accessible and fostering conditions for readers and writers to maintain active discussion around these works (such as the 'transversals' at the Electronic Literature Lab), but it's difficult to continue to sustain a community when the works themselves cannot be read.