Research questions, defining digital curation, and thoughts on Crème de la Crème

I played Crème de la Crème (CdlC) by Hannah Powell-Smith back in December, and now that I’m rebooting my blog, I wanted to work through some notes that I took while playing the game. I’ll start off by giving a strong recommendation to play the game, and that I’m still thinking about it some seven months on is a testament to the quality of the work. To give the briefest of introductions, CdlC is a Choice of Games title (which publishes multiple-choice text games) in which the player is a new entrant to a prestigious boarding school called Gallatin. The player negotiates scandal and intrigue at the school — and in their love life — making choices that shape their trajectory through the story.

However, I should also say up front that I’m not planning to give a full review or even descriptive overview of the game itself (check out the work’s IFDB page for that). Though I may stray from this structure as the blog develops, for now, I’m planning to use readings of various games and e-lit works as jumping off points to discuss ideas relevant to community-driven digital curation. For the blog generally, posts on reading e-lit works will intersect with my ongoing research, currently motivated by this overarching question: How do electronic literature communities (including readers, writers, publishers, and others) participate in creating, maintaining, and promoting a digital cultural heritage? Principally, this happens through actually reading and writing works of e-lit, but there are many modes of engagement that extend beyond reading and writing and/or that impact the acts of reading and writing that I think are crucial to the cooperative work digital curation. I’m hoping to use readings of specific works to illustrate these ways that creative works are constituted as part of this broader cultural memory by readers and writers (and others).

At some point in the future, I should write up a post about what I mean by ‘digital curation’ since this is a polysemous, potentially confusing term even to those in the archives and library field. I may even make this a series of posts as my own thinking on this term develops — and it really is at the core of my research on how creative communities care for digital cultural materials. I have an article based on my dissertation research coming out soon-ish, and a particular definition of ‘digital curation’ is part of my argument in that paper, so perhaps my post promoting that article will initiate such a series of posts.

For now, I’ll refer to Abigail De Kosnik’s notion of ‘rogue archives’:

With digital tools and networks, [amateur archivists] construct repositories that are accessible by all Internet users, and can choose to preserve either vast quantities of information (they do not have to choose to save some types of content and discard other types because of physical space restrictions) or highly specific materials (such as the documents
of subcultures or minority groups) that have been consistently excluded or ignored by traditional memory institutions.1

In the library and archives world, digital curation refers to activities and approaches involved in the ongoing care of digital information, though as De Kosnik makes clear amateur archivists also take on this work. Though there are notable examples of institutions and organizations collecting e-lit (like the Electronic Literature Organization’s recently launched online repository The NEXT), readers, writers, and publishers really become the first archivists. How libraries might collect and circulate works like CdlC is certainly something I’d like to think more about, too. I can imagine that public library patrons interested in romance titles would love to read/play CdlC, though I don’t know if there are great models out there for collecting and circulating titles from smaller game developers/publishers. Public libraries often deliver digital media through platforms like Hoopla and Overdrive, so perhaps that would have to be the avenue for Choice of Games titles.

This was also my first Choice of Games (CoG) title, and I do think that I’ll read more in the future and also further explore the very interesting ChoiceScript programming language that I’ll discuss more in a bit. There are a couple specific aspects of CdlC and CoG that relate to digital curation practices that I want to focus on in this post.

Walkthroughs are one community-driven approach to documentation that I’ve been thinking a lot about in terms of digital curation. While walkthroughs are intended as utilities to facilitate gameplay/reading — helping players through tough spots in particular — they serve an auxiliary function of documenting the overall structure and content of the work as well. Losing out on the experiential aspects of actually playing the game, a walkthrough still possesses ‘information value’ to invoke an archival term.2 The walkthrough, especially for a narrative-heavy game, can still communicate the kernel of the story.

As CdlC does not have a single path through the story — and rather is defined by the many, many possible narratives — this changes what a ‘walkthrough’ for the work might look like. Still, the choices that the reader makes are not just about moving the narrative forward, but are also about accomplishing certain goals (like protecting a teacher at the boarding school from getting fired) and advancing romances and/or friendships with a range of non-player characters (NPCs). I discovered the stats and achievements partway through my first reading of the text, and it dramatically altered the reading experience and choices I was making. While I first was making choices based solely on a ‘what would I do’ rationale, my perusal of the list of potential goals and the stats (which track your grades, the strength of your relationships with various characters, and so on) set up a feedback loop: I began making choices with certain outcomes in mind, and whether the choice led toward the desired outcome or not affected future choices.

While it’s not possible to produce a single walkthrough of the entire game, tips for how to achieve certain outcomes (like a successful romance with a particular NPC) can be articulated. And I was really interested to find that Powell-Smith has shared something of this kind of ‘strategy guide’ in their developer blog. Going over these tips allows a reader to sketch out a map of potential outcomes — the map is not the territory, of course, but it is a useful condensation of the game’s content and communicates a bit about the tenor of the potential narrative arcs.

At over 440,000 words across all the possible outcomes and pathways, this is a massive work, one that really begs replaying to get more immersed in the world and see facets of NPCs not revealed in prior playthroughs. That a single reading only carves out one possible pathway raises interesting questions too — I can read the Powell-Smith’s ‘strategy guide’ and quickly glimpse all of the major outcomes/conclusions, though it would take many readings to actually ‘achieve’ all of those outcomes in-game.

This brings to mind a key insight from J. Yellolees Douglas’: “whereas readers of even the most ‘difficult’ writers in print face texts already supplied with endings, readers of hypertext fiction generally must supply their own senses of endings.”3 Douglas discusses the lack of any clear finality in Storyspace works like Michael Joyce’s afternoon, in which a reader can miss out on key passages entirely if they don’t click on certain words. CdlC is different in that a reader does inevitably get to a definite ending (e.g. an engagement to a NPC they have romanced), though it is still only one of many possible endings, and only one way to get to that particular ending. This is still really a universe to enter into, though with temporal trajectories that develop based on the choices that are made—plus there are smaller, non-final goals that can be hard to achieve like getting a tattoo, passages that a reader may never encounter without knowing the appropriate steps to take. After the first playthrough of CdlC, readers need to determine if that ending was satisfactory, or if further engagement with the text along with extra-textual guides and walkthroughs are needed to explore other untouched possible outcomes and reach toward a ‘sense of an ending.’

For Douglas, determining an ending is an interaction between reader and writer, cooperative work through which meaning is made. This meaning is never fully finalized as further readings can alter and add to earlier reading experiences. Nor is this meaning-making reserved for the narrowly defined act of writing/reading the text. As I’ve been suggesting, generating or browsing walkthroughs or strategy guides is an act tangential to reading that nonetheless shapes the reading experience. For e-lit, another way to think about digital curation is as a process of making (and keeping) digital objects meaningful for present and future readers and writers. In archival terms, activities that we might think of as description and documentation can be seen in reader guides and walkthroughs of narrative games. Simply put, sharing reading experiences in any way can be seen as part of the digital curation of e-lit.

That said, I might share a bit of my own reading experience…As a bookish and academic sort, I initially saw Freddie as my ideal match. Especially once I realized that I could keep tabs on the status of my various relationships, I made choices (like staying in and studying with Freddie rather than pursuing some heated adventure with other students) to bolster that relationship. I would often shuttle back and forth between the main story and the stats page, checking on the status of my relationship with Freddie after making one of these choices.

As the story developed and we all progressed toward graduation, decisions about what to do after leaving Gallatin also entered the calculus — because I’m not that imaginative, I suppose, I wanted this story to mirror my own life and set my sights on an academic career. It became evident that Freddie was committed to pursuing an ambitious academic career as well, and I began to feel that wooing her into an engagement might hamper both of our ambitions, and so I backed off on that courtship. I suspect this is a common bifurcation for decision-making in these games, branching off from an initial broach between ‘what would I do in my own life’ and ‘what would I never do but get to do in a game’ mentalities; but with many fine gradients between, it might be better to describe this as a spectrum between opposing mindsets.

Even though most junctures in the story only present a handful of options, I did feel that I had a part in crafting the narrative as I charted a distinct course through the text to a conclusion. As I neared the end of the academic term (and thus, the end of the story), I had firmly decided against seeking an engagement with Freddie. Meanwhile, my friendship with Zuri had been growing steadily throughout the whole story — though Zuri was expressly not interested in an amorous relationship with anyone (and this bears out in Powell-Smith’s description of possible outcomes with Zuri in the above mentioned strategy guide). Still, a ‘marriage of convenience’ with Gonzalez seemed like a mutually beneficial and, yes satisfying, conclusion to my particular path through the game. Though I’m just realizing this now, Freddie and Zuri are the first two major NPCs I encountered as I got stuck with them at the station when carriages departing for Gallatin left us behind and we had to trek through the rain to finally get to the school. For the conclusion of the narrative, it’s fitting then that I had the strongest relationships with these two characters and that I ultimately chose between them. This, of course, is only one possible narrative structure — though pleasingly symmetrical to my eye. I am intrigued enough to play through again to attempt a narrative with distinctly different structure. I may need to play through again just to get that tattoo (side note: my two year old daughter has become enamored of temporary tattoos, which she calls “tatt-ee-toos”).

I said above that I would write a bit about ChoiceScript (CS), the programming language for CoG titles. I’ll make a few notes here, but I plan to dedicate a future post to CS after I’ve had a chance to play around a bit with it. The main point that I want to make is that the decision for CoG to make CS open and usable for anyone is a fantastic move with significant community-building and digital curation implications. There are two major differences with CoG and earlier hypertext authoring systems like Storyspace. Eastgate (the publisher of Storyspace) has treated Storyspace like proprietary software with expensive and restrictive licenses; CoG, on the other hand, has made CS free-to-use. There are no easy ways for authors outside the Eastgate stable to share their self-published Storyspace works, while CoG hosts user-made stories. This not only expands the community of creators and readers of titles created with CS, but it also bodes well for the long-term care of works created with CS — the technical documentation is freely available, and there’s a growing community of people who will be engaged enough in these works to keep them functional on changing hardware and software systems.

As I said above, I’m looking forward to reading more CoG titles and exploring ChoiceScript in more depth. Powell-Smith is currently developing a follow-up set in the CdlC universe but with a different cast of characters too…

Notes

  1. Abigail De Kosnik, Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 2.
  2. An influential archivist at the US National Archives and Records Administration, T.R. Schellenberg enumerated two major sources of ‘secondary value’ for records/archival documents. After a record has ceased to be of active use (primary value), it could still possess ‘evidential value’ of some transaction as well as ‘information value’ from the content actually contained in the record. For instance, a letter between an author and editor about some critical decision in editing a novel speaks to how the final book took shape (evidential value) but might also contain important descriptive information about scenes or characters from the book (informational value). See more from Schellenberg here.
  3. J. Yellowlees Douglas, The End of Books—or Books without End?: Reading Interactive Narratives (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 96.

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