Book and Volume

Wed Dec 21, 2005

Nick Montfort, who wrote the (or at least “a”) book on interactive fiction, has recently released Book and Volume, which is set in nTopia, has allusions ranging from Pynchon to Gygax, and feels very PKD–I mean that neutrally. My discussion is going to include some mild spoilers.

I should begin by noting that I’m not sure that I’ve finished the game in terms of achieving the optimal or at least all of the potential outcomes. You are a resident of a community apparently created by a large corporation on a desert plateau. The city exists roughly on a five-by-seven grid and has apartment complexes, a museum, hospitals, police stations, a Starbucks on just about every corner (including three surrounding the “independent” coffee shop) and lots of retail. You work as a sysadmin, sort of. The computers have buttons you can either push or hold. You interact with your laptop by “USE”ing it. Everything that you buy is deducted from your banking account via a chip in your pager, where you receive the periodic instructions that tell you what to do for the day.

As you go about your infantilizing tasks, you receive furtive notices that things are not what they seem. How many of these are actual revelations is open to question. (A character’s prior knowledge is one of the most difficult theoretical problems in interactive fiction, particularly in assessing motivation. Sam Barlow’s Aisle and Adam Cadre’s 9:05 are both inventive explorations of the motivation and prior knowledge problems.)

Though I wrote above that Book and Volume seems Dickian, I think that it’s better described as a criticism of the paranoid tendency in politics in general. You learn about a very sinister-sounding corporate conspiracy–some information coming from a literal tinfoilist–and you manage to escape, at least in one ending, with the use of a “magic helmet,” located in a “Colossal Cave.” The other likely ending, where you accomplish most of your tasks but fail to escape, is a deliberate cliche, to the point of invoking the most famous moment in the (literally) institutional imagination (Question: how does “imagination” instead of “imaginary” work for you there?)

As I read (“play”) it, Book and Volume advises you to reject the ghost whispering to you from your machine. If you replace all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past from what observation has copied there with the pleasures of simplicity, with one villain or one idea (particularly if it came from Slashdot), then that’s nTopia.