Book History

Final: Life is a Game We Play

Life is a Game We Play:
Confronting and Preserving Illusion in the
Ludic Worlds of the Novel,
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
and the Computer Game, Trinity


 By Scott M. Bruner


Jessica Pressman, PhD

ENG 604b

13 May 2016

“Until writing was invented, men lived in acoustic space: boundless, directionless, horizonless, in the dark of the mind, in the world of emotion, by primordial intuition, by terror. Speech is a social chart of this bog.

The goose quill put an end to talk. It abolished mystery; it gave architecture and towns; it brought roads and armies, bureaucracy. It was the basic metaphor with which the cycle of civilization began, the step from the dark into the light of the mind. The hand that filled the parchment page built a city.”
– Marshall McLuhan


“Nobody ever mentions the weather can make or break your day
Nobody ever seems to remember life is a game we play…”

– Noel Gallagher/Oasis



In 2016, the material artifact called the novel is as fixed and defined in the popular imagination as the elusive and dynamic book is probably capable of becoming. Wooden shelves in every book store are filled with countless hardback and paperback texts featuring stories of comparable lengths, fairly fixed narrative arcs, told through a limited number of viewpoints, and classified in a number of static genres. The contemporary novel’s place in the history of the book is not one, necessarily, of opportunity, but rather one of limitations, of confining the magical apparatus of writing, of determining and codifying a set of standards to make shared stories manageable and accessible. It is essential, of course, to recognize that the novel is not intrinsically an objective artifact, but rather the sum of a number of human definitions, through the lexica of “genre,” to provide a cognitively-acceptable comprehension of the capacities of the printed text (we need the novel to place meaning on the printed book). As Espen Aarseth rightly argues “Few literary genres, if any, can be traced to a single point of origin. Does the novel start with Cervantes, Sterne, or the ancient Greeks?…To pinpoint a genre’s origin is to define the genre, not to discover it” (97).

p01xkwnhThe history of the book itself has always been digressive and progressive, and the novel, in its popular form, represents the recursion to a readily-accessible medium for popular consumption. However, the book and even the novel was not always how we know it. In 1759, Irish novelist Laurence Sterne began publishing the nine-volume serial The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Ostensibly a novel, Sterne’s text meant to portray and capture the eccentric opinions and amusing life of a middle class sixteenth-century gentleman and was a showcase for textual possibilities. Throughout his text, Sterne whimsically plays and experiments with a number of meta-textual techniques: non-linear storytelling, re-contextualized (and non-contextualized) plagiarism, pages left blank or completely black, he even includes printing oddities. Perhaps one of the most compelling techniques Sterne employed was how he invited his reader to join, contribute, and directly interact with the text: what would one day be defined as a “ludic narrative.” Ironically enough, Tristram Shandy is often see as the prototypical novel, the Russian theorist Viktor Shklovsky famously (and without irony) declaring it as “the most typical novel of world literature.[1]

Of course, because while the book cannot escape its progressive identity as much as it loves reveling in its digressions, the book (and the novel) is unlikely to stay in the format we know it now, especially as new forms of media, inspired by the possibilities and potentialities of digital works and digital perspectives rapidly change the media landscape.  As Dr. N. Katherine Hayles and Dr. Jessica Pressman recognize:

…[W]hen writing was accomplished by a quill pen, ink pot, and paper, it was possible to fantasize that writing was simple and straightforward, a means by which a writer’s thoughts could be transferred more or less directly into the reader’s mind. With the proliferation of technical media in the latter half of the nineteenth century, that illusion became much more difficult to sustain, for intervening between writer and reader was a proliferating array of technical devices, including telegraphs, phonographs, typewriters, Dictaphones, Teletypes, and wire recorders, on up to digital computing devices that themselves are splitting into an astonishing array of different protocols, functionalities, interfaces, and codes. The deepening complexities of the media landscape have made mediality, in all its forms, a central concern of the twenty-first century. With that changed cultural emphasis comes a reawakening of interest in the complexities of earlier media forms as well. (ix) [Emphasis mine]

Drs. Hayles and Pressman acknowledge that how we hold ideas of writing’s function and codification as human illusions (the novel represents a manageable slice of the larger potentially terrifying possibilities of the novel) and that our emerging digital formats viscerally threatens those codifications, and illusions.

BrianMoriartyIn the 1980s, the home invasion of the personal computer was the vanguard for the digital revolution. In response, early-adopting writers and artists began to explore how the new medium might be used within the humanities. One of the first companies to experiment with the intersection of the novel and the computer was the Cambridge company, Infocom. They would coin the term “Interactive Fiction” (or IF) to refer to their series of text-based, story-driven videogames. Perhaps the artistic and aesthetic pinnacle of their work was 1985’s Trinity by Brian Moriarty, a novel which explored Cold War tensions (and apocalyptic possibilities) within the context of a dynamic and challenging, ludic narrative.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and Trinity both represent spectacularly illuminating bookends for our shared “illusion” of the novel, imperfect ones, perhaps (as any illusion itself is intrinsically flawed) but the two, equally compelling, works showcase the birth of the construction of the archetypal novel and its challenger, the nascent digital work seeking to overthrow the novel illusion’s tyrannical stranglehold on narrative possibility. What is particularly fascinating about both, however, aren’t necessarily the innovations of either, but how alike their basic artistic conceits are: Tristram Shandy and Trinity do not represent innovations within textual media (Sterne is simply playing in a sandbox yet to be walled in, Moriarty simply kicking, petulantly, at the boundaries 200 years later). What both works represent, united in form, aesthetics, and iconoclasm while divided chronologically, within the comprehensive loom of textual history are powerful, material antagonists against the illusions of the limitations and capacities of the codified novel. Tristram Shandy and Trinity, because of their singular positions within literary history, challenge the reader to recognize what a book is able to accomplish as a medium, and remind us of what it may never be able to do.

dfafThe works are, of course, in two completely different physical formats. Sterne’s “novel” was originally published as nine-distinct book volumes (printed and bound) over the course of eight years. Its modern incarnation as a single volume, while drastically different than a serialized volume set, is still fairly recognizable to a contemporary reader as a book.  Moriarty’s text, on the other hand, is a “game,” which was published and released on a floppy disk (in a number of operating system formats for different computer systems[2]). It came in the grey box (see picture) familiar to Infocom enthusiasts, with a number of “feelies” which not only helped readers navigate the work, but also to ideally create a mimetic relationship with the work itself. When IF is analyzed academically, the terms for its dissection are usually singular to the form. Nick Montfort’s seminal text on the history and aesthetics of IF, Twisty Little Passages, sets up a unique lexicon for discussing IF (the player is the “interactor,” a completion of a work is a “traversal”) – one that we’ll ignore for the purposes of our comparative textual analysis, in order to reinforce similarities between the texts as well as to potentially highlight the redundancy of a new lexicon for works which should be considered within the history of the book (and not alien to it). Our player/interactor will simply be a reader and to complete Trinity in its entirety is to read it.

Despite the two works’ textual differences, both works consciously blur the lines of their aesthetic sensibilities. In fact, when comparing the two works, we find that we have a novel that desperately wants to be a game, and a game that consistently aspires to be a novel. Trinity, strives to create a tragically beautiful, sublime, serious, and narratively- believable and immersive diegesis of a world on the brink of apocalypse. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy wants to subvert all pretense of a reality, of seriousness, obliterating any pretensions of the classic sublime: creating a world where reality is not a conscious effort, but a simply a chaotic collection of random errors[3].  “In Tristram Shandy…the telling fascinates us, not the tale” (Caldwell, Jr 273). What’s interesting is how both often fail so spectacularly: Sterne’s text is now classified as an archetype for the traditional novel, while Moriarty’s is seen (by the author himself) as a pretentious and colossal symbol of how games will always fall short of “Capital ‘L’” literature: “Solemn themes. Classical music. Literary quotations. Participation by artistic celebrities from other media. These things don’t necessarily make a game artistic. I should know. I’ve tried them all.” (Apology)[4].  Far from disproving it, Sterne and Moriarty’s failures provide further evidence of the antagonistic intentions of their works: as experiments too ambitious to succeed.

The first area where the two narratives share a distinct overlap is their use of “ludic” possibilities, their invitations to involve the reader within narrative by offering to share agency in the realization of it.  Caldwell Jr. offers a definition of ludic narratives as “a kind of storytelling which follows no previously conceived notion of where it is going or how it will end, but discovers its own forms as it unfolds…In these fictions reading is envisioned as a process important for its own sake, a game by which the reader converses with the narrator, thus participating in the making of a text.” (Intro) Tristram Shandy revels in the use of ludic conceits throughout his novel.  “Sterne disrupts the chronological order of his account with the intervention of several other temporal orders – the time of reading, the time of writing – involved in the process of literature. His novel assumes the form of a fugue; temporal orders are interwoven in curious and ambiguous patterns. Thus he demonstrates that the time of literature is not real time, but the time of play – a space of time where time is suspended” (Caldwell 16-17)

In addition, Sterne invites the reader to directly leave his own imprint on the physical text. In many sections, specific words are omitted or censored which invite personal translations, chapters XVIII and XIX are completely blank in Sterne’s final volume, providing a psychic canvass completely dependent on the reader to complete. In Chapter XXXVIII of the sixth volume, the author implicitly demands that the reader supply their own description of a character (the widow Wadman): “To conceive this right, – call for pen and ink – here’s paper ready at your hand. —- Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind —- as like your mistress as you can…’tis all one to me —- please but your own fancy in it” (422). Historian and critic Richard Lanham even argues that Tristram Shandy should be considered not as a novel but as “a game with narrative patterns.” The uses of these narrative devices, so abandoned within the contemporary novel, clearly demonstrate not only a pre-codification of the “novel illusion,” but also Sterne’s willingness to set aside the nascent conventions of his time in order the further the existential concepts of his novel, of a shared reality of Tristram Shandy’s universe, his deliberate efforts to dissuade the reader from accepting objective realities. Jeremy Douglass claims that this conceit is a device unique to IF: “The interactor is, as many have remarked, neither a reader nor a writer, neither a speaker not a listener (Nick Montfort, Janet Murray). While engaging IF she does read, and also types (and so, in a loose sense, writes) and might even be said to wread.’ This total process in IF is best described as exploration” (11). Yet Sterne provides an illustration (however uncommon) in the “traditional novel” where the reader is also a “wreader.” The process of exploration is not unique to digital texts, further blurring the lines of our definitions, further softening the hold of our “novel illusion.”

Trinity BWMoriarty’s Trinity, by its very nature is ludic – while Infocom may have popularized the term “Interactive Fiction” in order to plump up their artistic ambitions – Moriarty’s work was still found in (and marketed for) the computer game aisle. Trinity does require a reader to translate its work, the textual narrative that Moriarty envisions requires human input. Because Trinity is a parser-based work, the reader must supply commands to the game’s protagonist, the “Wabewalker,” (usually fairly simple commands such as “Go West,” “Get Splinter,” or “Talk to Boy”) in order to advance the story. “Trinity is weighty while it is also fantastic; trying to be literature does not make it any less enjoyable an experience. Part of its literary texture comes from its interface element” (Montfort 160).

Academic criticism and debate continues on what interactivity means in games, or how it affects the realization of their particular narratives. Aarseth argues that games, due to their interactive nature, are a new form of “cybertext,” which function as “ergodic literature” where “nontrivial effort is required to traverse the text” (1). He defines trivial efforts as those “with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic arbitrary turning of pages” (1-2). With all due respect to Aarseth, this definition may be dangerously close to following in the footsteps of the “novel illusion” – not only does Sterne provide a classic literary counterpoint (is Tristram Shandy then a hypertext, despite being a purely analog work over 200 years old?) with extranoematic responsibilities (the reader has to pick up quill and ink to draw on the page), Aarseth’s definition may in fact, trivialize what goes beyond the eye movements and page-turning of the classic text. The psychic realization of a text, the mental translation of an author’s work, exists on wildly divergent levels: although James Joyce’s Ulysses and E.L. James Fifty Shades of Grey require the same level of physical effort to turn their pages and scan their lines, the task in assembling their narratives exists on entirely different planes[5].  The ludic narrative itself consciously resists such static definitions, choosing to use interactive elements where necessary to further its thematic intent, engage the reader, and also to remind the reader that all media are two-way streets; ludic devices themselves are rarely omnipresent (you are not supposed to draw on every page in Tristram Shandy) but dynamic, and each ludic device will fall within a different level of interactivity (how more or less interactive, how much more agency is offered, by entering a computer command vs. supplying missing words?). “All media are extensions of some human faculty – psychic or physical” (McLuhan 26).

There are two specific narrative examples within Trinity and Tristram Shandy which not only reveal how each work resists textual classification, but demonstrate how the ludic within a text also resists the novel illusion. The first are the works’ overall relationship with the reader, and the second is specifically how each deal with the existential quandary of death.

We have already noted how the reader of Tristram Shandy is a vital component of the work’s realization, from reading to drawing and conjecture, the reader shares agency with Sterne. In addition, the author of the work, whose identity also seems to resist simple identification (we never know if Sterne or his titular protagonist, Shandy is speaking), constantly speaks directly to the reader. Sterne has no use at all for the fourth wall, willingly dispensing the absurdity that the stage must ignore its audience.  “As always in his story, he interjects commentary on how he is telling, has told if, will or should tell it. Before he can introduce us to his uncle, he first catalogues the different devices writers employ to characterize their personages…Not only does Tristram represent his characters at their various forms of play, but he plays himself as [he] tells his tale. Both the technos and the ethos of the novel are thoroughly ludic” (Caldwell Jr. 273-286). Sterne not only directly explains how he is presenting his characters, or his tale, he even directly instructs the reader on how he is going to tell his tale, providing a singular opportunity into the artist’s intentions and worldview, which include discarding rules and definitions, he finds unnecessary:

maxresdefault“… [F]or in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself neither to his [Horace’s] rules, nor to any man’s rules that ever lived” (8).

“…[W]hen a man sits down to write a history, – – – tho’ it be but the history of Jack Hickathrift or Tom Thumb, he knows no more than his heels what lets and confounded hinderances he is to meet with in his way, – – – or what dance he may be led, by one excursion or another, before all is over” (34).

“The thing is this.
That of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best —- I’m sure it is the most religious —- for I begin with writing the first sentence —- and trusting to Almighty God for the second” (490).

This direct engagement allows Sterne, and Shandy (and “who can tell which is which, and who is who?”) to engage directly with the reader, further augmenting the work’s disregard for staid and static definitions, but also to see whether the author-reader relationship might be able to be closer. As an existential work which attempts to fully realize a fictional character as a living, breathing, human construct, Sterne’s intention is to textually lay bare the soul of Shandy, to create an intimate affectation between him and the reader. If the medium is the message (McLuhan), Sterne forgoes the classic author-reader separation and seeks to create as human a textual medium as he can for the human message at the core of his “novel.”

Moriarty’s Trinity offers both contrasts and similarities. Unlike Tristram Shandy, the game is told through IF’s traditional second person perspective, with the realization of the work’s diegesis limited only to what the reader “sees” and “experiences.” For instance, the opening sequence provides the material reality of the little world and not much else:

“Palace Gate
A tide of perambulators surges north along the crowded Broad Walk. Shaded glades stretch away to the northeast, and a hint of color marks the western edge of the Flower Walk.

>” (Moriarty)

mapAlso unlike Tristram Shandy, the reader actually plays the part of the main protagonist, and because the gameplay of Trinity revolves around solving puzzles, the author won’t be intruding to provide help, assistance, or insight into his creative process. (Jeremy Douglass refers to this relationship as the protagonist playing the role of a “puppet” for the reader.) The reader isn’t entirely alone, however, on their journey through Trinity. From time to time, an omniscient narrator does make a few comments (including a number of pithy puns on the player’s progress) throughout the game, most importantly in the game’s denouement, necessary to clarify the work’s final act. “‘You should be proud of yourself.’ Where is that voice coming from?” (Moriarty). The distant relationship between the author and the reader in Trinity is as important as the close relationship is in Tristram Shandy; while Sterne wants to bring the reader closer, Moriarty wants to augment the existential angst of his apocalyptic story by making the reader feel not alone, but also, eerily under omniscience surveillance (creating a disquieting fracture of isolation, mirroring the fractured landscape of Trinity’s nuclear holocaust).

Also, there is never any clear idea who this omniscient voice is, “To whom does the mysterious voice that occasionally whispers in the player’s ear at key moments belong?” (Maher, “Let’s Tell a Story Together”) Tristram Shandy and Trinity drastically diverge on the relationships they intentionally create between reader and author, but both consciously create that relationship, ludically (through Tristram Shandy’s playful mocking of convention and Trinity’s coercion of solitude through gameplay) in order to establish the thematic characteristics of their respective diegeses. They both accept and challenge Foucault’s assertion that “literary discourses came to be accepted only when endowed with the author function. We now ask of each poetic or fictional text: from where does it come, who wrote it, when, under what circumstances, or beginning with what design” (285)? Shandy answers Foucault’s queries, and the reader’s desperate curiosity directly, while Moriarty purposely refuses them, frustrating the reader’s satisfaction. In doing so, both seek to establish their points of view, deadly seriously, and also playfully.

The second example which displays how Tristram Shandy and Trinity use ludic devices to augment their narratives and themes is the way that they both approach death – a central figure in Shandy’s existential comedy and Moriarty’s apocalyptic nightmare. In chapter XII of Tristram Shandy’s first volume, no sooner are we introduced to the character of Parson Yorick, a close friend to the Shandy family, than we are forced to bid him goodbye to his untimely death. Sterne takes this opportunity to again challenge conventions, and to experiment ludically within his text. After Sterne twice laments Yorick’s passing with the Shakespearean “Alas, poor Yorick!” (30), the following two full pages (31-32) are completely black with printer’s ink. The thematic meaning of these pages continues on in academic discourse (and rightly so): do they represent the darkness of death itself? Is the reader being forced into spending time to mourn Yorick? Is the absence of story a parallel to the absence of Yorick’s personal narrative? While we can conjecture what is directly meant by the mystery of this starkly ebon mark within a field of white pages, how Shandy subverts expectation and the reader’s growing relationship with the text is at least a little more apparent. “The silent allusions of the black page play not only with Shakespeare but also with the concept of allusion itself: gesturing in silence like a player of charades, Tristram makes a game out of the attempt to refer to his intertext without using words” (Illingworth 41). Unlike the blank chapters later on in the work, this chapter disallows not only the reader to have any direct agency to join the text, it refutes any attempt to even read the text (the most basic of Aarseth’s noematic functions). Sterne’s black pages assert that there will be no possibilities here, there will be nothing to comprehend. For these two pages, there will be no story. The reader, of course, is left to their own conclusions on what they think Sterne is conveying about death itself. (It’s interesting to note that Tristram Shandy does not end with the death of its protagonist and opinion-giver, rather Shandy’s death is affected by his loss of meaning, and the agency he loses in keeping the comic farce going at the novel’s resolution; only a minor character faces existentialism’s true, inevitable, resolution.)

Trinity, like Tristram Shandy, has much to say about death (its story deals directly with the potential annihilation of the human race, after all), and also approaches with a ludic device, but with a rather different approach. Like many works of IF, Trinity involves the reader having to solve a number of logic puzzle in order to advance the narrative. One such puzzle involves finding the necessary alchemical ingredients necessary for a magic spell (to provide an item the character will need later in their journey). One of the ingredients required is a dead lizard or skink, killed “in the light of a crescent moon.” Once the reader locates a skink and finds her way under a crescent moon (harder in the game than you might think), the reader has to then input the commands to kill the poor creature:

skink scene 2“>kill skink

The tiny lizard writhes in your grasp and claws at your fingers, its pink mouth gasping for breath. You squeeze harder and harder until your fist trembles with the effort.

The skink stops squirming.

[Your score just went up by 3 points. The total is now 57 out of 100.]” (Moriarty)

Moriarty clearly wants to take advantage of Georgie Tech Professor Ian Bogost’s concept of procedural rhetoric to make the reader directly implicit within the actions of the narrative by making them directly responsible for this unsettling murder of an innocent creature (the player’s rising score an equally disquieting reminder that this violence is necessary to realize the full story). Bogost defines procedural rhetoric as “the practice of authoring arguments through processes. Following the classical model, procedural rhetoric entails persuasion—to change opinion or action. Following the contemporary model, procedural rhetoric entails expression—to convey ideas effectively. Procedural rhetoric is a subdomain of procedural authorship; its arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models” (125). Within the confines of Moriarty’s apocalyptic narrative, the skink example is a convincing argument for the work’s ultimately nihilistic view. By taking advantage of the parser-input interactions to move the story ahead, Moriarty has placed the reader in a Kobayashi Maru, no-win scenario, in order to win the game, the skink must die, a larger allusion to Moriarty’s overall theme about the illogic of man resting his continued survival on the 1980s concept of mutually-assured destruction. In many ways, like Tristram Shandy’s stark black pages, the reader will need to make his own conclusions, but Moriarty’s argument is impossible to miss. “Throughout its considerable length Trinity has constantly implicated the Wabewalker, and through him we who pull his strings, in the tragic history of the atomic age, refusing to allow us the comfort of abstraction. We’ve been forced to cold-bloodedly kill a couple of cute, innocent little would-be pets to show us that killing is ugly and heartbreaking, not a mere matter of shifting columns and figures around on a spreadsheet showing projected death counts” (Maher, The Digital Antiquarian).

While we have considered how ludic devices augment, instruct and reinforce the two themes of Trinity and Tristram Shandy, how does the use of ludic techniques impact their overall themes? What does it mean when two different texts have four total authors? What issues are still possible to explore? What level of emotional engagement is possible? As already mentioned, neither work is completely ludic, they move in out of offering agency and subverting expectation at will: for hundreds of Tristram Shandy’s pages, it can read like a classic memoir fiction; Trinity, too, is often indistinguishable from a popular work of suspenseful political fiction (until, of course, the parser inevitably invades). The work deliberately uses ludic devices within a ludic context: that is, they are used as playfully and as necessarily, when their authors call for them – and absent when the traditional noematic tradition will do nicely.

Both themes approach questions of existence. In Tristram Shandy, Sterne wants to examine not just the life of a man (Tristram Shandy, himself), but how he creates meaning for himself (through his “Opinions). The work, like its use of ludic devices, offers a playful appraisal of its central character. Trinity is assuredly a different story: it’s a tale of a lone character traveling backwards in time in an attempt to sabotage the first atomic test in order to stave off mankind’s future nuclear annihilation. While Tristram Shandy is deeply personal, Trinity examines humanity as a whole, its actions, crimes, and irredeemable fate. Even the main character whose shoes the reader must fill is not much more than an ambiguous cypher for man referred to only as the “Wabewalker.” Shandy exalts in the meaninglessness of existence, Trinity despairs of it. These two, wildly divergent thematic texts, illustrate that a ludic narrative can exist within a comedic text and a horrific one, offering singular ways to reinforce their particular perspectives. Both works use their unconventional mechanics, as deftly as they use the prose which describes their worlds, to invite the reader to interact not only with the environments, but the contextual philosophies embedded within.

One interesting note to make is that when both texts conclude, they actually viscerally unravel, when the meanings, or rather their lack of meaning, behind their respective protagonists is made clear. Shandy himself must confront that his story is actually, simply nonsense (told, ironically, through the lips of a dead man), ““L—d! said my mother, what is all this story about? —- A COCK and a BULL, said Yorick —- And of the best of its kind, I ever heard” (588). Likewise, the Wabewalker’s story concludes with the devastating realization that she is actually the cause of nuclear annihilation (ironically, due to the events of a temporal paradox) before closing with a final, bleak, and extremely prescient quotation from Emily Dickinson:

“’Twere better Charity
To leave me in the Atom’s
Tomb –
Merry, and Nought, and gay,
and numb –
Than this smart Misery.”

It may be possible that ludic possibilities allow us to indulge new experiences within classic media, but it is intriguing to note that in these two works, the reader does end up in very similar and very empty places (although, at least, Shandy ends not with the misery of ultimate revelation, but with a kindred laugh at its absurdity.) Few readers will be able to deny, however, that their ability to take part in the translation was not singular affecting.

01The final point to consider are the limitations that Tristram Shandy and Trinity, and their ludic natures, represent within textual possibilities. In the end, both are ultimately still works of material media, constrained by the tacit fact that they are still works of writing, and still incapable of constructing a reality where “a writer’s thoughts could be transferred more or less directly into the reader’s mind” (Hayles, Pressman ix). The very act of taking thought, of taking the “message” and putting it into a textual context, necessarily limits it by putting a boundary around it, removing it from the “boundless, directionless, horizonless…dark of the mind” (McLuhan 48) and imprisons it in a medium (the artifact that then co-opts the original message). Tristram Shandy’s ludic devices, whether it’s a blank page, a black page, or a page with scribbles diagramming the narrative may offer more freedom, but they don’t offer unlimited freedom – the reader might be co-captain, but she can never completely seize Sterne’s narrative ship; the novel is bounded by the ultimate constrictions of physical materiality. Similarly, Trinity, which (existentially) exists as just bits of digital code and can be uploaded, downloaded and transferred with ease is still bounded by the limits of IF. Often when IF has come in contact with serious academic criticism, the initial response is often more about the limits of parser-based explorations. “Because the parser understands so few commands, we spend much of our time struggling to find the magic words that will unlock the narrative…” writes Adam Hammond about the comparably literary IF work, Galatea, for example. Douglass expands by noting that “…the commercial text adventures that inaugurated the personal computer game industry were heralded as liberatory, with command line interaction billed as an open-ended alternative to the novel – an alternative that promised to free the reader from the confines of linear authorial intention. Yet the genre of IF is often highly frustrating to newcomers and to seasoned interactors alike, who experience IF as a tightly defined system of rigid constraints, within which the reader struggles (often unsuccessfully) to read, and is forced instead into interaction via interrogation” (156-157). These reactions represent not necessarily frustrations with IF, but rather with our ongoing frustrations with the book and the text itself. We continue to be frustrated with even new media’s inability to provide the uncorrupted and pure message (and its cloying tendency to revert to the message), we continue to find ourselves despondent with the fact that new media harbors so many of the limitations of the old. We continue to search for that pure meaning, always disappointed that no artifact has yet to truly bridge the gap to the writer’s thoughts, to find the meaning directly from the author.

Both Sterne and Moriarty, within the narratives of their narratives proper present interesting codas for this argument. When meaning unravels for Tristram Shandy, the book ends, and even basic noematic agency is removed; when the Wabewalker confronts her uselessness, the game ends. The implied meaning is that agency, the story, and the message only exists as long as the protagonist believes in them. As we are invited to play along with (or in Trinity’s case be) the protagonist, the reader learns that our existence is only as secure as our meaning, our own, personal stories will only go so far as we believe they still hold a purpose.

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and Brian Moriarty’s Trinity are different texts. They are in distinct physical formats, written hundreds of years apart with very different ambitions about what they want to express to their extremely particular audiences within two very different cultural contexts. They do both share captivating prose, fascinating characters, and enchanting plotlines, but what might be their most compelling shared feature is their ludic and human ambitions and what they represent: both within the history of the book (and how their specific historical contexts made them possible) as well as within the history of humanity’s desire for authentic connection. Tristram Shandy and Trinity are artistic successes, certainly, made even more possible by the unique methods they employ to pull their readers into their singular stories. They create canvasses for their audience, their readers to intimately assimilate, join, and enrapture with these fictional world. In the end, however, both works are limited by still being canvasses: with borders, with lines, with the limitation of a finite language itself. Sterne and Moriarty’s texts are wonderful, ecstatic, but ultimately simply new failures in our grand media experiment. Tristram Shandy and Trinity, as deliriously beautiful as they both are, are also still reminders that the illusion of pure connection through the message remains exactly that. Still, as Sterne and Moriarty both seem to suggest, how is that illusion any different than the one we surround ourselves in; could that belief alone be enough to sustain our meanings, to keep our own stories alive? Perhaps the next book will have the answer.





[1] To be fair to Mr. Shklovsky, he evidently also referred to Sterne’s text as a “futuristic poem in an extra-rational language,” and was well aware of Tristram Shandy’s eccentrities, making the case that those eccentricities are symbolic of its universal nature rather than opposed to it, an extremely fascinating argument outside the scope of this essay.

[2] The actual code, however, for Trinity is identical on each system. One of Infocom’s most innovative concepts was creating a universal code which could be read by different computer systems through their Z-machine (which was different for each operating system). Every Infocom game could then be written in the same code and simply translated by the appropriate Z-machine, meaning their writers only needed to know one coding language: The Zork Implementation Language (ZIL) since it could simply be ported to any machine.

[3] Which version of reality, the conspicuously designed or the series of mistakes, is more representative of the “material” reality outside of literature is left up to the reader to decide.

[4] Moriarty’s experiment with Trinity, and his desire to imitate classic Literature in IF is proof of McLuhan’s maxim that “Our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old” (94).

[5] Aarseth does analyze this difficulty, and the challenge of identifying the difference in ergodic effort, but never entirely abandons a conceptual theory which may ultimately rest on creating definitions and codifications which are academically problematic.


Works Cited

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Print.

Bogost, Ian. “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Edited by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 117–140.

Caldwell, Roy Chandler, JR. Ludic Narrative in the Novel: “Projet Pour Une Revolution a New York,” “Das Schloss,” “Tristram Shandy” (Alain Robbe-grillet, Franz Kafka, Laurence Sterne, France, England, Austria). n.p.: ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1985. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. “Of Course – I prayed”. May 13 2016. Online.

Douglass, Jeremy. “Command Lines: Aesthetics and Technique in Interactive Fiction and New Media.” Dissertation. U. California Santa Barbara, 2007. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” The Book History Reader. Finkelstein, David, and Alistair McCleery.  Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Hammond, Adam. Literature in the Digital Age: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine and Jessica Pressman. “Making, Critique: A Media Framework.” Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era. Eds. N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2013. Print.

Illingworth, David. “Allusive, Ludicrous, Illusive: Games in and with Tristram Shandy,” Shandean, 18 (2007), 40-55. Print.

Lanham, Richard A. Tristram Shandy: the Games of Pleasure. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. Print.

Maher, Jimmy. Let’s Tell a Story Together (A History of Interactive Fiction). Website. 21 Apr. 2016.

— The Digital Antiquarian: A History of Computer Entertainment. Website. 21 Apr. 2016.

McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. The Medium Is the Massage. New York: Bantam Books, 1967. Print.

Montfort, Nick. Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003. Print.

Moriarty, Brian. “An Apology for Roger Ebert.” Game Developer’s Conference. Moscone Center, San Francisco. 4 March 2011. Lecture.

——–. Trinity. Infocom, 1986. “The Adventure Collection.” IF (Z-code). Los Angeles, CA: Infocom, 1995. Interactive Fiction

Shklovsky, Viktor. “A Parodying Novel: Sterne’s Tristram Shandy,” O Teorii Prozy. Trans. W. George Isaak and Richard Sheldon. Moscow 1929. pp 66-89. Print.

Sterne, Laurence, Melvyn New, and Joan New. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

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