Alanna was a forum game (or "MSPAFA" for "MSPA Forum Adventure") played over the course of approximately five weeks by members of the MSPA forums in summer 2009. For reference, a complete history of the course of the game can be found here, cleaned up of all extraneous text and metadata. (note: raincomplex tells me that "those on linux will need to run "sed -i 's:\\:/:g' *.html" to see the images in that .rar.")
I came to Alanna as a result of a conversation in the catbox, one in which I was decrying a perceived lack of computer games with agented avatars. By this I meant player avatars which have agency; preferences, agendas, instinctive reactions and the like which cause them to mediate between the player and their game actions - or even argue with the player depending on the choices they're told to make. This is distinct from interactions in which the avatar merely serves to enforce the limits of the game's parser or world rules (error messages, basically). In my mind, the phenomenon I was discussing required a few things:
- An avatar with a separate personality
- An avatar who was aware of the player as a separate entity from them
- An avatar with its own inbuilt preferences or agendas with respect to gameplay, and
- An avatar willing and able to communicate those preferences and/or agendas to the player, especially by subverting or refusing to carry out in-game player actions.
Kizor suggested that while this might be true in the fully automated game genre, it was not at all true in the wider arena of games in general, and pointed me to Alanna. When I asked what it was (before downloading a cryptically-named RAR archive) Kizor merely said "Read it," in essence. So I did. I ended up blurting my admiration in the catbox.
What Alanna is, I am now convinced, is a work of some of the finest pure and actual metafiction that I've ever run across.
Is it as literarily laudable as Calvino? No, of course not. Is it as enthralling and well-crafted a story as Eco? Nope. It's difficult to really get into it as a serious work. But for pure win as an idea and execution, it really can't be beat. The format of the archive is confusing, but here's a brief explanation of what's going on.
The author of the game, a member of the MSPA Forums with the handle "baphomet", begins the game by posting a message to the forum which contains essentially the same information that a computerized adventure game would give a player. There is a picture, which shows the eponymous main character asleep in her bed with a strange black creature curled up on the covers. There is text which describes the scene. This text, in the first post, is in red - indicating that this is the author/GM/moderator talking directly to the audience.
Immediately following this, forum members begin posting messages containing 'commands' (in the condensed archive, this is represented by white boxes containing black text, one box per message). As a consequence, the author posts new artwork representing the result of the 'commands' given, along with text representing the dialog of the visible characters (this is black text on the regular gray background, unboxed).
And the game begins.
I'll try to avoid spoilers, but I have to make you understand why I ended up being so impressed with this little game. Although the art is necessarily somewhat simple (this is, after all, a 'Microsoft Paint Adventures Forum Adventure') it contains all relevant information, and is of consistent style. Remind yourself that the author/GM is producing this art on a very short reponse cycle (or has preplanned the game out and done it beforehand, almost more impressive). The 'players' spend some time learning the responsiveness of the game, including posting somewhat sarcastic humor, to which Alanna and the game respond consistently.
And here's where it gets meta.
Note: There may be some spoilers ahead. Continue at your own risk!
I have stated above that this is metafiction, and I stand by that. It's something even more impressive, though. It's metafiction with more layers. In short, PSAT-like logical terms:
Alanna : Infocom games :: If On A Winter's Night a Traveler : novel
For one thing, the players themselves are made into actual characters in the game. The author/GM 'explains' to both Alanna and the players that the players are, in fact, 'spectral advisors' living in Alanna's head. Since the game involves magic, she accepts that, and the players perforce accept it. Immediately, there are three levels of participant - the author/GM, the main character, and the players themselves, and not only are they participants (like the equivalent entities would be in the reading of If On A Winter's Night a Traveler) but they are characters, and due to the interactive nature of the forum game, all three recognize the others as such. Alanna, it appears, can't 'hear' the very rare 'red text' of the author/GM speaking to the players, but that's one of the only limitations.
As the game progresses, new and different metacharacters are introduced. It turns out that not only is Alanna maybe 'possessed' by an entity, but maybe the players are too.
And then it gets even cooler.
WARNING: DEFINITE BUT NONSPECIFIC SPOILER!
Near the end of the game, the author/GM manages to set up a situation where in order to reach the endgame, the players must take actions which are not only outside the context of the story, but which the author/GM has set up such that these actions in fact trigger understandable events inside the story. The players are forced to take action entirely 'above' the level of the story world, and those actions themselves 'end' the story properly. It's frigging amazing. I believe the author/GM planned the whole thing in advance, which makes it even more impressive.
I'm not an aficionado of MSPA or the 'forum game.' The MSPA themselves were, originally, a webcomic which utilized the peculiar gimmick of having the readers submit feedback as to what the next events in the comic should be, presented in the comic itself via the recognizable mechanism of an adventure-game 'interface'. However, there wasn't (as far as I can tell) nearly as complex a storytelling mechanism as goes on in Alanna. Wikipedia has the following to say about metafiction:
Metafiction is a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. It is the literary term describing fictional writing that self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection. It can be compared to presentational theatre, which does not let the audience forget it is viewing a play; metafiction does not let the reader forget he or she is reading a fictional work.
It goes on to list several typical devices of metafiction. Many of them are present here. Within Alanna
we run across books and mythologies, 'deeper' level fictions. The writer and the readers converse separate from the action, and in this case (unlike traditional metafiction) there is actual live interaction. The author intentionally exposes themself as the narrator and author. There are elements of the story which are about Alanna reading stories. And that final, chess
-like maneuver in which the author not only interacts with the readers, but forces them to interact with him/her in the real world in a non-trivial way - which, logically and properly, ends the story itself.
It's an amazing thing, a true artifact of the genre of computer game adventures backported to human authoring but retaining live interaction. It couldn't happen without the World Wide Web or a similar medium. And at its simplest, it is a tale of a young woman in a dangerous world of magic.
I cannot recommend it highly enough.