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On Jigsaw and 'I'

by Graham Nelson



I am now a fictional character (which is ironic, considering that the characters in my new game, Jigsaw, are mostly real.) There are people on the 'Net who claim that mild-mannered Graham Nelson is only a cover identity for a shadowy group of hackers plotting revolution (or, I hope, moderate conservatism) in the world of interactive fiction. I can only say that mine isn't the sort of name anyone would invent. (My mother did do her best to make me sound like a pseudonym, as she first wanted to christen me Piers or Cadwallidah: but my father vetoed both, earning my everlasting gratitude.)

Who am "I," though? Why do you, the reader of that paragraph, imagine yourself not as Graham Nelson but as someone stuck in a broken-down lift with Graham Nelson? Possibly my purple prose is inimitable; perhaps it just all sounds very unlikely, so that you can't imagine yourself in my shoes. (I am only wearing two, incidentally, not eight or 10.) But suppose I write: "I tried to play Zork today but I got badly stuck. I'll never understand that Bank of Zork puzzle!" Now, admit it, you've spent days like this, but you still don't think of my words as applying to you unless I actually gesture out of the page at you (the way I'm doing in this sentence). "I" means different things to you and me. The people we speak of are intermediaries between us (even if those people are ourselves).

Literature is like a game of chess in which the writer and reader sit across a board of characters in quite artificial situations. As the game is the only contact between the two, they're both trying to make it seem real. If the writer is a poet, he'll be trying to make himself one of the pieces, though this never quite happens (Dante the poet is not quite the same person as Dante, the pilgrim in his poem). He puts his chair very close to the board and the reader's far away. This enables him to move the pieces in sudden maneuvers of doubtful legality and still get away with it.

The novel reverses this, as the writer sits casually back from the board (lighting a cigarette in a long holder, like Ian Fleming) and hopes that the reader will draw in closer, hunching over the pieces. The novelist dictates the moves, telling the story through someone on the board. Either it's one of the central figures, so the tale is a first-person narrative ("Reader, I married him," says Jane Eyre to anyone trapped in a lift with her). Or there is a reclusive story-teller who knows all ("Emma then felt it indispensable to bid him good-night") but whose personality only occasionally glints in her observations ("...nobody could possibly imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth"). By choosing who will speak, the novelist draws in or holds back the reader.

I like to think of the playwright as hiding under the table, moving the pieces about with magnets. To the reader, the chair opposite is empty. There is only play, so the reader doesn't feel self-conscious in imagining himself a pawn on the back rank of the board: nobody of consequence, but at least a witness, someone who was there. An adventure game is far more radical. The reader -- that is, the player -- is not pawn but Queen, and suddenly finds himself having to actively play. (Though, just as Dante the poet must be distinguished from Dante the pilgrim, so in the rest of this article I distinguish "player" from "central character".) It is a text fulfilling Roland Barthes's dream: divorced from its author, such that it is the act of reading which is creative, different for every reader. Reading can also be exhausting work and not everyone likes being partly responsible for the plot. No wonder the archives are full of "walkthrough" solutions.



The adventure game uses a unique form of discourse. "You open the cedarwood box." Nobody talks like that. The text doesn't ask the reader to sympathize, or suggest what the reader should think. It tells the reader what the reader actually does think. "You draw back in horror from the giant slug-worm." Everything the game says makes another assumption about the reader's attitudes -- in this case, that a giant slug-worm is horrific. If these assumptions are too often wrong, the basis of the game breaks down. It can be damaging even to tell a joke which the reader

doesn't think is very funny. (Novelists almost always put a joke into the mouth of one of the characters, so that if it bombs the reader will blame the character instead. Telling outright jokes in the narrative is left to real pros like P. G. Wodehouse, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams: no wonder Infocom's comedies also read that way.)

When I write about theory, I am reminded of David Mamet's remark, in his book of lectures on film direction, that -- having directed exactly two films -- he was that most dangerous man: a jet pilot with 200 hours flying experience. I have designed exactly two games and shouldn't make reckless generalizations. But I do want to take up a central question, to which my two games give opposing answers:

If the reader becomes the hero, how can the plot survive a massive injection of free will into its central character?

Of course it must be a sort of three-card trick. The game says: pick any card, any card you like. Somehow, you always end up picking the one it wants. But how is this trick done?

In genre games, like gothic-novel or romance (for instance, Christminster or Plundered Hearts), the game subtly but constantly tells the player how to behave. As Hardy put it, character is fate. A well-brought up young woman simply wouldn't kill innocent people. Or slurp her soup, or smash an antique vase (without good reason). Many players feel it's more "realistic" to have the central character sharply defined in advance, even though it forces them to adopt somebody else's personality. (But then this is easier for them, since they do not have to create themselves in their own imagination.) I agree up to a point (everybody loves a masked ball), but there is a radical alternative. I see this as parallel to the novel's choice between first-person narrative and third-person story.

Jigsaw tries to make the player ask not "Whatever would I do in her position?" but "Whatever am I going to do now?". It's essential to the spirit of the game for the player to project his or her own personality onto the central character: because the theme of Jigsaw is not a private saga. It is the history of the twentieth century, something universal, the place where all of us have lived all our lives.

Of course the central character isn't totally vague. We eventually discover that he or she speaks little German and ate cooked lunches at primary school -- but these are too trifling to bear on personality. (Someone in the end game remarks that the player is an obsessive puzzle-solver: but after all, any player who gets that far must be.)

If Jigsaw can't say things like "What, and kill the cuddly poodle?", how will it keep the plot on course? Its aim is to trap the Everyman-like central character in a vice, between a dangerous rush of events on the one hand and obligations to people on the other. (This is classic thriller territory -- take Hitchcock's masterpiece "North By Northwest," for instance, with Cary Grant as Everyman.) The Prologue begins with a glimpse of Black, an alluring stranger in black: the central character wears white, and the game will become a dance of these two opposite figures. Innocently following Black leads the player into a claustrophobic, disquieting scene. The player isn't allowed the luxury of being a bystander, but must act. After that commitment the game opens out, but guilt, fear, duty and romantic fascination continue to push the central character around.

So the first and most crucial step is to fall for an attractive stranger at a party (or, at least, to desire one). I doubt if many players will find this hard to imagine. But as most will care very much whether this stranger is a man or a woman, Black's gender is something else the player will have to project onto the story. The written text is ambiguous (*Cf. Doug Atkinson, "Character Gender and Interactive Fiction" in XYZZYnews #3 for interesting comment on ambiguity of central-character gender. What he says about Curses is exactly right.). (Rather as in Sarah Caudwell's decorous legal murder mysteries, in which the gender of the sleuth, Hilary Tamar, is perfectly concealed. It is annoyingly hard to write a love story without pronouns, but a piece of cake compared to, say, writing an entire novel without the letter E.)

Judging from my electronic postbag, not everybody thinks the genders are ambiguous. One woman was struck by the central character's ability to wear masculine clothes, something I had overlooked (and have accordingly reworded for Release 2). Others have said that Black "acts male", whatever that means, and a few men have resented this ("am I supposed to be gay?"): many feel that the code name Black itself sounds male. (Blackie, presumably, would have been a different matter.) In fact I habitually imagined Black as female, that being my personal preference, but I don't equate this with being flirtatious and passive. Nor do I think safeness the only attraction. In March 1812, when she first met Byron, Lady Caroline Lamb summed him up in her diary as "Mad, bad and dangerous to know." But she fell for him on an awesome scale.

And this is also the answer to those who, quite reasonably, point out that the simplest thing all round would be to shoot Black at the earliest opportunity. (Indeed, the end game reflects on this at one point.) Could you really shoot someone you're attracted to? You the reader, that is.



But most of my mail has been aggravatingly helpful: a classic post-Release-1 deluge of bug reports. In a few cases, people have been taken in by the truth (for instance, several said "surely the band didn't keep playing when the Titanic was sinking": but they did, they did). Still, there were bugs aplenty. I've fixed 194 to date, about 90% largely cosmetic (such as spelling mistakes) or possibilities I had unaccountably failed to provide (such as "taste lightning conductor"). My favorite bug was the parser referring to Miss Shutes, a fabulously beautiful heiress, as "him". The biggest wince came when I found

      if (player has mandolin)
in my own source code, instead of
      if (mandolin in player)

-- an excruciatingly elementary Inform mistake. It must have been very late at night.

That still wasn't the stupidest thing I did, which was to misquote my own email address. Would you buy a used program from this man?

All this despite months of play-testing, by the old Curses team of Michael Kinyon, Gareth Rees and Richard Tucker, whose reports put together occupied about two inches' worth of printout on my desk. (Most of the bugs I mentioned came from my final redraft, after their efforts.) I numbered the pages and would miserably wade through ten or so at a sitting. My thanks to them for their dedication and constant cheerfulness in the face of sulky apathy.



It's uneasy for any game's designer to look over a player's shoulder and see the map being drawn. (You bite your lip, trying not to say "No, the Jade Room is really east of the T-Junction, I know it looks as if it's southeast, but...") So here is my map of the major landmarks. Jigsaw is a romance on three levels, making repeated use of pairs of linked opposites:

        Time                                         Nature
   The time zones        -- The Hinge --            The Land
 Jigsaw puzzle sub-game                       Sketch book sub-game
  Events and inventions                      Life: animals and people
  The chain of events                        Random acts of compassion

        White            -- Love story --             Black
 The player is well known                     The stranger is unknown

What really happened  -- Reading history --  What should have happened
      Acceptance                                     Judgment

Like any winter's tale, it's a parable. History is the case-law of morality, and I believe that reading history is a tenuous bridge between the callous inevitability of what has happened, for good or bad, and the woolly compassion of the reader. To fantasize about the past, to want to change it by make-believe, is to lose our moral grip. But to look back with dispassion is to evade responsibility. One must accept that one is personally implicated and still make judgement on it all, its triumphs and crimes.

As for the plot, Jigsaw comes full circle (as a puzzle-tree diagram of the game would reflect). It begins with an act of guilt, as Black and White divide and become adversaries. While they are opposed, neither can feel quite happy (many players have the creeping sensation, as they are intended to, that however clever they're being, they are perhaps not playing for the right side?). But the game ends with an act of forgiveness as the lovers reunite. Ultimately the Hinge doesn't tear. The past is accepted for what it is, unchanged.



I began Jigsaw in the wake of finishing Curses, in the University summer vacation of 1993. Curses wasn't very popular at the time and not many people had heard of it. I'd enjoyed writing it but felt a bit ashamed at its ramshackleness (though I now think that's what makes it fun). I decided that my next game would be Serious, have a proper plot, look grown-up. All the same, my first sketches were rather derivative. The two games I most admired, Spellbreaker and Trinity, had a heady effect on the early design. The jigsaw itself, and the device of a long-concealed symmetry, are very Spellbreaker-esque (also a long, relatively narrow game with many scenes); and the weave of historical re-enactments is reminiscent of Trinity.

The jigsaw motif literally holds the game together and symbolizes, sometimes explicitly, the interconnectedness of events: it deserves to provide the title. (Though the devil on my shoulder did suggest "Time:1999.") All the same, I started the jigsaw just because it was fun to code: the rest came later. It appealed to me to half-hide the pieces so the player would be desperate for them, but nobody else would understand what they were. Many of my happier moments came when inventing their hiding places. (Perhaps I was remembering Dr. Who's search for the six segments of the "Key to Time," first broadcast in the UK when I was a child.)

I chose the events and scenes in the game before coding or researching any in detail, piecing the jigsaw together -- nationalism, revolution, culture, art, technology, attitudes. Reluctantly, I left out the atomic bomb since, after all, Trinity did all that: but I did include the other great engineering project of the century, the Apollo moon landings. I felt that overmuch social history would be undramatic. But the largest element I (mostly) omitted was genocide. The Holocaust was not fair, the victims had no winning line. There are plenty of happier times, though, and it wasn't hard to fill out the map: only glum, as I looked down on a huge and unfulfilled design.

I began to drop into Oxford County Library with pockets full of coins to photocopy documents -- maps, photographs in biographies, accounts of what happened on particular days. The County was always more convenient than the Bodleian (the magnificent University library), except when on the track of utter obscurity. For each scene, I tried to read everything on open shelves, usually four or five books and some encyclopedia entries, and whatever background caught my eye. The 1956 run of the "Eagle" comic, which I read in facsimile, was an especial delight. So was the Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal. A few documentary videos were useful: for instance, Stephen Poliakoff's excellent film "Century" filled in a room description from 1900.

Enthusiasts were better value than professionals: real historians don't tell you the color of Albert Einstein's socks. But sometimes the bigger the "fact", the more the doubt (try asking biographers of Chain, Florey and Fleming who really discovered penicillin); and even the most famous event can be mysterious. I looked up some 20 books on Lenin, from Communist propaganda to Western tombstone biographies, trying to picture the famous train journey. But I ended up with only two pages of notes and used nearly every detail in the final game. Elsewhere I threw away enormous amounts. (Half a million people worked on Apollo and wrote down everything they did.) I still have a ring-binder full of it: sketch-maps, photos, cryptic notes.

Quite early on, I realized that a 128K standard Infocom game (which was all Inform could compile at the time) would never be enough. With about four of the 18 main areas written, I'd already used up 80K. The project was shelved until Inform could compile 256K games: and then all the old code had to be converted into modern Inform syntax (I had learned painful lessons from my failure to keep the Curses source code up-to-date). During 1994 I made sporadic extensions, a piece at a time, filling in a depressingly empty progress chart. The pre-planned design constantly shackled me. The low-point of morale was about halfway, when my favorite regions were all done. I felt as if I'd eaten all the soft centers in a box of chocolates and now had to chew through the toffees.

Over Christmas and the New Year, I coded up the end-game sequence and this, unexpectedly, was the high point. I felt I could finally see my way to finishing, and announced the title for the first time (in XYZZYnews #1). The end game contains much of my favorite material, breaking out into sunlight after a long march through shadow, but I nearly made a hash of it. At the time I was interested in medieval allegory and was fitfully translating an Old French masterpiece, the "Roman de la Rose." (There is a Middle English translation, supposedly by Chaucer, but it's not very accurate or lively.) Allegory seemed the perfect way to draw out the theme of Jigsaw, with Time and Nature making personal appearances. From C. S. Lewis's classic textbook The Allegory of Love I found a scene by Claudian remarkably close to what I wanted. As Claudian's lawyers had been dead for 1500 years I felt safe in plagiarizing, sorry, adapting his poem. The play-testers politely but resoundingly threw out the resulting pastiche. I wrote the Hinge scene in its place, but I still had allegory in mind.

Once the first draft of the end-game was complete, it remained only to fill out the last few zones (in the Easter vacation of 1995), work up a scoring system, and test: a hateful job, writing the "model solution" file (1,500 commands or so) and persuading the game to accept it. And then the play-testers took over. (Curiously enough, Gareth Rees finished writing Christminster in the same week I finished Jigsaw: at one time we were each testing for the other.) Finally, on September 24th, Jigsaw was released. I went away for the weekend and climbed the crags overlooking Edinburgh. There were two white sails on the perfect blue sea.

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