The novel House of Leaves stands as a prime example of Espen Aarseth’s definition of a “simulation”. In their article, “Genre Trouble” Aarseth goes into extensive lengths about the art of “simulated” game space, and how a virtual world bound by its own set of rules fosters healthy academic study. Based on Aarseth’s standards on what constitutes a “simulation” versus a narrative, House of Leaves fulfills not only the positive traits of a simulation, but also embodies the weaknesses of one.
While Aarseth indeed chose to focus on the merits of computer games and digital literature – a particular statement he makes about hypertext fiction frames House of Leaves under an intriguing scope, “In the case of hypertext fictions, we are explorers, but without recognizable rules, there is no real game.” While it is true that House of Leaves is by no means meant to be experienced purely through a digital medium, as is customary of hypertext literature, the novel does carry the important facet of the hypertext genre – mainly, to inspire more interactivity from the readers through the usage of textual and bibliographic codes. Danielewski subtly transforms his readers into “explorers” and allowing for them to create their own subjective “rules” as they experience his work. In this sense, Danielewski’s is a literary “simulation” where instead of concrete rules and boundaries that tie a computer game’s world, there are instead bibliographic codes and a myriad of secrets; and these become the true substantial content of House of Leaves: the experience of embodying and performing the madness and paranoia-induced thirst for answers that the novel’s protagonists experience. On the other end of this spectrum, House of Leaves also carries the negative characteristic that plagues simulations, as Aarseth puts it, “When it is there at all, the story in these games is superficial, like a bored taxi driver whose only function is to take us on to the next ludic event. In the case of Heroes of Might and Magic, story fragments pop up at specific times in a level. They are completely superfluous, like illustrations in a storybook, and ignoring them will not affect the gameplay at all.” This fits the novel perfectly, as House of Leaves progresses it steadily becomes less and less about a concrete narrative, but rather the pursuit towards truth while sifting through hypertext-styled components that could possibly be lies.
Danielewski’s House of Leaves is the equivalent to a novelized simulated space – where readers become conspiracy addled explorers in the descent into insanity. The supposed story becomes a means to an end, a backdrop used to paint the stage for readers to “perform” their roles.
The Google Tech Talk by Jason Scott, a self-proclaimed computer historian, entails a screening of his movie “Get Lamp: The Text Adventure Documentary”. As the name suggests, the film chronicles the history of text-based adventure games and their advent on the computer medium. However, this film utilizes a unique narrative structure in its “Interactive Edition” in which the audience themselves can decide what path the movie will explore – which in turns provides unique interviews to be played based on the viewer’s choice. The film focuses on the exploration of the allure of a Text Adventure game, the inspirations behind them, as well as how they have shaped the Interactive Fiction genre.
This documentary extensively delves into the origins of Text Adventure games: mainly, the exploration and attempted mapping of a three dimensional cave called Bedquilt Cavern. The cave, which is surprisingly deeper and more spacious inside it’s depths than it is on the outside, became the design philosophy and inspiration that became the game “Adventure” by Will Crowther. This simple seeming adventure game enraptured an entire generation of people by being the first “interactive” form of literature; as well as honing in on the obsessive nature of people that wanted to understand and “solve” the game to it’s entirety.
Eventually there came a game called “Zork” by Infocom, which revolutionized the foundations of interactive fiction that “Adventure” had built. The game expanded past the boundaries of a “text adventure” by offering vivid detail of settings and offering deep and complex puzzles that challenged the creativity and intellect of the players. Even for blind players, the interactive fiction genre games were a joy to play, because even though they lacked the ability to “see” the text themselves without a voice scripter – it allowed for them to “perform” and “pretend” to see, for them to experience and learn how to navigate through new and unfamiliar environments.
With the popularity of text adventure games at the time, it posed an interesting question to both the developers of the game and the players in terms of “interactivity”. This frames the problem of the interactive paradox into a larger lens, as the players wish to acquire more freedom and control of their path in the story, while an author or creator attempts to restrict the player in a boxed in playground of a on-rails narrative. The conclusion that most developers of interactive fiction have come to is that allowing a player too much freedom is chaotic – and offers them the power of control in ways that does not contribute to a story telling narrative; and so, their solution to such an issue was to attempt to come up with as many assumptions as they could on what actions a player could and would want to input, and go with the best that the limitations of their medium offered them.
Text adventure games offered a unique medium for not only literature-minded readers to become immersed in, but also a brand new genre for the community of gaming as a whole.
Most of the time, yes, in video games in which I make a choice I am conscious of the decisions I am making and the consequences that would entail. However, when it comes to the question of whether or not I am willingly replicating or subverting the tropes of “power” I would say no, I am not consciously aware of that. Video Games are different than other mediums in that we, the player, are inserted into an avatar that we use to interact with the game’s setting; and naturally that aspect also affects any and all decisions that are presented to us in-game. For example, say there was a choice in which the player is given the choice of tackling on an entire battalion of fearsome enemies, or on the other hand, just sneak past in an alternate route. Naturally, if our “avatar” character is the usual nameless hero meant to completely represent us, then the choice falls solely on our whim or fancy; however, if the avatar character has a set backstory, say your character follows the trope of the great Gothic hero with superior agency, bravery, and skills – then you would lean more towards replicating that representation of “power” by choosing to tackle on the group of enemies head-on. On the other side of that spectrum, if you were playing a character that is less powerful, injured, or skilled – then the more appealing choice would be to subvert the representation of power in relation to the gothic hero.
First one – The distinction between “Game Mode” and “Play Mode” is valuable in that it allows us to put a label in the distinction between pure gameplay for the sake of just playing, and a true immersive experience where the player fully enjoys and are invested in their experience with the game. These terms also helps us differentiate what can be considered a “bad game” from a “good game” with the former being a boring, mindless experience and the latter being an enjoyable immersive time
Second one – The question of morality and making decisions fueled by such in games such as Fallout becomes more complicated once we consider the numeric value placed behind such decisions. The “good” or “bad” karma point system imposes different motivations behind the supposed moral decisions you make – whether or not you are doing it to follow your own moral code or simply to gain more karma points to gain favor with factions.
The novel House of Leaves stands out as a medium of literature that breaks the standards and confines of a “printed novel” prominent in our lifetime. To analyze the way that this book breaks out against the grain, the analysis of its supposed medium as a “novel” and representation of “narrative” are crucial. In the most common of definitions, a “novel” is regarded as “A story or lie, an invention” (Oxford English Dictionary Database) or even a “long narrative, normally in prose, which describes fictional characters and events, usually in the form of a sequential story” (Wikipedia). While it is indeed true that House of Leaves contains various falsehoods and illusions in which both the main characters and the readers experience – stemming from the footnotes, unreliable narrator, and questionable source material; it is also important to remember that none of these non-truths serve to cohesively build a sequential story – a far cry from the style of the average printed novel.
To better frame House of Leaves to a category, if any, a connection to the genre of “Interactive Fiction” would be an apt fit. An Interactive Fiction piece can be described as “any story that allows reader participation to alter the presentation or outcome of the narrative…” (JHGDM, 289). While this genre is more often relegated to video games, House of Leaves offers up a substantial amount of “participation” for the reader to engage in that substantiates the requirements for this genre. The intrigue and mystery behind which information is credible and which isn’t alone in the story allows the reader to be involved. While one could argue that House of Leaves suits the name of “Interactive Narrative” better, due to the representation of the plot and characters stemming from various narrators and perspectives – it fails to deliver in terms of giving more control to the readers participating, where as Interactive Fiction already dictates a confined space and story for the readers to be their “playground”. In this way House of Leaves does not suffer from the “interactive paradox” of balancing between the desire for control between author and reader (JHGDM, 291).
In short, this book succeeds in being different than that of the usual print novel of today’s standards by offering a different genre: Interactive Fiction – offering up a playground of interactivity and participatory engagement that breaks free of the confines of a sequential story novel or narrative.