There are robots in this rabbit hole, also interactive fiction

As part of a new project I’m working on, I’ve been exploring the structure of Last Year at Marienbad and The Invention of Morel in terms of a branching narrative–or perhaps more accurately, a kind of fractured narrative. I hope to write more about that later. But first, I wanted to do a little bit of a detour. In rewatching Marienbad this time, I was particularly struck by the camera movements. 

For example, here is how the opening of the film is described in the “ciné-novel” (French screenplay ; ) the film was based on: “…the camera continues its slow, straight, uniform movement down a dark gallery of which only one side is seen, lit only by regularly-spaced windows on the side not shown…From the beginning the camera has not stopped at any particular point, moving without lingering over the more significant images (the garden)…”

And here is the opening sequence of the film:

This is pretty consistent with how the camera moves and is described throughout the screenplay and film:

“The camera moves around them, turns, comes back to its starting place, as though around figures in a waxworks museum. It is perhaps only the camera movements that give a strange quality to the characters’ motionlessness” (55).

“And while X’s voice continues, the camera begins to turn toward the statue, which becomes the centre of the image while A, on the contrary, disappears from the field of vision, while continuing to smile, motionless and frozen” (60).

In some ways the camera seems to be more sentient than the motionless human figures that it encircles: It floats through hallways and peers around corners, albeit with a cold, appraising gaze.

It immediately made me think of 

  • Alexander McQueen’s Plato’s Atlantis (Spring/Summer 2010):
  • McQueen’s No. 13 (Spring/Summer 1999) (I find this video quite difficult to watch, so I’ll instead link to an interview with model Shalom Harlow.)
  • And finally, also from 1999, the music video for Björk’s “All Is Full of Love” (as a side note, McQueen designed the garment that Björk wears on the cover of Homogenic):

The machines in these videos explore and interact with the environment and the beings that are in that environment: They peer, probe, examine, manipulate; they move through space(s).

So I guess that’s why, at the bottom of this kind of creepy, opulent rabbit hole, I ultimately found interactive fiction–or, at least, the experience of navigating and interacting with a strange, simulated world in an artificial and mechanically constrained way (being limited to a set of implemented verbs, for example, or needing to communicate using a particular syntax). I am not very comfortable playing parser games, so for me, the experience is like a weird dance between interactor and program,* one that feels destabilizing, disorienting, often frustrating, sometimes transcendent. It is a process of assessing, exploring, repeatedly bumping up against the limits of things, and, ultimately, generating a narrative.

*In “Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction” Nick Montfort describes a work of interactive fiction as such: the interactor (i.e., the person sitting at the computer) enters typed input into the work of IF (i.e., a computer program that accepts input and produces output / a generator of narratives / a potential narrative), and the program responds with text output.