The Choices of Jerry Belich
Jerry Belich writes not only fiction, but also computer software, and engages in many other projects at the intersection of storytelling and technology. He designed and constructed the Choosatron, an interactive fiction arcade machine. This summer, he will teach a class at the Loft, "Interactive Fiction and Game Design with the Choosatron," where young writers will have the chance to develop interactive stories and build their own Choosatrons. I had the pleasure of talking with Jerry about what appeals to him about writing in this medium.
Ari Edes (AE): What challenges do you seek in writing interactive fiction, apart from the challenges of traditional fiction?
Jerry Belich (JB): I'm attracted to the challenge of connecting with a reader in a way that draws them in and encourages thoughtful decisions. It can be easy to annoy or alienate if you aren't careful with how you present choices or the passages that lead to them. I also love the challenge of building a more three-dimensional work than traditional fiction. For example, when shooting a sitcom, only pieces of each room exist. Turn the camera and the illusion is broken. I want the reader to feel like they can turn the camera and not be pulled from the world of the story.
AE: What do writers gain by involving readers as participants in creating the story?
JB: I think you gain a stronger relationship with the readers, though in a displaced manner. Although while playing a story the reader is still bound by the choices you as the writer provide, they still have a powerful influence over how the story is conceived. It's during the writing process where the author has no choice but to place themselves in the readers mind, and allow them to influence a story in a tangible way. Whether the writer accepts or twists that influence, there is a potency that linear narrative lacks.
AE: Why did you decide to design the Choosatron to tell stories solely with text, as opposed to more media?
JB: I wanted the Choosatron to be as tactile as possible and maintain a connection with print. We are exposed to so many bright screens and glass surfaces that for me it was a refreshing aesthetic. Along with no digital screens or touch input, I think getting to keep your story completes an intimate storytelling experience. It is capable of printing black on white images, but the authoring software isn't quite ready for that. I have also been experimenting with allowing authors additional methods of feedback, like triggering sounds or an RGB LED. Imagine a story about Chernobyl where you can hear the Geiger crackle and light turn red from nearby danger.
AE: How do you see computers as changing the way writers understand narrative?
JB: A big question, so I'll assume IF specifically. Non-linear narrative generates lot of data, both in structure and how a story is played. Visualization of this data can have a hugely positive impact on how a story is written. For instance, using a force layout tree to dynamically place the story passages as it grows communicates at a glance the flow of the narrative. Then iterate over every permutation of the story, making the links between passages thicker with every pass, and you instantly get a sense of the weight or balance of the story. If you gathered the first play through data from a large number of readers and apply their choices visually, you could use backwards reasoning to determine why nine out of ten all made one choice over another. In this way you can play test your writing, editing based on irrefutable nonverbal feedback.
AE: Why does interactive fiction appeal especially to kids?
JB: Kids love to tell stories. Their minds are developing faster than their environment can limit, and interactive fiction is a great outlet for the creativity that generates. Willing suspension of disbelief is almost a non-issue because everything is still possible.
AE: What other projects are you dreaming up that will use technology for storytelling?
JB: I've been prototyping stories tapping into how we communicate. A story over a virtual cellphone call using speech recognition and recorded audio for example. One project almost finished is Unfunny Robot, an app where you are told poorly written jokes and stories that robots would write. It's a lead up to a story game I've been writing about a scientist stuck on a remote asteroid with robots, who spends the rest of his life trying to teach them humor because he is so lonely. Finally, there is one project I'm dying to speak about, but it's still too early. I'll just say that it involves messing with the solo model of existing interactive fiction.
AE: If you had to inhabit a Choose Your Own Adventure-style book for the rest of your life, which would you pick?
JB: Tricky. To inhabit I'd say Vampire Express. Not my favorite CYOA, but I love trains, castles, science, mystery, and of course vampires. If I push the question to text adventures as well, then Planetfall. I was in love with the companion robot Floyd from the story, even building a Lego version I still have of what I imagined he looked like. I also cried when he died.
Jerry Belich is a professional programmer of over ten years who has spent the other half of his time pursuing various creative projects. He’s continued to be active in videography, live theater, and game design. His experiments with interactive fiction have crossed into most genres of his creative work. He invented the Choosatron as a love-letter to the strong influences of his childhood in hopes to spark the imagination of children and adults alike.
Ari Edes is an optimist and a technophobe. He works as the Loft’s office manager.