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Q&A: Will O’Neill, WordPlay festival director

WordPlay-ID-Large-230x300On Nov. 7, the Toronto Reference Library will be home to an array of readers, gamers, and a lot of in-betweeners at the 2015 WordPlay festival.

In its third year, the event aims to “marry literature with digital gaming” with guests from both arenas. Authors Sherwin Tjia, Emily Short, Christine Love, and a number of game creators will be talking about interactive fiction, game books, and the role of narrative in gaming. The day will also see workshops in partnership with the Toronto Public Library Digital Innovation Hub and a playable showcase of games.

Q&Q spoke with festival director Will O’Neill to learn more about WordPlay.

How do you explain “writerly games,””text narrative games,” “game books,” and “interactive fiction” to people unfamiliar with these terms?
Writerly games are video games that predominantly focus on text in how they express themselves to players. The majority of the time this takes the form of a text-based narrative, but WordPlay also celebrates a more experimental use of text in games – a dungeon-crawling adventure that takes place entirely in descriptions attached to Windows Explorer folders, for example.

The first writerly games that most people would be familiar with are the classic Infocom adventures – Zork and the like – but classic adventure games such as King’s Quest and Maniac Mansion are also well-known examples of games that focus heavily on exposition and interaction in text. WordPlay celebrates the ongoing evolution of these games, and in many ways acts as a counterpoint to the pop-cultural image of video games that many people today have of first-person shooters, iPhone puzzlers, etc.

We believe that people who love to read books would love to play writerly games, and we hope to connect them to that world.

How do you see the gaming and fiction worlds connecting?
The connection is nearly always there – very few video games have no text-based narrative whatsoever – but the quality can be everything from brilliant to disastrous. At best, you have games like the upcoming Night in the Woods (featured at WordPlay) where the story and gameplay elements are harmonious, and ultimately amplify each other. At worst, you have nonsensical vignettes with inexplicable characters and seemingly ignored plot holes that serve as a thin adhesive between bouts of murdering people.

We focus on the game equivalent of literary fiction – a lot of heavy, skillful stuff that isn’t afraid to confront and address serious things. The difference in a game, perhaps, is that as creators we try to put a lot of gravity into the interactive elements and choices that people make in the midst of consuming the text, and often in a way that can feel directed more personally at the player. In a game like Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story, for example, you, as the player, are effectively a character in the story yourself.

youareakittenWho are the authors participating in the event?
This year, WordPlay is bridging the gap between writerly games and books directly with a presentation from Sherwin Tjia, who will also be launching his new book You Are a Kitten! in the Toronto Reference Library’s Page & Panel Bookstore. Sherwin will be talking about crucial intersections between the types of CYOA-style books he writes and the considerations that go into making games and interactive experiences of other kinds.

The majority of our main-stage guests and showcase participants would define themselves first and foremost as writers, I believe. For example, there’s Christine Love, an internationally renowned creator of visual-novel-style interactive fiction, and Sam Barlow, who prior to focusing on his own works (Her Story), was a celebrated writer on the Silent Hill series.

This interview has been edited and condensed.