A Question Without an Answer
February 2, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
Tom Disch, who would’ve celebrated his birthday today, is best known for his science fiction and his poems, some of which were first published in The Paris Review. But he also wrote, in 1986, a text-based video game called Thomas M. Disch’s Amnesia, which has become a kind of curio in the years since its publication—an emblem of a brief time when gaming and experimental fiction shared similar agendas, and when “interactive novels” seemed as if they might emerge as a popular art form.
Amnesia begins the only way such a project could: in a state of total confusion. “You wake up feeling wonderful,” Disch writes,
But also, in some indefinable way, strange. Slowly, as you lie there on the cool bedspread, it dawns on you that you have absolutely no idea where you are. A hotel room, by the look of it. But with the curtains drawn, you don’t know in what city, or even what country.
From there, it’s up to you (“you”) to input the commands that will lead your character to safety, or at least to comparative epistemological certainty. The text is full of humor and horror. You will die (just like in real life), and you’ll discover aspects of your character that raise more questions than they answer (ditto). Disch referred to the game as his “U-Dun-It”; Tobias Carroll, who revisited Amnesia for Hazlitt in 2013, wrote that the game “blends a Hitchcockian wrong-man scenario with the setting of a paranoid thriller from the mid-’70s, spiking it all with a somewhat satirical take on New York City in the mid-1980s.” Amnesia has gained renown for its comprehensive portrayal of New York. Quoth Wikipedia:
Disch’s model covered every block and street corner south of 110th Street. A hard-copy map of the streets and subways of Manhattan was included in the packaging. Players moved from place to place on foot, and had to reach destinations at the correct time of day to initiate plot developments. Stores opened and closed at the correct times, street lights went on, and other aspects of New York life were simulated. Almost 4000 separate Manhattan locations, including 650 streets, were part of the game.
It’s difficult to get the game to function on newer machines, but no matter—a few years ago, someone published the entirety of Disch’s “script,” which runs to more than four hundred pages and had to be substantially trimmed to accommodate the diskette technology of the mideighties. And it’s as a document that Amnesia is especially compelling: it’s essentially a novel written in the second person, spliced with a pseudo-code with aspects of programming meets Choose Your Own Adventure. It’s fascinating to see Disch contend with the more schematic elements of “interactive” storytelling—how he manages the many junctions, nodes, and decision-making trees, how he keeps track of where his character has been and where he might go.
In its structure, parts of it anticipate the hypertext movement of the nineties or more modern experiments in metafiction—think of David Foster Wallace’s “Adult World,” the second half of which is written as an outline.
Here, to give you a taste, is a nightmare set in a deranged, Macy’s-esque department store called Oldman’s, on Thirty-Fourth Street:
[IF response to 8> is anything but GO TO/ TAKE/ RIDE ESCALATOR, the text for 7A is repeated—on this floor and for the rest of way up to the 13th floor.]
You take the escalator to the second floor, where four female mannikins have been grouped in a tableau representing an outing to the beach. Each of the mannikins has lifted her plaster hand to point to the upward-bound escalator.
[If, repeats conditions set forth after 8>.]
You take the escalator to the third floor, which is devoted to displays of men’s fashions. On the counter just before you a single leather glove on sale for $12.95 points to the Up escalator. Informs you that the Les Delices has been closed for renovation. Another placard shows a hand pointing, with no explanation toward the escalator.
You take the escalator to the fifth floor, where a white-haired salesman stands daydreaming behind a counter displaying all kinds of cutlery. “Could I interest you in a knife, Sir?” he asks wistfully.
[If response to 12> is YES or BUY KNIFE:]
12A. “Very good, Sir. This—” He holds a a knife with an 8-inch stainless steel blade to your throat. “—is our very best all-purpose carving knife. And this—” The carving knife drops from his hand, and he takes another, smaller kife from the counter. “This is a superb knife for boning chicken.” He lunges at you with the knife, which makes a long gash in the sleeve of your white coat—but does no more significant harm.
[If response to 12> is NO:]
12B. “No? You won’t even look at my knives?” The white-haired salesman sighs. “I don’t know why I waste my time. All these years, and all these knives, and never once ... never once ... ” He picks up the largest of the knives from the counter and, with a really remarkable steadiness of purpose, slowly positions it over the left-hand breast pocket of his suit and commits suicide. “I’m sorry,” he says, with his last dying breath. “I tried to be a good salesman. I did ... my level ... best.”
[The only effective response to 12A> or 12B> and another possible response to 12>, is TAKE ESCALATOR … ]
The entire script is available as a PDF here.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.