John Cage said "Everything we do is music." His 1952 composition 4′33″ is popularly thought to consist of silence, but his intent was to show that there is no silence, practically speaking:
You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.
Everything We Do Is Games is my attempt to show that even a null interactive fiction game is a game. Many have pointed out that all fiction is interactive, to some extent: the reader chooses whether and when to turn the page, as in Jesse McGrew's Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, or Jon Stone's The Monster at the end of this Book. Moreover, the reader's mind interacts with the fiction, choosing to create mental images and associations not literally present in the text but prompted by it, intentionally or not. The reading experience might even involve solving puzzles (such as murder mysteries). The experience of playing Everything We Do Is Games may involve confusion or surprise, as the player is confronted with a screen that says nothing but "[Hit any key to exit.]", or a brief "Parchment is loading." popup. After some consideration, and perhaps some experimentation such as reloading the game or trying a different interpreter, the player may come to understand that the game is in fact a null game; this state of satisfaction and enlightenment can be considered the winning (and only) ending. In other words, the player wins the game as soon as he realizes he has played it: the exact opposite of The Game.
You may grant that a null interactive fiction game is a game, and interactive, but is it fiction? In fact, it's both fiction and non-fiction: perhaps it is a simulation of what it's like to be a zombie, or an inventory of the contents of a geometric point, or a story of the events before the creation of the universe, or a tutorial for how to beat your heart. Ultimately, it's an instance of communication of an idea or set of ideas, wordlessly, just like all music and games.
The name of 4′33″ comes from the total length of the first performance of the piece, but the piece itself does not prescribe a length: the score (pictured in the cover art for Everything We Do Is Games) consists of three movements, each consisting of the word TACET (Latin for "it is silent"), a musical instruction to refrain from playing an instrument. The performer is free to choose the duration of each movement, although Cage's original idea was for the piece to be "three or four-and-a-half minutes long—those being the standard lengths of 'canned' music", so that it could be sold to Muzak Co. I considered adding a timer to the game, so that it would last either 4:33 or 2 hours (the prescribed maximum length of an IFComp game), but I decided that would actually make it less interactive than Cage's piece! Instead, like a performer of 4′33″, the player can choose any length of time to play the game, until hitting any key or navigating away from the browser page. (One might also consider a playthrough of Everything We Do Is Games to itself be a performance of 4′33″. It's also the soundtrack to the game.)
While Everything We Do Is Games is a null game, it is not a null program, just as the score for 4′33″ is not a blank page. In particular, the game consists of three scenes, an Inform 7 concept to organize the turns of a game. The scenes correspond to the three movements of 4′33″, and each scene consists of zero turns. Unfortunately, these scenes are not perceptible to the player the way that the movements are usually perceptible to the audience of a performance of 4′33″: traditionally, a performer will close the keyboard lid of a piano to mark the beginning of each movement, and open it to mark the end. In this aspect, the role of performer is played by the interpreter program (i.e., the computer) rather than the player: of course, computers have been designed to perform instructions as fast as possible, so they will choose to perform each scene for only a millisecond or so.
In addition to defining the three scenes, the game's source program includes
several statements to inhibit things that Inform 7 prints by default. These took some work to figure out, and
in fact I was not able to eliminate one blank line that Inform 7 games print at startup. This is possible to
do, by replacing the main routine with custom Inform 6 code, but at that point I might as well have just
implemented the game in Inform 6, in which a null game can be
written simply as
[Main;];. I chose to use Inform 7, the current state-of-the-art tool for
authoring interactive fiction, in part to demonstrate how much machinery is involved with creating a typical
game: the generated Inform 6 source code is 54,000 lines, and the output Z-code file is over 300k, because
they include the entire parser and world model library that most non-null games rely on. This is analogous to
arranging an entire symphony orchestra in a concert hall to perform 4′33″,
as was done in 2004 in London.
As Nick Montfort points out, unlike the empty set of mathematics and the null string of computer science, there is no single null program, but an abundance of null programs. This is even more true about null games: not only are there countless ways to write a null interactive fiction, and numerous IF implementation platforms, but there are a vast plethora of other game genres, each with its own community of practice and authoring tools. I encourage all reading this to create their own null games in their favorite genres, and consider how their frames influence the experience of playing the games. I also invite the reader to reflect on what it means to play a game, even beyond the boundaries of traditionally defined game structures: what exactly are games, anyway? I believe that, on multiple levels, everything we do is games.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Thanks to my playtesters: Rob Leslie, Jesse McGrew, Nick Montfort, Paula Wing. Also thanks to Neil Butters for running ShuffleComp: Disc 2, and to Jacques Frechet for submitting 4′33″ in his playlist.
You may also enjoy playing these other games inspired by 4′33″: