Mariusz Pisarski

Sucker in Spades – hardboiled hybrid of Robert DiChiarra

reflections on REBOOTING electronic literature [1] 

One dead body, two femme fatales, local mafia and a lone private eye roaming the labyrinth of L.A from one click of the mouse to another. Sucker in Spades by Robert DiChiarra, on of the first e-literature works published by Eastgate Systems in 1988 on a Hypergate platform, offers a solid dose of digital, postmodern adventure within the recognisable convention of hard-boiled fiction and film-noir genres. At the same time it prefigures future forms of interactive entertainment. The work is now brought back to contemporary audience by the team at the Electronic Literature Lab, Washington State University, Vancouver.

Techsty - magazyn studencki Sucker in Spades - opening screen on Powerbook G3, Mac Os 9.1

[1] This is the first in a series of notes about works of the early e-lit which are the main focus of the forthcoming Rebooting of Electronic Literature vol. 4.

Sucker in Spades situates itself at a crossroads of pen and paper detective fiction gamebooks, interactive fiction and early electronic literature. The work was created in Hypergate software developed by Mark Bernstein as Eastgate’s original in-house tool for writing digital fiction. Reminiscent of Hypercard – with 2 major differences of not having “stacks” as its main building blocks and with support for animated graphics not as robust as the Apple software – Hypergate served as a platform for 2 more works: Election of 1912 by Bernstein and Erin Sweeney and critically acclaimed King of Space by Sarah Smith. A year after Sucker in Spades was published, Eastgate shipped Michael Joyce’s afternoon. a story, licensed Storyspace and made it its main authoring software.

Originally, Sucker in Spades appeared in print in 1985, as one of 3 chose-your-own adventure novellas published in a single book Hard-Boiled. Three Tough cases for the Private Eye with Smarts. The gameplay required pen and paper for character stats’ notation, and dice rolls for paragraph hopping. Gameplay was coordinated by the voice of an invisible “Game Master”: “go to #75”, “roll the dice”, “subtract D-2 Muscle and D-2 Moxie points”. A map of L.A was included with the key locations marked. Crossing out previously visited locations and marking newly opened ones was an important element of the gameplay.

The game starts with a setting typical for the detective story: a woman in distress comes to your detective agency to report a missing fiancee. After assigning yourself name, sex, age and – important core attributes of Muscle, Magnetism and Moxi (M-M-M) – you venture into town to a few locations that are available at the start of the game.

Sucker in Spades Sucker in Spades on Powerbook G3, Mac Os 9.1

As a tough, yet romantic anti-hero, apparently modelled on the character of Sam Spades from the Maltese Falcon (1931) starred by Humphrey Boggart in the film adaptation (1941), readers move between the detective agency, various hotel apartments, police station and luxury villas in order to solve the mystery. There are also some chance encounters with the character’s ex-wife, with local criminals and ex-cons. What is interesting, these encounters, secondary in their importance to the main plot, happen in passages in-between locations, while travelling from one place to another. Players return to these segments repeatedly. Seemingly randomised, they function as a convenient way of introducing some local background about events or historical background about the character.

On a narrative level, in imagery and style Sucker in Spades is immersed in the hard-boiled genre, although with an added element of irony, humor, pastiche and parody. On the level of poetics and the mechanics of narrative discourse the work points toward future forms of interactive storytelling. Navigating the world is structurally close or identical to contemporary computer games. In a strikingly similar manner a character of Grand Theft Auto receives a mission, gets into his car and travels to various locations across yet another fictitious Los Angeles. The only difference is the technologically determined scale of mimetic representation. The rhythm of returns to the same scenes and a system of conditional access to new ones makes Sucker in Spades an early example of literary hypertext from almost the same period as the early, so called “Riverrun”, editions of afternoon, a story! 1

[2] The first of two “Riverrun” editions of afternoon. a story appeared in 1987. For the detailed overview of all recorded versions of afternoon. a story see Dene Grigar's illustrated guide

Sucker in Spades Sucker in Spades on Powerbook G3, Mac Os 9.1

Thanks to Hypergate’s built-in functionality of guard fields, which control access to locations not yet visited, Robert DiChiarra’s work brings a disruption to the genre of print based chose-your-own adventure. Although there is no parser typical to computer IF, guard fields have successfully blocked readers from browsing through pages, jumping to restricted paragraphs, or cheating on dice rolls. This way, hypertext comes to authors’ aid and delivers more control over the gameplay design. Additionally, automation of important RPG elements of the genre (dice rolls and character stats) results in a sense of accelerated exploration, in contrast to a slower and more reflective engagement with gamebooks. This strategy will be mostly rejected by future generations of “digital natives” who tend to prefer real dice, pen and paper.

Strikingly, in comparison with the print version, a further fragmentation is imposed on the lengths of paragraphs. This is of course heavily determined by PC hardware constraints in 1988 (small 8 inch screen was a standard). Nevertheless it makes the hypertext form as represented by Sucker in Spades responsible for a reversed (micro) linearization of the non-linear original. A single paragraph which in gamebooks and digital IF often represents a single location, in Hypergate is divided into sub-segments. Joined by a “proceed” button they force the reader to recreate a paragraph over the course of several segments. Fortunately, strong fragmentation is benefiting the text. It draws readers closer to the style and character of DiChiarra’s prose. Every sentence is indeed a gem! The hard-boiled fiction genre is humorously exaggerated and juxtaposed with postmodern sensibilities of the late 1980.

Although Sucker in Spades is no longer available for purchase and no longer readable on modern computers, a full documentation of the work, along with the recording of an hour long play-through will be available in the forthcoming fourth volume of the Rebooting Electronic Literature series published by Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver. The process of bringing Sucker in Spades back to the contemporary audience starts this Friday, 11th of September, at 11AM PT with the Live Traversal of the work. The reading will be performed by Mariusz Pisarski and the Traversal, as always, is hosted by Dene Grigar, director of the lab.

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