Cover Songs and IF

I want to show you a song. Three times over, actually. The song is “Hurt”, by Trent Reznor, off the album The Downward Spiral.

Here’s Reznor’s version, aka the Nine Inch Nails version (Trent Reznor being the only member of Nine Inch Nails). “Hurt” belongs to Reznor. He wrote it; those are his words and his melody, straight from his depression, social anxiety, and substance abuse.

Here’s the same song performed as a duet with David Bowie. It has more grandeur, more mystery, and more electronics, as befits Bowie. But there’s more to it than that.

One of the greatest moments of my life was standing onstage next to David Bowie while he sang “Hurt” with me. I was outside of myself, thinking, “I’m standing onstage next to the most important influence I’ve ever had, and he’s singing a song I wrote in my bedroom.” It was just an awesome moment.
– Trent Reznor, Rolling Stone, January 26, 2016

Reznor saw Bowie as a mentor and father figure, someone who’d been to the same “unsustainable, reckless, self-destructive” places as Reznor and yet came back alive. hat relationship is audible in their duet. They shift back and forth between which voice has prominence – but listen to the times Reznor is prominent, versus the times Bowie has the floor. Reznor has this deliberate strain in his voice – the pain and the desire to hurt – while Bowie’s voice is more restrained, with grace, maturity, and deliberate beauty. And when they’re equally balanced, it’s a marvel.

Here’s the same song performed by Johnny Cash. He changes exactly one word: “crown of shit” becomes “crown of thorns”.

Combined with his delivery, it’s an entirely different song. There’s no splash or polish here: it’s the raw, simple honesty of an old man looking back on the regrets of his life. (And if it makes you cry – well, you’re not alone.)

It’s the same song each time, and yet it’s not. Each of these artists brings something different to the music – the influence of their history, their skill, their personal artistic choices.

The “cover songs” of fiction

The reboots of modern media – films, TV shows, comic books, and video games – are comparable to cover songs. Consider the  elements of the Batman story:

  • billionaire Bruce Wayne
  • the death of his parents
  • his faithful butler Alfred
  • his sidekick Robin
  • his arch-nemesis the Joker
  • and, of course, the Batmobile

These elements have been remixed countless times, but the effect varies significantly from version to version. Is Batman a comic figure? A paternal authority figure? A hunted vigilante in a dystopia? He’s been all of these and more, depending on the era, the artists, the writers, and the guiding vision.

Retold fairy tales are another kind of “cover song” within fiction. For example, “Beauty and the Beast” has been adapted by creators ranging from Tanith Lee to Ursula Vernon (as T. Kingfisher) to Robin McKinley (twice) to Disney (again twice – once in the animated film, and once in the TV series Once Upon A Time).  Fairy tales are likely more prevalent than reboots, both because of their strong roots in culture and history (Batman didn’t show up until 1939, after all) and because they’re reliably in the public domain. Batman will remain with DC Comics until at least 2019, but there’s nothing to stop the next inspired author from adapting Beauty and the Beast again.

beauty and the beast

Of course, Wikipedia and TVTropes have hundreds of additional examples in both columns.

What about interactive fiction?

We have seen retold fairy tales in IF, particularly Emily Short’s retellings of Beauty and the Beast (Bronze), Cinderella (“Glass”), and Snow White (“Alabaster”, with coauthors Cater, Dubbin, Eve, Heller, Jayzee, Mishima, Morayati, Musante, Thornton, and Wities). But it isn’t a widespread trend.

Before the release (and overwhelming dominance) of Inform 7, it was often bewildering for new IF authors to figure out which system to use. Roger Firth wrote the brief demo game “Cloak of Darkness”, which has been ported onto a variety of IF systems so that people can compare the necessary source code. This is something of a reverse cover song: it changes behind the scenes every time, but the actual play experience is supposed to remain the same. It doesn’t equate.

SpeedIF and related events have much more of a personal stamp. These events invite IF authors, rather like chefs on Chopped, to take a number of disparate elements and combine them into one. But the results are often so diverse that it’s impossible to tell the connection between two games. It’s impossible to avoid seeing the similarity between two cover songs, or two retellings of the Batman mythos. This isn’t a reasonable equivalent.

But I would like to see an equivalent in IF. I’d like to see something like a story we all know, or a song we can all hum along to, that can showcase the personal style and unique interpretation of a given author.

In the 80s and early 90s, a wide variety of authors developed different versions of Colossal Cave Adventure. They were generally adding onto and expanding the original game, rather than recreating it with their personal stamp, so it’s not exactly the same. And Adventure is treated today as a historical document and handy fodder for examples rather than a currently evolving game.

But since it’s a pioneer in the medium, one of the most famous text adventures, and not currently being protected by litigation, Adventure seems like an unusually good candidate for IF “cover songs”.

And I wonder what Jacqueline Lott’s Adventure would be like, or Porpentine’s, or Chandler Groover’s. Or even mine.


(Thanks to Jason Hoggatt for inspiring this post!)

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  1. Mystery House Taken Over is probably the closest approximation. And there’s a pretty well-developed parody/MSTing tradition – which definitely counts as a remix/reworking, even if not in the spirit I think you’re looking for.

  2. What about Plotkin’s “Hunter, in Darkness”, a sort of re-telling of the classic “Hunt the Wumpus”?

  3. Penn Jillette’s “The Aristocrats” (every trigger warning ever) is an interesting example outside of IF. I like the idea of singling out Adventure, the way that Jillette aimed everyone at a single joke.

  4. In one sense, I’d be inclined to suggest that interactive fiction is full of things analogous to cover songs: every time a different person plays through a work of IF, it’s like a new singer singing a song, or a new troupe of actors performing a play. Of course, different works allow for more or less individual variation, and most play-throughs aren’t seen by anyone other than the player. But at least for some kinds of IF, different players’ interactions with the work produce what might be thought of as alternative versions of a single core story. I wonder if there’s a good way of showcasing that aspect of IF more publicly—maybe by posting a bunch of transcripts from works that particularly lend themselves to this kind of variation?

    I’d really like to see what you suggest, too, as a way of showcasing different IF creators’ styles and ideas. If you ever do write a cover of Adventure, I’ll be very keen to play it.

    • You have an interesting point here re: player variations, but there’s usually no concept of “audience” in those cases. I think it’s hard to play through a game as a performance, simply because you’re trying to, well, play through the game.

      On the other hand, one of my routine playtesters really *does* play through games as a performance – he enters stuff that no rational author would implement and hammers on things that are never going to work, just because he knows I’ll be amused when I read the transcript later. So I can imagine a list of transcripts like that being an interesting read.

      • I think maybe it’s not so much that there’s no concept of audience as that there’s (usually) no clear separation between player-as-audience and player-as-performer. In any case, I think you’re quite right that it makes this a less-than-exact analogue of a singer covering a song. Perhaps it’s more like the days (before audio recordings) when popular songs were widely circulated as sheet music, and people would gather round the piano and sing them for themselves (and an intimate audience of family and friends).

  5. Has anyone ever done Planetfall from Floyd’s POV? It seems like the most obvious thing somehow – and there’s a few directions one could take with it.

    If not – that one’s on the house. Take it and run with it.

  6. At least for me, fairy tale covers offer a chance to skip a lot of plot exposition. For once, you get to start with a player who probably knows as much as their protagonist from the very beginning. (In the case of Glass, in fact, you can’t find some of the most important branches unless you have information that is not given anywhere in the game.) There are a few other stories that have a similar degree of cultural penetration, but a many of them are either protected IP or else associated with a religious tradition.

    Mystery House Taken Over was very different. At least for me, a lot of the appeal of the project was about trying to reinterpret the original design intent, a Clue-like mystery game with a steadily rising body count, into something more dynamic with more modern technology. I didn’t really expect the audience necessarily to have played the game before, and it wouldn’t have helped solve my contribution, “Mystery House Possessed,” if they had.

    I’m not sure what it would be like covering an IF game but trying to leverage prior audience knowledge the way I did with the fairy tale pieces. Maybe something where there are sort of vestigial puzzles from the original, but we can assume the audience knows the solution, so they’re no longer really *about* puzzling per se? (A complication: I no longer remember puzzle solutions even for a lot of games that I did play. There are a few classic exceptions one could probably work from, but I’d say no more than a handful per game, and only from the most famous games. The Babelfish machine. Spider & Web’s chair. The dragon in Adventure, and maybe the rod and star.)

    Oh! and this was more parody than cover, but the Coke Is It! project from long ago is also probably worth a look here. ( )

    • Hmm. I hadn’t considered the hit-the-ground-running advantage of fairy tales – my focus is usually always on “so how did YOU do this?” once I recognize that it’s a fairy tale happening.

      I think certain works of Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet) might have adequate cultural penetration – consider works like “Shakespeare in Love” and “West Side Story” here. Past there, I move into shakier ground where I’m not sure whether something is well known culturally, or whether it’s part of my personal lore stockpile (Arthurian legend, sections of One Thousand and One Nights, Greek and Norse myth – though these also all have religious aspects.)

      Coke made me think of Adam Thornton’s “Chicken and Egg”, which falls also into the parody category.

  7. There’s “Zork: A Troll’s Eye View” by Dylan O’Donnell. A one-room joke game written as a programming exercise, but it did get nominated for a Xyzzy.

    Anyone want to run an IF cover comp? I’d enter!

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