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.
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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