This is How You Will Die

Jason Nelson, a familair name in this class, produced a pretty hilarious slot death game called This is How You Will Die. According to Nelson, the game takes a pared-down version of a regular online slot machine game’s code and replaces the images with 5 short descriptions that get mixed and matched to tell you how you end up dying. Not being a fan of Nelson’s work in general (I find it to be generally…well, annoying) I actually really enjoyed reading/playing this game.

One of the first things that really tickled me was just loading the game and seeing three boxes, one with your “demise credits,” one to spin the wheel, and the last to “explain death.” Only a html based slot machine game would claim to be able to explain death, though from the content given you’re provided more of an explaination of death being a “final move” rather than what death means. However, even thinking of death as a final move is ironic for this game because as long as you have enough demise credits to continue playing, death is not a final move but a continuous one, made over and over with different results. Perhaps I did not play enough to produce a “winning” result, i.e. a spin that increases your demise credits afterwards instead of simply depleting them, but in order to keep playing after 3 spins I had to keep refreshing the game page. I figured after dying a million spins worth of deaths I would at least vaguley figure out how one would score points (perhaps it was my own bias that I sensed an insinutation in the line “you need at least 10 credits to continue forecasting your death” that gaining credits was even possible), but to no avail. 28 credits, 19 credits, 10 credits, 1 credit; over and over.

Other than the outline of the game, the disjointed, yet syntactically fitting, phrases were good fun. Especially interesting is the fifth and final part of the sequence where you seemingly get a look in the world after your death. While some of these post-death prophecies have only to do with people outside of yourself (the dead one), some (like, “You are glad you are dead” seem to contradict Nelson’s very precise phrasing in the “explain death” section that “your last [motion/move/doorway/etc.] is your death.”

Abusive Game Design

Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design by Douglas Wilson and Miguel Sicart (2010) just did not work for me. I guess overall, I saw their point in waiting to create games in which the designer was still thought about and considered post-production (much like the author and his intentions are often labored over by English majors and their professors), but more so than that I was just left with pointed questions and a “so what” kind of feeling.

Firstly, creating a game that may not be commercially successful seems to clash with Craig Mod’s ideal earlier in the semester that his digital work could not be quantified (and should be). Isn’t [a designer’s] income a way to quantify success? Do these designers require that kind of validation, and even more importantly, do these designers not require making money off the project they spend so much time on (as abusive games have been shown to be generally unmarketable to large audiences)? Are these what we would call “pet projects,” or side projects built more for the entertainment of the designer than for the commercial success of the game? If traditional video games are built for the lusory attitude of the player, these abusive games could just be seen as “feedback systems that reward” designers for there cattiness and cleverness.

Also, isn’t the idea that the designer is laughing at the player monologic in a different way? The authors purport that a designer designing for the whims and desires of the player is too one-way, but isn’t the designer who designs for his own pleasure (lying and hurting the player) also creating a situation where no “dialogue” is being had? Just because this monologue does not “efface” the designer (as the designer can sometimes be “effaced” by player-centric modes of design) this does not mean that the these abusive games are actually creating any dialogue, and especially not a productive dialogue. The desire to see more abusively designed games seems more a product of designers who have felt shunned and not “noticed” (and then we go back to my original question about a successful game that produces income actually being a quantifier of the designer’s importance and work), or academics who have become bored with the current mode of analyzing games.

And finally, how does the abusive game designer factor into the conversation post-production? The player may be tuned to the designers desires, but then how does the designer respond back? How is the conversation moved forward after this 1-to-1?

Big Social Data

In one of my favorite articles we’ve seen so far this semester, “Trending: The Promises and the Challenges of Big Social Data,” Lev Manovich proposes a new type of humanities student and scholar: the kind that can both think and analyze like an English major, but also research and construct digital environments in which to host and process their work like a computer scientist. During this whole class, I have wondered about digital media as a study of English and literature, especially when considering what kind of (albeit “stupid, little”) digital object I, and the rest of the class, would create. I’ll assume we all have the capability to dream up digital objects that crunch numbers, move wildly about the screen, or aggregate all instances of certain themes on the world wide web, but…are we capable of actually creating those objects? Manovich says that, “if each data-intensive project done in humanities would have to be supported by a research grant which would allow such collaboration, our progress will be very slow,” indicating that we (as humanities students) may not currently possess the ability to program or write code and algorithms necessary to do the type of “big data” research we would like to, and we’d better start enrolling in IT and computer literacy classes in additional to contemporary lit and cultural studies classes.

I definitely think Manovich is right, that the humanities (and particularly the college major course requirements for humanities) could use an infusion of computer science. That said, I think most courses of study could benefit from this infusion. Not only can computers help us to parse big data useful for humanities research, they and (knowledge of/about them) can help tackle all sorts of hurdles more easily accomplished by an algorithm than “by hand.” I work as an online sales manager for a small business, and I totally understand what Manovich means when saying that you sometimes need to have specific computer knowledge in order to collect the types of data you want. If I want to organize inventory in a specific way or track trends in sales that are not “pre-supported” in the algorithms that the program automatically offers, I have to create myself a new Data Import file or a new Data Export file, that tells the program how I want it to read the information that I will upload into it as en excel or text file. This is not something I was trained to do or previously had knowledge of, and as a result has caused me to seek out a lot of computer skills knowledge that I didn’t already have. Gaining this knowledge and ability to manipulate inventory and sales data through the computer has not just benefit my understanding of the company’s fiscal position, but has allowed me to more thoroughly analyze trends and make adjustments to the way we do business as a result.

Maybe this is because I don’t know too much about how programming works, but the one question I did keeping asking myself throughout reading the article (especially when Manovich is talking about reducing the “data landscape” to a useable size) was: What are the computer algorthims for videos, photos, and non-text datas based on? How would you ask the computer to put constraints on the data set? Are these constraints based mainly on the “formal” aspects of the data, i.e. time, date, length, size, color, original tags or descriptions associated? How would you organize the data by themes, if all you had was length of video and file size? For that matter, how would one organize the data based on any content with physically watching all 1 million videos and tagging them all with relevant terms? For that matter, wouldn’t doing something like that result in a fairly subjective idea of what the themes or content of each video is?

Once Upon a Time…I wrote a story.

As part of “We Tell Stories,” the six authors/six stories/six weeks project from Penguin Books UK, Kevin Brooks wrote a kind of interactive fiction piece that tells you a Fairy Tale in the Hans Christian Anderson style. The piece first asks you to choose the names of the The Peasant’s Daughter and The King in the story you are about to craft, and then proceeds to introduce the conflict in the story: The Peasant cannot pay his rent to the King, who then decides to take the Peasant’s Daughter as a bride for the Ugly Prince in lieu of rent. As the story moves on, the reader is asked to choose from different variables like who to talk to, what qualities are most valued by you, and emotionally what kind of ending you would like to read for your story. While the story is fairly short (only about six sections), the interface in which the reader directs the plot is fairly interesting considering last week’s reading about the death of the Author and the inconstancy of the author in digital media, and especially the database form.

Fairy Tales directly relies on the reader to make creative decisions concerning the plot and details of the story, much like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. This story, though, also allows the reader to choose character names, and at the end even append one’s own personally written epilogue to the story. In fact, when you finish the story (having written or not written your own ending), you are then asked to “Share your story, or make another fairy tale…” The wording of the language clearly states this is the reader’s story, even giving him/her the chance to title it and share with friends. While Kevin Brooks wrote the base narration and dialogue, and presumably the algorithm that displays the corresponding text to the corresponding quality/value/ending preference chosen by the reader, he does not take credit for the resulting story. This work does a great job of simplifying and making clear the idea that in digital media, and especially works that operate as a database where “the reader” is invited to sort and search data according to certain variables, there is not necessarily a clear, singular author. Meaning and “wholeness” are created as a product of the reader’s reading, which may (and often is) different from another reader’s reading (in this case, the different character names, the different individual choices, and the epilogue would likely vary from reader to reader). So, in that way, Fairy Tales is a work by Kevin Brooks, but it allows for new, different, varied works to be created by any number of additional authors. The reader/author is just as important to the meaning-making strategies of this work as the writer/coder/author.



The Fourth Era Remembers

Nick Montfort’s “Interactive Fiction’s Fourth Era” ended with a wonderful surprise for me (though perhaps only because I had been thinking it the whole way through the essay).

“The basic framework of interactive fiction, in which approximately one event happens per conversational turn, means that this deficiency does not cause too many problems. But it also rules out richer simulation in which many things happen per turn (and are narrated in an interesting way), the use of flashbacks to events that occurred earlier in the interaction, and the ability to narrate events from different perspectives.”

I love this idea of the Fourth Era of Interactive Fiction. That, in order to be revolutionarily transformed, IF will essentially have to get more complex in its responses and ability to remember events that have taken place in the story and in what order these events have taken place. It seems a big undertaking: I imagine the code used to write interactive fiction stories now (Montfort mentions Inform as being a good writer) would have to be almost entirely altered to perhaps date code events and prioritize certains responses based on whether one event occurred before the other for one user versus another user. Montfort’s essay makes clear that IF is not simply a story, it is a world to be explored. Unlike traditional book narratives that have a start and an end, and every reader generally progresses through this narrative in the same order, IF lends itself to a more varied reading asking you to explore around different directions and hallways and tunnels and fields and on and on. While The Warbler’s Nest offered a Walkthrough, with essentially the shortest path to the end of the story, such a Walkthrough almost seems to defeat the purpose of Interactive Fiction where it’s preferable to see all there is to see than simply “beat the game.” In the spirit of that exploration, Montfort’s call for an IF that can provided many, and  diverse, responses and interaction for users seems an obvious course of action. You can certainly play an IF many times over, exploring different places and sometimes achieving a new ending, but in general the responses of the computer are based simply upon going to a place or picking up an item, and not on what order you explore places or the ways in which you might ask the computer to move forward. The Dreamhold does, though, have built into its code some of this remembering of events: at the beginning when you can squeeze to the narrow hallway to go up the stairs, I went up the stairs, then down the stairs, then up the stairs, then down the stairs, over and over again. While the actual IF content did not alter, interestingly the Turtorial Voice did notice that I was doing the same events, and that I had already been to the place I was just at.

“You’ve been here before, but it’s a particularly crowded room,” says the Turtorial Voice, acknowledged my prior entrance into the same room, and later, going down, it says “The first time you enter a room, you’ll see a detailed description. But if you return to a room, you see just the roomname, followed by a list of the more portable objects lying around.” So, this IF does have the capacity to remember where I have been, which is a start. I don’t think the Tutorial Voice quite compares with the vision Montfort has of the future of IF, but it’s a start. Now, if only the Tutorial Voice remembered how many times I went back and forth up the stairs and responded different every single time, maybe noticing new things, maybe just some snarky response about choosing a direction.


The Digital Ream

On April 5th, 2006, Nick Montfort sat down to write Ream, a 500 page (and word) long poem, with each page consisting of a single, one-syllable word in 14 point font. Later, this poem was translated into French by Anick Bergeron. But, before that, Montfort turned the poem into a literary hypertext for our digital pleasure. The result is (very basically) a webpage with a black background upon which a single word is written. Clicking on that word leads us to the next word, and clicking on that word leads to the next, and so on and so forth until you reach page 500 where clicking on the final word “zoom” brings you back to the the “title page.”

For all its simplicity, Ream gives us a lot to work with in terms of seeing adaptations from print to digital. Last week in class we seemed to get bogged down by the idea of adaptations of works intended to be printed, represented in the digital sphere, as opposed to works instantiated in the digital to begin with.Reampresents an interesting case, as part of me feels like Montfort may have envisioned this print work also as a digital work to begin with (doesn’t seem that far off an assumption since Montfort is quite the name in electronic literature circles). One thing the digital version of the poem inspires is the idea that each word in a work (whether print or digital) is basically a gateway to the next. In this case, each word is very literally a gateway, a piece of hypertext taking you to the next word once you’ve pressed on it. This emphasizes the importance of all words in the poem, and helps us feel as if there is purpose and connection to each word despite the apparent lack of coherence between them. In fact, the poem seems to speak more to the idea of how we read, and that we should take care to connect each word to the next, rather than actually presenting a story that demands this reading. For one, you must obscure the word in order to click on it, and secondly (as stated previously) there is not an immediately obvious contextual connect between these words. Furthermore, each word is embedded with a particular link to the next word. You cannot press word 230 (grim) and get anything except word 231 (groves). This emphasizes an order and an intention that we seems to sometimes miss with a lot of electronic literature that offers numerous links and seemingly infinite pathways. This is not to say that you cannot edit the URL inside the search bar to skip to a word “further down the ream,” which you can, and I most certainly did. While the print version may inspire some of these feelings, I think the use of digital hypertext is really a superior way of understanding how important word order and connection is.

The Digital Physical, Craig Mod

Reading Craig Mod’s article The Digital↔Physical, I found myself increasingly struck by his inability to see a digital creation as something with weight, both physically and figuratively. It seems that Mod required a physical object in order to bring meaning the the work that he and his teammates had accomplished, that without this object with edges and mass there would have been nothing to immortalize and signify their time and effort. Maybe it’s partially because I have the sneaking suspicion that Flipboard for iPhone was simply a vehicle for Mod to write an article about the app he created (rather than this idea of a required affirmation of one’s own work), but I find the idea that the time and effort behind digital creations is lost because of their digital (rather than physical) nature to be kind of ridiculous. While Mod may think it is the book that is magical, I would say far more people intuit that technological creations can be incredibly time-consuming to produce and require a vast knowledge, if not years of studying (programming, etc.). While many people do not know how to code, there seems to be a cultural understanding that programming is time-consuming and difficult, not to mention that the creation of apps is a living process, with update after update after update. In this way, not only is the weight of the creation understood by the public, the journey as Mod calls it, is also visible through updates.

I know that Mod said the book was a creation of the producer, not the public, but why would he have such a hard time putting value on his own creation when most of modern society wouldn’t?

To disagree with an extremely specific point, when Mod states that “a folder with one item looks just like a folder with a billion items,” I find myself incredibly confused. A folder with many items and a folder with one item do not look or feel the same at all. And in fact, one of the main reasons they don’t feel the same can be provided by Mod himself: “with most of our current interfaces, we see at best only a screenful of information” It is this inability to see all the information that creates an entirely different feeling in the viewer. One folder is manageable and encouraging, and the other seems infinite and daunting. And if Mod were to tell someone that he had 9,695 documents in a folder I’m pretty sure they would see the weight of this work.

Reading Escape from the Blue Room

Trying to find something exciting to write about for this creative response, I found myself getting quite distracted exploring all manners of interactive stories and games. One puzzle game that I found particularly interesting considering our class is starting off with the idea of Platforms, was a game called “Escape from The Blue Room.” This game is one of many “Escape the Room” Games, apparently a genre in of itself, one of the most popular being “Crimson Room.” At its most basic, the goal of the game is to escape from a digitally rendered room that you inexplicably find yourself in upon the start of the game. By using the computer’s mouse (or track pad) the player clicks around the two dimensional room hoping to unveil clues through the narration that pops-up above the viewer or by finding “hidden” objects. One-by-one you gather objects and information, which you can then use (by clicking and dragging the item over another item on the screen) to find new clues, turn on items, open items, and other things. On the surface “Escape from the Blue Room” seems like just a first-person, point-and-click game, but I’d argue this is also an expressive work of new media that works to critique our culture’s views of literature and storytelling.

“Escape from the Blue Room” and most Escape the Room games rely on the assumption that the user is familiar with the structure of a story. These games have a narrator (a character), a narrative structure, plot devices, and even clichés unique to their genre. When you first start the game, you have no idea why or how you’ve come to be in this room (though this is not the case with all Escape the Room games), but simply by clicking on the screen once you can get a good idea of how to move forward through the game. The narration above the viewer will tell you simple things like “It’s a blue couch,” but it will also occasionally provide unique details like “It’s a water tap. But without a handle.” It is these pieces of narration that work with the various object you find (like the water tap’s handle) to transform them into plot devices. In this way, the game has a narrative structure, requiring you to complete certain tasks before others, such that the story unfolds fairly linearly as you get closer and closer to escaping the room (the ending). It is not necessary to complete gather all items in order, however. For instance, you can grab the aquarium net before filling the glass bowl with water to place the piranhas in, but you would not be able to advance the story (taking the piranhas out of the aquarium) without having both items.

Opening scene of “Escape from the Blue Room.”

Another obvious literary trait of “Escape from the Blue Room” is that there is a narrator, or a character. Obviously this is a first person story, with the user controlling the current view, but the narration itself has already been created and is not controlled by the user. This makes it seem less like the user is playing the character, than the user is simply unveiling the character’s words and thoughts through clicks. It would be like having a book with pages made out of scratch off ticket material and you have to go through it will a quarter scratching off narration to read the story. Analogies aside, though, just because the viewer happens to be my view, I do not necessarily feel like I as the user have agency in this story, but rather am simply attempting to piece together a story already in place.

In short, I definitely think that “Escape from the Blue Room” speaks to the idea that these game users must utilize and exploit their skills as readers to win the game. By having a familiarity with the devices used in literature (narrators, narrative structure, plot devices, etc.), and by treating the game as a piece of electronic literature to be read, unveiled, and mulled-over, the game becomes less about winning and more about finishing the story.