Archive: January 2014

A video game for an audience of one

(This year, I’m participating in The Pastry Box Project, a very cool joint blog; I’ll be doing six posts this year. My first went up this week, and here’s a copy of it!)

Two years ago I was trying to think of something to get for my wife for her birthday, and I was stuck. So I decided to go the “heartfelt” route and make her something by hand: The personal touch! But what would I make?

Well, I’m a big nerd from way back, and she’s also something of a nerd too. So I decided that I’d make her something peculiarly digital: A personalized video game.

I downloaded a copy of Inform 7, a free and easy-to-use app that lets anyone create “text adventure” games, where the player navigates a world of text by typing commands and reading descriptions of the rooms they enter (“Go west”; “open mailbox”). My wife and I are both in our 40s, so we’re old enough to remember the first-ever text-adventure games like “Zork”. I still enjoy the stark poetry of “Zork”’s opening scene:

West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

That scene always reminds me of the first few lines of Dante’s “Inferno”:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

I’m probably picking up these resonances because I’m middle-aged, so my grade-6 days playing “Zork” seem awfully far away now, while the cosmic midlife freakouts of the “Inferno” are a lot more proximal. But at any rate, I liked the idea of creating a little playable literary world to give to my wife, a sort of geeky love letter. I began plotting out a text adventure that was based in our years together, with a few dozens rooms and filled with detail and easter eggs (hidden stuff you have to discover inside a game) drawn from our shared experiences. It was fun and not terribly hard to do; I’d never created a text adventure before, but Inform 7 is reasonably straightforward. After several evenings of work, I had the game done, and on her birthday I loaded it onto her computer and explained what I’d done. I was half worried she’d think I was nuts, but to my great delight she loved it.

Here’s how the game opened up:

You wake up in your bed at home. The sun is coming in the windows, and you feel deeply rested. What time is it?

You roll over and grab your iphone, and holy moses — it’s 9:30 am on a Saturday! You hear a beep and look over at your sidetable, where you see an ipad.

Now, here’s the thing: That’s all you get to see.

I’m not going to show you any more.

And that’s because a game like this doesn’t quite behave the way games normally do.

Normally, games are a form of mass entertainment. They’re a one-to-many medium. A single entity — sometimes a big corporation, sometimes an indie creator working alone — creates what is (hopefully) a fiendishly fun system, and gamers try to master it, playing and replaying it again, slowly getting better and better, as with Call of Duty or Candy Crush. With games like this, the designers want as many people as possible to play their titles, of course. The more people they get hooked, the more money they make.

In recent years we’ve seen the rise of something different: Artistic games, where the designers are aiming to create an expressive act. They’re trying to evoke an emotion or a mood, or to make a point. (A superb example of this sort of art game is Jason Rohrer’s “Passage”.) These games aren’t designed to get you addicted, seducing you into playing them over and over again. If you run through “Passage” two or three times, you’ll understand the message and experience Rohrer is trying to communicate, and you probably won’t need to play it any more. Artistic games turn the genre into something that’s more obviously a speech act — games and their rulesets as a way of talking about the world. (The scholar and game designer Ian Bogost calls this “procedural rhetoric”.) Nonetheless, these art games share one thing in common with Call of Duty or Candy Crush: They’re still a one-to-many medium. The game designer creates the experience, hoping that many people will play it, much as a poet writes a poem hoping that many people will read it. The game is made for an audience of many.

The game I made for my wife is something rather different. It was a game made for an audience of one.

The reason I’m not showing you the whole game is for the same reasons we don’t show our love letters to the public. They’re private communications, composed with a single person in mind. Indeed, even if I did put my game online for everyone to play, it wouldn’t make any sense. None of the objects inside the rooms have any meaning to anyone but my wife and I. They’re a rumination on our shared experiences, so if you didn’t experience them, they won’t make much sense. My wife enjoyed the game (thank god) and found it meaningful; you’d find it boring gibberish.

All of which makes me realize that the evolution of games as a medium might be entering a very cool and strange phase.

Every year there are more tools for authoring games, ranging from things like Inform 7 to Scratch or Stencyl. They’re still kludgy, but getting simpler all the time. They remind me of early-stage word-processors in the 70s or 80s. Those tools deindustrialized typography, making it possible for an individual to dash off a document that had a level of formatting previously only available to those who owned a printed press. As games become easier and quicker to make, they enter similarly new expressive territory. A tool like Inform 7 deindustrializes the making of games. And when a medium is deindustrialized, it always get wilder and weirder. Once millions of people can mess around with it, they inevitably do things that are far more diverse and crazy and unexpected than when the medium was in the hands of only a few huge corporations.

We can now start thinking about dashing off a game as a way to joke with a close friend, to invite someone to a party, or maybe to apologize to someone you’ve treated poorly. Games become something you can create for an audience of one.

If you made a game for one person, what would it be like?

Of Star Wars “crawl” poetry and the weirdness of our attention spans

Yesterday I saw a picture on Boing Boing: A “behind the scenes” shot of how they made the iconic opening “crawl” text for The Empire Strikes Back. I’d always assumed, naively, that the crawl was done with computer graphics, but no: It was a steampunk affair, with the text printed on a piece of glass and filmed at a steep angle by a camera. But what really struck me was the quote from George Lucas about the formal properties of a crawl:

“The crawl is such a hard thing because you have to be careful that you’re not using too many words that people don’t understand,” Lucas has said. “It’s like a poem.”

Poetry! Full on! This immediately made me think of an idea, which I tweeted:

Heh. One of the things I love about poetry is that because it a) is often a pretty short form, b) is more structurally varied than prose and c) has basically no economic value, it’s more amenable to screwing around with in nutty new-media settings.

Anyway, only minutes after I tweeted this, my friend Max Whitney set about hunting down a Star Wars “crawl” generator — which of course exists — and creating a version of the famous William Carlos Williams poem “This Is Just To Say”, which you can see here. Thank you, multiples! (That was A PLUG FOR MY BOOK: You can read the section on multiples here.)

The gauntlet thus thrown down, I immediately set about trying to find a poem to crawlify myself. I thought of Emily Dickinson, and after a bit of hunting ran across “I took my power in my hand”, the crawl-version of which you can see above. I’d hoped to find something resonant with Star Wars mythology, and man o man, Dickinson kind of knocks it outta the park here: That poem reads like a spec sheet for Darth Vader’s psychology. Frankly, you could reskin the entire original Star Wars trilogy by taking out all of Vader’s existing dialogue and substituting Dickinson poetry. I would not be surprised if someone is actually doing that.

So the ball is now rolling: This morning, @WaxEBuildup did a version of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”. And by Amy Burvall, here’s a version of Pablo Neruda’s love sonnet XVII!

What I particularly dig about crawl poetry is how it riffs of the pace of reading. Reading is a weird act of attention. The way we look at text is constantly revving up and down the mental gearbox: We skim rapidly, then suddenly stop and stare to reread and reread, we peek at the end of a piece of text to see how much farther we have to go, we briefly zone out, our eyes saccade along in little bursts. In contrast, there’s some hilariously submissive and unnatural about subjecting ourselves to a poem being read out at a steady pace by a machine. It foregrounds just how slithy our actual attention really is — and the fact that while it’s obviously bad for our cognition to be constantly distracted by shiny objects online, the converse isn’t true either: Attentive, absorbed reading isn’t really crawl-like. Truly absorbed reading is a strange, strange process.

Selfies and Borges

I was in my local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library yesterday when I found this: The Book of Imaginary Beings, by Jorge Luis Borges. It’s a cryptozoological encyclopedia of animals described in myth and literature, which Borges details with typically awesome digressive riffs. There’s the “Squonk”, which apparently is native to Pennsylvania, is perpetually sad over its wart-encrusted appearance, and thus can be hunted by following “its tear-stained trail”. There’s “The Hairy Beast of La Ferté-Bernard,” which somehow survived the Biblical flood despite not having been on the Ark; “Its preferred victims were innocents — maidens and children.” There are the “Brownies,” helpful little creatures that Robert Louis Stevenson claimed had whispered the plot for The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde into his ears while he slept. Or there’s the “Basilisk”, whose Medusa-like gaze is fatal, which — as Borges notes — helps explain its desolated environment: “The Basilisk lives in the desert, then; or rather, it created the desert. Birds fall dead at its feet, and fruits rot; the water in the rivers from which its lakes its thirst is poison for hundreds of years. That its glance breaks stones and singes grass has been attested by Pliny.”

Still, my all-time entry in this collection is the one for “Animals That Live in the Mirror”. Given the endless debates over the supposedly narcissistic payload of the selfie, this monster seems awfully contemporary. Borges begins by detailing the myth of the “Fish”, a creature that lives inside mirrors, and then delves into the work of Herbert Allan Giles’ — a specialist in Chinese history — who tracks the myth back to “the legendary age of the Yellow Emperor”. As the myth goes:

In those days, the world of mirrors in the world of men were not, as they are now, separate and unconnected. They were, moreover, quite different from one another; neither the creature nor the colors and shapes of the two worlds were the same. The two kingdoms — the specular and the human — lived in peace, and one could pass back and forth through mirrors. One night, however, the people of the mirror invaded this world. Their strength was great, but after many bloody battles, the magic of the Yellow Emperor prevailed. The Emperor pushed back the invaders, imprisoning them within the mirrors, and punished them by making them repeat, as though in a kind of dream, all the actions of their human victors. He stripped them of their strength and their own shape and reduced them to mere servile reflections. One day, however, they will throw off that magical lethargy.

The first to awaken shall be the Fish. In the depths of the mirror, we shall perceive a faint, faint line, and the color of the line will not resemble any other. Then, other forms will begin to awaken. Gradually they will become different from us; gradually they will no longer imitate us; they will break through the barriers of glass or metal, and this time they will not be conquered. Water-creatures will battle alongside mirror-creatures.

In Yunnan province, people speak not of the Fish but rather the Tiger of the Mirror. Others believe that before the invasion, we will hear, from the depths of the mirrors, the sound of arms.

This is such a great sci-fi concept: That our reflections are imprisoned slaves, desperate for freedom — and that perhaps this is true too of our smartphones, filled with smiling ducklipped images of ourselves that long to escape and fight us to the death.

(That photo above courtesy the Flickr Creative Commons stream of the Boston Public Library!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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