Where one endless corridor follows another: thoughts on translating Robbe-Grillet into Inform 7

Background

I’ve been learning more about parser IF lately, and what I think I like most about it (and what I liked most about lurking around LambdaMOO back in the day) is exploring space that is at the same time imaginative and rule-bound.

Learning to write parser IF in Inform is especially interesting and exciting to me (someone whose background is in poetry) because it is based on natural language input. Here’s an example of Inform source text from the Inform Manual:

“Disenchantment Bay”

The Cabin is a room. “The front of the small cabin is entirely occupied with navigational instruments, a radar display, and radios for calling back to shore. Along each side runs a bench with faded blue vinyl cushions, which can be lifted to reveal the storage space underneath. A glass case against the wall contains several fishing rods.

Scratched windows offer a view of the surrounding bay, and there is a door south to the deck. A sign taped to one wall announces the menu of tours offered by the Yakutat Charter Boat Company.”

The Cabin contains a glass case. In the glass case is a collection of fishing rods.

The case is closed, transparent, and openable.

The bench is in the cabin. On the bench are some blue vinyl cushions.

Here, objects and spaces are described principally in terms of their appearance, their properties, and their relationship to one another.

In the essay “A Future for the Novel” (1956), Alain Robbe-Grillet writes, “Thus it is the entire literary language that must change, that is changing already. From day to day, we witness the growing repugnance felt by people of greater awareness for words of a visceral, analogical, or incantatory character. On the other hand, the visual or descriptive adjective, the word that contents itself with measuring, locating, limiting, defining, indicates a difficult but most likely direction for a new art of the novel.”

Language that measures, locates, limits, defines–sounds like programming. (I want to reiterate that I’m talking about the Inform syntax/language, and not the player’s experience of objects and spaces. With regard to the latter, Emily Short has a great blog post that gets into the different ways that objects can signify within the game. And there are plenty of games, like Andrew Plotkin’s The Space Under the Window, where objects are experienced by the player as being shifting, unstable, freighted with emotional and psychological significance.)

“Translating” La Jalousie into Inform

I read Robbe-Grillet’s 1957 novel Jealousy last summer. It’s set on a banana plantation in an unnamed tropical region, and it’s about a man with a tenuous grip on reality who suspects his wife A. of having an affair with their neighbor Franck. As you can probably guess, it’s problematic in about a thousand ways. It is also true that its descriptions–including four pages describing the various configurations of banana trees–are fascinating.

I decided to try “translating” portions of the first couple of pages of Jealousy into Inform–both as a way to learn Inform, and as a way to better understand how language operates in the novel.

A quick caveat: I’m just learning Inform thanks to the 2 manuals and all the info that folks have generously shared online. So this is a really basic, bare-bones translation; others with more experience could bring out the subtleties and details of the prose in far more sophisticated ways! The descriptions of rooms, objects, backgrounds, and scenery are quotes from the book that are in some instances slightly modified. (I’ve included a transcript of playing through this “game” at the end of this post.)

“robbegrillet” by Dawn Sueoka

The South Veranda is a room. “The veranda is a wide, covered gallery surrounding the house on three sides. On the other side of this rail, a good six feet below the level of the veranda, the garden begins. To the north is the central hallway.”

A column is here. It is fixed in place. “A column supports the southwest corner of the roof. Its shadow divides the corresponding corner of the veranda into two equal parts.”

A shadow is scenery in the South Veranda. “Since the veranda’s width is the same for the central portion as for the sides, the line of shadow cast by the column extends precisely to the corner of the house; but it stops there, for only the veranda flagstones are reached by the sun.”

The sun is a backdrop. It is everywhere. “It is still too high in the sky.”

The house is scenery in the South Veranda.  “The wooden walls of the house–that is, its front and west gable-end–are still protected from the sun by the roof (common to the house proper and the terrace). So at this moment the shadow of the outer edge of the roof coincides exactly with the right angle formed by the terrace and the two vertical surfaces of the corner of the house.”

The garden is scenery in the South Veranda. “On all sides of the garden, as far as the borders of the plantation, stretches the green mass of the banana trees.”

Banana trees are scenery in the South Veranda. “On the right and left, their proximity is too great, combined with the veranda’s relative lack of elevation, to permit an observer stationed there to distinguish the arrangement of the trees; while further down the valley, the quincunx can be made out at first glance. In certain very recently replanted sectors–those where the reddish earth is just beginning to yield supremacy to foliage–it is easy enough to follow the regular perspective of the four intersecting lanes along which the young trunks are aligned.

This exercise is not much more difficult, despite their advanced growth, for those sectors of the plantation on the opposite hillside.”

The hillside is scenery in the South Veranda. “This, in fact, is the place which offers itself most readily to inspection, the place over which surveillance can be maintained with the least difficulty (although the path to reach it is a long one), the place which the eye falls on quite naturally, of its own accord, when looking out one or the other of the  two open windows of the bedroom.”

The Central Hallway is north of the South Veranda. “To the south is the South Veranda.”

The bedroom door is a closed openable door. The bedroom door is west of the Central Hallway and east of A’s Bedroom.

The initial appearance of the bedroom door is “[if the bedroom door is open]An open[else]A closed[end if] door leads [if the location is Central Hallway]west to A’s bedroom[else]east to the Central Hallway[end if].”

The description of A’s Bedroom is “The floor is made of wood. On the south side of the room is a window, paint flaking from its frame. From the windows the far side of the valley can be seen .”

The floor is scenery in A’s Bedroom. “The floor has been scrubbed.”

The windows are scenery in A’s Bedroom. “From the far side of the bedroom the eye carries over the balustrade and touches ground only much further away, on the opposite slope of the little valley, among the banana trees of the plantation. The sun cannot be seen between their thick clusters of wide green leaves. However, since this sector has been under cultivation only recently, the regular criss-crossing of the rows of trees can still be clearly followed. The same is true of almost all the property visible from here, for the older sectors–where the confusion has gained the ascendancy–are located higher up on this side of the valley, that is, on the other side of the house.”

A balustrade is scenery in A’s Bedroom. “The heavy hand-rail of the balustrade has almost no paint left on top. The gray of the wood shows through, streaked with tiny longitudinal cracks.”

A chest is in A’s Bedroom. ” Against the north wall of the room is a heavy chest.” The chest is a closed container. It is fixed in place and openable. The description of the chest is “A heavy chest. [if the chest is closed]It can be opened[end if].”

Instead of taking the chest: say “It is too heavy to lift.”

In the chest is an open container called a drawer.  The drawer is fixed in place.

In the drawer is a thing called a letter. The description of the letter is “The paper is blue, the size of ordinary letter paper, and shows the creases where it has been folded into quarters.”

What I learned

This process, which ended up being very similar to diagramming a sentence, was super fun! Predictably, it required me to pay close attention to how spaces were related to each other (the hallway is north of the south veranda; the bedroom is east of the hallway, etc.) and how objects were related to each other and the spaces they were in (the letter is in the drawer, which is in the chest, which is in the bedroom). I also had to pay close attention to the physical properties of things: the chest can be opened but not moved; the drawer inside the chest can be examined but not taken out of the chest, but the letter inside the drawer can be taken.

Less predictably (at least for me), I also had to take into account viewplanes: From the veranda, you can see the garden and the banana trees near the lowest point of the valley; from the bedroom, you can see the balustrade but not the garden, and you can see different banana trees–the ones further up the slope. Where something was actually located in the novel (e.g., the balustrade, located on the South Veranda) did not always coincide with where it was viewed or described from (A’s Bedroom), which made me wonder whether I should, in the translation, be recreating the actual physical geography of the novel or the geography as conceptualized in the characters’ minds/memories. In this novel, the gaze, moving like a camera from one thing to another, is significant, so I opted for the latter.

I translated this feature of the novel–e.g., the eye moving from the garden to the lowest point of the valley, then up to the lower portion of the opposite slope of the valley–using nested descriptions (Caleb Wilson’s Lime Ergot is a really great example of this). My admittedly choreographed playthough, included at the end of the post, is reliant on examining certain objects in sequence. If someone encountered the game “cold,” however, I’m sure the transcript would be all, “You see nothing special about x.”

It occurred to me as I was typing up this post that maybe I should’ve made the configuration of shadows cast by the column and roof a result of the shifting position of the sun. I’m too lazy to figure that out at the moment, but it did suggest something interesting about the way that time is experienced in the novel vs. in the Inform source. In the novel, time does not progress chronologically: some scenes are described repeatedly; the reader is never quite certain in what order events actually occurred. Nevertheless, the experience of reading is sequential. One action, no matter when it takes place in “clock time,” follows the one before it. In the Inform source (if I had done the thing with the sun and the shadows), time is simultaneous: all possibilities–the sun being at x angle, at y angle, at z angle–would exist at once, as would all the different types and directions of shadows.

Finally, this exercise helped me to understand in very tangible terms how cyclical the descriptions in this novel are. For instance, the banana trees are viewed first from bedroom and then from the veranda. A. gazing through the bedroom window at the balustrade after closing the bedroom door behind her is described twice in three pages. The creased letter will be described multiple times throughout the course of the novel, as will the configuration of chairs on the veranda and the stain on the wall left by a squashed centipede.

Which brings me to the main thing I don’t understand about Robbe-Grillet’s conception of the new novel. For me, the net effect of self-conscious objectivity in the description of objects is to imbue those objects with more implied emotional significance, not less. E.g., “Yipes, this guy is REALLY fixated on the stain from the dead centipede. Clearly it must symbolize something feral, unruly, and potentially dangerous that has been violently extinguished (or consumated)–most likely the imagined relationship between A. and Frank.”

The same is true for the objects in Last Year at Marienbad, one of my very favorite movies. The statues are fraught. The paintings are fraught. The shoes, the topiary, the shattered glass: all super fraught. Even the walls seem to vibrate with a kind of haughty, inscrutable, sexy fraughtness. I’m really into it, but I have a hard time reconciling it with the intended effect of supposed objectivity.

Overall, I like the way that the Inform source reads as a text in and of itself. Maybe it’s just that the descriptions are long, and I chunked everything into “scenery” due to my lack of knowledge of the ins and outs of Inform–but it doesn’t seem to be too fundamentally different from the original text, except in that the relationships between objects and spaces are foregrounded even more. In fact, based on what I learned from this little exercise, I think I might use “translating into Inform” as a close reading strategy for other texts in which the arrangement and manipulation of space, matter, and perspective (or, for that matter, any entities that can be coded as discrete–such as memories, emotions, thoughts) are significant.

Bonus errors!

My initial idea for this post was to drop passages from Jealousy into Inform verbatim, on the off chance that they would result in a kind of Winchester Mystery House styled by Chanel. Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t the result. But I did get some interesting (and considerate) error messages from the Inform compiler, which identified parts of the text that were problematic–which in turn helped me to think about the more utilitarian dimensions of words like “is.”

Source: Now the shadow of the column–the column which supports the southwest corner of the roof–divides the corresponding corner of the veranda into two equal parts. This veranda is a wide, covered gallery surrounding the house on three sides. Since its width is the same for the central portion as for the sides, the line of shadow cast by the column extends precisely to the corner of the house, [this was originally a semicolon, but I changed it to a comma] but it stops there, for only the veranda flagstones are reached by the sun, which is still too high in the sky.

Problem. The sentence ‘This veranda is a wide, covered gallery surrounding the house on three sides’   appears to say two things are the same – I am reading ‘This veranda’ and ‘wide’ as two different things, and therefore it makes no sense to say that one is the other: it would be like saying that ‘Antony is Cleopatra’. It would be all right if the second thing were the name of a kind, perhaps with properties: for instance ‘Alexandria is a lighted room’ says that something called Alexandria exists and that it is a ‘room’, which is a kind I know about, combined with a property called ‘lighted’ which I also know about.

Problem. The sentence ‘Since its width is the same for the central portion as for the sides, the line of shadow cast by the column extends precisely to the corner of the house, but it stops there, for only the veranda flagstones are reached by the sun, which is still too high in the sky’   appears to say two things are the same – I am reading ‘Since its width’ and ‘same for the central portion as for the sides’ as two different things, and therefore it makes no sense to say that one is the other: it would be like saying that ‘Antony is Cleopatra’. It would be all right if the second thing were the name of a kind, perhaps with properties: for instance ‘Alexandria is a lighted room’ says that something called Alexandria exists and that it is a ‘room’, which is a kind I know about, combined with a property called ‘lighted’ which I also know about.

Source: Just opposite the house, a clump of trees marks the highest point the cultivation reaches in this sector. The patch that ends here is a rectangle. The ground is invisible, or virtually so, between the fronds. Still, the impeccable alignment of the boles shows that they have been planted recently and that no stems have as yet been cut.

Problem. In the sentence ‘Just opposite the house, a clump of trees marks the highest point the cultivation reaches in this sector’  , I can’t find a verb that I know how to deal with. (I notice there’s a comma here, which is sometimes used to abbreviate rules which would normally be written with a colon – for instance, ‘Before taking: say “You draw breath.”‘ can be abbreviated to ‘Before taking, say…’ – but that’s only allowed for Before, Instead and After rules. I mention all this in case you meant this sentence as a rule in some rulebook, but used a comma where there should have been a colon ‘:’?)

See the manual: 2.1 > 2.1. Creating the world

Playthrough transcript

robbegrillet

An Interactive Fiction by Dawn Sueoka

Release 1 / Serial number 190128 / Inform 7 build 6M62 (I6/v6.33 lib 6/12N) SD

South Veranda

The veranda is a wide, covered gallery surrounding the house on three sides. On the other side of this rail, a good six feet below the level of the veranda, the garden begins. To the north is the central hallway.

A column supports the southwest corner of the roof. Its shadow divides the corresponding corner of the veranda into two equal parts.

>x shadow

Since the veranda’s width is the same for the central portion as for the sides, the line of shadow cast by the column extends precisely to the corner of the house; but it stops there, for only the veranda flagstones are reached by the sun.

>x sun

It is still too high in the sky.

>x house

The wooden walls of the house–that is, its front and west gable-end–are still protected from the sun by the roof (common to the house proper and the terrace). So at this moment the shadow of the outer edge of the roof coincides exactly with the right angle formed by the terrace and the two vertical surfaces of the corner of the house.

>x garden

On all sides of the garden, as far as the borders of the plantation, stretches the green mass of the banana trees.

>x trees

On the right and left, their proximity is too great, combined with the veranda’s relative lack of elevation, to permit an observer stationed there to distinguish the arrangement of the trees; while further down the valley, the quincunx can be made out at first glance. In certain very recently replanted sectors–those where the reddish earth is just beginning to yield supremacy to foliage–it is easy enough to follow the regular perspective of the four intersecting lanes along which the young trunks are aligned.

This exercise is not much more difficult, despite their advanced growth, for those sectors of the plantation on the opposite hillside.

>x hillside

This, in fact, is the place which offers itself most readily to inspection, the place over which surveillance can be maintained with the least difficulty (although the path to reach it is a long one), the place which the eye falls on quite naturally, of its own accord, when looking out one or the other of the  two open windows of the bedroom.

>n

Central Hallway

To the south is the South Veranda.

A closed door leads west to A’s bedroom.

>open door

You open the bedroom door.

>w

A’s Bedroom

The floor is made of wood. On the south side of the room is a window, paint flaking from its frame. From the windows the far side of the valley can be seen .

An open door leads east to the Central Hallway.

Against the north wall of the room is a heavy chest.

>close door

You close the bedroom door.

>x floor

The floor has been scrubbed.

>x windows

From the far side of the bedroom the eye carries over the balustrade and touches ground only much further away, on the opposite slope of the little valley, among the banana trees of the plantation. The sun cannot be seen between their thick clusters of wide green leaves. However, since this sector has been under cultivation only recently, the regular criss-crossing of the rows of trees can still be clearly followed. The same is true of almost all the property visible from here, for the older sectors–where the confusion has gained the ascendancy–are located higher up on this side of the valley, that is, on the other side of the house.

>x balustrade

The heavy hand-rail of the balustrade has almost no paint left on top. The gray of the wood shows through, streaked with tiny longitudinal cracks.

>x chest

A heavy chest. It can be opened.

>open chest

You open the chest, revealing a drawer.

>x drawer

In the drawer is a letter.

>x letter

The paper is blue, the size of ordinary letter paper, and shows the creases where it has been folded into quarters.

>take letter

Taken.

>