Cement is the flour, concrete is the bread: making So Are the Days

By the time the SNES came out, I had pretty much stopped playing videogames. This is why So Are the Dayss overall conceit is based on games from 30+ years ago: besides Twine games, those games (e.g., StarTropics, Bubble Bobble, Super Contra, Duke Nukem, DOOM, Wolfenstein 3D, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?) are the only games I know.

The very first thing I committed to, however, was making a game about sand–sand as related to time, sand as something emotional and evocative, sand as land, and sand as a vital component in aspects of modern life such as computing, optics, fracking, and construction. Borrowing graphical and structural elements from old videogames, I thought, would be a fun way to suggest a world that was imaginative yet rule-bound, vast yet constrained. (It would also be within my technical and artistic capabilities.)

Concrete silos on Granville Island.
Concrete silos on Granville Island, where I learned that cement is the flour and concrete is the bread.

I knew I wanted to create multiple stories within the game, but this crystallized further after reading about and watching playthroughs of the 1994 SNES game Live-A-Live. I really liked the idea of (generally) self-contained vignettes, each with its own mechanic, that the player could explore in any order. Each story in So Are the Days is therefore based on a particular aspect or property of sand, with the epigraph of the story suggesting to the player what that aspect or property is going to be.

Scenario selection screen from Live-A-Live.

Besides reading books and watching movies about sand, I watched playthroughs of 1980s-early 2000s games set in deserts and on islands–places like North Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, the “American West,” the silk roads, and the South Pacific, as well as a few imaginary deserts and islands.

What I expected to find in videogame treatments of deserts and other sandy environments was what you often find in (western) literary and other treatments: land being depicted as neutral and passive, an exotic background to be conquered or extracted from. For instance, here’s how British explorer and pioneering sand physicist Ralph Bagnold describes part of the Sahara Desert: “There followed two years of diplomatic wrangling during which it emerged that no frontier between Libya and the Sudan had ever been internationally agreed upon. When the Foreign Office learned that the disputed region contained nothing but lifeless sand, it was decided that if Italy really wanted sand, she could have it. The frontier on British maps was changed accordingly.”

But what I realized while watching people play these games (and which I’m sure is totally obvious to everyone who did not take a 30-year hiatus from playing videogames) is that these desert and island environments are actually incredibly hostile to the player. There are full of lava pits, massive stone columns that drop from the ceiling, knives that pierce through the floor, spiked roombas, and reanimated cat mummies. This is not passive land waiting to be demarcated on a British map; it is land that is very actively trying to destroy you.

Collage of 1990s-2000s videogames featuring desert and island environments.
Some of the games I explored.

In Hamlet on the Holodeck (also from like 30 years ago), Janet H. Murray describes being immersed in a virtual environment as a pleasurable experience related to the feeling of being submerged in water. She also highlights the player’s role in co-creating this alternate reality:  “When we enter a fictional world…we do not suspend disbelief so much as we actively create belief. Because of our desire to experience immersion, we focus our attention on the enveloping world and we use our intelligence to reinforce rather than to question the reality of the experience” (emphasis added).

So the belief we are reinforcing when playing these games is one where, if we can successfully elude the booby traps, defeat the guards, and infiltrate these spaces, we win–in other words, we’re co-creating a world in which “trespass” is experienced as pleasure.

What the fourth story (“You’re Just a Stranger Whose Name I Don’t Know”) tries to do is break that immersion–to approximate a kind of glitchy speedrun through some of the desert structures I had read about. I hoped that players would experience a sense of disorientation and unease at passing from one space into another completely unrelated space, and at the oddness of the dialogue. (The NPC dialogue, if read line by line, is a pantoum of sorts, featuring a collage of quotes from the following games: Live-A-Live, King’s Quest V, King’s Quest VII, Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider, StarTropics, URU: Ages Beyond Myst, NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.)

I’m not sure how successful this ended up being (I think I just got too “in the weeds”), but it’s the story that was most fun and interesting for me to build. It also made me realize that my ongoing challenge as someone who comes to interactive fiction from poetry, is to learn to shift my mindset from workshopping to beta testing: that is, from sharing something that I feel is fully formed and then soliciting feedback from there, to sharing the “bones” of something at a point in my process where I can make big structural changes.

Anyway, I really enjoyed participating in Spring Thing, and I really enjoyed playing the other games in the festival (I mostly focused on the shorter Twine games). Please check out the other games! Mahalo to everyone who played and provided feedback, and congratulations to all the participants–I’m happy to be in such excellent company!

Random things that helped me make So Are the Days:

Heterotopias zine (especially the essay on Tomb Raider in issue 001)

Sequence Break: The Dadaism of Speedrunning by Callum Angus

Live-a-Live and Being Powerless by Sraëka Lillian

Kaka’ako’s empty condos: At night, it’s a ghost town down here by Stewart Yerton

Wikipedia list of videogames set on islands

Atlas Film Studios, Ouarzazate, Morocco

Excavating the ‘Ten Commandments’ in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes by Sarah Linn

The Bridegroom Was a Dog by Yoko Tawada

The Thousand and One Nights

Soap Opera Digest

The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation’s Accessibility Testing Report