Making Phenomena

Phenomena began, like most creative things I do, with my favorite obsession/puzzle, the film Last Year at Marienbad. I was reading articles from BAMPFA’s CineFiles database, and came across this passage from an analysis by Freddy Sweet:

“The key to understanding Marienbad is the realization that the very structure of the film is consciously designed to resist a coherent or rational interpretation by the viewer. The film, down to its individual shots, is an elaborate trompe-l’oeil; to the smallest detail the Marienbad labyrinth throws us off guard because, in almost every sequence of the film, the component shots offer an illusion of continuity, while actually there is rarely real cohesion between any two juxtaposed shots.” (emphasis added)

This is what that might have looked like in practice:

Line drawing with widely spaced horizontal lines and narrowly spaced vertical lines, and dark rectangles cascading up and down from left to right.
Director Alain Resnais: “For Marienbad we drew up a complete chronology on squared paper. And before beginning any scene with the actors, we said, ‘In the editing, this scene follows such and such a scene, but, in actual chronology it follows another scene, which will appear much later in the film.’” (from NY Film Bulletin)

So this was the general idea I began with: Shards or fragments of a seemingly cohesive story that the reader can continually rearrange. In the resulting interplay, the fragments would reveal and create different meanings.

The general format of Raymond Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems–in which each line of a 14-line sonnet has 10 variations, resulting in 1014 possible poems—seemed like something that could easily be translated into Twine using the cycle macro. And UFO sightings, given their elusive nature, seemed like the perfect subject. (I started working on this game during the winter 2020-2021 covid surge, in the midst of binging Art Bell, Night People, and X-Files.)

It was important for the seven variations of each line to function as a kind of poem in and of itself; it was also important for all the variations to function in the context of each subsequent line.  In other words, each chapter had to make sense when read both “down” and “through,” regardless of how users clicked through the variations.

In order to create the “illusion of continuity” within each chapter, I developed some general suggestions for writing individual lines:

  • Begin sentences with prepositions
  • Begin sentences with conjunctions
  • Begin sentences with gerunds
  • Use the imperative
  • Write sentences that are fragments
  • Write one- and two-word sentences/phrases
  • Write sentences that consist of just one adjective or that start with adjectives
  • Try for general subject-verb agreement within a single line and across adjacent lines
  • Repeat words, images, phrases across chapters

After I had written as many lines as I could for each chapter, I assembled and rearranged the best ones using a spreadsheet, continually reading in both directions to make sure that the illusion of continuity was maintained, or at least suggested.

Spreadsheet with seven columns and seven rows, and a sentence in each cell.

I think of Phenomena less as a game about UFOs and more as a game about the night, and why we look into the night sky to find meaning. As someone who dealt with insomnia from childhood into their 20s, I dread the night. Over the last year, however, I have had several wonderful conversations with friends about the night and about darkness in general; I have also spent a lot of time chasing the moon across the night and day. To make this game, I really tried to be present during the night in a way that wasn’t characterized by loneliness and anxiety.

Congratulations to all of the other Spring Thing 2022 participants, thank you to Aaron A. Reed for organizing, and thank you to the reviewers, who engaged with this game and provided excellent feedback! I am busy working on a few reviews of games I really enjoyed this festival–stay tuned :).