Making ROUND / SQUARE

Well, I have covered myself in hundreds of index cards again! This time to make ROUND / SQUARE, a micro game I submitted to sub-Q Magazine’s #subQjam. The prompt was to tell an interactive story about love in fewer than 1,000 words–1,000 words across ALL paths. In the way it distills each choice into two words, ROUND / SQUARE a bit like Chandler Groover’s left/right, which I really enjoyed. But beyond that initial similarity, it operates differently.

My challenge was to build some sort of narrative arc in units of two words each–and to give the player the sense that their choices were meaningful without presenting all the choices as being binary or otherwise mutually exclusive. (Part of my day job has to do with describing and classifying things via taxonomies and hierarchies and thesauri and data dictionaries, some of which can be inadequate, or worse, damaging.) In other words, I wanted navigating the game to be a process, not of drilling down, but of branching and looping.

I began by gathering words–mostly adjectives–from different disciplines: architecture, botany, art history, geology, navigation, poetry, science fiction, food criticism, theory, astrology. I looked at Jackson Mac Low’s light poems chart, and Roget’s Thesaurus (which, despite my skepticism of taxonomies, I love very much), as well as TMZ, Goop, clothing and furniture catalogs, and websites for luxury cars and condominiums. I was looking for specific and evocative words that might not typically be associated with love. All in all, I gathered about 1,300.

I hoped that, by very loosely clustering words by subject, I might avoid giving the impression of word salad and would thereby be able to maintain the player’s interest/motivation over the course of 100 choices. I wrote each word on an index card and assembled the game on the living room floor over several weeks. I worked “chapter by chapter,” deliberately infiltrating each “chapter” with words from other chapters.

Cardboard box containing 804 index cards
[804] words in a box
All in all, I used 804 words across all paths. The game has a branch and bottleneck structure, sometimes branching out to 32 passages presenting 64 words, then narrowing back down to a few. In retrospect, I probably should have structured the game a bit differently. Branching exponentially was an effective way to use up a lot of words really quickly, but it created breadth rather than depth. Because of all the bottlenecks, subsequent playthroughs will not feel significantly different to the player. Then again, maybe it’s better for people to play the game just once.

One of the best parts about this process was playing all the other excellent entries! My voting aligned generally with how the final results panned out. The games I thought had the most interesting takes on the theme were

  • Olivia C Dunlap’s Pretend You Love Each Other, for the way it subverts the conventions of a love story, but, in some ways, ends up being kind of about love (or at least compassion) anyway.
  • cairirie’s at 3am, I didn’t think you, for the way it presents pining over someone as being a series of choices–or not.
  • Eleanor Hingley’s Beloved, for the way it draws out and lingers over the steps involved in preparing a meal, and conveys that sense of intentionality and care to the player. I also really appreciated how you have the option to prepare the meal for yourself.

Favorite necropastoral games

I have spent much of this October making a silverfish costume out of duct tape and re-reading Joyelle McSweeney’s The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults. In the book (and on the now-inactive blog Montevidayo), McSweeney explores a variety of texts that  employ necropastoral strategies: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, CAConrad’s The Book of Frank, Jack Smith’s Normal Love, the work of Kim Hyesoon, and many others.

According to McSweeney, “the necropastoral” is not merely an aesthetic designation–that is, it’s not just about imagery of contamination and death; necropastoral works also enact a kind of wormy devouring, actively exposing and transgressing the (artificial) boundary between idealized Arcadia and blighted city.

I’ve also been playing a lot of games–mostly short, mostly Twine–and I think that games can be considered through this lens as well. Here are three of my favorite necropastoral games. Some spoilers ensue.

 

A Perfect World by Ansh Patel

A Perfect World by Ansh Patel

Please mind the content warning on this game. It is extremely dark.

A Perfect World begins with a pretty straightforward pastoral scene: you are in a sunny meadow after a rain. As you advance through the story, however, the text begins to fracture and disintegrate. Words obscure words, creating paranoid, glitchy pairings: cracking/QUAKE, indecisive/panicked, action/inaction, feel/????, more confident and capable/it’s all a facade. The story, too, begins to disintegrate. Gone are the field, the sun, the stream, and the chirping birds. Instead, the game implores you to “drown yourself in the tainted water.” Here, the agent of contamination is you; your every move hastens the destruction of the perfect world.

 

With Those We Love Alive by Porpentine

With Those We Love Alive by Porpentine

In With Those We Love Alive, you play an artificer tasked with making weapons and adornments for a bloodthirsty Empress. A hunter of humans, the Empress is the ultimate death femme: She “smells like dead candy.” She leaves trails of putrid slime behind her as she drags her body, swollen with princess spores, from throne room to garden. It should be remembered, however, that the necropastoral is not just an aesthetic zone, it is a “political-aesthetic zone.” WTWLA is likewise not just a story about “empress juice” and “dehydrated femme carcasses”; it is a story about power, and it invokes necropastoral strategies such as warping and alienation as a means to resist and subvert that power.

 

Chyrza by Kitty Horroshow

Chyrza by Kitty Horroshow

Chyrza is a story told by a ghost–or, rather, a person who has been turned into a monument. The setting is a desert, faintly illuminated by a yellow moon and a few dull stars. There are several improbable edifices here, separated by expanses of emptiness. Exploring each monument unlocks fragments of the story: the appearance of a strange pyramid, the ensuing malaise, the flaking skin and weeping sores, the disappearance of your community, the appearance of these strange monoliths. The narrator of this game is both corpse and headstone, casting you, the player, as witness.

Afraid of money: 5 (mostly) procedurally generated poems

I’ve been curious about procedural content generation, so I spent the weekend experimenting with this Markov chain generator and tutorial. I have no Python experience, but it was easy for me to set up and use. I think you’ll recognize some of the source text, which I intentionally kept brief. I’m happy with the results, which I might describe as “flarfkov” :). (The results also reminded me of how much I enjoyed the 2009 hit “Team, meet girls.”)

I asked the program to generate output text that was 200 words long, beginning alternately with “I” and “You.” As you can probably tell, I lightly edited the output: I introduced line breaks, truncated some lines, deleted some lines, and changed the order of a couple of lines–though not the order of individual words.

I’m interested in texts that show their seams, and I’m interested in exploring “soft constraints”–i.e., texts that are produced by some sort of mechanical constraint in collaboration with human intervention. I’m also hoping to find ways to work with procedural methods whereby violence is not enacted on source texts the way that it is too often enacted on bodies.

Here are the poems:

1.
I wanna rock
with the dream, afraid of money.”
Call me!
(Call me!)
I’ll arrive
Call me!
(Call me!)
I’ll arrive
day or Night It’s still rock the heart, afraid
of money.”
Dance the rose Girl,
Call me!(Call me!)
All in the night away.
No dark sarcasm
in the night away.
Stick Around, I got so rare. There’s
promise in the night away.
Out on my motorbike. Until I’m driving?
There’s a magazine…Aimed at your soul
We’re gonna ride on me, oh
call me
to groove with a long ride the dream,
afraid of a move to bleed.

2.
You don’t eat yer meat?”
“You! Yes, you
Gotta move
to rock-n-roll. Gotta make a straight ‘A’ student?
“If you know
about a cradle Call
on the classroom.
Nothin’ can never hear enough of dying
That never get on my baby.
She knows how to feel the line
She leaves your calling chart.
You can never get on
the tender reed. but it’s always been the lucky
and cold fever
I know me.
Some say love, it jives (ooh,
ooh). It
shakes

3.
When the night has been too much.
Your best bet’s a hunger
It cries (like a move on.
W-h-o-a
You are magic.
Do that your dreams
Alive For you. W-h-o-a baby.
I’ll bring all your dream.
There’s a magic that must get hip.
It’s Coming Up,
Coming Up Like A Flower.
It’s Coming

4.
Next phase, new band in our way.
You won’t make a town that’s right for me.
How about it,
Gotta make a river
That We All To Last Forever.
We Can Get Together
We Can Get Together
We Can Make It, Stick With Me.
Yeah. All in a town that’s right for me.
Just remember in the heat
Take a new sound stand
in a river
That drowns

5.
It’s the crowd I’m ready.
I must get hip.
And get hip.
And get more mileage from a hunger An endless
aching need.
But you take a cheap pair of sneakers.”
You take me movin’.
Once
is only For the bike sheds,
what they say love, ‘Cause we can never
enough with you,
its only seed.
I say love,
it is never enough
of a long ride on the car
Coming Up Like A Flower. She leaves me
once again.