Possibilities in the TinyUtopias IF Jam

This Sunday, during a Twitter conversation, Emily Short idly mentioned she’d wanted to host a Tiny Utopias IF jam. This kicked off a host of whimsical impromptu works, including a couple I made.

There’s something about the prompt which I think is inherently fertile. It asks you sketch out an entire world, one which your readers will understand as better, in a confined space. There’s a balance between the ideal of ultimate freedom and the constraints of implementation there.

Porpentine kicked things off and made FROLIC RPG, a pink delight of emojis, dancing, friend-making and frolicking. It’s an experiential piece, one that for me resists description deliberately.

Brendan Patrick Hennessy created an emoji narrative found here; I’m counting it because it’s an iteration of an imagined future where all communication is done in emoji, part of what could well be a larger piece. But also, emoji’s semiotic instability requires parsing on behalf of the reader such that the piece created cannot exist without active reading. (Also because I can.)

Bruno Dias’s game is Miniature Utopian Parser Ritual #1, which I found genuinely moving and have played several times through at this point. There’s something about using parser input conventions to suggest a linear path; this, to me, is where the ritual of the title comes in. Deviation isn’t possible because deviation isn’t the point: this is a meditation. You can’t get it wrong. You can’t lose. It feels very much like a gift.

Emily Short herself created TinyHillside, a lovely little gem of a piece, shards of a life like a kaleidoscope which you can turn over. The work features a very clear protagonist, all the pieces of their life jangling together, picked over and made whole (perhaps, just perhaps) by context and memory. There’s no obligation or duty or binding of the PC; just experience, rest, quiet.

I made two things; the first, POSTMODERN UTOPIA, is a tiny text piece that’s more about deciding what possible personal self-contentment can exist within the context of this current world in we actually live. What would it take to find peace?  Perhaps a bit more earnest and on-the-nose than I usually am, but I found it a productive exercise to seriously consider what would be the best possibilities, given my own and others’ current constraints.

For xChange, I wanted to do something different: I wanted to create a world that felt strange and teeming and filled with every possible encounter with what you aren’t, but which ended in a deeper understanding. To that end, depth and richness in 300 words or less seemed like a good place to play with Tracery grammars.

Obviously there’s a limit to the feeling of “infinite encounters”; passages do get reused. I wanted this to a degree, actually: the intention was that the more you encounter semiotically impossible creatures, the more you get inured to the strangeness around you, like, “oh yeah there’s that being made of infinite fractal light again, sigh”. In a different, more detailed project I would have pruned away previously-used sentence structures, but the idea of xChange is that you are able to continue indefinitely, if you like. That would be very difficult with 300 words; I would have needed to build a structured grammatical model in which was capable of putting together sentence strings, and I wasn’t up for doing that for a game jam.

There are still occasionally weird moments that the grammar throws: I pruned some of the less interesting ones, but deliberately kept some of the jarring ones. A degree of semantic nonsense there to mimic the disorientation of the protagonist, essentially.

 

One of the things that struck me about all of the Tiny Utopias games, my own included, is that they feel meditative. My initial thought was that it’s a quality inherent to a tiny game, but Chandler Groover’s creak, creak for TwinyJam, for example, isn’t something I would categorize that way. All of these games either create or illustrate a ritual: the protagonist, as well as the player sometimes, is asked to surrender to a kind of act which takes on a significance larger than themselves. And maybe that’s utopia: the something outside of ourselves that is, despite all probability, kind, and peaceful, and well-intentioned, which we can grasp.

I’ve mostly been doing contract and day job work since I came back from GDC with my head full of new project ideas. It’s been admittedly frustrating to spend much of my day on work which sometimes has little to do with games, narrative, or creative writing, especially when I want to be working on these new ideas. I’m laying foundations for work down the road: but sometimes it’s hard to feel that way.

Taking a couple hours out of my day to make a couple of tiny worlds, to reach for something outside of my usual avenues, felt genuinely restorative. I might need to do this more regularly.

EDIT:

Tiny Utopias keep pouring in! Most of them seem to hold to my earlier thoughts about ritual. If there are any I’ve missed–or if you’re inspired to make your own–please let me know and I’ll add them. And there’s now a jam page on IFDB!

Powers of Two” by b minus seven is spare but evocative, assonant words cascading on down. I found myself playing with Rorschach-adjacent ideas (“road” or “seer” felt like a tarotic choice).

Chandler Groover made the strangely soothing “Skull-Scraper“, a dark, strange, but comforting story of plenty and ritual, about who cleans up after us when we’re gone.

Astrid Dalmady offers “TinyUtopia“, an enchanting slice of life that soothes in its depiction of a tiny glittering moment.

VerityVirtue has “morning after“, which read to me as a comforting reading of the pleasure in duty and work at something crucial. Plus tea. This is–strangely–a world in which I might want to live.

And another from Bruno, adding credence to the claim that skulls and utopias aren’t mutually exclusive.

Hannah Powell-Smith has created “Enough“, a warm, comforting reassurance, quietly encouraging that things are okay.

Mathbrush made “Fridgetopia“, where you can create and assemble words to your will.

Caelyn Sandel offers “Tiny Beach“, an immersive experience set on a seaside (and which is still open in the background as I write this, because I find the created utopia incredibly soothing). EDIT: since making this post, Sandel has created a whole host of tiny, shimmering gems, hosted on a page she’s made especially for the jam. They’re all multimedia, immersive experiences; I especially recommend Palm River.

A. Johanna DeNiro made “TinyUtopia Football Manager: Super Slam Soccer Edition” which is delightful. It takes a genre I find fascinating from a distance (the sports management sim) and offers something new and lovely.

Oreolek has “Antropology“, a minimalist word-based slice of life; the soundtrack really underscores the dynamism of the structure. Everything is constantly in motion–well, nearly everything.

Moving Day” is by helado de brownie, a piece about leaving it all behind for something better.

This isn’t technically made for the jam, but Adri called it an “un-submission” and it’s adorable, so here’s “Kii!Wii!

Here is Teaspoon’s “sheep here“, which I don’t want to overhype but please play this game. I think I’ve discovered I really love what I think of as “parser poetry”, small parser games with a limited verb set (Chandler Groover is amazing at this). (Try eating yourself, once you’ve gone through the logical options.)

Ade has “We Are Unfinished“, a meditation on perspectives which I found wholly absorbing. (Someone read it as a companion to “Map”, and while I’m not sure that reading works for me, it’s at least an interesting idea.)

There’s A.C.Godliman’s Mushrooms Red As Meat, which requires fullscreen. I spent an absorbing half-hour exploring the last lingering memories of a decaying world; the visual aspect especially immersed me.

rocketnia offers “The Shape of Our Container“, a soft and gentle meditation on rest and mutual understanding. It posits a world where the anxieties of existence and connection are soothed away.

Then we have “Untie,” credited to Alex Ellis, a Twine meditation on freeing oneself of attachments. I’m not sure my reading is what the author intended, but I see the final choice of sleep as a way of washing over, cancelling out both obligations and the rebellion from obligation–a way of smoothing out the ravelled sleeve of care, as it were.

Brian Kwak made “Coffee and Tea“, a soothing slice of life where you make the perfect cup. It’s made in Texture, which feels like the right choice: I liked having to drag the word, to take a sustained action on the track pad, to achieve my delicious end. Have a mug of your favorite hot beverage handy.

 

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