Bring Out Your Dead: Peace

What I set out to do with Peace was to make a game about the perils of being a traveler, about how observing a situation changes the outcome. “Peace” was originally for the magical realism game jam, in which the prompt I chose was the game’s first screen. (The title is a veiled reference to the line from Tacitus, “they made a desert and called it peace”.) Writing about the Roman Empire–and the Empire specifically–meant that I wanted to tackle issues of inclusion and exclusion, and limited agency. The story of Empire as produced by those in the machine. And who tells the story.

The problems I see are several:

1) Mechanically, I want the corpus to be more robust, and to respond to more of the player’s choices. If you get a silver mask in Caerulea, I want it to be traded in Flexiloquus for a secret. In that way, even at moments when there isn’t player choice specifically, it’s clear the game is listening. I never had the time to actually implement this.

2) There aren’t enough actions besides traveling in a particular direction, and the final choice. Part of this has to do with the disorientation of indefinite peripatesis, but I also think there’s more I can do here. This piece probably belongs in Undum, since I envision it specifically as a linear story which unfolds but is different in each iteration.

If I were to redo this now, I think it would be mechanically very different: at every stage you’d have a choice to remain, continue, or turn back. But turning back doesn’t necessarily return you to previous passages; the desert, after all, is infinitely vast and variable, and you may not be able to find the way. The further in you go, the more detached from the mechanisms of empire you become. There’s never a center to reach; that to me runs counter to the narrative I want to tell. Which means the ending to this game might feel slightly forced; I’m still grappling with that.

In the end, I wanted a text that that read as text, where player choices influence the minutiae of the story but not the story itself. I’m not entirely satisfied with this–my work is either really branchy, with wildly varying decisions, or extremely constrained and directly about that constraint. I’m not sure this has found a satisfactory balance yet. I’m interested in thoughts, about the direction this might go, if it’s resurrectable.

Solstice and house-keeping

I need to get better about updating the personal blog, probably. When I am blogging, I’m mostly over at Spooky Action at a Distance, the SFF/IF review-plus blog which Arkady Martine are co-running. It’s a lot more interesting to prod innovative things, and people making innovative things, than to navel-gaze about my own work.

I’m working on a couple things; planting seeds both metaphorically and literally. I had an herb garden when I was a kid, but I haven’t been stationary long enough in my twenties to plant one again. I don’t know if the soil will support what I want: basil and mint and rosemary, which at least seems to grow everywhere whether you like it or not. But I am going to try. I can’t say much at the moment about the particulars of my writing projects, but it’s interesting to see the intersection of a lot of long-held interests, how schemas crop up again and again, morphed and mutated and facile again. Okay, maybe a bit of a teaser: practical magic, grounded in body and history; cyberpunk in an age of technorealism; inscription as violence. They’re not all the same piece, of course: but I return again and again to the site of the body as simultaneous agent and witness, the bearer of traumatic legacies, and to where the borders of “human” blur.

To tip my hand slightly on the technorealism, I shake my head at the fear-mongering hot takes about artificial intelligence, the idea that AI will learn too well from natural language processing and replace what we consider “human” functions and roles. (This doesn’t mean I’m utopian, that I am willing to ignore the very real potential for violence that some forms of contemporary information-gathering have the power to deploy.) Better scholars than I on machine learning and globalization have explained why both technoworship and apocalypticism miss some crucial questions, but as a writer I’m predictably more interested in the narrative we’ve created around this. There’s a breathtaking arrogance in some of the assumptions here: that this kind of artificial learning doesn’t require moderation or filtering, as if culture springs from society’s head, fully grown and armed, that machines will elect to mimic humans exactly, imperfect and inefficient as we are, and–most interesting–that such a story is one of fear and warning. If our robots become us, we think, they will destroy us. Human history bears that out: but nestled in this is a fatalism which assumes this trait of destruction is inextricable with the human experience. Perhaps it is; I’ll leave that question to the scientists and cultural historians. But it strikes me that we’re missing a lot. There’s a lot of room for stories about the chaotic, creative riot that questions of machine learning and bots and data networks sit at the center of. Those are the kinds of stories that grab me.

We’re coming up on the solstice, the halfway point of the year, and I need to think about what I want to sow now to harvest in the latter part of 2016. I intend to submit something–in its horribly unfinished form–to the Bring Out Your Dead competition Emily Short is running, if only to clear my hard drive of projects and my head of partially-finished ideas. I can’t commit to a short story every month: interactive fiction projects are longer and weirder and less predictable than static fiction, in my experience. But I am committing to the word count equivalent. Let’s see what I reap.