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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Stranger Horizons: A Review of Contemporary Cybertext and its Possibilities

Speculative fiction, meet interactive fiction; interactive fiction, meet speculative fiction. You two have a lot in common: you both tell stories about worlds in which psychological or social truths are turned over, examined, held up to the light. You both have writers who are interested in amplifying marginalized perspectives and honoring the human condition, often through another angle. And online platforms are crucial for both of your dissemination. I’ll leave you two to get acquainted, shall I?

Okay, so that’s a bit precious. I won’t pretend that there’s a huge divide between these two communities that’s vast and unbridgeable, or that I’m any sort of unifying figure. What I do want to do in this post is something very specific: I want to draw attention to a couple of pieces that I think might be useful to speculative fiction authors who are interested in incorporating interactivity in their work, that might shed light on various ways to approach such an aim. To that end, I’ve collected 5 of my favorite hypertext fiction pieces that I think might be most fruitful to SF writers, and offered thoughts on why they’re successful.

Natalie Theodoridou’s Sleepless is a piece about a world in which people have stopped dreaming; it incorporates a lot of the techniques that make Twine as versatile as it is, especially for stories about technology and transformation. Text transformation, popups, full screen effects, disorientation: it’s an engaging, lyrical speculative fiction story which uses interactive fiction’s capabilities to immerse the reader. It’s a short read, and I don’t want to give away too much, so I’d suggest playing through it on your own to get a sense of the wide variety of techniques IF can offer even a relatively linear story.

Chikodili Emelumadu’s The Fixer is the closest thing to traditional literary fiction on this list. Written in Twine, it could easily work just as well in Undum; the official summary on sub-Q is “two women hire a private investigator to trail their erring husbands”, and what follows is a brilliant work of Igbo magical realism, the sort of story we need more of in all literary spaces. The plot is mostly linear, closer on the IF spectrum to dynamic fiction than parser piece. This is in no way a criticism; it’s an incredibly strong, compelling story, and the reason I include it is because it serves as both an example of excellent contemporary fiction, and an example that writing IF doesn’t necessarily imply creating a gameified plot, if that’s an issue that’s stymying you.

If we’re talking about strong fiction where a gameified element is crucial to furthering the plot, I would recommend A. DeNiro’s Solarium. Absorbing, gripping narrative is uncovered through the acquisition of reagents, as you attempt to subvert the course of history. I’d call Solarium’s genre “magical realist apocalypse”; the choices involved always feel gripping, immediate, personal. A wonderful demonstration of ways a reader’s progress through the narrative can be made to pay off in the denouement.

Eidolon is worth checking out if you’re interested in how to incorporate more traditional “game” elements—specifically, puzzles—into an interactive narrative. It’s a beautiful, lyrical tale told from the perspective of a child who’s just woken up past midnight in a deserted house. There’s a creeping sense of horror and mystery and dread that only deepens the further you play through; do be advised that it’s quite a long piece and the lack of a save feature means you can’t simply resume your place later.

Finally, we have Beautiful Dreamer, a lovely story about an insomniac awake on a winter’s night. It’s another in the magical realism genre—this is not our world, but enough of it is recognizable as you explore. There’s a variety of different choices you can make in the beginning, but both game and world contain an internally consistent structure. It’s a soft, moving piece in its own right, but also a good example of how to keep multiple disparate pieces moving in the same narrative direction.

As a bonus, I might shout out to Fabricationist DeWit, a Twine about waking after an apocalyptic event and attempting to remake the world. Commissioned for a TEDxCERN, it’s an excellent example of how hypertext, speculative fiction, and pressing issues can come together to make something rare.

Five (all right, six) Twine stories, each doing something very different with the program, but each an example of a successful piece of interactive work. I hope this gives people, speculative fiction writers and newcomers to interactive fiction alike, a jumping off point for some of the possibilities that hypertext allows, and sparks ideas for new directions.

I’m considering doing another post in this series, if there’s enough interest, on how to go about doing some of these specific interactive mechanics—but I’d need to know what people would find most helpful/interesting.

As ever, I’m available for questions / coding help (or recommendations if I’m not the best person to ask) / or any other IF-ambassador-type needs at catacalypto at google’s free mail service.

The State of Things

I’ve been uncharacteristically silent lately, though you may have seen me on Twitter being excited by Invasion’s release on sub-Q. Kerstin did some incredible work on the illustrations, and I finally feel that the sub-Q version is the story I was trying to tell. I can’t recommend working with them highly enough, even if–especially if!–you’re an established writer who is new to IF and interested in what sort of stories the genre can tell that don’t work in other ways.

I’ve been working pretty much constantly for the past two months on several projects, but unfortunately I can’t talk about any of them publicly yet. This is a strange position to be in: I’m chipping away at work, or laying foundations for what I hope might be far-reaching and amazing on the future, and I want to jump up and down and shout from the rooftops…but I can’t.

Instead, I just haven’t said anything. Which obviously is less than ideal.

I don’t tend to talk a lot publicly about things I hope to do: I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I get ashamed if I offer to write, or create, or facilitate something and then the result never materializes. But other people are far less bothered by these perceived failings than I am. And if nothing else it will serve as a record of my practice: what I valued and wanted to put my energy towards.

So here’s a list of some goals I’m working towards or thinking about in the first half of 2016. I want to talk more to speculative fiction writers about the possibilities of interactive fiction, to get these communities talking, to make resources available to anyone who’s interested in dipping a toe into the world of IF.

– to that end, I’m going to start writing a very, very basic guide for writers who have little-to-no JavaScript experience for a program called Raconteur, which is an extension of Undum. Undum is the IF platform that I think looks most like traditional static fiction, and I want to make it more accessible to non-programmers. (Accessibility in other ways–especially with screen readers–is another crucial issue, one that I’m currently still trying to address in my own work.)

– look for a blog post later this week called “Towards New Perspectives of Cybertextuality: A Review”; it’s a list of 5 recent pieces of IF that might get non-IF people talking about the current state of the field, specifically (hopefully!) from a speculative fiction point.

– Here’s the big one. I’m going to put my money (well, my time and skills, which for a freelancer is the same thing) and extend an offer to established speculative fiction writers interested in IF. Send me a story (5k or under) you’ve either previously published and have the rights to reprint, or something you’re still revising, that you’d like to see in IF. I’ll work with you on developing your vision and talking you through the coding, and when it’s published, I’d like to release a blog post series of the illustrated revision process as a blog post series about how to bring interactive elements into a static story to amplify the impact of an existing work or create something dazzlingly groundbreaking. If there’s enough interest, I might even do this for more than one work; it all depends.

Why am I offering this when I have a dissertation, my own contract work, and my own passion projects? Because I care deeply about narrative and its possibilities, about interactive fiction and speculative fiction, and because I think there is still so much uncovered ground. And new is exciting. And because of momentum.

The cat’s doing well. So am I. It’s time to keep moving forward.

Housekeeping and Homer: or, A Different Sort of Interactive Narrative

I’ve been meaning to use this blog as a place to write occasional reviews of IF pieces which have made an impression on me, but just about everything I’ve engaged with this month has been from IF Comp. So if you’re interested in my reviews, check this space on the 15th, when I can post them publicly.

Meanwhile, I’ve been considering the concept of interactive storytelling outside of what we (as the IF community) think of when we talk about interactive fiction/narrative. Yesterday, the Almeida Theatre staged an all-day reading of the Odyssey in a handful of locations throughout London, mapping Odysseus’ journey home onto the contemporary cityscape. It was a follow-up performance to their Iliad in August, which I was fortunate enough to see in person; for the Odyssey, I watched as much of the livestream as I could. But bearing witness to the performances–being part of the performances–both in-person and digitally, struck me then as crucial, and still continues to feel that way.

Whoever ran the Almeida’s Twitter account during the performances deserves both a raise and a promotion: modern, clever synopses sprinkled with tongue-in-cheek hashtags filled the official Twitter, which for the Iliad reading was displayed in real-time on a screen to the left of the reader’s podium. And a vast majority of us watching in person had our phones out and were livetweeting along. The effect was brilliant: the global community watching on the livestream and the crowd in the lobby of the British Museum created a collective experience dependent not on location but on witnessing, on participation. Livetweeting the Iliad and Odyssey felt, and still feels, like the intuitive modern response to the inherent social, communal nature of Homer’s poetry.

We don’t belong to a culture in which we gather to drink wine and hear recited verse; there was no krater next to the actors reading their lines yesterday or in August. In fact, there was a grueling quality present in the Iliad that wasn’t there in my experience of the Odyssey; spending 15 hours (off and on) standing in the lobby of the British Museum and then at the bar of the Almeida felt like a marathon. But Homer’s poems were social experiences, designed for engagement and real-time reaction, and hashtags now have the potential to curate a collective conversation.

Those of us tweeting along with the Almeida’s account and official hashtags weren’t controlling the narrative’s direction; no one expects to change the outcome of two of the oldest poems in Western culture. But we were creating our own simultaneous narrative of the particular experience, preserved in 140-character bursts. The performances and the livetweeting thereof are not what I think of when I think of “interactive fiction”, obviously. But it does remind me that the idea of what it means to participate in a narrative is complex.

Author’s notes: Invasion (Ectocomp 2015)

Invasion post-mortem, because I couldn’t resist the thematic resonance, and also because I want to talk a bit here about my intent in writing the piece, and about some of the design choices.

Before I do, there’s now a version up on itch.io that has some of the CSS I initially wanted to add, and hopefully more typos removed! Keeping the default stylesheet was a conscious choice, an homage to some of the Ectocomp games I’ve loved in years past. I knew I wanted to do Grand Guignol, but I wanted it to still be Speed IF and feel like Ectocomp of yore–I personally felt strange about submitting a finely tuned piece where all the sound effects and backgrounds worked in harmony.

Well, that turned out to be an unnecessary fear, looking at the other Grand Guignol entries. The cumulative effect with the rest of my work now rather looks as though I have an unfortunate fetish for status quo, or I don’t know how to code. I’m not sure which I feel more insulted by. I intend to add in sound effects, etc., after Ectocomp is over, but I’ve got some other projects that need attention first.

So. Invasion is what happens when several conditions are met:
  • you have a story idea scratching at the inside of your skull, but no time to do more than ponder mechanics
  • you suddenly have a very long plane ride with nothing more pressing to attend to
  • you know you can write really fucking fast.

I gave myself a limit of the flight (plus airport transit time on both ends) to see how much of this I could knock out. Not counting the editing done Sunday night (and thanks to Andrew Watt for pinch hitting on that; all remaining mistakes are my own, yes I know about the alt-text in the zip file), the whole piece took about 8 hours. I wrote Invasion on the flight to Los Angeles for Indiecade; not counting imtermittent dozing and airport milling, 8 hours seems like a pretty good estimate for how much time I spent hunched over my laptop typing. Including code bits but not borrowed stylesheets and scripts, there are about 10,000 words in Invasion. I don’t even want to do the math on words per hour. The point is: I write fast, and I know I write fast.

So I figured I could manage a mid-length game, and I suppose I was right; I don’t know how coherent it is as a mid-length game. I can see all the little pieces of truncated ideas I didn’t have time to implement, but I don’t know if it would be a better game if I had. I knew I wanted the early game to feel a bit like a bait-and-switch by subtly invoking some familiar parser tropes. (There’s a reason the field is described as being “east” despite me being terrible with the compass in both parser and reality.) I’m not sure how much of that sense remained after I rewrote the opening, though. The original intention was to make it feel like a game that would work better as a parser, to give the player a sense of wanting to explore the world more, examine and take objects that weren’t keyed by the author. I wanted a sense of puzzlement, even frustration, as you run around picking up everyday mementos from the forest floor while a slavering horror advances to devour you, until you figure out why you’re doing this. I don’t know how effective this was, admittedly, but I am curious.

Also, the “why isn’t this a parser” reaction also felt crucial to what happens in the later game, when essentially your freedom is further stripped away and you’re left with only unpleasant, confining alternatives. Invasion is about isolation, about not being able to reach out and tell people how you’re feeling, what’s happening to you. In my mind, Twine as a format is often at its strongest when it’s telling stories about constraint and pain. Invasion is a story about both. I needed that sense of claustrophobia, that feeling of all these doors and windows of possibility and ingenuity shuttering in an instant. You can’t KISS alien. You can’t ASK alien ABOUT interstellar diplomacy. You can’t PLEAD for alien to LEAVE YOU ALONE, HASN’T IT DONE ENOUGH.* So. Twine, not Inform.

The mid-to-late game is brutally linear. I’d have wanted it to be so even if this weren’t Speed IF. You always end up with the same three choices. Your selection of who you dream of does significantly alter the glimpses of backstory you get, in that dreaming of an individual causes you to ruminate on them in all places where it’s possible to do so, which is at least once per day. If you think of Lakshmi, you get a real sense of your relationship, but you don’t have much access to your mother anymore.

That’s intentional. This isn’t a game with a high degree of replayability, and so I wanted the choice to represent a loss, and not necessarily one where the entire significance of that loss could be realized in the moment. This is a game about losing your memories and sundering connections to your loved ones, and thus to parts of yourself. Knowing at all turns what you’re giving up runs counter to the experience I wanted to build.

The idea of the agalma runs heavily through Invasion: in Greek lyric, an agalma denotes precious gift object, carefully crafted and beautiful, beyond its usual common definition of a votive statue to the gods. The agalma of Homer creates appreciation and exaltation in its viewer, and through the curation of that experience, the conjuring of those emotions of delight, builds fond relationships between strangers, between the human and the divine.** The embedding of memory in an object that can conjure an absent ghost is an idea that I keep coming back to, and wanted to explore. The agalmata in this story forge links between individuals, to preserve memories that would otherwise be lost (I have a whole structural idea of how that loss happens, but I didn’t have enough time here to do the concept justice.) But they also act as links, as threatening bonds between alien and human. What nourishes you destroys you, etc.

Emily Short has talked about games as a medium for being able to talk about truth slant, to tell stories in a way that feels safe for both reader and author. Arkady Martine once said that aliens are full of allegory. I happen to agree with them both. Thus, Invasion was born. I was glad for the opportunity to tell this story, and I might like to come back and explore the world in greater depth at some point. We’ll see.

* Maybe another time! A piece with “KISS alien” and “ASK alien ABOUT interstellar diplomacy” does seem like something I would write.

**yes, this is a very particular metaphorical and not entirely Classicist-approved reading of the function of agalmata. But I’m taking poetic liberties.

Introductory remarks

It’s a proper blog! This seems like a nice place for thoughts about writing, both my writing and other people’s which I find thought-provoking.

I’m Cat Manning. Up until now, I’ve mostly written about dead languages and historical cosmopolitanism for my day job, but I’ve gotten heavily invested in interactive fiction recently. I’m a latecomer to the scene, but I’ve been writing creatively on and off for the better part of two decades now. I like speculative fiction, digital humanities, translation and rewriting, and marginalia. I also like commas and semicolons more than is good for me. I’m working on several interactive fiction pieces across a variety of platforms (Inform7, Undum, and Choicescript), and this seems like a good place to talk about processes, both specific and theoretical.

A bit more about me: Cat, late-twenties, she/her. Perpetually peripatetic and usually split between Los Angeles, London, and the small town where I’m finishing up my Ph.D. in Renaissance literature. I love graffiti (ancient, modern, and imagined) and cityscapes (especially the ones in someone’s head).