Poetry for Mortality, or Imposed Obsolescence

So I’ve been watching Westworld, and perhaps more to the point, watching what narrative designers of my acquaintance think of Westworld. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about AI (both practically speaking as well as how AI functions in fictional narratives), and especially neural networks, and poetry’s position in the show–as something not just learned but processed, assimilated, and made into a complex reference system–seems apt. (Disclaimer: I am not an AI researcher and thus will gleefully use the wrong words to refer to these android characters throughout this post.)

I got into a conversation about wanting to take all of the decommissioned robots to a park and read gentle poetry on Twitter, which led to thinking about what specifically I’d want to give them. There’s a really interesting overlap between human concerns about mortality and robots which are built with either planned or possible obsolescence in mind; I’m thinking immediately of Bentley A. Reese’s fantastic “Suicide Bots” in Shimmer, which is one of my favorite stories this year. And so what follows is a list of poetry I think might be particularly healing or meaningful for droids which have been considered undesirable.

  1. John Donne, Holy Sonnet #1

I was so pleased when the glitchy robot professor/dad/whatever other roles I’m forgetting started quoting Donne, because Donne’s obsession with free will and mortality is incredibly salient here. “Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?” begins Holy Sonnet #1, and thus launches into a meditation on aging, mortality, and what can potentially be preserved–for Donne, through salvation; for robots, through saving. “Repair me now, for mine end doth haste” is a line particularly likely to win fans among the decommissioned crowd.

2. G.M. Hopkins, “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.”

Jacob Garbe mentioned this one, but this is absolutely the Hopkins I’d have included if I’d have chosen. Melancholy, with a fixation on the question if the grief of living can be transcended, Hopkins’ poetry carves out a hollow space for grappling with a world where its creator will not intervene to relieve suffering. (All right, Hopkins still believes in God, but his work has more to do with asserting that faith in the face of trials than singing praises.) This one in particular speaks to the anxieties of abandonment and the universality of oblivion: “all / life death does end and each day dies / with sleep”.

3. Edna St. Vincent Millay, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)

This might seem like an odd choice–Millay has a lot of work about aging, death, and loss, but this one is an old favorite, and dovetails neatly with the idea of memory and repeatedly-run subroutines. Favorite lines: “the rain / is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh / upon the glass and listen for reply” and “Thus in winter stands the lonely tree, / nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, / yet knows its boughs more silent than before”.

4. Eavan Boland, “Quarantine

Okay, bear with me on this one. Yes, it’s about mortality, so it plausibly counts, but it’s more specifically directed at our glitchy professor, whose directive overrode the rest of his programming to create emergent behavior. This stark paean to pragmatic love stands, in my reading, as a parallel to the sacrifice Abernathy makes to keep Dolores safe, to Thandie Newton’s character’s protection of one of her girls, to Dolores running to her sweetheart : the “merciless inventory” of “what they suffered. How they lived”. Yeah, I’m sad about robots, what of it?

5. A. E. Housman, “On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble (A Shropshire Lad 31)

Oh, Housman. My heart aches for him, caught between desire (if perhaps overwrought) and duty. This poem in particular deals with landscape and linkages, a world which retains the imprint and feelings of the people who have lived and died and vanished on it, even if only in the common behaviors they perform. And what’s more Westworld than that?

(Honorable mentions: Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas“, Ruth Baumann, “Headless Ghazal“, probably everything we still have of Sappho.)


IF Comp 2016 Reviews: Screw You, Bear Dad

“Screw You, Bear Dad” was the first game I played this year, largely because I had seen its cover art on the hashtag for a couple of days, and also, come on, a bear protagonist. I’m not made of stone.

The game does indeed feature a bear PC, though it also dedicates time to other characters (more on that later). It opens as you’re falling through a skylight–bulletproof but not bearproof, the first of many moments to make me smile–into a research facility, and accidentally crushing a human beneath you. You are then offered the chance to back away, or to wear the unfortunate person’s face as a disguise. Reader, I chose the skin mask.

The game then splits your time exploring the facility, seeing the bear through the perspective of the human characters, one of whom works in human resources and is arguably having the worst day of her career (unfortunately, no one makes a joke about the disguise as an aspect of human resources), and flashbacks which are later explained in exposition. The flashbacks for me are the strongest part, with a strong core story about the tension between wanting to find your own way and the weight of expectations.

The pacing for me is the biggest issue. It starts off with a bunch of Dad Jokes and a paced vignette where text appears slowly, controlling the pace of conversation. This is a technique that’s hard to do well, and it requires tight control of the narrative up to and past that point. For me, it only works if there’s little slack in the rest of the story, to serve as a contrast. And in “Screw You, Bear Dad”, there were parts which I felt went on too long, or were otherwise meandering: particularly in the facility.

The facility bit is probably the weakest part of the story, which is a shame because I do like Carla, and Bailey’s puns are great. (The pacing on the puns–click to have a character try to stop them, fail to hold back the tide–did work well for me. And the way profanity is strategically delayed until a suitably dramatic moment is a nice light touch.) But I kept wanting to get back to Bear Dad and his Bear Child. I imagine the purpose of switching to the humans’ perspective is to offer the idea that no one is beyond humanizing or impossible to feel empathy for. And that’s an idea I am very strongly here for, but in practice, it muddies the narrative and drags out the action. A shorter piece would have given those flashback pauses more emotional weight.

The author does a lot of work with link effects in this game: delays, shaking, disappearing and reappearing entirely. These elements  have variable success: I liked the effect of the dramatic pauses, but words that disappear sporadically make me feel like I have to time my click right. That’s fine and maybe even desirable in a game about urgency or precision, but here it doesn’t work for me.

What I expected from the opening was a staccato, surreal, funny beardungsroman, and I did get that in places. And I think the multiple perspectives does support my reading of the game as being primarily about realizing life has multiple surprising and frightening possibilities (anywhere from “I can make my own life” to “a bear crashed into my facility and everything is broken now”) and that the best response to this is empathy. But there’s too much slack in the overall structure and in the pacing choices for me to say that it’s a solidly coherent work. But it’s sweet, and it’s heartfelt, and it’s beary funny. Recommended.

IF Comp 2016: My Review Guidelines

It’s IF Comp season, which means a whole lot of games are about to be released. I said I’d try to review some of the games, which I’ll be doing on this blog, and so this is a general introduction about what to expect from my reviews and reviewing process. This is the first year without an author muzzle rule, and Sam Kabo Ashwell put up some very useful guidelines about best practices for authors. Instead of going into it myself, I’m going to link to him.

A couple of potentially-useful caveats about my own reviewing:

I am not going to get to everything. I’m incredibly busy with a couple of commercial projects on top of my day job, and if the comp gets as many entries as it did last year, I simply won’t have time to review every game. I’ll be using a randomly ordered list, but I’ll also be jumping around in that if I only have time for a short game or something catches my eye. Also, I’m much more likely to review long, traditional parser games if they have a walkthrough: it helps me save time if I get stuck on a puzzle, so I have more time to spend on the structure of a game and review more works.

I’m not writing reviews for the benefit of the author. It’s entirely possible authors will get some useful feedback out of it, but the purpose of my reviews is to record my experience and to offer that to other readers as a possible guide. I’m aiming for what worked, and what didn’t work, for me; what I found interesting or ambitious or moving or worth commenting on, and my experiences (all experiences, in fact) are subjective.

Given that, I’m not using numerical scores; I may or may not explicitly recommend games. If I do, it’s possible that there will be a reason, e.g. “recommended if you like…” or “not recommended for…”, but this may not occur in all cases. (Note: this section might be updated as I progress through reviews and my process becomes more regimented.)

I am reviewing a piece of IF, not that piece’s author. If I’m frustrated or bored by a game, or I criticize an aspect of it, that is absolutely not a comment on the author’s worth as a person. I know this can be hard; I know we all, myself included, have a tendency to get attached to our work. Creative success or failure does not correlate to the quality of your personhood or your worth as a person.

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.

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.


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.


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.