Galatea

This week the piece Galatea, made by Emily Short, was presented in class. It is an interactive fiction game with many potential outcomes, depending on how you engage with its titular character. The work is somewhat reminiscent of a mixture of chatterbots and old text adventure games, though Galatea differs in that there is a multitude of possible narratives, and she actually keeps track of what things have been brought up in a playthrough, giving some added consistency and depth to the piece. It does have its limitations however, in that there are specific commands you have to input in order to receive an answer, and the narrative pacing can be thrown off if you start up more than one topic of conversation at a time. There is nevertheless an impressive list of commands available, and there is a surprising amount of depth and complexity both narratively and technically for such a seemingly simple piece. And that is perhaps what is so fascinating about it.

The game itself is a conversation between the player character and the living statue named Galatea, though how it plays out will depend on the player. In a way it portrays how conversations between two people could play out in a lot of different ways depending on what questions you ask, how you use what you learn, and on how you treat the other person. The difference here is that Galatea is not human, which gives her a different perspective on things. For one she doesn’t need to breathe, yet she learned how to do so simply by watching her creator, and she finds it a relaxing thing to do. She’s also quick to warn you if you, for example, try to grab and turn her around. Continuing that type of behavior leads to a quick end of the conversation, and it shows that despite her limited experiences she has her own boundaries.

I find the game to be reminiscent of how we approach art in real life. Sometimes you try to distance yourself from what you critique, so as to give a neutral, but fair assessment of it. Other times you might get a more personal experience from what you see. There is no correct method when it comes to the personal interpretation of art, and Galatea shows this through the many varied conversations you can have with her. One visit might be fairly pleasant, another cold and distant, and in yet another you might possibly befriend or even anger her. Without a list of commands the game can be difficult to navigate properly, and even then the flow of the conversation can be interrupted by new topics, which shows its limitations. In spite of that it has aged quite well considering that the game only relies on text to convey meaning. The wide variety of topics and outcomes gives the game a lot of replayability for you to explore the possible conversations with Galatea, which I quite liked.

Advertisements

Being Spencer Pratt

This week in class we learned about a networked improvisational narrative, or #netprov, called Being Spencer Pratt. In essence it was a 4-week long collaborative work involving Spencer Pratt, Heidi Montag, Mark C. Marino and Rob Wittig, where the latter two posted using Pratt’s twitter account under the guise of a British poet that had supposedly found Pratt’s lost cell phone. It also involved Spencer Pratt’s more than one million twitter followers as the “poet” invited them to play poetry games and interacting with them in general. It makes for an interesting piece of e-lit since I feel it kind of goes a bit beyond what you’d normally expect out of e-literature due to its unusual nature.

For one the experience is in part a temporary one, in that the #netprov only took place over a few weeks time, after which we can only look back at what happened to study how the event played out. This is unlike many other works of electronic literature as they often let you experience and interact with it your own leisure, without necessarily losing out on anything. Where #netprov differs, even from other performative pieces, is that through to its use of social media the audience becomes a part of the performance whether they realize it or not. When Marino and Wittig began posting on Twitter it was to pose as Spencer Pratt pretending that he’d somehow retrieved his lost phone, even as Pratt himself was stuck as a participant on the reality TV show Big Brother. While some of his twitter followers was questioning the truth of the situation, many others were simply excited at the prospect of being retweeted by Pratt’s account.

Skjermbilde 2017-10-23 kl. 02.30.35.png
Not suspicious at all

In a way, unveiling the truth can be seen as a negative for some, because part of the fun can lie in believing the lie or, in enjoying it even when you know it’s part of an act for one purpose or another. Other examples of #netprov could be the social media accounts that represent various companies, whether they present themselves as a personification of their mascot or by using jokes and pop culture references to pull in an audience. At its core it is just another means of drawing in consumers to make more money, but there is nevertheless something intriguing about how companies put themselves before an audience for their amusement.

#netprov is fascinating in how people are very clearly drawn towards the opportunity of being part of something bigger, as “Spencer Pratt” in part of their performance ended up retweeting a number of overly exited fans. Some followers were apparently upset however when they learned the truth of what had happened, so it kind of puts into question how we approach social media and where a performance begins and ends. For some people just getting a retweet from Pratt was more than enough, while many others gladly played along as they participated in poetry games and the like, despite likely understanding that they weren’t really talking to Spencer Pratt. One might question how this all fits as electronic literature, and for me it lies in how it is a performance where you don’t see the actor, yet you still interact with them all the same through an online network. It’s one thing to perform before an audience and to visibly interact with them, it’s quite another to play along with whatever game they are doing, all the while not really being quite sure who they really are behind the veil of a social media network.

 

My own piece of e-lit

As we gradually begin to near the end of the semester I have to think of ideas for a piece of e-lit that I would like to create myself. It’s easier said than done, as it can seem so daunting from at this point in time, but having any ideas is of course better than having none at all. What interests me is both narrative and the possibilities of interaction. Now usually when it comes to e-lit and interactivity it means clicking a link to read more text or maybe things fade in and out as you over over them. What I might like to do is a more literal sense of interaction, in that poking and prodding the text in some ways would make it move about the screen. What if pulling a word out caused a paragraph to collapse? What if you could flatten a word or turn it sideways? I think it could add some playfulness to how you approach a text, perhaps akin to tearing a page filled with words into pieces and rearranging them. Except here the page would remain whole, while the text is free to be played with. Usually when it comes to literature, whether it is electronic or not, the narrative is a key part of understanding a work, but this could in a way be deconstructed as as you pick apart the sentences. It would shift the focus from having to read the text in a certain way to instead trying to discover what you can do with the pieces it is made up of. I’ve no idea what the text would even be about, and perhaps it is too ambitious for a student project, but I still think it could be fun to plan out and try even if I couldn’t pull it off entirely.

 

Kuryokhin: Second Life

Earlier this month this twine game was presented in class, during which I was playing it myself to see what kind of outcomes there were. Because there are few to no analyses of it that we know of, it meant that none of us really knew the extent of Second Life. This in turn meant that I was allowed to discover an ending to it that the presenter herself hadn’t come across yet, which led to further discussion in class, and for me to appreciate the piece a bit more.

But what exactly is Second Life? According to its creator; Michael Kurtov, it is a (meta)simulator of Sergey Kuryokhin’s afterlife, as he originally did die of a cardiac sarcoma. The simulation part supposes that you – playing as Sergey – actually survived and now have to decide what to do with his second chance at life. What the meta-portion of the piece means is not immediately apparent upon playing it, as the game at first just seems like some form for simulation game, whereas the (meta)-ness comes into play when you go through the game in a fairly particular way. This does mean that it is a difficult piece to navigate to the end as it took me a number of tries to get there myself, but the piece actually acknowledges this in a clever way once you get past a certain point which I liked.

The most important clues to this lies in the first text screen;

Skjermbilde 2017-10-15 kl. 14.13.07
More than just general instructions

At first it may indeed seem like the introduction merely lies out the general way you should try to play the game, but you’ll quickly realize that whether you pick random options or try to increase stats in a particular way that the simulation simply requires you to restart as you end up getting nowhere. Maybe Sergey dies because his knowledge is too low, or his madness is insufficient to get any work done, either way it quickly becomes apparent that unless you play in a certain way you won’t progress. This is where the clues come into play;

  1. You have to take special care of your health
  2. Increasing knowledge is required to manage your health correctly
  3. Increasing madness is required to reach the end

The first clue is essential to understand, because while you do need a certain amount of health to reach the end you also have to reduce it to 1 – twice – while having the correct amount of knowledge and madness, otherwise you have to restart. Even understanding this, it will likely take several attempts to reach this point as it isn’t easy to guess exactly how to proceed as the game wants you to.

Skjermbilde 2017-10-15 kl. 14.51.13
The beginning of the end

Note the text marked in red, if you’ve reached this point in the game you will have seen it more than once already, basically whenever you visited the music studio after the first time, and hovering over it displays text that explains the condition for its appearance. In this case it was because my health is at least 6, and I’ve visited this page more than one time. At first it may just seem like an erronous mistake on the developer’s part, but it is instead an intentional glimpse into the (meta)-component of Second Life, gradually breaking the illusion that you are merely playing a simulation game. Once you “wake up” however, that illusion is completely shattered as the (meta)-portion of the piece is clearly shown.

Skjermbilde 2017-10-15 kl. 15.03.22.png
We’re not in Sergey’s mind anymore

When something is meta, it means that it’s referencing or commenting upon itself in some way, thereby breaking the fourth wall that usually separates the viewer or player from what they are experiencing. The act of “waking up” in Second Life clearly breaks the notion that you are merely playing a simulator, and it puts into question just who or where you are positioned in relation to the work. M.K here is an obvious reference to the creator; Michael Kurtov, and he makes a self-referencial nod to the very game you are playing as he calls it ‘fine, but a bit over the top.’

It goes on from there, framing the simulator as merely a work-in-progress from the previously futuristic standpoint (It feels a bit strange to see dates like Oct. 10th 2017, when that was just days ago), of a game tester that states “But it wasn’t quite a game, but, as its author claims, a metasimulator, both a game and not a game, simulation of the game and game simulation.”. So not only is there the viewpoint of Sergey and some self-referential e-mail exchanges, but now also a game tester who reviews the very game you are still playing. It makes for a clever way of both presenting a game while simultaneously questioning itself and the possibilities it presents along the way.

Now, it is at about this point the presenter in class believed the piece was at its end, and it was only by chance and persistance that I stumbled across another way forward. There is but a lone hypertext link “after the Explosion”, which leads to some brief exposition and seemingly nothing else than a dead end.

Skjermbilde 2017-10-15 kl. 15.47.02
The end?

If you go back and follow through the same link again however, something has changed.

Skjermbilde 2017-10-15 kl. 15.48.28
The secret path forward

It’s entirely understandable that this is missable, but I am glad that I stumbled across it since it meant everyone in class got to experience something new and unknown about a piece. It is perhaps a bit unfortunate that you have to intentionally go back and forth to discover it, and it makes me wonder how many even reached the actual ending, both with the difficulty of passing the simulation portion of the game, and now this as well.

Reaching this point presents yet another viewpoint, that of a metasimulator researcher that discusses the use of rhythm to navigate hypertext games and how it can be difficult to understand intuitively, yet again invoking the meta for Second Life, considering the challenge of getting this far. Perhaps cleverly so, the example the researcher uses is a simplified visualization of the very game you are playing too.

Skjermbilde 2017-10-15 kl. 16.13.36
Layers of progression

You start at A, which is the incomplete simulation of Sergey Kuryokhin’s second life. Assuming you meet the requirements of a, you are allowed to proceed to AB which is the self-referential e-mail exchanges about the simulation, and so on. By the point you reach this visualization the only way to proceed is with a hypertext link that is aptly named “D”, the final level so-to-speak. In following the previous steps correctly you’ve therefore earned the chance to reach the end of the game. I thought it was a clever yet slightly subtle way of showing how far you’ve come, while rightly so acknowledging the difficulty.

The link sends you to a page with a growing wall of text of seemingly nonsensical phrases, with a lone hypertext link that jumps to and fro. I do not know whether it is possible to click it in time, however as you are thrown back into the simulation after a brief time, revealing that it was all some bizarre dream. Once more making you question your relative position to the piece.

A few more clicks and the final viewpoint is revealed:

Skjermbilde 2017-10-15 kl. 16.36.28
A game that is not a game, or is it?

First there is the view from Sergey, that this was merely a strange dream and that you can go back to the business of the simulation. Second is the creator Michael interjecting that while the strange happenings are indeed part of the game, excusing it as merely a dream won’t hold up the illusion for long. Group 17 is revealed to be a group of metasimulator archeologists that apparently were just trying to re-create the lost simulation of Sergey Kuryokhin, and this attempt at a recreation is what you were playing through up to this point. Clicking ‘report’ leads you to the actual end of the game with a link to a Russian music video whose significance I unfortunately I don’t know.

So what can one say about this? A whole lot, evidently as it is a bit of a layered experience, and certainly not an easy one to traverse all the way to the end. Some might get stuck at the beginning, giving up after trying to pass the first requirement, others might miss the path to another layer and think that is the end instead. It is in a way both a weakness as it means fewer gets to experience the whole thing, but instead perhaps a strenght for those that do get there because it is knowingly acknowledged to be hard to figure out. I thought it was a clever game due to the layered experience, even if it is confusing to keep track of just who and where you are in relation to the game and what it could possibly mean as a piece of electronic literature. It is kind of a simulation game since you do interact with it and you can succeed or fail to proceed. It also has a fairly linear progression path once you discover what to do, but that makes it fall short of feeling like an actual simulation game. Once you pass into the meta portion it kind of ceases to be a game and feels more like a hypertext fiction, as the stats you accrued earlier no longer are relevant, though you could argue the purported ‘dream’ is a result of the madness level you earned even if it is always at 9 before you can proceed. Perhaps the best way I could put it is as such; it is a game that is about the layered viewing experience of a simulation game and its creators, its researchers, testers and reviewers as seen by you the player. It is no less confusing to wrap your head around, but I nevertheless found it interesting to think about. While not an amazing piece of electronic literature it certainly has a fair bit of depth to it that I happened to enjoy.

The Hunt for the Gay Planet

A piece of e-literature made in 2013 by Anna Anthropy, it first and foremost sought to address the issue of limiting the inclusion of homosexual characters to single planet in Knights of the Old Republic with a DLC paywall in front, but also the general frustration when it comes to finding queer representation in video games in general. It is a twine game that you navigate as you would in a piece of hypertext by clicking on one of the links on each page. It’s fairly similar in style to another twine game that I previously covered, Quings Quest VII, and as such I will be drawing some comparisons between them.

To me The Hunt for The Gay Planet falls short when it comes to its narrative, both due to its linearity and the message it tries to convey. While the overall story is linear in outcome there are sometimes multiple options to choose from, though almost all of them lead to a dead end with the game essentially telling you in a variety of ways “Wrong way, you have to go back”, and very few of these came across as funny to me. At one point you have as many as eight different options to choose from, yet every single one of them leads to the same outcome. This gives you the illusion of there being more choices than there really are, and if you replay the game it becomes more obvious how linear the narration is with few variations. Quings Quest too is fairly linear with its story-telling, but there was also some form for customization and freedom of movement, particularly early on in the piece that added to the piece. There was also two different endings, and a fair amount of additional backstory you could discover while exploring the game.

Skjermbilde 2017-10-01 kl. 20.14.32
Eight choices, yet only one outcome.

When it comes to its message the creator was but one of no doubt many who was disappointed by Bioware’s decision to include queer characters by limiting them to one area that you had to pay to access. The lack of representation for LGBT+ people is a very real issue, both in gaming and otherwise, so what could’ve been a great opportunity to make the fans happy to be included left them instead with a sour feeling that they are being regarded as consumers first rather than as regular people. In my opinion queer characters, if included at all, really should’ve been present throughout the game’s locations rather than only one, and people shouldn’t have to pay extra just to experience that. When it comes to other games it is rare to see any queer representation at all, or if there is any the characters are rarely treated with respect, instead reducing them to a joke that exaggerates gay stereotypes and the like. Of course there are exceptions, but as is the point of the game, it isn’t easy to find something that happens to fit you, let alone in a positive and meaningful way.

Therefore it is strange then that the game falls into some of those same stereotypical showcases of gay people. Overall the game has this particular humor to it that falls a bit short for the most part, and that I think could have done a better portrayal of queer characters rather than making them seem like yet another joke. It’s also odd that the game divides gay men to one planet and gay women to another, when dividing groups of people at all was part of the problem the creator supposedly had with Knights of the Old Republic. To me it comes across as a bit problematic, because even within the LGBT+ community, gatekeeping is a very real issue where some individuals refuse to consider some people as queer unless they fit with their own arbitrary list of criteria. To then not only divide between gay men and women strikes me as both making a similar mistake as Bioware and as ignorant of the many other groups of people that also belong to the queer community. I do not believe this was the intent at all, rather that the narrative doesn’t effectively challenge the issues and also falls for some of the same traps along the way which is unfortunate. It is nevertheless important to acknowledge this while thinking of how it could perhaps be done in a better manner. I found that Quings Quest did a better job here both when it came to sticking to its message and in portraying it in a meaningful and fairly amusing manner. While that game too had its flaws it felt like it had an actual background and some depth to it that The Hunt for the Gay Planet simply ended up lacking in the end.

From a technical standpoint the game does deliver however, as twine is easier said than done to work with. The creator could’ve gone with just making it a piece of hypertext fiction, but instead she chose a more complex tool for creation which is commendable. While visually it only entails text on a black background, it is still impressive that it works well from a technical standpoint. Quings Quest does have some audio in the form of music and sound effects that adds to the piece, which this game does not, but the descriptions worked well enough for me as I went through it.

While it is a fairly flawed and flat piece of e-literature it is important to recognize that it at least tries to address what is a complex and deep-rooted issue in the form of queer representation. This is of course not limited to the games industry, but it is a very relevant one when it comes to electronic literature as video games can be considered pieces of e-literature themselves. One little twine game isn’t going to unravel or solve the problem, far from it in fact, but I also think that with some work the issue could have been presented in a better manner than this.

poem.exe and pentametron

My third choice of e-literature to explore is pentametron and poem.exe, two twitter bots. They were previously presented in class by one of my fellow students, and we discussed a number of things in relation to these two pieces. While I am therefore somewhat familiar with these works, the presentation and following discussions really got me thinking about bots and how they fit in within the worlds of e-literature, which is what I will go into here.

According to Liam Cooke, poem.exe is “a bot which generates haiku-like poems and publishes them to social media.”. The bot essentially picks three-to-four lines from different verses of a poem, may substitute some words for another, then decides whether or not to publish it based on some built-in parameters relating to the seasonal references found in the lines. Altogether it produces poems that are indeed very close to actual haikus in structure, though usually with more or less vowels or even two or four lines, rather than the intended three. It is on the one hand impressive to think that a bot can produce poetry at all, but at the same time it’s kind of amusing to see the results when scrolling through the twitter feed of the bot. Whatever original meaning the lines may have had, have been broken apart and then re-contextualized when put together with lines from other verses.

Skjermbilde 2017-09-24 kl. 16.34.56
Halloween season must be near.

There’s two points of interest here, one being meaning. In class we discussed whether there was any need for humans to create poetry, if a bot could simply be programmed to do it for us. My opinion there is that there is absolutely room for both to exist, in that a human poet may have an intended meaning behind their words and choice of structure, whereas a bot cannot yet intentionally and knowingly produce meaning. This is where the other point of interest comes in, namely interactivity. In class we argued that interactivity is a part of the piece, because the reader has to partake by trying to produce meaning by themselves. Of course one can interpret human poetry in many different ways, but where a human poet will have their own understanding of their work, a bot will have none. Add in that the poems themselves appear nonsensical due to being pieced together from multiple verses, and that they are close, but-not-quite fully haiku poems, and it sort of feels like you’re being tasked as a reader to find your own meaning from them, if any.

Pentametron is a twitter bot that retweets messages that happen to be iambic pentameters, but usually does so in groups of four that altogether reads as a verse with a rhyming scheme, usually in a/a/b/b form. This is a fun one because there is a sort of unintentional interactivity from the general public, in that anyone’s tweets could potentially become a part of the piece just by posting a sentence that happens to match the bots parameters. It is a bit more difficult to read however since one tweet only contains one line by itself, which does not appear particularly meaningful, but it is therefore interactive for the reader too in that you have to piece together the verse by yourself. Once you do so it is kind of fun to see how the verse reads and sounds if you read it aloud, and I think it’s pretty neat that a bot is able to pull this off. Of course, like with poem.exe it isn’t flawless and it is definitely a bit harder to read since there is no clear start or end to the poems. It is also to me less about creating meaning from a whole verse, and more about discovering the rhymes as you go.

Skjermbilde 2017-09-24 kl. 16.59.28
It sure rhymes, but who knows if it could even mean anything? Does it matter? Should it matter?

In the end they are both very interesting and fun bots to study as they produce poems that really only us as readers can give any real meaning too. They are also limited by whatever programming and parameters are involved when it comes to picking what words to use in their tweets, but that does not mean it makes for bad poetry, rather they are pieces of e-literature where you can’t really do wrong when it comes to interpreting them. I think it is okay if you can’t really find meaning in an individual poem, as everyone will view them in different ways. Sometimes a poem you don’t understand, someone else may find deep and intriguing, and vice versa.

Quings Quest VII: The Death of Video Games

Quings Quest VII is a game made by Dietrich Squinkifer in 2014. It was presented this week in elitclass and as such I was fairly familiar with the work before trying it out for myself for this week’s blog. I also took the time to read up on the work on the eliterature collection volume 3 beforehand as I wanted a clearer understanding as to why the game was made. According to the author statement, the game was made to express his frustrations as a result of the tense situations surrounding Gamergate, and how divided the gaming community became in their endless arguments of what video games should or shouldn’t contain. As such the game is both a nod to old school games while containing everything that supposedly ruins video games, making it something of a playful parody.

To navigate the piece you have to click on links found throughout the game’s text, making it a mixture between an old-school text-adventure and a hypertext piece of e-literature. You also have a lot of freedom of choice when it comes to trying out different links. Some of them let you move around, or offers additional background story, or humorous anecdotes, but most are not necessary to finish the game. To me that gives the game some replayability, should you feel inclined to learn everything, but without making you feel like you miss out on too much if you don’t. The overall story itself is fairly linear, and you don’t always have the freedom of turning back so the length of a playthrough can therefore vary a bit.

Aside from the text, there is the game’s logo on the title screen as well as a starry background that goes with the space setting. Otherwise there are no other visuals, leaving you to use your imagination as one would with text-adventure games back in the day. There is also music and the occasional sound effect accompanying a screen to set a certain mood, be it relaxing, funny or tense.

Overall it is a very simple piece to navigate, and even if you miss out on some text you will still have a good understanding of the story. The story itself is essentially the main character and their genderfluid compatriot lamenting how the misogynerds invaded their home planet ‘Videogames’ and decided for everyone else what was supposed to be right. There’s also the character Frankie, who could represent those who didn’t necessarily directly side with anyone in the conflict, but did so indirectly by not voicing their opposition as they benefited from one side anyway.

While there are two different endings, they have a similar feel to them. The first has you blowing up what remains of the home planet, so that a new one can regrow, hopefully as a better place than it was before; or leaving the world behind to collapse in on itself while searching for a new home. It paints a somewhat hopeless picture of how things must’ve felt at the time, but also a hopeful outlook that maybe when things blow over something good will come of it. I thought it was a pretty amusing game, and I quite enjoyed the retro style and references found within.