Desiring Flights (Barry Moon and Chris Danowski) is a word-centric work, though with strong visual elements in two of its three levels; I might be inclined to call it interactive poetry, but I’m not sure that’s the best description given that the words were as often props as they were objects of contemplation in their own right. To the extent that this piece belongs to an existing genre or formal tradition, though, it’s not one I know especially well; so rather than attempt a more formal critique, I’ll just give some subjective impressions.
In the first of the levels, blocky grey words fall through a three dimensional space, while the player is free to choose camera angle and position. It’s impossible to read all the words, and there is a soundtrack of music with lyrics, which meant that I was tracking neither set of verbal input terribly well. Nonetheless, what happens here is evocative: the words at first stack, but their stacking is obviously unsustainable, and they soon topple into an untidy heap. In my playthrough, a few specific words flew free of the rest of the group and could be found off to the side on their own. I puzzled over one that had fallen on its face so that it was hard to read. It turned out to be “seeing.”
There’s something evocative about the destruction of any monumental thing, and a monumental tower of words suggests many things even before you try to read the words themselves.
The second level involves, again, movement through a three-dimensional space — this time one decorated (if that’s the right word) with long rows of two-dimensional images. In these photos, we can see many poses of a man with his dog, and there’s a curiously memorial aspect to this. It’s impossible ever to get far enough away from the photos to view them comfortably as a whole, because the layout of the space constrains us to watch them from close up. Moving down the corridor of these images as down a hallway, I felt encouraged to be nostalgic for this man’s life, as though I’d had some relation to it and as though it were now over.
If I ever moved off the narrow path between the images (and there was no visible floor to tell you you couldn’t do this), I fell slowly into darkness until the scene reset. Only as I was falling did the full pattern of the images become clear.
If I had to guess at a meaning for this passage, I’d come up with something about the brevity and loneliness of life, and the way you can never really come to grips with the reality of your existence while it’s going on, except that of course you’re never given a shot at any other kind of perspective, either. But I’ve no notion whether that was what the authors meant.
In the third level, I’m least sure whether the experience I had was the one the author intended. The screen is divided into stripes of red and green; the player is free to type anything in any of these lines and press return; and at the same time, the piece is rewriting the text in some of these lines. Red lines gradually fade to green, just before they are replaced. Sometimes I found that when I typed a line, the program added another line of its own devising that seemed to be (in some mechanical thesaurus-fashion) constructed from antonyms to the one I’d written. This process was somewhat frustrated by the fact that the program accepted a backspace as though it were a carriage return, so that I accidentally entered many lines that were mistyped or unfinished. The screen filled with half nonsense, and with lines that came purely from the program, to do with a birth. It was hard to see how to leave this section without quitting the program entirely.
This level was interesting to set beside Jason Dyer’s Renga in Four Parts and Matt Weiner’s The Table, both of which might also be identified as interactive poetry of a sort. (Renga certainly; whether The Table counts or not is a little more open-ended, but it certainly doesn’t have a traditional world model or a plot.) All three of these invite a wide range of input and offer little judgment on whether the typed entry was acceptable. Contrast Michael Bacon’s Arid and Pale, which, without being hypertext in form, nonetheless demands that the player type a word that appears somewhere in the output text.
Renga in Four Parts sacrifices some responsiveness in order always to be sure of offering a well-formed response, so the word you type doesn’t always affect its behavior. The Table more frequently uses player input, at some cost to the clarity of its output, but it still moves forward without comment when the player has typed something it doesn’t recognize. Desiring Flights‘ third level succeeds the furthest in obscuring whether the player’s typing has had any effect, because its output is so often surprising and it is only after a certain amount of iteration that the antonym relation (to some input) becomes clear. From a game design point of view, that degree of ambiguity about agency would be terrible, but Desiring Flights isn’t a game.
I came away unsure what the interaction was meant to contribute to the poetic process. Traditional IF tends often to encourage the player to form and test hypotheses about the world or the story: work out what you can do here, work out what is meaningful to do. If no input is “wrong,” however, the player’s choice is more of an expressive one, presumably. But even expressive choices can be guided. Blue Lacuna has expressive choices at several key points, where the player is invited to type in free form the answer to a question. But even if the game does nothing with what you type, the fact that a question has been asked shapes the experience of choosing an answer and gives it a meaning in the player’s head.
Some other interactive poems sort of ask a question, implicitly if not explicitly. To my mind, both The Table and Arid and Pale make the interaction still essentially readerly: you choose which images to hear more about, which is a reaction, an expression of interest and curiosity about what the author has put in front of you. Renga in Four Parts frames the player’s commands as lines added to its own poetic content, but there’s enough polish and intention to its output that one has something to respond to. If Desiring Flights was prompting me towards one of those types of interaction, or some other type, I didn’t understand the nudge.
So here’s what I’d say about Desiring Flights: I don’t always know how to read it, and it did not appear to be trying to teach me. Sometimes I was able to grasp an apparent significance. In the second level, that significance partly came from the interaction, from my forced proximity to the photographs and the death-like fall when I strayed from them. The first level was also evocative, though chiefly through its imagery. The third was most deeply responsive, but was also the most bewildering of all.