My Secret Hideout

A secret treehouse
Treehouse with observatory
“My Secret Hideout” is a new iPad application from Andrew Plotkin, which bills itself as interactive art or poetry or a toy. Technically it’s a bit easier to describe: it’s a text generator manipulated by an intentional cryptic and evocative graphical UI. You drag and drop new nodes onto a tree, and the text on the lefthand side changes in response to what you’ve just done. The structure you build maps to a random seed that determines the textual output. Move nodes, and content changes. What it creates is a description of a location or a string of linked locations: IF-like room descriptions, only without the ability to manipulate the objects directly. Consequently it shares some of IF’s appeal — the visionary access to a place of someone else’s imagination. There are a lot of zarfian ideas here. The secret hideout you produce will likely feel like a Myst-like place, a dwelling for mystical inventors, combining machines and instrumentation with natural materials.

For instance, the tree image here produced the following description:

My secret hideout is a ring of beautifully-ornamented cubbies hanging in a pine stand. A doorway, engraved with territorial diagrams, opens out to a core room, overgrown with ivy.

The hideout is powered by a miniature steam boiler, rattling cheerily on a side platform, in a small cabinet.

An observatory is on the left side. A high-powered telescope is set up by a smoky grey beanbag chair. An antique mechanical clock stands on a pile of blocks. A bookshelf of astronomy reference books stands to the side.

This isn’t in any meaningful sense a game: there aren’t any goals, scores, win/loss states, etc., and it’s hard even to see how one might project such things onto the structure.

It’s also not a story. I’ve often argued for the power of setting as a story-telling mechanism, and the significance of objects as conveyors of narrative, My Secret Hideout doesn’t entirely respond to that kind of treatment. The descriptions are too flexible, the whole output too mutable and dreamlike. While it’s possible to make up theories about why the narrator built this particular hideout and what it all means, there’s too little control over content — or opportunity to select and label favorite content yourself — to encourage that mode of thinking for very long (I found, anyway).

To the extent it is a toy, the toy-nature is about figuring out how it does what it does and how much agency you can reasonably exercise over the output. As you may want to work that out for yourself, the rest of the discussion might be considered moderately spoilery, hence the cut.

And then I’ll talk about what I think it is, and to what extent it’s good at being that thing.

Here is my experience with how it works: adding a node to the trunk elaborates the first room of the hideout. Moving that node produces radical changes in the appearance of that room, but it pretty much always makes some reference to a central room or sleeping area. Adding more nodes in a line produces more complexity in the initial room description, though with diminishing returns, so a linear string of many nodes is likely to be not-that-different from a string with one node fewer.

Adding a new branch to the tree introduces a new location, presented in a new paragraph. Tweaking the nodes on this branch only tweak the new location. This makes it possible to feel you’re redecorating with some intention, because you move nodes around on a strand until you get a room you like and then you can move on by adding a new branch. This all feels pleasingly organic: if you could grow text like a bonsai, trimming here and expanding there, this is what it would be like. And I enjoy the aesthetic of trying to make my tree look good as well as trying to evoke text I like.

One frustration to the text-gardening metaphor is that if one of the later branches becomes longer than the original string of nodes, that branch takes over as the randomizing seed for the first room description. That means that all the rooms in the hideout suddenly change because they’ve all swapped seeds. There is an undo button, so if you repent what you’ve just done you can take it back — this isn’t instant death to your whole project. Nonetheless, I found this a bit frustrating; it feels like a frequent, strong reminder that you’re not really the boss of the text. So: yes, a toy, but an occasionally startling, disobedient one.

Interactive art, then? I think you could make at least the argument that it is, or is trying to be, a magic crayon in the Chaim Gingold sense: it gives you moderate controls and produces colorful results that are more polished than the average person could produce alone. But I think it doesn’t get all the way there, because (and how is this for a subjective remark?) I wish the output were more beautiful. I like the structure and body shape of the tree above, but there are a bunch of ways I’d like to tweak it to be more appealing.

A not completely happy experiment with multiple node shapes
Node shape is one of my bigger gripes. It’s not at all clear to me how (or indeed whether) your choice of node shape affects the output. I was able to swap nodes from one shape to another with only minor changes in the text, and I’m not sure whether those changes related to node shape or just to the fact that I’d placed the new node in a slightly different place from the previous one. (I was vaguely hoping that choice of node might determine content to some degree — whether that was as general as “this node type produces more built objects, that node produces woven or textile objects” or as vague as “things made with this node are described as smaller” — though I can also see that having too rigorous a system of this kind would constrain the output more heavily than one would want.)

So maybe the node choices are mostly there for aesthetic purposes, but if so, I’m not crazy about the shapes. They’re not bad shapes in the abstract, but I wish they looked better in combination (to my taste, trees look best when composed only of one node type), and that they came down more on one side or the other of the organic/machined divide. Given the content of the game, with its steampunk boilers and ratcheting instruments, it would be cool and reasonable to have a few gearlike/stiff connectors as well as fluid tree-and-branch-like ones. (The fact that I’m insistently calling these nodes rather than “leaves” — as the app does — is also significant; a couple of them have leaf shapes, but they don’t act like leaves. They act like branches.)

I also found myself wishing for changes to the sizing and leaf coloration. One of the nifty things about a real tree is the diminishing of size out at the edges — the branches get thinner. What if the outermost nodes here were smaller than the ones nearer the trunk? Coloration, meanwhile, shows how recently you interacted with a given branch or node, which is moderately interesting information, but not really necessary to have, and it again produces a kind of particolored blotchiness that I didn’t care for, as though a couple of limbs of my tree had gone dead after I’d been working on it for a long time.

Is it interactive poetry? I wouldn’t call it that. The text is good. It doesn’t have the stiffness and predictability of the average generated prose. The sentence structures vary; sometimes there are adjectives or dependent clauses, sometimes not. Subtle changes in node placement create equally subtle variations in sentence structure. Connective tissue within a paragraph usually works pretty well, though leads in to new paragraphs (typically introducing new sub-locations) are a little vaguer, presumably because they can make fewer assumptions about what has gone before.

So I don’t have a clear criterion on which to reject the label of interactive poetry. Some possible reasons: it is structured like prose; it doesn’t feel as thematically or conceptually rich as I expect poetry to be; the interaction isn’t an interaction with the ideas but is entirely at a formal level, because you can only encourage existing trends, and can do so only in the sense of making more or different sentences about the same idea.

Contrast Jason Dyer’s Renga in Four Parts: a much less procedural piece, certainly, and with less effective agency, but one that encourages the player to respond to the ideas associatively. For that matter, Andrew Plotkin’s own Space Under the Window demands engagement with the content rather than the shape, even if just by making the player indicate what s/he’s interested in, and hints at feelings and characters beyond itself. By contrast, My Secret Hideout is primarily about itself, particularly the pleasures of esoteric technical creation: many of its core images are about the creative spaces in the hideout, the owner’s tools and toys, inventions and puzzles. Does it have anything much to say about this, other than “technical coolness is cool”? I’m not sure.

So I enjoy My Secret Hideout, and I’m sure I’ll get it out again in the future. Turns out, technical coolness is cool. But I found myself wishing that the creative aspect of the experience reached deeper; that there were more room for mastery; that the discoveries you can make were more varied in type and significance.

20 thoughts on “My Secret Hideout”

  1. To entirely sidestep the primary point of discussion without going too far off-track: I wonder if this is making enough money to warrant releasing it only on the iPad platform? I don’t know anyone with an iPad except one friend whom I’ve only met by way of the internet. I’ve never seen one in person. All this and I’m not technologically primitive – I have about 12 consoles in my house, high-speed internet, and several computers. I worked in the IT field for a few years and know many people in those circles. Still, I only know one person who would possibly have any contact with “My Secret Hideaway,” and he happens to be uninterested.

    Is my experience an anomaly, or is this fairly standard? (This is somewhat of a “what’s the point?” sort of question, I suppose.)

    1. The iPad saturation in my vicinity is much greater than in yours, but then, I work on mobile games sometimes, work with people who do too, and have a couple of Apple gadget junkies among my nearest and dearest. So based on a survey of, say, the ten people I interact with most, over 50% of the population carries an iPad. Not so useful, this anecdata.

      Here are some sales figures, suggesting that there are upwards of 25 million iPads currently in circulation. This is tiny compared with the number of iPhones in the world, where sales appear to be more like 25 million+ each quarter — but on the other hand, there is a lot more competition in the iPhone market, the application would be hard or impossible to map down to the size of an iPhone screen, etc. So if we start from the premise, “here is a tablet app. is it reasonable to sell it just on the iPad?”, the answer may well be yes.

      To figure out whether it’s a good business plan for Andrew, though, you’d also need to know a lot of things about his expenses, what he expects to earn, what the costs of developing, marketing, and supporting for other platforms would be, how much it was worth it to him to try out the development and app store process and familiarize himself with it before doing Hadean Lands, and so on. You’d have to ask him, in other words.

    2. As for the iPad market — I live in Boston, which I’m sure is the center of the densest haze of iPads on the East Coat. So my view is probably skewed.

      Is it paying back my development costs? I don’t know yet! Apple reports sales figures per day, so I won’t know how well it’s done in its first full day of sales for another seven hours. (Yes, this is frustrating.) I sold a small handful of copies last night, as the app appeared on the store slightly before midnight, but that doesn’t indicate anything except that a small handful of people obsessively watch the “new apps” list.

      However, I *do* intend to do an iPhone/iPod-touch version. It shouldn’t be much more effort, and I’ll start on that this week. I only wanted to get the iPad version out first, because (a) there’s a base commercial advantage in appearing on the “new on iPad” and “new on iPhone” lists on separate days, and (b) I wanted to ship something, like, now already.

      1. Ah – I live in New Mexico. I would be surprised if the iPad is popular anywhere in the Southwest, but that’s a regional issue rather than a Zarf issue. That may partially be due to our comparatively minimal availability of WiFi hotspots.

      2. However, I *do* intend to do an iPhone/iPod-touch version. It shouldn’t be much more effort, and I’ll start on that this week.

        Ah. Perhaps I’m just being unimaginative in guessing how hard it would be to resize, then.

        Also, woo.

      3. “there’s a base commercial advantage in appearing on the “new on iPad” and “new on iPhone” lists on separate days”

        Is that true? My understanding is that it’s much better to launch with a big bang.

        As I understand it, on an iPhone/iPad, only the “Top 150 apps” within a given category can even be found by browsing to them. (All apps can be found by searching for their titles, but unless people can stumble across your app, your traffic is considerably reduced.)

        Since the “Top” lists are determined entirely by the number of downloads you’ve received in the last four days, the number of downloads you get on Day 1 will mostly determine your ranking; the higher you reach, the more traction you’ll have as you gradually slide into oblivion.

        As a result, the general guidance is to get as many people as possible to download your app on Day 1, to rank as high as possible, and to stay there as long as possible.

  2. Thank you for the review. The design process for this thing was assuredly… I’ll say “organic”… and my vision of what it *should* be changed at least as fast as the code itself. (You probably saw my screenshot of the early, origami-based interface.) I’m glad there’s something in there to explore; future experiments will be shaped differently.

  3. It strikes me as odd and rather proscriptive to say that this “isn’t in any meaningful sense a game”. There are plenty of games without scores or win/loss states. What about games of pure exploration (the genre in which I would classify this)? Or games of pure expression (less so, but there’s an element of that here, surely)? What about word association, for example, or Mad Libs? Neither has goals or win/loss states, so you’d presumably classify them as “toys” and not “games”, but that goes against common usage of those words, and amounts to creating a highly technical definition of what a “game” is. Then, right after saying there are no goals, you proceed to express some dissatisfaction that you haven’t figured out what all the node shapes do. Isn’t THAT a goal? I know that’s how I felt when I played this game (there, I said it!) Not to be a hater (your critiques are the best out there, IMO) but I feel this sort of thing is playing into the hands of Roger Ebert, and ignoring the lessons of Wittgenstein. ;-)

    1. Erm, well, okay. I don’t really subscribe to most technical definitions of games, but have a fuzzier approach to the problem (it’s a game if it exhibits many/most of the features associated with the “game” category, including but not necessarily limited to a set of rules, the possibility of winning or losing, goals for the participants, competition with other players, a “magic circle” separation from reality, a fictional world or environment, a social or entertainment function that exists outside the nominal goal of the activity, etc.).

      Perhaps it would have been more exact to say that My Secret Hideout partakes very lightly of game-nature. It lacks the majority of the features I associate with games, and those traits which do potentially fall into the game category (exploring, learning how a tool works) may also be found in the definitions of other categories (e.g., art programs) with which My Secret Hideout has more affinities.

    2. I should add: the point of my looking for a label in the first place wasn’t as a value judgment (the way Ebert wields the word “art”), but to discover the word that would best orient a potential player/reader/artist/explorer/consumer towards the work, by setting expectations it was likely to fulfill and avoiding expectations that would be disappointed.

      Less mealy: I don’t think “game” is the right marketing category for this thing.

      1. OK, that’s a fair & thoughtful answer to what was perhaps a rather nit-picky objection on my part. I personally think of challenge-structures and win/loss states as just examples of possible mechanics that serve to draw the casual player in. I’m also more intrigued (whether as player or as developer) by simulation, exploration, emergent behavior and narrative, than I am by goals or rewards. So I wouldn’t be disappointed if I bought a “game” and found that it had no goals, as long as it had some form of gradual reveal, or learning curve. However, I’m clearly in a minority there, as is confirmed by Zarf’s description of Secret Hideout (“not a game”) as quoted by Dan below.

  4. This sounds like a really interesting work—maybe one that could be enjoyed at various positions along the continuum between art (revelling in the beauty of trees and rooms and descriptions) and puzzle (trying to figure out how the thing works). I don’t have an iPad (or an iPhone, and my iPod is not a touch), but if there’s ever a version for just regular old (Mac OS) computers, I’ll definitely check it out. Or is that even possible? I can’t really tell from the description how much the touch-screen interface is crucial to the work; it sounds as if most or all of the actions could in principle be done with a mouse or trackpad instead, but maybe that would change the feel of the piece too much.

  5. I recall that when The Space Under the Window was released, Zarf was a little surprised at how many people described it as poetry. It hadn’t been intended as such, and didn’t seem like poetry to him. My explanation at the time was that the thing that distinguishes poetry from prose is some kind of regularity of structure, whether that structure consists of meter and rhyme or syllable counts or patterns of alliteration. TSutW gave this sense by making the player read the same text, with only slight changes between iterations, over and over again. You had to keep re-reading the text in order to get the keywords that let you change it.

    My Secret Hideout, on the other hand, you can manipulate arbitrarily without paying any attention to the text at all. I don’t know how other people have been interacting with it, but I don’t usually re-read the text after each alteration; I’m more likely to paste on nodes until I make a pleasing shape, and only then bother finding out what sort of hideout I’ve built. Even when I’m paying attention to the text in an effort to figure out the rules, I’m not re-reading it. I’m watching it change, dynamically, as I tweak stuff. Either way, there isn’t a sense of repetition. The UI makes it feel more like something you’re shaping than something being repeated to you.

  6. The iPhone/iPod touch update is available now.

    (And, as a belated reply to Dan Fabulich — you’re right, I should have done the universal release on day one. :) Lessons for next time.)

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