Venom, Beeswax, Fallen 落葉 Leaves

Having come up with an idiosyncratic terminology (Venom, Beeswax, Mushroom, Salt and Egg) for talking about some aesthetic aspects of procedural literature that matter to me, I now find myself reverting to the same terminology even when talking about other people’s work.

Fallen 落葉 Leaves is a procedurally generated poetry cycle in this year’s IF Comp. It draws on sample texts from Confucian poetry, and combines them and other elements densely, producing couplets with a great deal of strangeness per line. In my terms, it’s therefore heavily applying the principles of Venom (particularity, color, surprise) and Beeswax (varied, allusive, culturally rich source material).

The effect is indeed a bit like reading the translation of something whose metaphors, idioms, and cultural references are outside one’s personal ken:


Some phrases sampled from the Shījīng (詩經),
the Confucian Book of Songs, the Classic of Poetry,
as translated by Arthur Waley. — author’s note for Fallen 落葉 Leaves

To start, you select an adverb from a menu and a verb from another menu; then a poem is generated in couplets, with your adverb and verb plugged into one of the couplets. You may repeat this loop as many times as you like, your adverb and verb changing the contents of the cycle overtly and perhaps also in more subtle ways. The author suggests that a hundred or more moves might be appropriate, and that one might want to pull out specific couplets. Looking at the source code reveals that there are many variables being tracked, perhaps iteratively across repeated builds of the poem.

Because the phrases are so allusive, it is not always easy to extract even a notional meaning from them. More often, I found that I could come up with something but that it was a general rather than a precise interpretation:

You sniff oil — writing home about our walks on the terrace —
Your sailing moon, your arrival — sing my pulse.

The first line is easy enough to imagine: the correspondent stopping mid-letter to breathe in the scent of a perfumed oil, possibly. “Your sailing moon, your arrival” perhaps refer to the time when the lover is to set out and rejoin the poet; “sing my pulse” indicates, presumably, that the poet’s life and heartbeat are in some way responsive to the lover’s movements, or else described by them.

Taken as a whole, though, across multiple sonnets, the experience becomes suddenly Mushroomy: overtly repetitive and generative, not concealing how much it is the result of mechanical operation. The grammar that generates sonnets seems to hit the same major points in each couplet, with allusions to erotic time the lovers spent together in the middle, and then a disagreement (with the player’s adverb/verb choice) toward the end, and the lover departing. (Sometimes on a “well-dressed horse,” which I thought was particularly good.)

Here is another couplet in the same position as the one I quoted above:

You summon sage — singing in the meadows of our walks on the terrace —
Your tinkling brook, your annunciation — sing my hearthglow.

and here a third and fourth:

You summon sage — singing in the meadows of our walks on the terrace —
Your dropped kerchief, your annunciation — sing my heartbeat.

You summon sage — singing blissfully of our walks on the terrace —
Your dropped kerchief, your elation — sing my spark.

Reading these, I lost some of the pleasure I had initially felt at some of the more interesting phrasings, because several-word phrases repeated precisely, but did not play well enough off the adjacent phrases to feel like entirely new compositions in their new contexts. Meanwhile, to the extent that I could actually understand an underlying meaning to the couplet, that underlying meaning was pretty much always the same, only dressed in slightly different metaphorical language but where the slight differences seemed not to matter terribly much.

After I’d read about a dozen sonnets, there was a change of the imagery towards more wintery coldness between the lovers, but there was still a lot of overlap with previous phrasing and meaning.

So I turned to the author’s note:

The game does not propose to posess a certain kind of value.
There is a smoothness and a sleekness which it decidedly lacks.
But its intent is highly political:
it deliberately rebels against the modularity of games
and the tactical improvization
that the industry requires.
Form some product is a controlled space
and the needs of the player dominate everything,
while themselves being dominated by the needs of the market.

If you take something away from this game,
let it be this:
the progress through the system of the game
must be subservient to the progress through the journey of the game.
The change must occur in the audience,
not in the art.

I’m pretty open to the idea of a non-traditional experience, or the possibility that something might engage me in a different way than I expect. Still, the first 30 or 40 sonnets I generated with this project, I felt like I didn’t understand what kind of experience the author intended. Was anything happening here other than slight randomness with a lot of elements held over from sonnet to sonnet?

So I looked at the source.

What I found: there are some long-term stats that are revised by the verb and adverb choices, so that with each move you’re altering the relationship of lover and beloved in a space of at least three dimensions. That means your relationship can grow slowly, incrementally more fiery, more distant, more bitter. There are some additional complications which I didn’t entirely follow.

So possibly the intended experience here is to create a poetic experience in which the player’s interaction gradually pushes the relationship between lover and beloved into new space; but because that relationship is described metaphorically and allusively, the cycle gets away without necessarily specifying particular events.

It’s a cool idea. And it is at least potentially doing one of the things I think procedurally generated text is good for: gradual, layered consequence for the player’s actions, such that everything you do contributes slightly but distinctively to the resulting state.

But in Fallen 落葉 Leaves it still doesn’t feel like consequence! In fact it took me some digging to confirm that it wasn’t completely random. It’s really hard for the player to grasp what’s happening or to drive it forward. (I’m generalizing some, but I’ve read a number of other reviews and the authors of those reviews don’t seem to have regarded it as an explicably deterministic experience either.) There’s no visible status feature other than the generated poetry itself to tell the reader what is happening to the stats, or even what categories of stat exist. There are some additional stat adjustments that can happen other than just moving up or down in response to verb/adverb choices. Some verb/adverb selections modify stats I wouldn’t necessarily have expected. So cumulatively there’s not a lot of information for the player to understand the underlying relationship model.

Without that understanding, one is unlikely to be consistent enough about one’s verb/adverb input to move the relationship significantly one way or another. I didn’t feel like I was equipped (without looking at the source to cheat) to explore either the poetic or the relationship possibility space.

I wanted this to click, though. I was intrigued last year by Bredenburg’s War of the Willows, a work that required the player to run a Python interpreter at home and therefore probably significantly decreased its audience. As a game, it (again) made things a bit difficult to understand — there’s an epic battle in progress against trees, but what you’re doing and why it matters is harder to follow — but it also produced some really lovely lines, including some cool descriptions of rituals for the dead and other features.

I feel like there’s an artistic vision underlying both of these that involves rendering a complex social/relationship world model through generative, poetic description. Which is very very much something I’m interested in, but I think I would enjoy the results more with a little more information about the connection between my acts and the responses of the system.

3 thoughts on “Venom, Beeswax, Fallen 落葉 Leaves”

  1. Hi Emily. Thanks for the review. I really appreciate your work on my part.

    The first thing I’d suggest is turning on ‘Athena mode’. There’s a link concealed as a period in the start menu. It will answer a lot of your questions, but it kind of defeats the purpose of the game, which is that ‘political’ purpose I mentioned. I think games should be more subtle and emotive, less mechanical. Imagine a jrpg-style game without a single visible number, relying on poetry, image, and sound to convey states far beyond the combat-readiness of the body. That’s the kind of game I’d make, if I had the resources. Athena mode is the reverse of that, exposing the bones again.

    The other thing I’d suggest is to play with the volume control. Higher volumes should make the game feel more responsive, but will eventually result in decaying coherence and sensitivity. The default is 0.33. I couldn’t find the perfect balance, but that’s probably because of coherence penalties from subpar rules.

    I’ve accomplished my goal here, but that doesn’t mean I’ve made a good game. There are issues of calibration. The system is not shallow or random (each new poem emerges from the state of the last) but lots of people can’t tell if their actions actually matter. (That’s the way the universe works too.) The game takes too long to learn. Some portion of the problems are ‘my fault’ and others are ‘supposed to be like that’ and yet others are somewhere in between: things that seemed necessary but aren’t ideal. That’s all I can say without mentioning the competition.

  2. I’m a fan of procedurally generated poetry, and of Arthur Waley’s translations of traditional Chinese poetry, so I was immediately intrigued by Venom, Beeswax. For Mr. Blackfield, I offer this thought for future games or iterations of this game:

    Consider that in the Heian court (see, e.g., “Tale of Genji”), great mounds and wads of formal (and sometimes numbingly formulaic) Chinese romantic poetry was composed in deadly earnest in order to accomplish specific and concrete social and political goals. (Picture the setting as combining the worst aspects of pre-Revolutionary Versailles, a high school cafeteria at lunchtime, a coed college dorm, and a summer camp full of oversexed drama majors).

    The poetry itself was filled with indirect allusion and Zen Buddhist imagery, filtered through the lens of Japanese animism and mythology. But while the poetry itself may have been indirect, the messages within the poems were all as plain as if they had been written on ten-foot high billboards.

    So (for example) if the Prince were to send a morning-after poem to his lover, he would carefully choose a token plant cutting from the garden (say, a snow pea blossom), and would pick well-worn and frankly cliched line from a Zen classic to say a very specific thing, in elegant and practiced calligraphy. “At night no more than the light of a candle lay between us, and now my sleeve is wet with dew.”

    And the recipient would know. “Okay, the bastard sent me a snow pea, ostensibly to remind me of the impermanence of life, but really to say, “I’ll call you.” And he’s telling me that he’s been crying so much over our night together that the sleeve of his gown is wet, which is like a maximum passive-aggressive brush-off. He’s ‘crying’ because he’s telling me that as ‘great’ as it was to see me naked, he is already mourning for the fact that we’re not going to be getting back together again in the foreseeable future.”

    So here’s what I’m getting at – it’s okay to make a game in which the evocative beauty of individual poetic phrases shines through, while also (as Ms. Short’s review suggests) including bluntly informative and easy-to-interpret data and indicators about how to move the poems in a specific direction.

    Like an actual game, maybe, with actual success and failure states. Here’s an example off the top of my head (and very rough).

    “I have encountered the ghost of Lady Ah, who died in childbirth bearing my illegitimate son. Inauspiciously, I ran into her at the Southern Gate, and now I need to assuage my guilt while also giving her an appropriately polite post-mortem brush-off. The last thing I need right now is getting a priest involved, because my father already knows I’m a cad and a bounder, but doesn’t know about the whole Lady Ah affair. Yet.”

    GHOST OF LADY AH’S MOOD: Sullen, accusative. Silent. She is sallow and her fingers are like ice, and she shows no signs of wanting to return to her grave.

    You have 3 chances to mollify her. A good start might be to (1) express love; (2) remind her of Nirvana; and (3) convince her that you will see to the care of her son. WOULD YOU LIKE A HINT? Y/N

    For your first line, do you want: (1) an allusion to Autumn; (2) an allusion to Summer; or (3) an allusion to Winter?
    For your second line, do you want to emphasize: (4) passion; (5) forgetting; or (6) regret?
    For your third line, do you want: (7) a continuation; (8) an interruption; or (9) an improvised (random) theme?

    That’s all pretty baldly “gamey” and directive. I know. And it’s utterly at odds with some of the aesthetic that Mr. Blackfield is trying to achieve. Both poetry and procedurally generated poetry can just be about evocation and mood, without goal-setting or endpoints; years ago I wrote a random poetry generator using poetic lines from the pillow poems scattered throughout Mr. Waley’s translation of the Tale of Genji, and I quite liked the output, even though 80 percent of it was jumbled hash.

    But Zen formalism is also about expressing very specific, concrete ideas in very beautiful ways.

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