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.