18 Cadence

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18 Cadence is a new interactive text experience by Aaron Reed: he calls it a “story kit” rather than a story or storyworld or interactive fiction. This is fair enough. Scraps of text describe the rooms in the house at 18 Cadence during each year from 1901 to 2000, as well as the objects and the inhabitants. To manipulate the story, one moves back and forth through the years, or through the rooms by clicking on a floor plan. Different inhabitants have different understandings of what is going on. The story of the house includes both personal histories — deaths, betrayals, love affairs, weddings and births, addiction and depression — and hints of the history of the 20th century, social change and prejudice. During the house’s turbulent years in the 90s, inhabitants come and go quickly, and there are lots of roommates, so it is hard to care as much about any one of them as they flicker past: a hint of social disintegration. But there are also props that last through the years, features that persist and change.

If the piece were only that much, it would be interesting, an exploratory text heavily tied to the history of the house. But each scrap of text can be moved and manipulated by the player. Descriptions of objects can be juxtaposed, glued together into new sentences or simply left on top of one another. Characters, ages, room names and dates, actions and motivations can be laid out in new arrangements, and the arrangements shared with other readers. If you want to read things that others have written with/about 18 Cadence, you can browse through, looking at alternate arrangements.

Aaron draws an analogy with fridge magnet poetry, and there’s a bit of that feeling of play and sometimes randomness. But it’s also an experience that invites the interactor to discover her own themes in the work. Because the scraps can overlap, obscuring one another, it’s possible to replace intended meanings with others. Sometimes the effect is intentionally comical:

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Sometimes it’s not, as in this tale about the deaths of three sons of the household:

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And sometimes the juxtapositions call out themes or possibilities that are less explicit in the work. I encountered one disturbing cluster of text that seemed to hint at incest, though that story wasn’t obvious on the surface of the text. Working out what is supposed to have happened to all of the characters is one sort of semi-puzzle; working out new or different perspectives on their experiences is another.

As the screenshots should make obvious, this is a really lovingly textured piece of work. When you lay out scraps of words, they drift into attractive positions, perhaps skew a little bit as though you were arranging them on a table. Dragging together two scraps that refer to the same scene will glue those scraps into a continuous sentence, but the X-Acto knife tool will separate them again. It’s all a pleasingly tactile, precise and elegant interface, and reminded me of some of the attractive work inkle has done with text; also of Andrew Plotkin’s My Secret Hideout. I recommend giving 18 Cadence a look.

ETA: Additional comments from Aaron on his work.

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.

Continue reading “My Secret Hideout”

IF Demo Fair: Desiring Flights and other interactive poetry

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.

Continue reading “IF Demo Fair: Desiring Flights and other interactive poetry”