Lonely Men Club (Mike Kleine)

LLMMCC1.jpgLonely Men Club is a book by Mike Kleine (@thefancymike), running to exactly 100,000 words and constructed in a five day period via procedural generation. In that respect, it belongs to the same conceptual category as NaNoGenMo projects, or text-focused works from ProcJAM, or Annals of the Parrigues. He references Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Nick Montfort’s World Clock as influences.

Lonely Men Club represents the thoughts of (a fictionalized version of) the Zodiac Killer. These thoughts concern what he read, bills he received, the color of the sky, his bodily functions, the people he killed. A sentence such as “Killed a foreign woman in Mississippi” sits near “Went to the restroom for seventeen minutes”, and neither of these is more important to the narrator.

This sense of repetition, unpredictability and incoherence, and the lack of discrimination between subjects, are Kleine’s desired and intended outcome, so much so that he’s needed a generator to achieve it. There are typos, I believe intentionally. Sometimes words are jammed together without spaces to create new compounds.

This is a text that is playing with cadence, though individual units of coherent meaning are larger than in Allison Parrish’s Articulations. The latter fixates on a single phrase at a time, often repeating it many times in a single sentence, using that repetition to cluster together all the ideas that might be linked by the word “ever”, for instance:

Forever and amen. And ever. Amen. Every man and every maid never a man and never a maid every woman, every man, every woman, every maid: every morn and every night every morning and every night every night and every morning, in every note and every line for in every line, and in every verse and every limb, and every nerve of every virgin element, — never, never believe never, believe me, and ever believe.

…whereas in Kleine’s grammar the repetitions are less insistent, and individual sentences less impressionistic.

Even the layout of the text on the page, with smudges and imperfections, not to mention variant type sizes, is both an reference to the Zodiac’s ciphers and an accidental (but embraced) result of the process of generating, cutting, and pasting text. Sometimes the text in Lonely Men Club is inverted, white on black. Sometimes it’s scrunched, or in landscape rather than portrait orientation, or falling askew on the page, in a way that reminded me of the dynamic text manipulation of Liza Daly’s A Physical Book project. Sometimes a paragraph simply runs off the page’s edge, losing all the words on the right side.

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Narrative Design Toolkit (Gamisolution)

narrativedesignThe Narrative Design Toolkit (available in both English and Spanish) is a deck of cards intended to help the user think through the creation of a new plot, starting with a twelve-card representation of the Hero’s Journey as the basis for elaboration.

As the picture shows, it’s got a simple but stylish design, and includes cards in different colors to represent events and character archetypes, drawing on the writing of Jung and Propp, Campbell, Rodari, and Vogler. Cards include elements such as “the Shadow,” “the Innocent,” “the Grump,” et al. (I think some of the more personality-driven archetypes may have been supplied by the creators of the deck, since they alone don’t have an alternative attribution on them.) Meanwhile, it skips some of Propp’s more specific and startling elements, such as “The hero follows bloody tracks” or “someone pursues the hero, rapidly transforming himself into various animals.” (Though even that’s not as wild as some of the stuff in S. Thompson’s motif index of folk literature, featuring motifs like “Cow drops gold dung” and “Council of fishes decide to get rid of men (who eat fish)” and “Sun and moon born of lizard”. I could page through that stuff all day.)

I myself probably wouldn’t call this a toolkit for narrative design overall so much as a toolkit for plot generation — but that’s still an interesting and useful thing, potentially. Different writers wrestle with different aspects of writing, but “I hate plotting!” is a more common cry than one might think.

Those who’ve been tracking this blog for a while will know that I’m skeptical of the Hero’s Journey and especially of its overwhelming prevalence in game narrative how-to books; also that I’m a total sucker for card decks designed to inspire creativity or to teach IF methods or to tell stories. Likewise tabletop RPGs that offer interesting rules for inventing plots and characters, and the whole challenge of thinking procedurally about the working elements of story. So I went into this unsure whether I’d turn out to like it a lot, or find it very exasperating.

The recommended method for using the Narrative Design Toolkit is perhaps a little underspecified relative to one of those RPGs. It suggests that you:

  1. Lay out cards 1-12 representing the stages of the hero’s journey, then
  2. Swap, remove, and/or replace those cards with other cards in whatever way you wish.

So all in all rather a loose grammar. However, I did sit down and follow these rules.

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Expressive Range in Tarot Decks

I collect Tarot decks, and I’ve been meaning for a while to write about why. Even with a fairly standardized set of cards and suits, Tarot decks demonstrate how a procedural system can be focused on particular domains of meaning and types of significance.

The cards may be dealt randomly, but the card names, images, suits, and interpretive booklets create a space in which certain meanings can be expressed and other types of meanings cannot (or can be expressed only in a veiled and oblique way). This is the expressive range of the procedural system.

The Tarot decks I find most interesting are the ones that go beyond minor re-arting/re-skinning and instead significantly rethink or revise the expressive range of the Tarot, inflecting their decks towards particular problems or meanings — often via conceptual blending between the original Tarot elements and the new theme domain. For instance:

urbantarot.jpg

Urban Tarot, Robin Scott. This is my favorite deck, grounded in the iconography of New York City. The images are dense and detailed, providing plenty to think about and read. Most of the cards, not just the arcana, have human figures on them, and many of those that do not are associated with specific landmarks. The Moon is the crescent formed by a displaced manhole cover; the Wheel of Fortune is a ferris wheel from Coney Island, desolate and abandoned. The Tower is — inevitably — the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11.

There’s a lot here about being a human in a society — or withdrawn from a society — and about how we regard justice, celebrity, wealth and poverty. I especially connect with the Aeon from this deck, which shows a woman visiting the memorial at Ellis Island.

At the same time, it’s very personal, with narratives about the card models often forming part of the reading. In this deck you’ll find public defender Verena Powell as Queen of Wands, or the artist’s own grandmother as Queen of Disks. The human reality of these individuals is inspiring — or disquieting, as in the case of the seductive Knight of Cups.

Robin Scott spent many years on this deck, and that shows in the evolution of style from somewhat more stylized and blocky cards like the Fool or the Knight of Souls to the bright realism of Satiety (10 of Cups) or the painterly quality of Art. Arguably that makes the deck less coherent, in some abstract sense, but I like having this evidence of growth and personal change built into the deck.

But I think what I like best about Urban Tarot is the diversity of mood and attitude it contains. Some Tarot decks are predominantly upbeat or predominantly grim; some focus on a small range of human experience or human problems. Urban Tarot encompasses a wider range of human possibility, the dark and the joyful, the healthy and the sick, the personal and the communal.

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Procedural Generation in Game Design

Screen Shot 2017-06-08 at 7.10.14 AM.pngProcedural Generation in Game Design is out! Kate Compton of Tracery fame writes about generative art toys; Mike Cook (PROCJAM, Games by Angelina) writes about ethical generation and also about the procedural generation of game rules; Harry Tuffs (A House of Many Doors) writes about procedural poetry generation. Jason Grinblat and Brian Bucklew (Caves of Qud) each have a chapter. Gillian Smith (Threadsteading, plus lots of cool research) writes about evaluating and understanding what’s been generated. Ben Kybertas (Kitfox Games) covers procedural story and plot generation.

The whole volume is edited by Tanya X Short (Moon Hunters) and Tarn Adams (Dwarf Fortress). And I am leaving out a lot of cool people and chapters here, but you can check out the full table of contents on the website.

My contribution — drawing on experiences from Versu, my character-based parser IF, and assorted other projects — is a chapter on characters: how generating dialogue and performances can help realize an authored character; approaches to generating characters; considerations about what is even interesting to auto-generate.

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And in a related update to a previous post: I’m happy to say that the PROCJAM Kickstarter has succeeded and has now put out a call for artists to make art packs for procedural work, together with a call for tutorial authors. If their funding goes even higher, they’ll be able to commission two art packs; translate the tutorials they build into additional languages; and hit some other cool stretch goals.

January Link Assortment

Sam Kabo Ashwell has some wonderful posts on the experience of This War of Mine (1, 2) and The Long Dark: the atmosphere, the emergent narrative, the experience evoked by their systems. This bit from his review of The Long Dark particularly struck me:

Having been lost in the Northwoods before, I can say with all confidence: the biggest, scariest threat you face is that you will walk for days and days and never, ever see a single trace of human influence. Never encounter anything shaped by humanity into something that facilitates transport, shelter or food. As moderns, we are hugely, continuously dependent upon the work of other hands. That fear, the fear of a totally non-anthropic environment, is something that is almost impossible to make interesting in the purely human-made context of a game.

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David Welbourn is one of the quiet heroes of the IF community: for years he’s been helping to maintain ifwiki, assembling the eligibility lists for the XYZZY awards, and creating loads of high quality walkthroughs and maps. He has an enormous amount of patience and an encyclopedic knowledge about many corners of IF history. If you have any regular contact with the IF community, you’ve almost certainly made use of some of his work, even if you’re not aware of it. I’m delighted that he now has a Patreon, which will help him with scanning and internet costs and make it easier for him to continue.

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Rowan Kaiser, Austin Walker, and Alex at While !Finished wrote a series of articles on choices in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and in particular about which of those choices are emotionally resonant:

Alex writes:

One of the most difficult choices in the game, for me, happened in the Solas romance storyline, which is only available to female elf Inquisitors and therefore a minority of players. Near the end, Solas reveals the true meaning behind the Dalish elf’s face tattoos: they were originally slave markings, from when elves enslaved other elves. The Inquisitor can let Solas remove hers, or she can keep them. Does the knowledge of their origin taint them? Or are they a part of her and important to her, no matter what their original meaning? What does she believe?

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The discussion of IF fanfiction brought up that there actually is some on archiveofourown: I found an alternate ending for Galatea and a prequel to Alabaster (which digs even deeper into some of the mythology around Eden and Adam’s wives before Eve). There’s also a wonderful story set in the 80 Days universe that explores some of the background of automata with souls, and the lion-like automaton of Burma, one of my favorite figures in the game. And here is an Inform game about a Fallen London character.

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Edge article on video game AI

This has been out in print form for a while, I believe, but the content is now available online: I was interviewed for an article on video game AI for Edge. The article draws extensively from the talk I did at the AI Summit at GDC 2012, with subsequent followup. I talk about social behavior AI and its potential in gaming, and there are also comments from Ben Sunshine-Hill (whose GDC talks always leave me in gobsmacked awe) and Mike Treanor (talking about Prom Week and Facade).