Making of Metamorphoses

Once upon a time, I was working on a mammoth work of interactive fiction. (I still am. It’s hiding in the closet.) In this work, it was my intention to take on and conquer all the Big Problems of mimesis:

  • Materials of different densities that made different sounds when struck together. Glass that shattered, leaving sharp pieces behind. Cutting instruments that worked on any reasonable object in the game.
  • Containers that contained only what they sensibly could.
  • Fire that burned, spread, left smoke in the air, blackened glass.
  • Divisible liquids that could be mixed, transferred, and drunk. The proportions of a mixture would be remembered, and taken into account in drinking so that the flavor could be described and the effects on the player (if any) calculated. So that for instance a weak alcoholic mixture would take longer to induce drunkenness than a strong one.
  • A Polaroid camera that would accurately record the state of the object pictured (charred, in flames, soaking wet, cut to bits, whatever).
  • NPCs who could carry on conversations about real and abstract objects convincingly and at length, and who would listen and react to each other as well as to you, while moving around the map pursuing their own goals. Who would, for that matter, respond to the Polaroid photographs.
  • Paper that could be sketched on or written on or used to take rubbings of lettering or pictures, even if said lettering was in a dark place.
  • Light sources of varying intensities and colors, some of which would be strong enough to read by and some not, which would subtly affect descriptions everywhere and also determine whether or not the flash on the Polaroid went off.

The only thing missing was that archetypal challenge of IF programming, the Compleat Rope, but if I’d kept working long enough I’m sure I would have discovered I needed one of those, too.

Needless to say, working on this project spawned a lot of side projects. First I had to make a library to make the NPCs talk to you. (See Galatea for the outcome of that — though Galatea is only a pale shadow of the Ideal NPC, since she doesn’t move, respond to a wide range of physical objects, or interact with other players. She also asks no questions.)

Then I had to make the library to deal with the materials side of things. I got the burning to work pretty well; the divisible liquids work too, but there’s a terrible terrible parser bug that I STILL haven’t been able to come up with a way around.

Metamorphoses in its basest incarnation was just a test-space for my materials library. I wanted to see if my wood, metal, glass, etc., behaved as they were supposed to do. So I had a bunch of trinkets and then a handy transmogrifying machine that would turn one into another. A little more elaborate than testing grounds really needed to be, I guess, but I wanted something fun to play with, since I had a lot of refinements to make.
Of course, that took on a life of its own, just as Galatea did. The transformational stuff got me interested in alchemy, Renaissance science, and neo-Platonism (which burgeoned into a mammoth side-reading project and an academic interest in Giordano Bruno that took on a life of its own. There’s a thirty-page seminar paper that came out of that, and some ideas I still think need to be revised and maybe one day published. I’ll get around to it.) I decided that I wanted to write about a place somewhere closer to the world of the forms than our own sad earth: somewhere existence was purer, and everything carried a greater symbolic weight than it does here. I did a lot of work on it, and then I neglected it for a long time.

When it came time to write a comp game, I returned to that piece and gutted it. I’d learned from writing Galatea that my ideas are always way too big. I stripped out about two thirds of the map, three quarters of the puzzles, and the phenomenally complex but phenomenally buggy NPC who was your chief enemy. Then I had something I could begin to deal with. The transmogrifying machine, I decided, was going to be the heart and soul of the game. The puzzles would pretty much all deal with reformation and application of items that you had; there would be multiple solutions.

Which led me back to another idea I’d been kicking around for a while. I like the idea of a game that adapts itself, shapes itself to the player and the player’s approach. I tried to apply that concept in Galatea; now I had a new thought. Since there were multiple solutions possible for just about every puzzle — some exquisitely complex and clever, some rather brutish and destructive — why not let the game observe how the player played, and adjust the feedback slightly depending on the choices made?

That led back, of course, to the question of character. What sort of PC was it that the player was shaping? From my earlier game ideas I knew that it was a girl, someone who felt powerless and imposed-upon, who did not completely understand the situation she was in but who was actually much more capable than she gave herself credit for. I didn’t want to have her wallowing in self-pity, either, of course. And she was going to come to recognize herself, over the course of the game, as someone capable of making her own decisions; then she was going to have to choose, either to return to her master or to do something else, but in either case to do so with the knowledge that she was now responsible and in control.

That’s laid out for you, and there’s not much you can do to avoid it. But how that progress goes — whether it’s grim or cheerful, whether the PC makes painful sacrifices that lead her to see her own strength, or clever decisions that awaken her to her own intelligence — that depends on the player’s approach. The final puzzle — getting into the Tower of Stars — particularly crystallizes the distinction. One way up is to stop the celestial clockwork, in effect stopping time: this is the clever way, and it results in a kind of revelation for the PC, a moment of intellectual realization where memories that have been lost come back together and make things clear. Victory of the Mind. The other way is to crawl up through a sort of access tunnel: altogether more chthonic, involving feeling about in darkness and clambering through a narrow passageway. The game does its best to make this process sound as uncomfortable as possible without actually being intolerable. Victory of the Will.

In a way, it’s kind of an obvious game for a graduate student to write, seduced by the desire for knowledge and tortured by the process of acquiring it.

Ekphrasis: what’s up with all the intricate paintings and objects?

Classical authors often had recourse to a device called ekphrasis: the elaborate description of a physical object, sometimes at a level of detail that is completely unbelievable. Homer describes the shield of Achilles, for instance, as containing on its surface detailed portrayals of the ocean and of cities with various activities going on both peaceful and warlike: the round space is expanded within the narrative to become a microcosm of its own. Catullus, likewise, puts an improbably detailed scene on an embroidered bedspread, in his poem 64.

This technique has always struck me as an appropriate one for IF, because the texture of the IF universe is the texture of its words. In a graphical adventure you can’t have an object so improbably detailed. But in IF, there’s nothing to stop the player from digging ever deeper, so:

On the bedspread, you see embroidered an island in the middle of a vast ocean.
The island is mountainous, rugged, and mostly deserted. You can make out a single figure standing on the shore.
It is a young woman, her clothes in disarray, her hair blown back wildly by the wind. She is staring out to sea with a sad expression on her face.
Long tendrils of gold…

You get the picture. This, too, is ekphrasis, but at the player’s discretion, controlled by the roving eye. The experience is like looking at real art, at least to the extent that you get more out of it if you spend some time and pay attention to the details.

Symbolic vocabulary: Okay, but what’s all that stuff supposed to mean?

During the competition, I got this message from zarf:

>I have one dissatisfaction. It’s certainly too late to change this without
>rewriting the game, but I am still curious:
>Why did you use the classical four (-plus-one) elements? You set up this
>very lovely system of five substances, which everything in the game is
>made of, and the properties of which are tied into everything you have to
>do. But they’re not the five elements; fire water earth air get to be the
>elements. They’re *always* the elements. Honestly, I’m tired of it. :)
>Why is this gaping chasm between the structure of the game and its

The following is my attempt to explain.

The conceit is that manipulation of the derivatives (wood, glass, etc.) leads to the acquisition of the first substances (elements), just as other interactions with our ordinary physical world may eventually lead us to understand the ideal forms from which they come. That much is standard Platonism: cf. Republic, books 2, 3, and 10.

In a nutshell, Platonism postulates that there are ideal forms of everything: the ideal chair, for instance, of which actual chairs are manifestations. This is why art is inferior to reality, because it is a copy of a copy, thus even further removed from the Ideal.

Neo-Platonism, particularly the modified form espoused by Giordano Bruno (philosopher from Nola, Italy; burned for heresy, 1600), tweaks this a bit. On Bruno’s understanding, there is the divine/supernatural sphere of idealized truth; underneath that there is the physical world; and then there is the logical world, our mental abstraction based on the physical which tries to mirror or get back to the divine. We fail at complete reconstruction, of course, because human perception is limited and the totality of the universe is hard to comprehend. Bruno was obsessed with infinity. (Also owing to Bruno are the symbolism of light and optical devices. He often talked about perception and knowledge in terms of lenses and mirrors.)

The game is thus set somewhere between the solid-but-flawed reality and the pure abstract truth.

I realize the antecedents of the game won’t be apparent; what I did mean to suggest was a progression from homely objects (the needle) and processes (hitting the bell) through greater and greater processes of abstraction, until one’s possessions, actions, and goals were alien and theoretical. Likewise, a narrowing of focus: five substances, four elements, the one final element.

The puzzles are supposed to (somewhat) reflect the idea of the search for knowledge: earthly survival (uh, earth); exploration (water); manipulation and invention (air); theoretical speculation (fire). The upper-level puzzles are more complicated than the ones below (though none of them is, I think, actually difficult), and the symbolism is of aspiration and access to things above. Plato uses metaphors of stairs or ladders in a couple of places (eg. the Symposium, where he’s explaining how individual beauty can lead to the awareness of Beauty the concept). The statues in the stairwell represent divine love that offers revelation (the woman, a kind of Aphrodite Ourania) and human desire for the truth (the man looking up).