Branching stories and inevitability

Over the last few days I’ve come across anecdotes about writers having trouble writing branching stories.

Here’s the BBC describing writers’ experiences creating parser-based interactive fiction:

A good tool interface is only the first step in writing a good interactive story. We needed to find ways to help our writers learn to think about conversation as a graph, as well as a competition you can win or lose. Tracking variables and calibrating how much agency to give a player were both new concepts, as were ‘unwriterly’ tasks like dividing graphs to optimise memory usage.

And here’s Robin Sloan, who is at work on a game:

So here I am, reading Hero Legends, reading Pullman’s Grimm, rereading my own plodding Ink, trying again, producing nothing better, getting frustrated, and, honestly, despairing a bit, which is almost always a sign that you need to take a step back.

That’s what I did. I closed the Ink editor and, instead, just… Wrote Something The Normal Way. And, almost immediately, it worked. The whole scene tumbled out, in almost exactly the right voice, casually informing the reader that a year had passed, and another, and another. It moved up and down the ladder of abstraction. It became unstuck.

I wonder, is it harder to write branching stories because of the unfamiliarity, the fact that it requires forcing new circuits in the brain to light up? Sloan lands here, with his specific issue being that it’s difficult to travel up and down the “ladder of abstraction” while writing in a programming language.

And I don’t doubt it. But I wonder: Is this difficulty simply a matter of having more balls to juggle? Or does writing a story with branches also make you tie one hand behind your back by removing certain tenets that you can rely on when writing straight prose?

I’m thinking specifically of inevitability. From Elizabeth Bowen’s “Notes on Writing a Novel“:

Roughly, the action of a character should be unpredictable before it has been shown, inevitable when it has been shown. In the first half of a novel, the unpredictability should be the more striking. In the second half, the inevitability should be the more striking.

Inevitability is always hard to get right. But it stands to reason that it would be even harder to make several endings feel inevitable, or several ways to get to the same ending.

Or maybe inevitability is more a shackle than a crutch in the context of interactive fiction. What would be lost and what would be gained if branching stories rejected the tenet of inevitability? Would readers reject it as unsatisfying? Or, with no place to go, no reason to get frustrated at getting stuck in a loop or arriving at the “wrong” place, would the pleasures of ambient media rise to the surface?

Against worldbuilding

M. John Harrison writes:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

Via Robin Sloan.

Previously:

Video game as Gesamtkunstwerk

Robin Sloan, in the first issue of his newsletter about making a video game:

Some days—not all, but some—I think video games must cerainly be the 21st-century version of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art” that draws upon and integrates all other forms. For Wagner, ca. 1849, opera was the Gesamtkunstwerk.

There’s a lot in this whole formulation that’s questionable, but here I will just plainly confess that, for me, its allure is not. In video games, you get to deploy story and prose and graphic design and moving images and music—you get to “play all the keys on the keyboard.”

This is interesting to me because, without knowing the word Gesamtkunstwerk until today, it has long seemed to me that film has been vying for this label—even to the point of incorporating the technology of games. It’s theater + photography + music + etc. But Wikipedia’s entry for Gesamtkunstwerk doesn’t even mention film, only opera, architecture, and visual art.

Meanwhile, video games arguable go further even than film, adding software to the list of incorporated crafts/practices/affordances/arts. Maybe Sloan is right. (Even when he’s not 100% right, you might have noticed that I consistently find him interesting. The “Robin Sloan” tag overfloweth.)

One last blockquote to share from this same newsletter, this one about why it matters that he’s calling his video game a video game:

As you might know, I produce a lot of odd-shaped digital projects; this thread from a fictional social network (?!) is a good example. I truly love making these things, but/and I am often frustrated that the only “critical response” available is what I’ve come to think of as the “nod of approval.” I like nods, and I like approval—but I like real engagement even more. When you’re producing work in a genre that consists of… only that work… it’s a tall order to expect people to like, invent a whole new way of talking about things… just to talk about your thing.

Just by calling something a game, you give people the framework—the permission—to evaluate it. To compare it with other things. To recommend it!

You’ll see, as this project progresses, that it would have been perfectly reasonable to call it “an extremely enhanced e-book” or a “super-duper interactive digital story.” I struggled with this for a long time; I am now over it. This is a video game.

As someone interested in making odd-shaped digital objects, I find this is a compelling argument.

Hand-wavy science fiction is the best science fiction

Consider this, found on a pink sheet from Robin Sloan’s Risograph:

As part of the process, my mother had answered thousands of questions basic and surreal, and also submitted to a full-body scan at a university three hundred miles south, the results of which—petabytes worth—had been transmitted to the lab near Toronto. That data wasn’t uploaded into the tree, exactly; but it wasn’t NOT uploaded into the tree, either.

He could have come up with some Star Trek-style gobbledygook about how the tree fibers were reengineered to bend like neurons through the use of an experimental Organic-Structural Mirror Ray—but why? The best science fiction is focused on people, not (fake) science.

See also: “Something like a HELICOPTER”

GPT-2 is “like a three-year-old prodigiously gifted with the illusion, at least, of college-level writing ability”

Every once in a while you find an article that seems just for you. John Seabrook writes in The New Yorker about the group OpenAI and their A.I. called GPT-2, which is so advanced that they are keeping it under lock and key. Not only is the whole thing about the bleeding edge of writing writers, it’s also a wonderful example of a digital article. It also appears in print, of course, but the online presentation is so subtle yet inventive, with its interactions to reveal AI-written text and a mini-game of “spot the AI” within a paragraph, that I cannot imagine the print version competing with the web one.

I do wish Seabrook had talked to Robin Sloan about his experiments in writing fiction using the same A.I. It might have encouraged him to explore the idea of A.I. as a potential partner or generator of raw material to be re-shaped.

Sometimes tech’s greatest benefit to the reader comes when it stops with the publisher.

Craig Mod, in Wired:

We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve—I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a “book” as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building—everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t. Perhaps the form and interactivity of what we consider a “standard book” will change in the future, as screens become as cheap and durable as paper. But the books made today, held in our hands, digital or print, are Future Books, unfuturistic and inert may they seem.

I’ve been thinking about this as I work on a piece of digital fiction, and realize that it gets better every time I take away an opportunity for interaction.

I was also thinking about this reading Robin Sloan’s print mailings, which you can get if you sign up for his newsletter. Sometimes they come on thin pink paper, printed with a Risograph and folded in thirds. The latest one came in an envelope and on paper that felt very much like a junk mailer, which Sloan explains was of necessity but also part of the fun, since it came from a fictional bureaucracy. In each case, he runs the Ruby scripts, does the care and feeding of the AI, gets ink on his hands, or whatever else needs to be done for you to receive something delightful in your actual physical mailbox with no double-click to install, no log in, not even an ‘on’ button.

I see a parallel here between the technical burden that Sloan shoulders, and that the book printers and distributors that Mod refers to do, and a particular trend in web development: doing more work earlier in the process, in order to make what you send to your reader lighter and less complex. That can mean server-side rendering, doing most of the computation on the sending end rather than the receiving end so that the reader receives the simplest bundle of text possible. Or even before code hits the server, doing more work at compile time. Rich Harris, the maker of one such tool called Svelte, argues that “complexity, like energy, can only really be converted from one form into another” and he would prefer to take on the complexity rather than make his reader or customer or whoever is waiting at the end of the process deal with it. Shifting more of the effort sooner in the assembly line.

What you as a creator lose in that bargain is often not a loss at all. You may give up some novel or flashy presentation, but do your readers want that, or do they want to escape from it? And making it easier on the readers might make it harder up front for the people making the thing—but it’s always hard to make something that feels easy, always complicated to make something the feels simple.

Some of the time—maybe most of the time—the fancy tech does not belong in the hands of the reader. Too often it results in irrelevant cognitive load for the reader or too much computational load on the reader’s device—two analogous problems that often go hand in hand. Respectful tech helps get a piece to the reader in a way that feels light and simple and elegant, as with a restaurant that keeps all the complexity hidden behind the door to the kitchen, so that guests might have a simple, quiet, concentrated, respectful experience. (Snow Fall is Benihana.)

It feels like people take as a given that interactive widgets and lots of motion are what it means to use the native tools of the web, when in fact those are the tools of advertising, the problematic funding source for most of the web, which is built around the goal of diverting your attention rather than aiding your concentration. What would a web that prioritized readers over buyers look like? I suspect the difference would be greater than just an absence of ads, or even an absence of clickbait.

How not to say something

From “The Dinner Party” by Joshua Ferris:

On occasion, the two women went to lunch and she came home offended by some pettiness. And he would say, “Why do this to yourself?” He wanted to keep her from being hurt. He also wanted his wife and her friend to drift apart so that he never had to sit through another dinner party with the friend and her husband. But after a few months the rift would inevitably heal and the friendship return to good standing. He couldn’t blame her. They went back a long way and you get only so many old friends.

He leaped four hours ahead of himself. He ruminated on the evening in future retrospect and recalled every gesture, every word. He walked back to the kitchen and stood with a new drink in front of the fridge, out of the way. “I can’t do it,” he said.

Did you catch that? A new drink. Ferris could have had another paragraph or two there, with beautiful and clever language explaining that our narrator had started drinking two hours ago, was on his third, and liked to pair his dry reds with cutting loquaciousness. Continue reading “How not to say something”

Is “Proposal for a book to be adapted into a movie starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson” electronic literature?

In describing electronic literature I’ve sometimes used the definition “stories that you can’t print out.” Robin Sloan’s “Proposal for a book to be adapted into a movie starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson” has me reconsidering that.

The story takes the form of an email. More specifically, a printed email: Rather than the scroll bar and cacophonous collection of buttons that would signify an email program, we get a series of 8.5×11″ sheets. But despite mimicking paper, the story is very much of the digital world. It would not work nearly as well as a finely printed book. The date in the header of each page and the URL in the footer function as mise en scène, whereas in a book they would be so out of place as to be confusing and distracting. And the typographic details, like having two hyphens for an em dash, would seem like inattention to detail instead of part of the tone. In a carefully crafted book object, sloppiness is sloppiness; in a simulacrum of an email, sloppiness is verisimilitude. Continue reading “Is “Proposal for a book to be adapted into a movie starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson” electronic literature?”

Sentence spaces

Robin Sloan, novelist, media inventor, olive oil entrepreneur:

Imagine a sentence. “I went looking for adventure.”

Imagine another one. “I never returned.”

Now imagine a sentence gradient between them—not a story, but a smooth interpolation of meaning. This is a weird thing to ask for! I’d never even bothered to imagine an interpolation between sentences before encountering the idea in a recent academic paper. But as soon as I did, I found it captivating, both for the thing itself—a sentence… gradient?—and for the larger artifact it suggested: a dense cloud of sentences, all related; a space you might navigate and explore.

[…]

My project called sentencespace, now public on GitHub, serves up an API that provides two things.

  1. Sentence gradients: smooth interpolations between two input sentences.
  2. Sentence neighborhoods: clouds of alternative sentences closely related to an input sentence.

Sentence neighborhoods are simpler than gradients. Given an input sentence, what if we imagine ourselves standing at its location in sentence space, peering around, jotting down some of the other sentences we see nearby?

Here’s the rest, including widgets that let you play around with what he did without installing anything. File under writing with machines.

Notes on The Pickle Index

The Pickle Index is a story app by Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn with art by Ian Huebert:

In a glum nation ruled by a stylish dictator, all citizens are required by law to participate in the Pickle Index, a fermentation-based recipe exchange. From within this network, an incompetent circus attempts an unlikely uprising.

Thrills, chills, spills, & dills!

The writing combines George Saunders-style bureaucratic verbosity with some Tom Robbins absurd flair. You can get it in print, too, but you’d be missing some groundbreaking experiments in using software to tell a story. Continue reading “Notes on The Pickle Index”