Words and Music: Meaning and Memory


Post by Sherene Aram

All formal differences between language and music are a consequence of differences in their fundamental building blocks (arbitrary pairings of sound and meaning in the case of language; pitch-classes and pitch-class combinations in the case of music).  In all other respects, language and music are identical.

- “,” Jonah Katz and David Pesetsky

I want to agree with this hypothesis. I really do. My mind leaps to African click languages. I envision an alternate world in which tones, rather than sounds, carry defined meanings, where conversations are duets or symphonies.  I think I’d enjoy life in a society where belting out the highest, loudest, longest note I could muster was an appropriate response to that button-pushing family member or colleague.

But I wonder – does this idea hold up in practice? To take a simple example, is the experience of reading aloud Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 the same as listening to “Turn, Turn, Turn” sung by The Byrds?

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Nope, it isn’t.

Even if you are very familiar with both the King James edition of the Bible and 1960s folk music, I’d wager that the opening notes of the song queued up an emotive memory in a way that the opening words of the text did not.

Experience tells me there is something fundamental about how music mainlines sensory data into our brains. As infants we vocalize before we verbalize. As adults, when we reminisce about a moment or an era, it is music that frames the memory, enabling it to persist across generations.

Perhaps music is a language like any other, but it is our common primal language, with the inherent capacity to sidestep our rational, meaning-seeking minds. 

Improvisation Within a Loosely Defined World: Michael Townsend's A Dark Room


Michael Townsend’s recent game A Dark Room is an experiment in paced narrative and has been featured on various gaming sites, including Kotaku, GiantBomb, and BoingBoing. Unstuck talked with him about his work, and about games and narrative generally.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK: So, what do you do when you're not making games?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: I'm a professional software engineer. I work on web applications, mostly. I spend the rest of my time playing games (both digital and cardboard) and writing games, though I can be convinced to go out to the pub on occasion.

UNSTUCK: What are you playing right now, cardboard and otherwise?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND:  Lately, I'm playing a lot of Wildstar. Also burning through the new Telltale series as they arrive. In the cardboard realm, we either play a whole lot of Cosmic Encounter or a whole lot of Magic: The Gathering.

UNSTUCK: What made you decide to make a text-based game?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Honestly? Limited resources. I've started work on many games, and all of them end up sad little half-finished things. Folders on my hard drive that make me feel bad, but that I can't bring myself to delete. Generally, that's because I don't really like drawing. I'm not good at it, and it's really hard. Then I played Candy Box, and knew I would actually finish one of those.

UNSTUCK: So working with text allowed you focus on gameplay and storytelling without having to worry about graphics.


UNSTUCK: It's interesting you mention Candy Box. I  found Candy Box after playing A Dark Room while I was looking for similar games. But while A Dark Room really grabbed me from beginning to end, I'm not sure if I'll ever finish Candy Box.

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Well, A Dark Room wouldn't exist had aniwey not built Candy Box. Candy Box is longer, and it doesn't really have a cohesive narrative. It uses different styles of mechanics to hook you, and different mechanics work for different people. The main focus of the project was to take the framework defined by Candy Box and apply narrative to it.

UNSTUCK: So how did you go about developing the narrative for A Dark Room? What's distinctive about writing a game as opposed to writing static story? How do you plot things out?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: I haven't written a static story since high school, really, but I wrote A Dark Room pretty much the same way I always wrote back then. It's mostly improvisation within a loosely defined world. I might have a major plot point or two pinned down at the beginning, but I really do just make it up as I go along. Writing for games isn't really all that different, but you have to deliver the plot in a very different way.

UNSTUCK: How so?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: You need to take player agency into account. A game doesn't satisfy unless the player feels like they have some control over the outcome of the game. In a narrative game, the outcome is generally narrative (rather than score, victory, etc...), and so the player needs to feel like the narrative involved them. The best games do this through trickery.

UNSTUCK: That's something I think about quite a lot in regards to games. How games attempt, successfully or unsuccessfully, to create the illusion that the player is constructing the narrative when in fact everything is pre-written.

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: It's more or less the medium's defining quality. Telltale does it brilliantly. Other games actually opt to do it for real, with varying results. The Witcher 2 famously pulled it off with gusto.

UNSTUCK: In your own game development, what do you do to try to make the reader feel personally involved in the story?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: In A Dark Room, I did a little trickery, but mostly I just didn't tell the story. I wasn't sure if it would work, but it looks like it did. Among certain crowds, at least. I told the story mostly through suggestion, and let the player build the narrative for themselves. When you feel like you've come up with the lot, you feel agency even though the writer had you by the hand the whole time through the mechanics and environment. I always find stories more engaging when there is plenty left unsaid.

UNSTUCK: I don't want to spoil the game's plot too much, but I will say that it gives the player the opportunity to move through three different kinds of gameplay as the world expands. How did you develop this expanding structure?

MICHAEL: I came up with game modes at the same time I as thinking about the plot. I knew I wanted the game to grow in scope with each shift, with the previous mode serving as the foundation for the next. Two modes were actually dropped from the game that reinforced this even more. I liked the idea of "zooming out" the mechanics because it dovetailed nicely with the way I wanted to gradually reveal the game world.

UNSTUCK: How did A Dark Room originate?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Well, A Dark Room originated about 10 minutes into Candy Box. I thought that the incremental nature of the game was brilliant, and I felt like it had great potential for delivering narrative. I didn't really sleep very well that night. By the next day, I knew what I was building. Making games is something I've been interested in for as long as I can remember. I love programming for the same reason I love games, and games are the most fun I can have with programming.

UNSTUCK: What reason is that?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Puzzles. A good game is a puzzle, just like a good problem to solve in code.

UNSTUCK: What resources would you recommend to someone interested in learning how to build games?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND:  Game design is the most important aspect, I think. A poorly programmed game can still be excellent if its design is good, while a badly designed game can't be saved by even the most elegant of code. Play lots of games. Play good games and bad games and think about what it is that makes them that way. When you understand why the good games are good, it's much easier to build one. Also, watch everything produced by the fine folks at Extra Credits.

Programming is a whole different beast but, similarly, the best way to learn is to dive in. Folks who are totally new to the concept should take a look at Codecademy. It's intuitive, free, and will teach you enough to get you started. Some may disagree, but I think Javascript is a great language to learn with. There's no need for compilers, libraries, or scary-looking IDEs, and you can see the results of your code instantly in your web browser. The MDN has a great starting point here. Once you've got the basics down, head over to http://www.jsfiddle.net and play around. 

Oh, and if you're more inclined toward writing than coding you might want to check out Twine. With it, you can build some cool interactive narrative experiences with no coding required.

UNSTUCK: What are you reading right now?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: That's an embarrassing question, because the answer is nothing. I love to read when I have the time, but it's probably number three or four on my priority list. When I do read, though, it's usually non-fiction, good sci-fi, or weird Grant Morrison comics.

UNSTUCK: Do you have any other projects in the works?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: If I didn't, I'd have time to read. It's pretty different, though, and I fear that those who loved A Dark Room might hate it. But it's what I find interesting right now, so it's what's happening.

UNSTUCK: Any final thoughts?

MICHAEL TOWNSEND: If nothing else, I hope that A Dark Room has gotten a few more people interested in making their own games. You can actually build something cool pretty quickly. The world needs more people building cool things, I think. I kind of rely on it for my entertainment.

Photographs of an Unstuck Universe


Post by Leila Mansouri

A photograph is a recording of light waves at a particular place and in a particular time. You can shorten or lengthen the exposure. You can manipulate the image after the fact. But a photograph is anchored to the space and time of its creation. Here is what the Naica Mine in Chihuahua, Mexico looks like in the present day one beckons. Look back in time at Queens, New York in the 1920s another asks.

Sometimes, though, a photograph manages to bend the time or space it captures. That’s the unsettling trick Michael Reese’s and Chino Otsuka’s photographs pull off.

In “Inches Above the Earth,” Reese takes the world around your ankles and transforms it into a vast airspace. Fighter jets zoom out of whorls of fencing. Hot air balloons drift out of rusted cans and across parking lot lakes. None of the photos are digitally manipulated. Instead, they use angles, light, and tiny, meticulously painted model aircraft to get you to reimagine the universe just above the ground. Check out the entire collection of photographs on Reese’s website. (Via Slate.)

Otsuka’s “Imagine Finding Me” series does rely on photoshop, but looking at the haunting photographs of her adult self next to her younger self, you’d never guess it. Her work layering together her “double self-portraits” is meticulous and loving. To create each, she carefully blended a snapshot of herself now into a photo was taken more than twenty years before.
The effect is one of time travel. She goes back in time to shadow, joke with, snack with, and in one case even seems to reassure her former self. Otsuka’s more recent “Memoriography” extends her work with time and remembrance – this time to the archives of the British Museum, into which she projects images and recordings of her own memories. (Via My Modern Met.)

Of course, Otsuka and Reese aren’t doing anything fundamentally different than photographers have always done. Even the earliest photographs captured the light of particular times and places in ways that made us think we saw things that we in fact didn’t. But Otsuka and Reese untether photography from the sort of time and space we’re used to in ways that ripple out from their images. Their unstuck photography is our unstuck universe.