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 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.
Post by Janalyn Guo

David J. Peterson is a writer and language creator ("conlanger"). He began creating languages in 2000 while attending UC Berkeley. After getting his master's degree at UC San Diego, he went on to create languages for HBO's Game of Thrones (2011), Marvel's Thor: The Dark World (2013), Syfy's Defiance (2013), the CW's Star-Crossed (2014), and Syfy's Dominion (2014). In 2007 he helped found the Language Creation Society.

Janalyn Guo: What role did your enjoyment of literature and storytelling play in your initial interest in conlanging?

David Peterson: Whether one intends it to be or not, the lexicon of a language is the story of its speakers. Though all languages are mutually translatable, the specific set of words a language has—their etymologies, their interrelationships—is unique, and is a product of that language’s unique history. As a language creator, one has the responsibility of shaping that history. In effect, it’s like creating a character or a setting—like Macondo or Yoknapatawpha County. The difference is that rather than the people and events taking center stage with the language filling in around, the language is the main attraction—with people and places often hinted at or alluded to.

JG: How many language systems have you created so far? Which are your favorites among 1) the languages you've had a hand in creating, 2) invented languages made by other conlangers, and 3) the languages used widely today?

DP: I’ve started at least 27 language projects that have had enough thought behind them to have a name. They’re not all equal in quality or substance, though. Some have barely 100 words and their grammars are poorly contrived. All conlangers go through this, though. We get better as we go along.

(1) Irathient is probably my favorite, if I have a favorite. Either that or Kamakawi, which is my largest language outside of the ones I’ve created for shows in recent years. With Irathient, though, I just did whatever I thought would be the most fun. It was fun to create, and fun to use (though difficult).

(2) I have a lot of favorites. Some that always come to mind are Doug Ball’s Skerre, John Quijada’s Ithkuil, Matt Pearson’s Okuna, Denis Moskowitz’s Rikchik and Sylvia Sotomayor’s Kēlen. Also, even though it’s early yet, Sylvia’s new language, Sodna-leni, is brilliant. I hesitate to say that because it’s so early, but every time I look at it, I’m really blown away. Plus, Sylvia’s someone who’s only ever worked on one language her entire life; that she even sat down to create a new one is news. It’s still growing, but it keeps getting better. Her ability floors me.

(3) You said languages, not created languages, so I’m going to assume you meant all languages. Hawaiian is my favorite language, without a doubt, but I also admire the beauty of Arabic’s grammar. Having said that, though, you learn Modern Standard Arabic in school, which isn’t what people really use in day-to-day situations, so it is a bit of a construct. Even so, of all the Semitic languages, I think Arabic really hit it out of the park—and the same is true of Hawaiian and the Polynesian languages.

JG: What was particularly fun and playful about the creation of Irathient?

DP: Well, to me a noun class system is basically a game. The first time I learned about Swahili, it sounded like just about the coolest thing in the world to choose different nouns and an adjective to see how the words changed: kisu kikali (“sharp knife”), visu vikali (“sharp knives”), mgeni mkali (“sharp stranger”), wageni wakali (“sharp strangers”), etc. I wanted to replicate that with Irathient, since I hadn’t done that in a conlang, except in a few early ones that aren’t noteworthy. If you don’t have the pressure of having to make yourself understood, working with the subsystems of language is just fun!

JG: I like what you said earlier about how conlanging is like creating a system that hints at and alludes to people and places. The invented languages that you mentioned above -- Kamakawi, Skerre, Ithkuil, Okuna, Rikchik, Kēlen -- what kind of speakers do they evoke for you? Is the strong evocation of a hinted-at reality an indication of a conlanger’s skill?

DP: Well, the question is quite amusing, depending on the language you’re talking about. For example, Denis Moskowitz’s Rikchik is spoken by rikchiks: six-foot-tall green aliens with one gigantic eyeball, no mouth, and 49 tentacles. It has no sounds: it’s signed using 7 of these 49 tentacles. So the language does quite necessarily evoke its “speakers” rather strongly.

Others are different. For example, John Quijada’s Ithkuil isn’t intended for a fictional culture: it’s intended for our use. Consequently, the culture it reflects is our own: the real world. And the nature of the project is to use the language to speak as unambiguously as possible using as few linguistic tokens as possible, so it kind of eschews the vagueness of natural language. It’s an inherently different kind of project which we call an engelang (an engineered language), and consequently evaluating by the same standards one would evaluate a language like Kēlen simply wouldn’t make sense.

But as for the others, yes, in a way. That is, there are two types of skills when it comes to conlanging: the nuts and bolts of the language, and the artistry of the lexicon. Those who are good with the latter, or who have a very strong sense of their speakers, will, perforce, evoke their speakers in the words they choose. Those who are not will not. I was one who wasn’t when I started out. It took a lot of learning on my part to get to where I am. Others like Sylvia and Sally Caves, whom I haven’t yet mentioned, were naturals, and I’m always stunned by the ingenuity and vividness of their invention.

JG: At what point in ones experimentation with conlanging is a language born?

DP: There’s no real cutoff point. The same is true of the question when are two dialects distinct enough to become separate languages: at some point, it just happens. There are certain key moments in the development of any language, though, and those usually serve as a guide. For example, there’s a point where the grammar is mostly done, aside from the grammar that may be introduced by a key lexical item here and there (e.g., a verb that takes a subordinate clause structure that hasn’t been used prior). The language may not have a large number of words, but if one can bring a language to a point where any potential sentence could be translated if there were enough lexical material, that’s a defining moment. After that, it’s usually different points in the lexicon’s size (100 words, 500 words, 1,000 words, 2,000 words, etc.). Once there’s a system in place that can handle translation, there is a language. It may need more words and may have no speakers, but the system is the language.

JG: I know that some conlangers explore the ways in which language patterns reflect thought patterns, language mirroring pure thought. How achievable do you think this is?

DP: Personally I don’t think we understand enough about thought to be able to encode it directly in language. The attempts have value, though. Anything that allows us to look at something old in a new way has the potential to trigger some sort of epiphany. I feel like we’re a long way off from being able to understand actual thought in concrete terms—and also feel the answer will probably come to us from neuroscience, if we ever get it.

JG: Do you think a computer could create a language for humans to use with each other? I’m curious about how AI might influence language creation, and vice versa.  

DP: I have a different opinion about AI now from what I did when I was growing up in the 80s with all the “computers ruling society” horror/sci-fi movies. Computers are much more powerful than we imagined, but there’s no there there. A computer could certainly automate most of the tasks involved in language creation, but there’s no art there. The art would arise in its use. It would take a user to find the beauty in the artificial construct and start using it and selling it; there could be no intentionality. Of course, we’re a long way off from that. It’s not as if we don’t have the technology: there’s just no interest. There isn’t a crack team of programmers trying to create the perfect language creation algorithm, because there’s no demand and probably no money in it. There are a lot of other problems they’ll be tackling before they get to conlanging.

JG: I enjoyed your TED talk and was pretty astounded by the metaphorical quality of the Dothraki language (for example, the Dothraki origins for the words “to dream” and “tree”). Each word is like a little chest to unlock, and there’s a lovely poetics involved. What gave you the idea to mold the language in this way?

DP: First, time is important. It’s easier to do better work when you have the time to do it. After that, though, it’s kind of born of necessity and constraint. In crafting a lexicon, you start out with nothing and very slowly edge out into the vast enormity of describable experience. Ultimately, a language will need to be able to discuss everything, whether it does so with a single word or a series of words. When I come to the next word or concept I have to describe—whether it be because I need it for a script, or because that’s where I want to go next—there are a number of practical questions (should this word be a compound, a new root, a borrowing, etc.), but the most important question is: How do I want to realize these concepts for this group of speakers? And there’s no reason that the answer has to be with a completely new word form every time. If it were, then, yes, a computer could do it quite efficiently—could probably produce a million word lexicon in a matter of minutes. The result, though, wouldn’t be of any practical interest.

JG: What elements of Dothraki culture and ideals directed your creation of their language? And similarly, what Valyrian ideals directed your creation of the High Valyrian language?

DP: With Dothraki, there are a couple of cultural details we get of them which say a lot about their culture. For example, their cultural fear of the sea gives you an idea about what kind of experience they have with the land they live on, and an idea about where they will and won’t draw their metaphors from. Additionally George R. R. Martin notes several times that Dothraki do everything of importance under the open sky. This proved fruitful for me in creating the metaphorical framework I needed to discuss things that are good and bad. For example, in English we have a high-low metaphor that’s fairly common (“that’s low,” “underhanded,” “high-minded,” “on the up and up,” etc.). In Dothraki this is replaced with a metaphor contrasting things which are concealed or covered with those that are not, and this metaphor manifests itself in various ways in regular speech, as the height metaphor does in English.

The Valyrians were (and continue to be) much more difficult since we know virtually nothing about them. We know they had dragons and that they were a technological, cultural and martial power, and that their civilization was mysteriously destroyed, but we know little else. For that reason I’ve shied away from doing any heavily culture-inspired work for Valyrian. The distinction of High and Low Valyrian, though, was a nice one, as I borrowed the height metaphor into Valyrian (similar to English but contrasting with Dothraki).

JG: In an interview with Wired, you described the Dothraki vocabulary you invented as being "entirely à priori." What would be the template for an à priori language?

DP: First, I should have written “a priori” (the term is Latin, not French. My mistake!), but this term—and its sister, a posteriori—has a special meaning in conlanging. An a priori conlang is one whose lexical material is created whole cloth. An a posteriori conlang is one whose lexical material is based on another language. For example, Andrew Smith’s Brithenig is a language that presupposes Latin took over in Great Britain rather than the native Celtic languages. Consequently, instead of Welsh, Gaelic, Cornish, etc. being spoken, everyone spoke Latin. Brithenig, then, derives its vocabulary primarily from Latin, but filtered through the native languages, producing new Romance languages that quite a bit like Celtic languages. In order for the experiment to make sense, the vocabulary must be drawn from existing languages. With a project like Dothraki, though, it wouldn’t make sense for there to be words from our world in it, since the universes are distinct.

With that understanding of the terms, you can probably see that there is no possible template for an a priori language: it’s whatever the creator can imagine. A priori languages are as diverse as Dothraki and Timothy Ingen Housz’s Elephant’s Memory, which is entirely pictorial.

JG: Is it challenging to imagine past this world, to sort of unhear the sounds we associate with this universe to create these languages?

DP: Yes, this is one of the first and most important lessons every conlanger must learn. The best way to do it is simply to expose oneself to as many languages as possible. That is, one won’t know if something one’s language does is uncommon unless one learns other languages. Our first language becomes our entire world, and how could it be any other way? Learning as much as one can about other real-world languages and cultures is paramount. It frees one from the bonds of one’s mother tongue.

JG: In what ways has it been different designing languages for shows versus designing languages on your own?

DP: The major difference is the presence of deadlines. Working on your own language, you make your own deadlines, and have the freedom to make mistakes which can later be corrected. A show’s airdate, though, is an absolute deadline, and mistakes that make it into the show are there forever. That is unfortunate, since the time allotted is not sufficient. Mistakes do make their way into the show, and it’s disappointing, to say the least. If conlanging is an artform (and I’m certain it is), the best work will not be done for a production: it will be done on the creator’s own time. As for the latter, even if I stopped working for shows and movies right this moment, I’d continue to conlang for the rest of my life. I don’t know if it’s a question of motivation so much as compulsion. It’s what I do.

JG: It seems like an authentic language is often a missing dimension from certain books or movies with sci-fi, futuristic, or fantastical premises. In my mind, a unique dialect and language could be just as important as the bizarre physical forms of the invented world, as authenticating details. Are there sounds that we associate with the past, with the future, and with the strange?

DP: There are certain impressions we have (and by “we,” I refer to English speakers) when it comes to foreignness and alienness. They are impressions, though, and are entirely subjective. I’m happiest when I work on a project where the producers/directors/writers understand that it’s not “weird” sounds that make something alien or “harsh” sounds that make something foreign: it’s the character of the entire language and culture itself. Both culture and language grow organically, and it’s the natural evolution in an unnatural, alien or foreign place that will, of necessity, produce that sense of alienness or foreignness. It shouldn’t be faked.

JG: How does language creation seep into your other writing?

DP: I think much more about each word I’m using than I did before I started creating languages. It’s really changed my relationship with English, which is bizarre. And there’s no going back. Once you’ve crossed that bridge, you’re done—and it can be a blessing and a curse. For example, noting just how many linguistic possibilities there are when it comes to reifying any particular construction, I’ve started to lose my grasp on just which preposition is appropriate where. I can usually come up with an argument for any of them in English.

I wouldn’t trade it for the world, though.

JG: How might one construct an aesthetics for a written language; what might be the considerations?

DP: This question could be answered with a book. In effect, most conlangs are written languages, in that it’s rare that they’ll pick up speakers. Consequently they exist (to the extent that a language can extent) in roughly the same state as dead languages do. However perhaps you meant orthography…? If indeed you meant exclusively written languages, I encourage you to take a look at Elephant’s Memory, which I alluded to above, and Rikchik. Neither are speakable, and so are exclusively written. I tried my hand at a pictorial/iconographic [language] in 2005. I’m not too happy with it; it’s been abandoned at this point. Blissymbolics was probably the first such attempt (or intentional, serious attempt) in history. Either way, when you’re talking about any language and evaluating a language, the first step is to ascertain the goals of the creator and judge the work based on those goals. For example, with a different frame of reference, one could look at Brithenig and say it was totally unoriginal, since all of its vocabulary comes from other languages. Creating original stems, though, wasn’t the point of the project, and so one couldn’t judge the language based on that criterion—but one should for a priori languages. When it comes to a written form, there are a number of questions one has to ask before evaluating—for example, did the system evolve naturally (as did the Roman alphabet), or was it a construct (e.g. the Cherokee syllabary)? What level of technology is the society at? How was it written—using what implements? Once these questions are answered, one can evaluate the system based on its merits—and once that’s done, then based on the overall impression it gives. That would be the place to start.

JG: Maybe to tie these concepts together, I'd love it if you could translate a phrase from English into a few of your invented languages and walk our readers through some aspects of those languages.

DP: This is kind of a contrived example, but it’ll illustrate a commonly used but usually interesting concept. In English: "The father believed his daughter." In English, “believe” ultimately derives from the same word that gave us “love,” with the connection between the two concepts probably being something like the modern expression “hold dear.” Here’s how it comes out in some of the languages I’ve created.


Ave shillo ohar mae.

Father believed daughter his.

In Dothraki, the verb shillolat derives from shillat which is related to shilat, “to know.” Certain verb stems at a time in the past would double their final consonant to produce a verb of greater duration or impact than the original verb. So while shilat is “to know,” shillat is “to trust” (i.e. to know something several times over or for an extended period of time, and so it can be trusted). The suffix -o adds focus to the process, so that “to believe” is more “to come to trust over a period of time.” Consequently, the word shillolat carries with it associations with tried and tested knowledge (i.e. you believe someone because you have known them to be true several times in the past).


Kepa zȳhe tale pāsiles.

Father his daughter believed.

In High Valyrian, the word pāsagon means both “to trust” and “to believe.” I went back and forth on precisely which tense to use for the verb, because the usual past tense is the perfect. I went with the imperfect here, because the perfect gives us more of a telic reading, which would mean that the most natural interpretation would be “The father trusted his daughter.” Apart from context, using the imperfect would more easily guarantee a reading of “believe,” but it would assume some sort of ongoing context. Consequently, it wouldn’t feel as definite as the English (i.e. it would be a simple statement of fact). To get the definite reading, it would require the verb to be conjugated as pāstas, but without context, it would be more likely to be understood as “The father trusted his daughter.”


Zezik abishi zbaba zwinyazwa.

Her-he-did believe father daughter-his.
A lot of z’s in the Irathient because the father and daughter are of the first noun class reserved for Irathients. The theme consonant of the first class is z. In this case, the word for “believe” derives from the same root used for possession. In fact, used with a different auxiliary, it would mean “to hold” (i.e. if you replace zezik with zezi, it’d actually mean “The father is held by his daughter”). In Irathient, auxiliaries and verbs are combined to get unique meanings, so the words wear their etymologies on their sleeves.


Tande do tave re finjila.

Father sbj. daughter obj. believed.
Castithan rarely uses pronouns if it can be avoided—and in this case, the use of the familiar term for “father” suggests that the daughter is his own. The etymology is somewhat similar Dothraki’s, in that the word is derived from the word hinjilu, which means “to know.” In its oldest form, this word meant “to see.” In deriving finjilu, though, the honorific/augmentative prefix fa- was added, ultimately fusing with the stem and deleting the h. Thus, believing is a kind of refined form of knowing—that is knowing without the need for overt proof, on account of the circumstantial evidence.


Abor adyan difera yaya.

Father believed from-daughter his.
Sondiv is another language which derives “believe” from a possession verb. In this case, the verb idi means “to hold.” By adding the -m suffix (which shows up as -n at the end of a word) it produces a word that is metaphorically related to the original in a tangential way (other pairs of words derived in this way: sobuviv “stillness” ~ sobvumiv “safety”; irus “to touch” ~ irzon “to experience”; ison “to give” ~ ismon “to help”). The object associated with the new verb, though, can only be an idea or a belief. To make this sentence work, the verb is used intransitively, and the ablative clitic di- is used with “daughter.”


Awnoh vawna tatcha memaj.

Father his daughter believed.
Væyne Zaanics is a language I created with Nina Post for her novel The Zaanics Deceit. In the book, two families from the 14th century create a language that they pass on to their children, so even with the fictional history of the book, the language is a created language, as opposed to a natural language. All words are divided according to whether they are divine or earthly, in the old sense. Thus the word awnoh is the word for father, but its counterpart, Æyneh, is the word for God. Similarly, memaj means “believed,” but memæj would mean “knew.” The idea behind this pairing is that certain knowledge is divine; belief without knowledge is earthly.


Ka haleke fala ie laya tilea.

Did believe father the daughter of-him.
In Kamakawi, the word hale means “to think” or “to opine.” By adding the applicative suffix -ke, one can promote a prepositional argument to direct object position. This is similar to Sondiv, which requires a preposition for the thing believed if it’s animate rather than using the regular direct object morphology, except that Kamakawi does it directly (Sondiv can too, actually, but it’s more natural in Kamakawi). The verb might actually end up having additional interpretations, so context would be needed to ensure the correct reading.

*   *   *

Other Invented Languages Mentioned in the Interview:

Skerre by Doug Ball

Ithkuil by John Quijada

Okuna by Matt Pearson 

Rikchik by Denis Moskowitz

Kēlen by Sylvia Sotomayor

Brithenig by Andrew Smith

Elephant’s Memory by Timothy Ingen Housz

The Unstuck Activity Book: App Collage


Post by Ben Roberts

With this exercise, you can create your own poetry or prose using mobile apps.

1. Select three or more reading apps. For this demonstration, I have used:

* Poetry’s randomized poem generation machine;
* Connu’s Pandora-inspired short story collection;
* YouVersion’s scripture-in-translation database;
* the new Kindle-based literary journal Day One;
* the Audible app; and
* the new “read it now” feature on the Goodreads social media app.

2. Open an app, click around a bit at random (to get past the welcome screen and into the text of a book, article, poem, etc.), and copy the first block of text you find. You can copy this text by hand or type it into a Word doc.


Poetry: "From The Task, Book V: The Winter Morning Walk"
Connu: "How many heavens do you need to be happy?"
YouVersion: "Psalm 119:11 -- I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you."
Day One: "One part of our mission..."
Audible: "But still as tired of life as he sometimes felt..." 
Goodreads: "From India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which..."

3. Collage the text to create new phrases. In the example below, I've created miniature first-, second-, and third-person narratives, along with a short lyric poem.



1st Person:

I have stored up how many heavens from the task? One of these days, June or July, our mission might not sin.

2nd Person:

The winter morning walks against you. Do you need to be happy?

3rd Person:

She forgot to be the task. He sometimes felt sin.


Winter morning word of life
The task in my heart

Life from India:
One part June or July

Sin against happy

Of Plutus and Tetris: Preserving the Legacy of Video Games


Post by Kate Klein

When they excavate Washington D.C. 2,000 years from now, they will know us by our video games. That is, if they can get them to work.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum discussed this week the difficulties of preserving video games as art. They’ve acquired Flower (created by Jenova Chen, Nicholas Clark, and the composer Vincent Diamante for the Playstation 3) and Halo 2600 (Ed Fries's "demake" of the Xbox classic) for the permanent collection. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian’s Time-Based Media and Digital Art Working Group is confronting the problem: how to let visitors of the future play the games long after the last PS3 and 2600 have vanished?

I have a more basic question: How do you keep a game in a museum?

It’s more complicated than preserving the cartridges that contain the games—you need a compatible player in working order, as well, a lesson I learned recently while doing some excavation of my own through a basement. 

In a shoe box, I found several game cartridges (Tetris! Super Mario Land! Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle!) and the husk of my old chunky, grey Game Boy original.  I could practically hear the tinny music in my head and feel the stiff action of those A and B buttons, but no amount of tinkering or cajoling could bring the thing back to life.  At the end of an afternoon, instead of a game, I had two handfuls of hardware.

“You really need the architecture of the Playstation 3,” said Michael Mansfield, the museum’s curator of film and media arts, “to play [Flower] into the future. They can’t be separated.”

The preservation of digital architecture made me think of some physical architecture I visited this summer: the ancient theater at Epidaurus, Greece.
Designed 2,500 years ago, it seats 15,000 and hosts an annual theater festival.  This summer, I watched from the cheap seats (limestone benches that soak up the westerly sun all afternoon and keep your rear end nice and warm after dusk) as a live troupe performed Aristophanes’ Plutus, translated from ancient into modern Greek, then translated again on my iPad into English.  

Open ancient console, insert compatible cartridge, create twenty-first century experience of theater as it once was . . .

 . . . only it wasn’t.  The acting troupe was superb, the music the best approximation of what a 4th century B.C. comedy might have sounded like, the acoustics just as stunning as they were went the theater was first carved into the hill.  But it wasn’t the same.  

A game—like theater and live music—is a “time-based art.” It happens once, then it’s done, even if you play it again. Even if you play it again a thousand years from now. That one game, lost to time. 

In any case: I want the Time-Based Media and Digital Art Working Group to figure out how to bring my dead classic Game Boy back to life.


Welcome to Adventure!!


Post by Sherene Aram

When I was in college, the interactive text-based program called Adventure transported me to a place where logic, curiosity and humor were equally valuable tools, where I could escape from the stuff of daily life. In the game, I could be a treasure hunter and intrepid explorer, and I got an infinite number of "do-overs." Like many of the best stories, Adventure inspired me to action. Such as sneaking into the computer lab in the middle of the night to solve just one more puzzle.

The story goes that Adventure was shared person-to-person, mainframe-to-mainframe from Stanford to MIT. Programmers reportedly lost a week of coding time to this brand new toy. Two weeks, for those who set out to build their own versions. An apocryphal senior was so captivated by the world of the Colossal Cave that he failed to graduate.

It started with Will Crowther, who built the game’s framework in the early 1970s while developing assembly language programming for ARPAnet. Along the way, he developed computer simulations of maps and incidentally spurred the creation of a new gaming genre. Next was Don Woods, a student working in Stanford’s AI lab, who discovered Adventure on one of the university systems.

Woods supposedly reached out to Crowther by sending email to “Crowther@ every computer on the internet” -- which at that time was a pretty small number.

Like many others who came after him, Woods sought to expand the game world, invent new puzzles and contribute to the Adventure narrative. These early game writers anticipated crowd-sourced digital storytelling by a good three decades. That’s like ancient history on the gaming timeline. But Adventure lives on.

There’s no need to prowl the nearest campus for unlocked doors or windows anymore. If you’d like to play the original, it’s here. And there are a bunch of apps that allow you to crack puzzles on your favorite hand-held: search for "Colossal Cave" or just check out my favorite. I’d argue that Adventure’s early impact stemmed from the novelty of its quirkily engaging delivery system – computer as storyteller, parsing just one or two words at a time to invoke the very human experience of imagination.

But that’s not what has kept interest in Adventure alive. Again like some of the best stories, Adventure blends the new and the archetypally familiar. The game balances magic (elves, wands) and realism (the actual topography of Colossal Cave in Kentucky). Adventure is a place where control and chaos meet. It offers the fulfillment provided by mastery – whether understanding the architecture of the world or the logic of its challenges. And it captivates us with the unexpected. It is a place where we can abandon our preset boundary conditions and generate new-made selves time and again.

From a Couch in Norton, MA


Post by Pete Coco

Put an MFA on a couch with an ergonomic controller in his hands, carnage of his making on the television before him and a compatriot on the other end of his one-eared headset and the question arises inevitably: can video games truly be narrative art?

Of course they can. But how many video games even want to be?

My compatriot, similarly encouched twelve states away, raises the question first but in different words.

We’re playing Diablo III. To put it in terms that assume no knowledge of the game’s genre, the point here is to kill all the hellspawn standing between us and Diablo (they are legion), collect their stuff -- weapons and armor, mostly, but also some shiny trinkets -- and either pawn it away or use the best of it to kill Diablo (in this, the third iteration). Meanwhile, each kill makes us incrementally more powerful. But the bad guys get more powerful too.

Diablo himself is pretty much who you’d expect a guy named Diablo to be: large, red, covered in spikes. Monstrous; smoldering at the edges. Evil incarnate, basically. The game is infinitely replayable, as the point across run-throughs becomes less to merely slay Diablo and his minions and more to find the rare stuff they happen to be carrying that will kill the next horde of them with fewer thumbstrokes -- but not too few. That would be boring. Our goal, then, is a balance between our own relative bad-assedness and the increasing challenge presented by our enemies at each stage. Imbalance in one direction, and you die, over and over, failing to progress. The other way it’s all too easy. Pointless. It’s about as Buddhist as iterative carnage can get.

There’s a whole genre of games premised on this balance and I love them. The key is to think of your goal not as increasing the efficiency of your play but increasing the badassness of your in-game avatar. This progression -- bedraggled noob whacking away at the hordes with a fat stick all the way up to messenger of some Wagnerian god, encased in shimmering plate mail and wielding something like justice itself -- it is a stay against entropy.

For my compatriot and I, playing Diablo III together is also a way for us to catch up with one another. Apart from the technology that now allows us to do this outside of a single room, we’ve been doing this exact thing for more than a decade. Back when we were bedraggled noobs ourselves -- level zero creative writing majors -- the conversation was different. Now we talk about our wives -- he is recently remarried -- and my daughter. Our aging parents come up.  It’s pretty much the usual conversation between two old friends in their mid-thirties. We’re coming to that crest in life where the terrain begins, in ever increasing proportions, to be of our own making: personally, professionally, dentally. The difference is maybe that the lulls in our conversation are longer and less uncomfortable than they would otherwise be if our hands and eyes weren’t united in a common purpose: killing evil hellspawn a world away.

Can games be a form of true narrative art? The question should embarrass us (and someday will), though in a case like Diablo III, we might need to stretch our terms a bit. Certainly, there’s a story in the avatar’s progression across sessions, a bildungsroman of sorts, and then, of course, there is what it means to my compatriot and I to be sitting here, both together and not, like we always have and also not like that at all.

Our avatars enter a burning village of hostile, polearm-bearing goatmen. The creatures pour from the fiery ruins of their thatch-roofed huts and my compatriot breaks one of those long, not-uncomfortable silences with the question at hand.

“Do you ever wonder … like are we maybe the bad guys here? Going into an indigenous village and raining down slaughter? Because why?”

Whatever his doubts, they don’t slow us. The goatmen continue to fall beneath our blades with the efficiency of victims. My avatar, a sort of holy man, yells at his vanquished enemies.  It reminds me of Schwarzenegger in his heyday, the way his pithiest insults were also aimed at the fresh corpses of his enemies.

The corpses lie on the ground but don’t pile -- each lies for maybe half a second before courteously phasing out of this dimensional plane. Blood puddles remain, but the carnage is otherwise erased from the moment -- and history, whatever that means in this context.

It’s not that we aren’t enacting a story. We are; we just couldn’t care less. This story was composed, written by somebody, and for all our own literary pretensions, we mash through the expositive dialog with the same righteous impatience we bring to a village of goatmen. We even use the same button to do it. What matters is that we are endlessly sprinting across plains lousy with beasts, varyingly demonic, dispatching them back to hell one by goddamned one. Why? For our own reasons, or none at all.


The Unstuck Activity Book: Eno-Assisted Generative Writing


Post by Ben Roberts

A year ago I took a job that required me to wake up at five in the morning. I hated the hours, but I needed the money. For years, morning had been my time to write—before the demands of the day wrecked my inner calm.

“My time” is a nonsensical concept. Also that anything can wreck my inner calm speaks to the fragility of the way I structure my framework for inner calm. Also, the morning, just before dawn, is where music is born.

I pray more. I’ve become indebted to the generative music apps developed by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers. Inner calm is best thought of as an algorithm by which a certain phrase or tone, a prayer, is repeated at determined intervals, combining with the demands of the day to create a new song. I am in the midst of a complex process of simplifying my life. I take naps in the afternoon.


A year ago is a nonsensical concept. “My time” took a job that required me to wake up at five in the morning. I hated my inner calm, but I needed the fragility of the way I structured my framework for inner calm. Also that anything can wreck the hours. For years morning time, just before dawn, is where music is born. Also the morning is money.

I pray in the afternoon. I take naps to the generative music software developed by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers. I’ve become indebted in the afternoon. Inner calm is a complex process of simplifying my life. I am best thought of as an algorithm by which a certain phrase or tone, a prayer, is repeated at determined intervals, combining with the demands of the day to create a new song. I take naps in the afternoon.


I take naps in the afternoon. Prayer is a nonsensical concept. A year ago is an afternoon. “My time” took to the generative music software developed by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers. I take naps, a job that requires me to wake up at five in the morning. I’ve become indebted to my inner calm. I hated a complex process of simplifying my life, but I needed an algorithm by which a certain phrase or tone, a prayer, is repeated at determined intervals, combining with the demands of the day to create a new song. Also that anything in the afternoon.


Also that anything naps in the afternoon. Hate is a nonsensical concept. Prayer is an algorithm.

*   *   *

The preceding is an example of a writing exercise based on an algorithm inspired in part by Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, a pioneering work of generative art, which can now be explored further in the app Air, developed by Peter Chilvers and Sandra O’Neill.

This generative writing experiment follows these steps:

Part 1.  Write two paragraphs each comprised of three sentences. Write a third paragraph of four sentences.

Part 2.  Blend up the three paragraphs to create two paragraphs -- by, e.g., assigning the subject of the first sentence in the first paragraph to the verb and object of the first sentence in the second paragraph. If you like, you may select a sentence at random (e.g., "I take naps in the afternoon") to be fully preserved.

Part 3.  Blend up the two paragraphs yielded in Part 2. You may or may not preserve a phrase. This yields one large paragraph.

Part 4. Blend up the remaining paragraph, and shorten it. This yields three to four sentences.

A point on aesthetics and grammar: these “rules” are fluid and are meant to be followed like a family recipe; exercise your own measure. Grammar, however, should be slightly more inflexible even if it becomes “incorrect” (i.e., don’t change the tense/number even as you combine the paragraphs).