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

"Deferment," in Kafka and the Oncology Ward


Post by Matt Kimberlin

“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K.; he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.”

* * *

A conversation with a close friend about a year ago took an unexpected turn when he began to describe to me his experiences with cancer. His prognosis was one of the best I had heard (stage 2 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, 95% survival rate), but his path was still difficult. He'd undergone twelve chemotherapy treatments over a six-month period, and had watched as some people around him lost what we as a society have called a battle. In a strange way, though, his journey was not over and will never be over. Remission is a strange thing, and the cancer could return. This possibility reminded me of The Trial by Franz Kafka.

In The Trial, the protagonist Josef K. traverses a legal world that is surreal and fantastic. The landscape that K. moves through is often cited as being darkly satirical of either bureaucratic systems or religious dogma. But what if the world that Kafka suggests is also prophetic of a trial that many people experience today?

In one of the more complicated sections of the book, K. is talking to a portraitist of the court. This artist knows the court better than anyone else K. has spoken to and tells K. that there are three types of acquittal that he can seek. The first option, "absolute acquittal," is dismissed as an option, because nothing the painter could do would assist K. in getting proclaimed innocent. The second option is "apparent acquittal," which can be given by a simple letter from the painter. However, this letter is a temporary solution, because the painter can only influence junior judges who have no ability to grant a full acquittal. What does that mean? K. could be arrested again at any time, even when he is leaving the courthouse. The third option, "deferment," is merely dragging out the proceedings indefinitely.

“Apparent acquittal” and “deferment” sound a lot like what modern cancer patients go through. When I shared this with my friend, he was surprised at the similarities between his own experiences and K.’s. The fact that he undergoes tests every six months to make sure that the cancer has not returned, and will need to see a doctor each year for the rest of his life after five years have passed, is much like K.’s possibility of coming under arrest again. Deferment reminded me of other illnesses—the ones we have no cure for, but whose symptoms can be treated. Absolute acquittal, the ultimate proclamation of innocence, is not the purview of modern medicine. The painter is much like a doctor, explaining to K. the number of years he could have and of what quality.

This reflection on reality is one of the great strengths of literature of the fantastic. In strange and uncanny ways these fictional narratives can change the way that we see the world. Medical journeys are difficult and laden with unexpected obstacles. My own friend’s experience with survivor’s guilt and the pain of going through chemotherapy shows just how much life can change in the blink of an eye. Perhaps the surreal can provide a way for the ill to make sense of their own trials.

* * *

A translation of The Trial is available at Project Gutenburg.

Some Recommended Reading for Hogswatchnight Eve


Post by Rebecca Demarest

It’s December 24th, and, for me, that means a return to my favorite Christmas classic: Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett. I know it's not a traditional Santa-and-cookies tale, but this delightful parody of Christmas cheer has some of my favorite lines in all of the Discworld books.

It starts with the Auditors (of life, the universe, and everything) hiring the Assassins' Guild to take out the Hogfather, Pratchett’s version of Santa. The Auditors think that by ridding the world of this symbol, they’ll rid the world of a measure of messy belief. Unfortunately for them, the removal of the Hogfather only causes loose belief to fly around and incorporate as random entities (Bilious, the Oh-God of Hangovers is a personal favorite). Ultimately, Death himself decides to take a hand in things and make sure the children still get presents, thereby ensuring belief in the Hogfather.

Full of social commentary on commercialism, religion, belief, the power of the human imagination, and the importance (and awkwardness) of family during the holidays, Hogfather should be on everyone’s reading list at this time of year. Of course, if you don’t have time to sit down and read (because you’re wrapping presents or baking ninja-bread cookies) you’re in luck, because the BBC turned this book into a delightful miniseries years ago.

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.

On Fiction, Reality, and Windows into Cows


Post by Leila Mansouri

Often, a story sticks with you because of what it makes up. With a story like Kelly Link’s “The Hortlack,” you’re immersed in a world that does not and cannot exist – in this case, a 24-hour convenience store at the edge of “the Ausible Chasm.” The chasm seems to house an entire zombie community – though it’s hard to be sure. The two clerks, one of whom may have worked for the CIA, never leave. The zombies try to buy things that aren’t for sale. They puke pajamas. The pajamas have the clerks’ dreams on them.

You can’t reduce the pleasure of stories like “The Hortlack” to these bizarre details. Even the most fantastical of stories has to be more than the sum of its strange parts. Still, these details and the world they create are essential. Whatever else this kind of story does, it needs to you to fall into the impossible world it’s imagined first.

The stories that haunt me most, though, are the ones that only seem to be making up something impossible – stories, for example, like George Saunders’s “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror.” 

“Downtrodden Mary” is a quick and dismal snapshot of the life of Mary, who works an embittering menial job at a themeless themepark featuring, among other things, the Iliana Evermore Fairy Castle, stillborn babies in formaldehyde jars, and a cow with a plexiglass window in its side. Mary is poisoning the cows (there have been six) not because the windows are cruel but because her boss is a dick.

“Downtrodden Mary” is probably not anyone’s favorite Saunders story.  If what you want is his acidic take on how surviving in Darwinian capitalism tears at those whose lives are most precarious, “Sea Oak” offers a fuller, more engaging version. (There, a zombie grandmother scolds the protagonist to “Show some cock!” at his stripper-waiter gig so as to get the still-living portion of the family out of their run-down housing complex before a drive-by kills her grandchild.) Likewise, Saunders's more recent work -- like “Puppy” and “Escape from Spiderhead” in Tenth of December -- does a more nuanced job getting at the ethics of the way we feel for other creatures – or don’t.

But “Downtrodden Mary” has that window into the cow. A window I had chalked up to Saunders’s absurdism. A window that turns out to be a whole lot like these very real ones.

Windows into cows have been used in veterinary research for decades, it turns out. There are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of cows with windows in their sides walking around right now.

It’s a small thing, recognizing that these windows which had seemed the stuff of horrifying fantasy are actually real. But getting us to do that small thing is what the best writers accomplish over and over again. Sometimes what we recognize is as concrete as plexiglass. Other times, that recognition is harder to pin down. Maybe it’s something in the confusion of the zombies that keep handing our dreams back to us on plush PJs. Maybe it’s the resentful anxiety that comes with showing your cock – and risking your job – to save your family. Whatever it is, good writing makes us look – and keep looking – until the everyday reality we thought we knew is irrevocably transformed. 

Dreams to Remember


Post by Alyssa Ramirez

I’ve been working my way through the NYRblog’s series on dreams this week. I have troubling, convoluted dreams, replete with violent international conflicts and complex relationships with nonexistent people. On a recent vacation, I awoke shouting from a nightmare, a not-infrequent occurrence. This time, though, I had to explain to my hotel roommates the reason for my cries.

Don’t worry; I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that, like the woman in Charles Simic’s essay, I have dreams that span days (“like afternoon soaps,” he writes brilliantly). This bothers me. If my dreams contain recurring characters and established settings, if they retain continuity from month to month and span days within themselves, well—I can’t help wondering, perhaps childishly, if my dream life goes on while I’m still awake.

The unexplored corners of the mind fascinate me, so it’s no surprise that I’m mostly pro-dreams in literature. But there seems to be a schism in the literary world, as evidenced by (what I’ve read so far of) the NYRblog’s series: In one corner, we have Michael Chabon and his frank contribution, “Why I Hate Dreams”; representing the dream team, we have Francine Prose and Nicholson Baker.

Obviously, there’s no right answer. Sometimes a dream telegraphs an ineffable insight into a character’s mind or delivers the perfect inexplicable sense of dread. And sometimes you can see the clumsy weight of the writer’s hand all over it, smudging details just because, or tossing in objects pregnant with symbolism. For years after opening one of those dream interpretation bibles in a Borders (R.I.P.), I found myself plagued by nightmares of losing my teeth, because the book said that motif indicates money problems, and I always have money problems.

But when I think of my favorite dreams in literature, I can’t even really think of any dreams. (One exception is the baffling dream sequence in Nathanael West’s underappreciated Miss Lonelyhearts.) Instead, I think of Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners.” If that story contains a dream sequence, I can’t recall it. But the oneiric sense of Jeremy and his friends chasing The Library through the snowy climes of cable TV reminds me more than anything else of my relationship with dreams, of my daily wakeful struggle to grasp some magical ephemera before I’m plunged back within it.

Link is a master of her genre. Years after reading Magic for Beginners, I actually did wonder whether the title story existed or whether I had dreamed it. (Of course I didn’t dream it, because I am not a master of Link’s genre.) Perhaps it’s the distorted sense of familiarity permeating her work that tricks me into believing a plot had shuffled out of some shadowy dream space in my head. It’s like how you misremember a childhood incident, imbuing it with some impossible power: your grandmother’s musty handbag that seemed to contain worlds, those creepy lawn ornaments you swore moved on their own, that beautiful story you’re not sure you really read.

* * *

Below: pretty much the best ever depiction of a dream.

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).
Post by Jeff Bruemmer

Much of the self-help schlock these days encourages one to "think positive" and set goals, or offers other insipid suggestions, sometimes surprisingly grounded in psychological research, but for the most part deeply obvious. But in general the advice neglects one half of our humanity: our madness, or irrationality, that fine psychic chaos that liberates us from the merely mechanical. It’s important to keep one’s madness shipshape, lest it lose its fizz and render you that most pitiable of creatures, the bore, or, conversely, go unchecked and shred one’s rational cartography.

To this end, I prescribe J. Rodolfo Wilcock’s The Temple of Iconoclasts. Encyclopedic in form, in the tradition of Borges’s paramount A Universal History of Infamy and the inspiration for Bolaño’s mordant chronicling of fascist writers in Nazi Literature in the Americas, Wilcock’s pantheon features a strain of kaleidoscopic humor incomprehensible to those who confuse seriousness with solemnity. The book is a nutritive and irony-rich chronicling of special persons in what I would describe as Wilcock’s undeadpan delivery, and can be used as a daily corrective to sanity.

In its pages we learn of a man whose karmic cycle has accelerated to the point at which he is reborn as other people while he still lives. Elsewhere, Wilcock offers us a mechanical proof of the divine: a man by the name of Socrates Scholfield patented an apparatus that “consists of two brass helices set in such a way that, by slowly winding around and within one another ... they demonstrate the existence of God.” In another, a man builds a machine designed to discover all of philosophy via randomly iterating six-word strings until all wisdom has been produced.

The rest you’ll have to discover on your own -- that is, if you can find a copy.