On the likelihood of a personal physics of grammar? (Not really.)

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I’ve been using Tracery over the last couple of days to build a generative grammar for this new game/thing called You are not here. It’s the second time I’ve used it in a project, the other being It is as if you were playing chess, and it really is a pretty lovely library in terms of making exactly the task of “procedural sentences” a fairly easy thing to put together. It’s quite well suited to the task because all I really need are these single, fairly blank sentences that describe some aspect of the environment like “a footprint in dirty snow” that can be easily varied to seem less repetitive. So one or two things…

Probability. One funny thing about working with this tool is how important the overall hierarchical structure of the grammar is in terms of probabilities of different sentence types appearing. For example, I had “a bird’s nest high in a tree” at the top level of the grammar alongside various actually procedural sentences, and this led to to the bird’s nest seeming disproportionately over represented, because it never varies. In a way I guess that’s the magic of the procedural – that single (non-procedural) sentences is just as likely as any of the other (procedural) sentences, but because it never varies, it’s really glaringly obvious that it’s being randomly chosen from a pool, breaking the illusion of these things being real “observations” of an environment.

Personal. It’s interesting to me how much the grammar ends up being structured according to my personal experience of the Champs des Possibles (the setting of this game thing), and in particular how even more abstract structural properties end up being inflected/infused with my take on what the Champs represents. So I have top level qualities (which are expanded by the grammar) such as “litter” and “softSurface” (code for things like ‘shit’, ‘slush’, ‘dirt’). It’s built into the structure that I saw the space as being kind of barren and dirty (in a totally positive way, for the record), despite, I think, it’s more general perception being that it’s this beautiful communal natural space.

Physics. Because I’m trying to write generic-but-detailed descriptive sentences about the space, it trends toward the description of objects, their location, and perhaps their movement. It was interesting to me how much this began to feel like designing a kind of word-based physics system for describing space. In my grammar there are things that can move ‘like paper’ (e.g. flutter, shiver, tremble), things that can ‘protrude’ from surfaces (e.g. poles, signs, sticks), and so on. I guess it makes sense that it would be designed as a kind of physical system because that somehow preserves a sense of neutrality and distance that I was looking for in the texts – and also partially gets at this idea of a ‘natural’ environment (what could be more natural than physics?). It also helpfully provides a known form of structuring information – hierarchical relationships and qualities of objects.

I’m not sure any of that makes sense, but at least I wrote words right?

8 April 2017
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