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Tags: game making, television, movies, fiction, poetry.
Years: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.

A discarded supermarket bag dancing in a slim tree.

A pipe standing in a patch of concrete. A bridge striving north. A footprint in a mound of soaked trash. A shopping bag dancing on a mass of concrete. An urge to sigh. An awkward tree barely breathing. A jettisoned bottle on a patch of soaked grit. Calm graffiti. A feeling you should go away. Graffiti of a word. An awkward tree. A shadow on an area of mashed grit. A path leading away. A superfluous tree holding still.

A spindly tree reflected in a self-satisfied window. A shadow on a mass of mashed concrete. A pathway fading east. A need to hold still. A shadow on a mass of leaves. A superfluous tree. A footprint in a pile of leaves. A path striving away. A slim tree shivering. A sticky note shivering in a tall tree. An urge to stand still. A footprint in a mound of grimy mud. A short tree bowing. Blank windows watching.

A shadow on a mound of grit. A footprint in a mound of wet mud. Gleaming windows ignoring the world. A neglected paling on a mass of snow. A lost pen on a pile of concrete. A need to move. A lost stick. A plane of shit. A lamppost standing in a mound of gravel. Forbidden windows watching. A footprint in an area of leaves. A lithe tree. Graffiti of a lover’s name. A pole standing in a mass of snow. A bridge leading north.

A discarded tire on a stretch of fading snow. A patch of mashed snow. A torn shopping bag perching in a tall tree. A can reflected in a silent window. A neglected bottle.

A receipt shaking on a clot of concrete. Blank windows waiting. A pole emerging from a plane of slush. An awkward tree holding still. A bottle reflected in a pale window. A flyer shaking in a tall tree. A pathway fading north. Forbidden windows. A tissue dancing in a wretched tree. Graffiti of a word. A superfluous tree. A paper towel dancing in a superfluous tree. A bottle cap reflected in a forbidden window. An old burst balloon. A flyer lost in a tall tree. A neglected stick. Cold windows. Graffiti of a heart. A short tree barely breathing. Forbidden windows ignoring the world.

A lamppost standing in a mound of concrete. A shadow on a mound of broken concrete. A neglected paling on a mass of mashed grit. A pathway fading south. A can reflected in a pale window. A forgotten bottle. A wretched tree. A lithe tree barely breathing. A desire to move. Gleaming windows. A wretched tree bending. A stumpy tree reflected in a silent window. A plane of snow. A slim tree bending. A mound of shit. A can reflected in a cold window. Self-satisfied windows. A pen reflected in a cold window. An inclination to move. A stumpy tree shivering. Calm graffiti of a word.

A pile of fading trash. A yearning to stand still. A discarded cigarette butt. A spindly tree twisting. A lost cigarette on a patch of mashed dog shit. A clot of slush. A footprint in a patch of wet leaves. Aggressive graffiti.

A desire to stop. A subtle tree.

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?

You are not here. when you’re there.

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Did more work on You are not here. today, but mostly of boring technical variety. Which is to say I spent most of my day debugging GPS and not completely fixing it. Sometimes you can walk around with your phone in the real world and have the red dot navigate the Champs des Possibles, sometimes less so. Also implemented tilt-based controls for the phone because that was mentioned as an interesting semi-physical alternative for navigation in discussion. But ultimately the game looks pretty much exactly the same as yesterday, so not the most inspiring day’s work.

On the other hand, while I was walking around with my phone in downtown Montréal while navigating this urban wild in another part of the city, it did feel like something. I definitely felt that sense of phone-obsession, staring at the dot moving (and admittedly often not moving) over a landscape I knew was somewhere else kind of nearby. The irony of walking down a city street while also “walking in a park” was nice, I thought, and did kind of work. I guess the key is to help emphasise that disjunction with the ‘content’ of the game (the various dialog boxes/images that will pop up over time).

One funny aspect of all this is that the GPS was crappy in the city, and one place it would probably be quite a lot better would be… in the Champs des Possibles, where the game is set. You could, of course, take the phone to the actual place represented in the game and walk around more or less in a way that corresponds to where the red dot “really is” in the satellite representation of the park, and the red dot would move along with you. This kind of reveals that there are two levels of “not here”ness involved in the game, I think:

You are not here, you’re in the city. The obvious level is that you most likely wouldn’t be looking at this game while actually in the Champs. Rather, you would be on your computer, perhaps in London, maybe somewhere in Australia, etc. Thus you would literally not be in the location depicted in the game.

You are not here, you’re n the world. The more pleasing level, brought up by the idea of playing the game in the Champs itself, is the idea that you’re not “here” to the extent that the here specified by the game is, in some ways, a virtual/fake/pseudo location. The non-place of staring at a cellphone and perceiving the world inside the phone rather than your actual surroundings, the idea that “you are not here” because you’re lost in your screen. Thus you could be standing in the Champs des Possibles, hunched over your phone screen, looking at an image of the Champs des Possibles, and so kind of “not there”.

And it works in both directions. You’re “not here” because you’re kind of not “spiritually” in the real location (you’re distracted by the phone/interface), and you’re also “not here” in the sense that the representation you’re looking at on your phone is not a real place – you can’t actually be there, you’re actually standing in the real world. So it kind of gets at a tension that I think is semi-interesting, perhaps.

These are my thoughts, such as they are.

New project: You are not here.

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This week I’m at a week-long workshop/thing that is a combination event between the TAG Lab (where I work) and ZU-UK (a theatre and digital arts company from London). I’ve joined a specific team of people who are at the event to work on a locative media project that they’ve been on for a while (currently called Global Urban Wilds), so yesterday (the first day) I was largely getting up to speed with what they’ve been working on. It’s a locative media app that is designed to be played in a part of Montréal called the Champs des Possibles, which is an “urban wild”. We visited yesterday and it’s pretty much a kind of field/area of grass, some trees, some water, some snow, in between some buildings, a street, and some train tracks. It’s just post-winter right now, so it was deserted and kind of muddy and unappealing (which I quite liked).

Anyway, because I am somewhat of a lonewolf-y type (as you know), I’ve decided to both work on their project (via feedback, conversation, suggestion, etc.) but also to try to make some kind of engagement with the Champs and the idea of locative media of my own. Seems like a chance to work hard on a project with some real constraints for a short period and see if anything interesting comes out of that.

So, the current outcome of this is an attempt at a vague anti-locative media locative media/game kind of a thing, called (for now) You are not here. Ha ha. At the moment, this is amounting to various bits of technical setup as I (stupidly?) try to make my own platform to work with. The core idea is that you play/experience the game by not going to the Champs des Possibles, but rather anywhere else – and then navigate your little marker on your screen (I’m sort of assuming this will be a phone thing) with the GPS data of you walking around your space. So you move in your physical space, and this moves a map marker inside a Google satellite map of the Champs (as in the above image). Navigating a space while not there. (I’m probably going to include some kind of desktop version where you can use cursor keys too, which is maybe even more hilarious as a locative act?)

That’s kind of the basic setup and I’m most of the way to that? (I mean, obviously it will be a disaster of technology, but for now it’s going okay.) In terms of what actually happens, the idea is to leverage some of the jQuery UI stuff I’ve been doing (for It is as if you were doing work) to have ‘events’ occur as you move around the space, which would be dialog boxes (and perhaps other stuff) that pop up with… something. The something is probably going to be generated text (using something like Tracery) and maybe low resolution imagery? Can you sense my uncertainty? In terms of what that ‘content’ would be about, I’m currently thinking of highly detailed moments in time that might be happening there and then in the Champs – like to the detail of an individual leaf moving on a trees, say, that you might notice if you were there (which you aren’t). The vague idea behind all this is, I guess, to lean on/play with tensions around natural (the champs)/unnatural (the mobile phone), the present (where you are physically vs. where you “are” digitally) and the absent (your current location vs. the champs), the analog and the digital, and … so on?

I mean, the point of making stuff like this is to work out what those tensions/points of interest are through the making, right? So if you don’t mind I’ll keep working and hopefully grow more intelligent.

Edit: Oh one other thing I like about this is that I think it engages with the ‘staring at your phone’ aspect of locative media (and perhaps life?). One weird issue with locative media pieces is that often you go to the place they’re set in, and then proceed to march around staring at a phone screen trying to ‘collect the content’ and not really paying all that much attention to your real surroundings. Irony etc. In the case of You are not here. I think you have this funny take on this where you are meant to be glued to your phone (because you’re reading dialog boxes, looking at images, watching your dot) but that’s all taking place in this represented space (notably a photographic satellite representation of the champs), so it’s like you’re really trying hard to “be there”, even as you ignore your present context.

P.S. and then there’s a bunch of stuff potentially about cross-over and overlaps between the digital/simulated version of the champs and the environment you choose to play the game in? Like, you play in forest which might be “more natural” than the champs which is kind of urban, or you play in the middle of a city, so that the champ seems more emphatically natural. AND SO ON. I’m so sorry this is so long.

New (quite old) project: It is as if you were doing work

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Having finished with both v r 3 and Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment: CPU Edition! I’m naturally onto a new project to occupy myself with. In this case, though, it’s actually a return to something I’d started working on late last year, but lost steam on in favour of SNAKISMS. This is the kind of sequel to It is as if you were playing chess called It is as if you were doing work. The idea is, as you might imagine, to follow a similar pattern of heavily interface-driven play, but this time for the interfaces in question to revolve around the idea of work/productivity, rather than the game of chess.

I was largely stymied by the project last year because I kept tripping over myself in terms of what sort of scale to make it at, and what its identity would be. I was thinking about everything from extreme puzzle games to procedural narrative as possible lynchpins for it. But in fact all those of those extra layers feel now like they more represent a kind of anxiety/inadequacy surrounding the base concept of the game – or perhaps more accurately, simply not knowing what it was. So I spent today just making the absolute simplest example of the game I could image, as pictured above.

The game fades in two radio buttons to choose between, and another button to click, and an instruction tells you which radio button to select and tells you to then click the button. Having implemented this, I feel like I’ve returned to a little bit more clarity in terms of how I envisaged the game in the first place: a hyper-simple ‘simulation’ of doing the kinds of work that user-interfaces generically seem to represent – selecting/inputing/manipulating information on a computer. The fact that you’re told specifically which actions to carry out is part of the idea of the game being a simulation of work rather than work itself and thus, ostensibly, kind of relaxing to ‘play’ – you don’t have to actually make decisions, you just appear to be making decisions. Similarly, the interface is highly abstract (notably with a non-language for all the labelling/content) so that you also don’t have to engage with any particular forms of meaning/interpretation – you can just let the world go by as you do the right thing over and over. I did toy with the idea of having no instructions at all, so you could just do ‘whatever’, but in fact that would probably be less relaxing, because you’d have to make decisions (not to mention more boring because it would be literally meaningless).

So having made this minimal version of the game, I’m feeling a little more confident in terms of proceeding with the next steps. Next is clearly to add different possible interfaces that you could encounter (e.g. checkbox, text box, menu, slider, progress bar). After that I need to decide whether there’s any real sense to having more complex ‘compound’ interfaces with multiple elements, or whether that would actually dilute the purity of the interfaces as they stand. And then I also need to figure out whether the game ought to have some sense of progress/completion involved (e.g. points, an ending), or whether the idea is more just that it goes on indefinitely – for as long as you want to appear to be working (not unlike the ‘boss mode’ in some earlier videogames).

Anyway, it’s a testament to making a (relatively polished) mini-version of the game being a useful way of understanding what you’re doing. Rather than spinning my wheels in design and losing touch with the concrete nature of the game, making a working ‘vertical slice’ has helped recover the meaningfulness of the base interactions and thus to get some traction on the overall project.

Now don’t forget to select ▝▍▀▟▖▀▎ and then press ▚▎▗▀ before you go.