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Tags: game making, television, movies, fiction, poetry.
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Abandon hope all You who Are Not Here

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Hey there, just reporting in from the depths of game-making sadness about You Are Not Here, that project I’ve been working on that’s meant to be ‘about’ locative media. I made basically the whole thing in five days during our excellent #ZUTAG jam at the TAG lab and then worked away on it in fits and starts after that to try to get it ready to go.

Now I’m in New Zealand and I’ve been trying to get back into the project having had a little distance from it while I was in Japan. Distance is one of those things people tell you to get from your work from time to time, putting novels in drawers etc. And the reason for that is you can take a more dispassionate view of the work and then, presumably, make it better. So I have what feels like distance from You Are Not Here and I feel… distant from it.

Just went out and sat on a park bench with a notebook to try to save it, but honestly I cannot seem to understand what the point of the overall project actually is. Which is not a good sign. One issue is simply that the game was made in a big rush and in some ways was made more as a critique/reaction to the general idea of locative media (one of the themes of the jam). As such, it’s a little insubstantial I think. It looks pretty attractive (I think), and it essentially “works” (in the sense of functioning), but when I try to look at it as a person who might be actually firing it up and trying it out, I don’t know what the experience is meant to be. An issue.

So I guess my plan is not necessarily to burn it to the ground, but to probably put it aside for the moment – “give myself permission” to not think about it for a while. Just so you know. Not thinking about it. Okay.

Back at the spawnpoint

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I’m now in Wellington, New Zealand, the city I was born and grew up in. In the past two days three people have asked me where I’m from or how long I’m staying in Wellington. So apparently I don’t exactly ooze “New Zealander” anymore. Which is fair, as my accent has drifted pretty far away from how people speak here in my efforts to be intelligible to people from the other countries I’ve lived in over the past nine-ish years. Still, have to say it feels weird to be a stranger in what I assumed was “my city”.

Anyway, here I am. “Home.” Regular programming (ha ha) begins again.

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.