SmartMonsters

Sunday, June 4, 2017

James A. Cook, farmboy from Yorkshire; James T. Kirk, farmboy from Iowa

James A. Cook, farmboy from Yorkshire; James T. Kirk, farmboy from Iowa. The Endeavour; The Enterprise. Three-year mission; five-year mission. "Farther than any other man has been before me"; "where no man has gone before". Boldly going, into a narrative space which was at least already partly mapped.

My interest here is in this contemporary retelling of old, half-remembered, half-familiar stories. Myth and Modernism, Ulysses and the Odyssey, or more sinisterly the calculated political manipulation of myth and symbol by the Nazis. Jung says these images are hardwired into the collective unconscious. I find that mystical, and mystified. More likely the tales encountered in grammar school remain latent for later reactivation.

Striking case in point: Spielberg's E.T. Retelling of Peter Pan, where Elliott is Peter, the neighborhood kids are the Lost Boys, and E.T. is Tinkerbell. What's the first dialog spoken to Elliott? "Grow up!" When E.T. is "dead" what does Elliott say? "I'll believe in you." E.T. sprinkles fairy dust and the Lost Boys on Bikes fly. This is explicit on the part of the filmmakers. They say so out loud: there are two separate scenes of Mom reading Peter Pan to little Gertie, including "Clap your hands if you believe in fairies!" They've sprinkled these direct references to the narrative they're re-narrating, expecting them to operate, I think, unconsciously or semi-consciously on childhood memories largely submerged. I believe this is in large part what made such a pedestrian flick so memorable. It fascinates me that literally not one person I've mentioned this to over thirty plus years had been consciously aware of the parallel before we spoke of it. It seems that even when the fact of retelling is shoved up the audience's nose, the retelling continues to operate at an unconscious level. "That's very interesting" — Captain Jack Sparrow.

Were Roddenberry and crew intentionally operating with legends of Cook? Certainly the name and the famous tagline were modeled on his. I don't know whether any of Kirk's experiences evoke Cook's. Not sure it matters.

Thomas Mann, of course, in his syrupy middle-class burgherish way. T.S. Eliot in his brilliant leaping syntheses. George Lucas drawing on Joseph Campbell, although I think Luke Skywalker's mythic arc has been vastly overstated. How deep will the catalog go?

To my knowledge, none of TriadCity's authors has knowingly paralleled previous narratives. I frequently draw on borrowed characters, but that practice is a different narrative ontology than Modernism's or Spielberg's. It's a simple juxtaposition, where a borrowed character with a well-understood context is placed in an ostensibly foreign one, inviting potentially infinitely receding comparison of worlds. The respective narrative structures are not paralleled apart from this anachronistic character. It's a different beastie.

We could do the kind of recycled storytelling Spielberg practiced in E.T. I'm not sure it's appropriate. For TriadCity authors the very concept of "storytelling" is reactionary. It's a throwback to works whose modes of distribution imposed time's arrow on their consumers, where the elements of the work will always be encountered in the same order with each new reading or each new viewing, and mythic resonance is one technique for implying dimensions that are in fact absent. Virtual worlds are unconstrained by time's arrow: their narrative ontologies are multidimensional by default. Do we need to go backward?

Robert Natkin, abstract

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Literary Modernism in TriadCity

Literary theorist Brian McHale defines Modernism this way: 

"I will formulate it as a general thesis about modernist fiction: the dominant of modernist fiction is epistemological. That is, modernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions such as ... 'How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?' Other typical modernist questions might be added: What is there to be known?; Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of certainty?; How is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of reliability?; How does the object of knowledge change as it passes from knower to knower?; What are the limits of knowledge? And so on." Postmodernist Fiction, Methuen 1987, p. 9. 

Subjectivity is central.  Modernists invented a battery of technical practices to explore and enforce subjectivity on characters and readers.  Unreliable narrators; interior monologue; juxtaposition of multiple simultaneous points of view; ambiguity; allusion; associative leaps; puns and multiple associations of words; discontinuity; fragmentation; emphasis on dream and unconsciousness; elimination or subversion of privileged narratorial points of view, often with multiple narrators: these are all strategies which unsettle and devalue certainty.  McHale emphases that literary “high” Modernism was shadowed by a more popular form which mobilized similar techniques: detective and mystery fiction, where Sherlock Holmes is as much the Modernist paradigm as Leopold Bloom.  I'll note in passing something which I think McHale misses: Modernism’s assimilation of themes from contemporary science, Relativity foremost, but also Psychoanalysis.  Modernism’s technical practices change the relationship between author and reader, turning texts into games, where consumers of the work are expected to see beyond narrative surfaces, and success of the work depends in large measure on the author’s skill at providing the clues which readers require to figure the thing out. 

Lolita is a wonderful example.  Lolita’s funny specifically because the naive and not particularly observant narrator has no idea what’s going on.  The woman he believes he’s able to control is cheating: we see that, the narrator doesn’t, and the comedy becomes increasingly farcical as her cheating becomes more and more brazen.  This is a game, a textual one, in which readers are expected to perform a particular type of mental activity to successfully consume the work.

Where Modernism in print is fixed - constrained by its medium of distribution - computer-generated or computer-mediated Modernism is far more free.  Narrative can change in real time under algorithmic control established by authors, opening new authorial possibilities which can be radical or subtle depending on intent.  We explore these possibilities everywhere in TriadCity.

For example, we can impose reader subjectivity in a very literal way, by dynamically changing the text encountered on a reader-by-reader basis.  You and I may walk our characters into the same room at the same moment, and find it described differently to each of us.  Where I may find it a drab and unexceptional space, you may experience it as, say, subtly menacing, perhaps by the implication that someone is hiding.  Your character may find a larger number of visible items presented to view, while mine may literally not see all of the things that actually are there.  Even more radically, one of our characters may see people or things which in fact are not there: we can and do impose hallucinatory visual and auditory experiences simulating schizophrenia, without necessarily telling you this is happening.  We can vary these experiences from reader to reader, or by whole classes of the characters through which reader-participants engage with the work.  This is a powerful and very wide authorial tool which is not possible in pre-digital media.

TriadCity uses multiple software techniques to enable these experiences.  We can begin with a base text which can be modified dynamically depending on reader-participants’ individual character histories, strengths, and proclivities.  Or authors can provide multiple texts describing the same space, one of which will be chosen by the computer at runtime under the author’s algorithmic control: characters with attributes ABC will be shown text one, while those with attributes XYZ will be shown text four.  Or the computer can dynamically generate whole sub-narratives composed of randomized phrases or other raw material which it assembles in real time &emdash; we do this to generate certain classes of dreams for instance, which characters experience while sleeping.  The computer can produce AI-driven characters to interact with, and can tailor their attributes specifically for the human-driven character interacted with.  This results in a highly dynamic experience with narrative subjectivity under authorial control.

The width of these possibilities enables pure cacophony &emdash; not what TriadCity authors typically intend.  Most of our authors deploy them fairly subtly.  I will frequently produce descriptions which vary by only two or three words depending on the moral alignment of perceiving characters.  A "good" character will experience the hearth as warm and inviting, while an "evil" character will experience it as glaring or harsh.  These differences are often merely of tone, or emotional nuance.  They serve to underscore the thematic centrality of "good" and "evil" in TriadCity: what these terms mean there is demonstrated by these subjective narrative shifts.

I know of no other sustained narrative project which imposes subjectivity of this scope on participants’ experience.

TriadCity mobilizes the Modernist technical palette in other ways too.  Textual and linguistic games are endemic, from regions narrated in Pig Latin to a prison of puns &emdash; titled "PUNishment", natch &emdash; to which misbehaving miscreants can be sentenced.  Human-driven characters will dream.  We shift narrative voices and points of view, and associative games are ubiquitous.  We everywhere build narrative resonance and satire by juxtaposition and fragmentation, rather than continuity.  We impose radical forms of consciousness such as the schizophrenia mentioned earlier.  I'll close with an example I'm especially fond of: the Tree of Life in the NorthWestern Third.  A towering treehouse, candlelit, vibrant, filled with children playing and monks meditating, the Tree is more than it might seem at superficial encounter.  Structured as a geographical representation of the Kabbalah's central concepts, it allusively narrates a spiritual journey as you explore its ten chambers and their connecting paths.  This is never stated explicitly, and the narrative doesn't require you to ever consciously encounter it.  But, it's there, you can encounter it if you want to, and it generates a nuanced and resonant experience whether you ever consciously encounter it or not.

Digital media free Modernism from the constraint of linearity imposed by printed distribution.  Nabokov's printed and bound Lolita will aways cheat in the same way at the same time in the same place every time she's encountered, by the narrator and by readers.  A TriadCity Lolita may or may not.  And, you may see and understand her, or like Nabokov's dim narrator you may well not.  It depends.  The medium makes this possible.

Robert Natkin abstract

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The "Critical Mass" Problem: a Lot of Infrastructure is Needed to Enable a Single Interesting NPC

TriadCity’s recently gained an NPC named "Barbecue Dave".  He's a socially ill-adept NorthWesterner struggling, like much of NorthWest, to reinvent himself.  With encouragement from his therapist - with tongue firmly in cheek, we imply that Dave's therapist is, ahem, Eliza &emdash; Dave seeks friendships and social integration by contributing his one great skill to the community.  He’s a fabulous barbecue chef.  Frequently by night and often by day you'll find him in the Park NorthWest, grilling salmon or chicken or breadfruit, shyly giving his delicious food away to anyone who wants it.

Twenty years ago in CircleMUD I'd have written Dave as a static NPC who'd always be found in his one place, the barbecue grills in the Park.  He’d be there permanently, he’d always have food for you, he'd still be lonely and struggling, that would still say something worthwhile about the culture of the NorthWestern Third, and that'd be that.

But this is TriadCity, and we don't do that.

Instead, Dave has a home.  He lives in one of the collectives not far from the University in NorthWest.  And he has a job.  He's a professional chef at Stephanie's Restaurant in White Plaza.  And he has hobbies.  He likes the comedy club on Lenny Bruce Street.  But his great love is for cooking in the park, where he spends most of his free time.  To make that happen, he first has to find ingredients for his barbecue, so you'll sometimes find him shopping in The Barras, or the White Plaza.  Follow him around, you'll see him: asleep in the collective; sweeping up the collective; picking herbs and cooking meals for the collective; walking to work; cooking at work; shopping in The Barras for salmon or chicken; picking breadfruit from the trees in the White Plaza; walking to the barbecue pits in the Park; cooking in the Park; offering his food to anyone who’s there; running out of things to barbecue, going back to The Barras for more; waiting for shops to open; picking more breadfruit; walking to the comedy club; laughing at the performers in the comedy club; going home to the collective; going to sleep.  At different times of day he’s more or less likely to be doing any one of these things in particular.

So.  Here's a list of everything which had to exist in the game world and the code base to allow this single character to be who is today:

  • A home for him to live in.  The collective, or a different one, or somewhere else.
  • A job for him to work at.  The restaurant, or a different one, or something else, including the neighborhood where the restaurant is.
  • Shops where he can buy salmon, chicken, and other raw ingredients.
  • Merchants who staff the shops; inventory for the merchants to sell.
  • The breadfruit trees where he picks free ingredients.
  • The barbecue pits where he does his public cooking.
  • The comedy club where he sometimes chills.
  • The comedians who make the comedy club worth going to.
  • The collective home tasks which make his residence there realistic and worthwhile.
  • Brooms for sweeping; salmon for purchasing; breadfruit for picking.
  • The roads and pathways between all these places.
  • The ability of NPCs to move around the game world.
  • The ability of NPCs to find their way between specified destinations within the game world.
  • The ability of NPCs to buy things at shops.
  • The ability of NPCs to cook things on barbecues.  The ability of barbecues to cook things.
  • Trees that grow things, things that grow on trees.
  • The ability of NPCs to sweep with brooms.
  • The ability of NPCs to find and pick herbs.
  • Dave’s special abilities to determine whether he needs to buy more ingredients or not; whether there’s something currently on the grill or not; whether there’s somebody in the Room to offer his barbecue to or not; and to intelligently transition between these activities.
  • I’m sure this list is one tenth complete, but you get the idea.
  • Now note that each of the merchants selling things Dave needs require similar levels of world completion...

As you can see, there's a "critical mass" threshold which TriadCity has had to pass before this level of verisimilitude could be reached.  In practice it was a critical mass Catch-22: there had to be enough game world like this before we could grow the game world to be like this.  You’re just now seeing TriadCity burst into the kind of liveliness we've always envisioned for it.

Remnants remain of the pre-threshold world.  As I write this, the family playing football in the Park South is always there; the kids playing robot soldiers nearby are always there; many of the law students are in the law school 24/7.  This simply means nobody's written their homes yet.  It'll happen soon-ish, then they'll all be moving around with the same liveliness as Barbecue Dave.

Dave himself will grow with the world.  As we flesh out NorthWest, Dave'll expand his hobbies beyond merely the comedy club, and he'll have vastly more shopping opportunities.  But, he'll always tend to gravitate around those barbecue grills because at the end of the day, that's who he is.

Robert Natkin abstract

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Free Parrots of Telegraph Hill

San Francisco's real life Telegraph Hill has become home ground to a large colony of wild parrots, who've escaped over the years from people's homes, or been set free.  For me, seeing them is a moving experience.  That there's hope that creatures of all species can be free in their own ways.  Sure, anthropomorphizing.  So what?

TriadCity's version continues our NorthWestern Third themes of escape, personal and collective re-invention, and exploration of freedom in practice.  Our parrots have scarpered from The Aviary in the Southern Third; or the Zoo; or private homes.  They've claimed a section of public park as their own, and the public there are happy to tolerate them.  Like me, much of that particular public finds them symbolic of their own aspirations.

The narrative here is very minimal.  Simply the parrots themselves, up in the trees, doing some parrot things, with a minimal explanation of how they've come to be there.  A few sentences.  Taken out of context, this doesn't tell readers much.  In context, it adds a layer of symbolic resonance to the many examples of human escape, re-invention, and assembly found throughout the Third.  I see this as a technical practice appropriate to this medium: narrative via accumulation.  Repeat but vary similar tropes, until the repetition forms patterns in readers' minds, becoming an expectation.  Then they get it, hopefully consciously, but even unconsciously is really just fine.

Naturally there will be some game players — "killers" in the Bartle typology — who expect these critters to exist as simple sword fodder.  They may be in for a surprise.  Along with many others in NorthWest, our parrots are solidaristic.  Attack one, the others rush to defend, and you'll find yourself battling 24 or 30 quite tough opponents of level 35 who are very rapidly beating the snot out of you.  Run away!  Learn anything?  Well - up to you, that.

Here's a better idea.  Bring a picnic, sit in the park, watch the city lights come on after sunset, listen to the parrots in the trees overhead.  Climb the trees, be chill, watch them live their parrot lives.  Take them as a model.

Not everything in TC is satire.

Robert Natkin abstract

Monday, February 10, 2014

Satire By Juxataposition

TriadCity's main organizing metaphor is geographical: the three Thirds, with their contrasting and competing cultures.  Where literary theorists like to speak metaphorically of "textual spaces", ours is in fact literally spatial.  As authors we can play with this.  We can use geography to make satire in ways which I think can be pretty entertaining.  I suppose we can use it to be dead serious, too, but, you know.  Nah.

Think of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Wealth, standing in mirrored symmetry on opposite sides of the River.  The TOL is filled with Kabbalah symbols and playing children; the TOW is infested with an army of intelligent killer spiders.  Juxtaposed in this way, the satire is certainly unsubtle.  Quick quiz for Levi-Straussian Structuralists: what's missing?  Exactly, a Tree of Something-or-Other in the South.  We have an empty place there where a Tree of Knowledge would go.  Will that be filled in one day, or is it intended to remain empty permanently?  I'll let you know.

Other mirrors: Pirate Ship / U Boat; Courts / University; meat-as-corruption / vegetables as growth; Gnosticism / Zoroastrianism.

Three statue gardens.  NorthWest: children's carvings of historical figures whose examples are meaningful to people striving to invent practical structures of self-governance.  They're rebels, leaders of slave revolts: Toussaint L'Ouverture, Spartacus, Jefferson, Marx, Harriet Tubman, Tolstoy, Oscar Romero.  And they're happy: all smiling, some gleefully, as though the future they imagined were upon them here and now and they're able to participate.  The detail of their smiles builds meaning through accumulation.  One might be entertaining; when they're all smiling, something's going on.  South: holograms of famous philanthropists with open palms: Bill and Melinda Gates, Alfred Nobel, Kylie Minogue, Bono.  Yes, I'm trivializing, but, it's satire, yah?  Well-intentioned as they may be, their work is anti-empowering, elitist and undemocratic, in direct contrast to the approaches explored in NorthWest.  NorthEast: living statues, a garden of destitute people paid the U.S. hourly minimum wage to stand stock still for the entertainment of passers-by.  Think of those dancing statues of liberty on street corners holding arrows pointing you to tax preparation offices.  Or the wicked dark humor of Michael Moore's Roger and Me, where unemployed auto workers take temp jobs as living statues at executive lawn parties.

Visitors to TriadCity won't encounter the meanings of these juxtapositions in one or two visits.  They'll have to build a mental map of what and where things are, before this kind of mirroring will become visible.  How often does this happen in reality?  I dunno.  My hope is that TriadCity's details are vibrant and engrossing enough to keep people exploring, and give them faith that there's a big picture to come to understand.

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