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.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Escape From Underground

I spent an hour tonight on a popular text MUD, just checking it out. 50 players online and a vibrant Web-based community.


Underground, dark caves, and you can't move a single room without being attacked by racially-tinged subhumans. Everything I hated about these primitive worlds way back in the 1980s.

I find the racialism especially distressing. Killing an imp or a troll is acceptable because although humanoid they're not really fully human, not as human as the rest of us. And we know where this comes from, or to phrase it more neutrally, if we have a sense of history we know what history this echoes.

Gary and I founded SmartMonsters because we saw potential in the medium to be more than this. Let's not privilege violence as the primary path to experience; let's place the violence we do explore into social contexts which are at least somewhat less mindless; let's write well and recruit people who write really well; let's explore what writerly technical practices make sense in this medium; let's develop rich computer code which enables player subjectivity in ways Modernist fiction couldn't imagine; let's bring the friggin' world out from friggin' underground, ferheavensake.

What if what players really want is simply to Blow Crap Up?

Or is this all that they know exists?

Robert Natkin abstract

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Zaroff Park

A new Zone in progress, Zaroff Park, begins as a simple hack-and-slash opportunity for Blowing Crap Up. Go there, kill bad guys, or good guys depending. Take out your shitty day on game critters rather than your real life landlady. Like the Spider Forest, Zaroff Park is intended to present compelling challenges to lone players, unlike say the Tree of Wealth which emphatically requires groups.

The thematics are more interesting than this bald description may suggest. The NPCs available for destruction are condemned slaves. They're too old to work, or they've behaved rebelliously, or displeased their masters for some other reason. Their masters have sent them to Zaroff Park, where they'll be hunted for sport Most Dangerous Game-style by big-game types bored with tigers. Players who want to kill things are welcome.

And so are NPCs who want to kill things. Warriors looking for practice; Bounty Hunters honing their skills; bored nannies looking for diversion: NPCs from all over the game world will come here to hunt and kill other NPCs.

So that, if you're a Liberator, say, or some other NorthWestern anti-slavery do-gooder, you may want to go there to prevent the hunters from succeeding. Choose the method that suits you.

Equally, NPCs who are Liberators or etc. may go there for similar purposes.

Meaning we've got NPCs hunting NPCs who are hunting NPCs, and of course there'll be yet other NPCs who'll be interested in hunting those hunting NPCs, and you'll see how this all gets pretty convoluted pretty quick.

Fun, huh?

Zaroff Park is part of a larger complex of blood sports arenas in the neighborhood surrounding the Circus Maximus, NorthEastern Third, natch. It's online now if you want to check it out. Hunter and hunted NPCs will be undergoing refinement for a few days yet. Watch the MOTD for the formals.

Robert Natkin abstract

Friday, February 7, 2014

Reinvention in Merchant City

TriadCity's Merchant City neighborhood is about reinvention.

The people are transforming the public space they've inherited, or maybe it would be better to say confiscated, from history. Once a Victorian enclave of brownstones and pocket parks, where nannies and prams and public monuments to empire and order all spoke unsubtly of prosperity and self-satisfaction and dominance and trade, the neighborhood increasingly resembles The People's Republic of Berkeley, as theater collectives and punk hair stylists and hip entrepreneurs slowly morph the shops and monuments and squares into public resources resembling themselves: good-humored, egalitarian, decidedly communal.

They're transforming themselves at the same time. Everyone's a runaway. Convicts, divorcees, abused children: forging new lives as waiters or hair cutters or shop clerks, living inexpensively in nearby St. Andrew's Scone or the collective homes around the corner, bringing their kids with them into new futures. Many are borrowed characters. I'll cite Rayette Dipesto as one favorite. Freed from abusive beau Bobby Dupea she's returned to waitressing, now in an entirely new context she can at least partially control. Or another waitress, Carol Connelly, able to live independently in NorthWest where her sickly child's medical expenses will be taken care of by the community.

These dynamics aren't narrated so much as depicted. In a novel, the motives and prior histories of these characters would be spoken out loud, probably at length. Here, they're sketched in a line or two, and the characters are shown going about their days. The nature of this medium is less about telling, more about showing. Narration accumulates through interaction, repetition, juxtaposition. By assembling these "flat" characters in a concentrated space I can show you their broad commonalities. Narration is not the precondition but rather the outcome of these technical practices.

Merchant City is my new favorite place in TriadCity. Nobody's getting killed there, there are no adventures happening, nothing epic unfolding. Except, there is. It's just on a far more gradual, more individual, and at the same time more collective scale than we're used to. The people there are exploring the practical meanings of "democracy". They rule — they really do. Now what? How to build a thoroughly egalitarian society profoundly controlled by the people themselves? Experimentation is in order: let's try things and see what happens. This is very precisely what Marx meant by the term "socialism". I like it there a ton.

Robert Natkin, abstract

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Vampirism in TriadCity

TriadCity's unique spin on vampirism is not yet online, but, all fingers and toes crossed, will be soon. I thought I'd use this space to highlight something of what makes it distinct from tradition.

Yes, TC vampires can't live without human blood. Accept no substitutes! Exsanguinate a vagrant today!

But. There's something more fundamental. TC vampires can't live without charisma. Essentially they're vanity junkies caught in an addiction cycle which spins like this:

Must have blood. Must have charisma. Being seen doing something as low-rent as sucking blood totally hoses charisma. Eeeps! What to do? Aha! Hire some poor fellow to do it for you.

Thus: TC vampires seldom do their own dirty work. They hire you to do it for them, creating a brisk black market for fresh human blood.

And: TC vampires form an underground secret society, including many of the most wealthy and prominent figures of the NorthEastern Third. They have to be wealthy, after all: hiring you to secure their blood jones doesn't come cheap.

In our silly and semi-serious way we're evoking literary theorist Franco Moretti's argument in Signs Taken for Wonders that while Frankenstein evokes middle-class anxieties over the powerful and untamed working class "monster" created by Capitalism, Dracula evokes the parasitical side of Capitalism itself. What better image for, oh, I dunno, how about Sam Walton or the Koch Brothers, than blood-sucking bling addicts slowly starving the rest of us to death?

We'll introduce Vampirism shortly by opening the supersilly Vampire Theme Park in NorthEast. Vampires themselves to follow soon after.

See you in The City.

Robert Natkin, abstract

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Borrowed Characters

Borrowed characters are a Postmodernist convention. Placing characters who originate in contrasting imaginary "worlds" into new narrative contexts enables juxtaposition of these worlds, a kind of collision creating thematic and emotional resonances in a very economical way. Brian McHale:

"Borrowed characters abound in Postmodernism. Thus, for example, Italo Calvino has expropriated Dumas' characters Dantes and the Abbe Faria in his rewriting of "The Count of Monte Cristo," (1967) while Alejo Carpentier in El recurs del metodo has peopled his fictional Paris with characters borrowed from Proust (including Morel, Brichot, the painter Elstir, the composer Vinteuil, and Madame Verdurin). Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude mentions the room in Paris where Rocamadour will die one day - but Rocamadour dies not in the world of One Hundred Years of Solitude, but in the world of Cortazar's Hopscotch, from which Garcia Marquez has borrowed him." (Postmodernist Fiction, p.58.)

And he quotes Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds (1939):

"Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference." (Postmodernist Fiction, p.58.)

We use borrowed characters everywhere in TriadCity. I love them for the extreme compression they can help to achieve, where simply putting someone familiar into a new context resonates eloquently. Carol Connolly serves tables in the NorthWest Third. Why? Because it solves her child's need for capable medical attention without requiring her to be dependent on a wealthy but idiosyncratic sugar daddy. And yes, she wears the union tattoo. With these simple semaphores we can imply whole societies, and make coherent judgements about them.

Here are two who are meaningful to me. Edna and Suzanne are women painters in 19th century dress, seen during daylight hours with their easels at one particularly striking riverside vista point in the NW Third. After sunset they go home together to their shared apartment in a collective home. They smile and are happy to return your polite bows, but mostly they keep to themselves. Who are they?

Suzanne is Suzanne Valadon, a woman whose decades-long struggle to transform herself from working class street scruff to Post-Impressionist master moves me deeply. Edna is Kate Chopin's Edna Pontellier, a would-be painter who spectacularly fails in her own struggle for transformation. By putting these two together in NW I hope to telegraph a series of propositions about individual struggles for identity, the need for artists to find mentors and peers, and of course the obvious ways in which societal contexts help or hinder. I suggest that Edna's failure is fueled largely by her isolation. The closest thing to a peer she knows is the ambiguous Mlle Reisz, who does not offer her a relationship of artistic solidarity. Edna's break from caste and context is incomplete; by staying in New Orleans she dooms herself. If she'd only gone to Paris; if she'd only found someone as strong as Valadon. Here they are by the riverbank: the NorthWest Third approves of misfits and rebels and runaways. Edna's alive and painting, and if you'd like to read a romance into their relationship you're welcome to, although that's not my principal intention.

We have Randal McMurphy staring at a wall; Justine and Juliette loyal to competing Thirds; Tiresias the blind seer, seeing exactly what you ask him to but understanding nothing; Rayette Dipesto waiting tables, only now she's in the union; Pere Ubu as our central mascot.  Many of these are simply jokes: Toula Portokalos is a student at our University.  Or maybe not simply.  Toula transformed herself, and self-transformation is a core theme of NorthWest.  Are we completely kidding about her?  Perhaps not completely.

The result, I think, is a fictional world vibrating with allusions to broader themes and contexts, built less from narration than from juxtaposition.  Where borrowing characters is one technique among others for building resonances from minimal sources.

Robert Natkin, abstract

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Writing in Layers

Popular literature and "art" literature got divorced a hundred years ago. They'd been growing apart for decades and were already contemplating separate living arrangements when Joyce annulled the marriage with Ulysses. From then until today, specialist education is necessary to fully follow wtf is going on in Modernist or Postmodernist fiction. It's pretty much guaranteed that if you haven't been to university you're not at that party.

This fact of life creates a circumstance of ambiguity for TriadCity authors. We take our Modernism/Postmodernism spectrum seriously. Computer mediated narrative and textual virtual worlds are such wonderful media for exploring the kinds of narrative problems explored by the 20th century, which many of us now read in hindsight as trying as best it could to break out of the codex into something... else.

Where the ambiguity for TriadCity becomes: who besides a very narrow circle of academic specialists could give a rat's, and why should anyone ask them to?

And its cousin: how to build a compelling imaginary experience where everyone is welcome, and made to feel welcome?

An approach we've evolved over time is writing in "layers", meaning, crafting experiences within the game world which are compelling on their own terms, but have cultural resonances which as a player you can interact with, or not, as you prefer.

Here's an example I'm fond of. The Tree of Life in the NorthWest Third is a towering treehouse overlooking the riverbank, a playground for local children, beautiful, lit by flickering lantern light at night, glowing in the darkness with a subtle fiery glow. As a visitor you're free to explore it, admire the city views from its top branches, bring a picnic, play tag with the kids. It's fun, which is reason enough.

But at the same time, it's a geographical representation of one of the core ideas from the western mystical tradition, the Kabbalah's structuring metaphor, the Tree of Life, a series of initiate stages though which consciousness passes on its rising journey of enlightenment. We depict this without ever saying it out loud: the chambers are spatially correct, they're assigned the proper Hebrew names, their contents correspond to the stages on the spiritual journey represented.

Do you have to know anything about the Kabbalah?

No! It works as a treehouse, and nevermind the bollocks.

You'll see this technique all over TriadCity. This is how we utilize the literally hundreds of borrowed characters who populate our world. Alfred Jarry is tending bar, wearing his bicycle racing outfit. Randle McMurphy stares at a wall. It's not necessary to know where these characters originate, they're appropriate to their context in TriadCity. Familiarity with the associations they bring adds depth.

How effective is this as a narrative technique?

I don't know. It is effective use of the medium, and to that extent we've made a contribution. Whether or how much these techniques influence the literature of the future remains to be discovered.

Robert Natkin abstract

Monday, February 3, 2014

Monumental Art and Contested Spaces

Meaning is determined by struggle.

In Glasgow, the Gallery of Modern Art is defended by an incongruous equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington, of all possible beings. What's he doing there? Why this duke, in this space of all possible spaces, on a horse of all things, indifferent to the art inside, grand on his sidewalk to absolutely no purpose?

The community answers these questions in a direct, irreverent, Glaswegian way: an orange traffic cone atop the Duke's iron noggin, like a Postmodern dunce cap. Saying: he doesn't belong here. We don't feel this way.

TriadCity foregrounds this idea of contested spaces. It's reasonable to say that TriadCity exists in part to highlight this struggle.

I'm working now on a neighborhood called Merchant City, riffing in some ways on Glasgow's real life downtown neighborhood of that name. Our TriadCity version is a series of open plazas punctuated by neighborhood cafes, bookshops, pocket parks, split in part by a winding creek connecting to the University nearby. It's a neighborhood of students, and of buskers, but these are TriadCity students and buskers, so we've got Hugh MacDiarmid reciting poetry, escaped slaves hiding out, and lots of monumental art whose meanings are under contest.

Example: L'Arc d'Ouille, a fallen-down monumental arch celebrating long-forgotten military triumphs, now reclaimed by life, that is by gravity and roses and twining grape vines, a counterposing of this once-grand tribute to death with the life that defeats it in the end. Will the authorities clean this up? In another neighborhood, perhaps. But this is TriadCity NorthWest, these people are the authorities — and the fallen-down monument stays.

Robert Natkin abstract