ibis, fly!

Ibis

I made a story game called ibis, fly! It’s about being an ibis, and not really fitting in, and simple pleasures. It has four possible endings and a (sort of) win condition, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Structurally it’s far simpler than Detritus, and it should only take you five minutes or so to play it through from beginning to end. If you have bug reports or feedback please let me know.

Play ibis, fly!

Forensic stylometry

Fascinating post on Language Log about the analysis of Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo Calling, and how the analyst reached the conclusion that JK Rowling was a possible author.

For the past ten years or so, I’ve been working on a software project to assess stylistic similarity automatically, and at the same time, test different stylistic features to see how well they distinguish authors. De Morgan’s idea of average word lengths, for example, works — sort of. If you actually get a group of documents together and compare how different they are in average word length, you quickly learn two things. First, most people are average in word length, just as most people are average in height. Very few people actually write using loads of very long words, and few write with very small words, either. Second, you learn that average word length isn’t necessarily stable for a given author. Writing a letter to your cousin will have a different vocabulary than a professional article to be published in Nature. So it works, but not necessarily well. A better approach is not to use average word length, but to look at the overall distribution of word lengths. Still better is to use other measures, such as the frequency of specific words or word stems (e.g., how often did Madison use “by”?), and better yet is to use a combination of features and analyses, essentially analyzing the same data with different methods and seeing what the most consistent findings are. That’s the approach I took.

It’s interesting not just for its insight into a field that rarely comes into the public eye, but also for what’s written between the lines about how authors write. It suggests that, unless we really make an effort to disguise it, most writers have a linguistic fingerprint of sorts: a set of choices that we tend to make in roughly similar ways, often enough for a machine to notice when taken in aggregate. A writer’s voice goes beyond stylistic choices, genre and word choice, and comes down to the basic mechanics of the language they use.

Detritus: lessons learned from making my first Twine game

Node map for Detritus. Broken-looking passages use the print macro to link based on the contents of a variable.

Node map for Detritus. Broken-looking passages use the print macro to link based on the contents of a variable.

One of the side projects I’ve been hacking away at in my spare time recently is Detritus, an interactive fiction game thing about, well, packing. It’s a packing sim. In all it’s taken me about two months of intermittent work, including a couple of days where I put in six hours or so on it.

It’s made using Twine, a pleasingly versatile game creation tool that lends itself really well to branching narratives. It’s widely used by all sorts of awesome game makers, and it’s capable of a great deal more than it at first appears. There’s a Google group associated with making it better; there are some talented people devoting themselves to making macros for it, chunks of code that extend its native capacities to let people who can’t code do complicated things simply. I’m indebted to Porpentine’s resources list and a bunch of Webbed Space’s macros – without those things Detritus would have been impossible.

It’s much cleverer than it would be if I’d tried to do it all from scratch myself. I learned while building it that by far the best way to implement my ideas was to build on the work other people have done before me. It is not the first time I’ve bodged something together standing on the shoulders of giants, but it’s the first time I’ve literally copied slugs of code without knowing anything about what they do, as though they were magic spells where my only input is to know the activation words. It is humbling to create with tools other people have given freely to the world.

I learned that sometimes, not knowing what you’re getting yourself into leads to bigger, more exciting work than you’d originally intended. I decided, when I started it, that Detritus would have five short acts, each one using a different technique, because that would be a good way to teach myself some of Twine’s idiosyncracies and I’d come out of it knowing which ones worked for me and with some ideas about how to employ them. I thought it’d be a quick project. If I’d realised, when I chose the first objects the player encounters, that my choices would lead to having to write fifty separate individual passages and a reasonably complex looping system to make act 5 work, I might have chosen to do it differently. But I don’t regret that choice at all – it’s a much deeper, more intricate piece than I’d otherwise have written.

I learned that it’s sometimes better to work out what you’re doing before you do it, too. At one point about half way through act 3 I spent an upsetting amount of time stripping out and redoing the inventory system so it used array variables rather than single-item strings, because I had a list of twenty or so individual variables that might have several values and I was trying to write if statements and failing horribly because of the complexity. Not incidentally, I also learned quite a lot about Javascript array variables. And I learned that no matter how many bugs you think you’ve squashed, in a project this complex, there will always be at least one more. (Detritus has done more for my coding ability in two months than Codecademy managed in six.)

I learned about branching. Every time a narrative branches in a game like this, the path not taken by the player can, if you like, be seen as wasted work. If you want your players to see everything, you have to avoid branching too much, or branch only with descriptive elements. But the flip side is that then player choices don’t necessarily have much weight. I wanted Detritus to have weight in every decision, and it felt right to close off branches, to leave much more unread by the player than read, every time. It’s a game about loss, and that loss ought to be expressed mechanically, not just verbally; that’s why I wanted to use Twine to tell an interactive story, after all, rather than just writing something linear to express it. The game’s 27,000 words long, but the average playthrough will see less than a quarter of what’s written. There are easter eggs down some pathways, too, that mean much more because they aren’t signposted, and because they’re easy to leave behind.

Biggest and best thing about making Detritus, though, has been the wonderful feeling of making a solo creative project work, seeing it through from opening lines to existence in the wider world as an actual thing that people can genuinely play. It’s been too long since I did that, and without Twine and the community around it I probably still wouldn’t have managed. The democratisation of creative tools has meant an explosion in the numbers of people who can create and publish, in games and in fiction just as in other forms of publication. People with stories to tell or games to make can do so. Even if that story is a packing sim about loss and carrying your life in a suitcase. It is a wonderful thing.

Detritus: a Twine game

A couple of months ago, mid-move, I started a new project – a Twine game/interactive fiction thing called Detritus. I think it’s finished enough to share with the world.

It was meant to be quite a small experiment to see if I could teach myself the medium as well as using it to express something that’s almost impossible to express through non-interactive media. It got a bit more ambitious than that, I think mostly because I had no idea what I was doing or how tricky some of it was technically. At some point soon, when I’m a little bit less close to it and it’s had some air, I’ll blog about making it.

Any bug reports or feedback, please let me know. You can play it by clicking here: it should have sound running in some parts.

The most important thing I’ve ever written

Three years ago today I got married. We had a secular ceremony at the registry office in Norwich, and each wrote words for the moment when we exchanged rings. Both being writer types, it all got a bit competitive. This is what I ended up with.

Grant,

I love you. Those three words have my whole life in them.

My eyes see through those words, and the world is changed and made wider and more beautiful, more precious, because everything is touched with that love.

My arms are full of those words and waiting to give them to you every morning, every evening, every day that I am lucky enough hold you, for ever.

My heart sings those words every morning as it thumps in my chest, a triple beat greeting the morning with joy because you are in it.

My legs run home every night to those words. My feet pound the streets to those words.

Those three small words are a shield for my back and a shelter from the rain in hard times.

Those three small words are the snow falling on my upturned joyous face and the sun shining to wake my sleeping skin.

My tongue tastes those words, shapes my speech through those words. Every word I speak to you has those three words in it too.

My hands are shaped around those words. There is no gift greater than those words that I can give to you.

So I give you this ring which is not a circle but those three words made solid, those three words with my whole life in them.

I love you.

Can poetry be journalism?

I’ve been thinking even more than usual about unconventional storytelling in the aftermath of The Story, and ended up back on a question I last seriously thought about while I was at university.

It’s about poetry. Since I came to London I’ve rediscovered my ability to write creatively, and a couple of projects have taken off – I’ve got a poem in this month’s Rialto magazine, and a couple of weeks back I read a few pieces of writing at the launch of Whippersnapper Press, a small press devoted to getting more snappy, exciting work out to more people. It was fun.

The first piece I performed was arguably an act of data journalism. It was born out of an FOI request I put in to Norfolk Constabulary in late 2009 on the subject of big cat sightings – one that yielded some fantastic results in the form of the CAD logs written by operators during emergency and non-emergency calls. Each one of these is a story in and of itself – the two women who sparked a lion hunt at Cromer caravan park after seeing two stone lioness carvings; the South African man who was convinced he had just come face to face with a leopard; the 41 calls received by the police about a large black cat and cub near Kings Lynn in 2001. And the performance piece was an aggregation and curation of those stories.

That taps into a long history of observational poetry and literature, works that take official or historical documents, curating them and reshaping them into a newly readable and accessible (normally) work. I’ve seen examples of this including transcripts of court cases, lists of statistics, and inquiry evidence, juxtaposed and curated to introduce new meanings and ambiguities that are not necessarily evident in the original documents.

One example that has stuck with me for years – but that I’ve so far utterly failed to track down online – was a novel-length collection of real-life stories of work-related accidents, that led to health and safety laws being introduced. I read extracts in the context of a literature course, but it could just have easily been an introduction to the power of journalism, in collating and curating those reports and bringing them into the public eye. I came away with a much deeper understanding of the subject – something that for me is a major function of journalism.

And the cross-over goes the other way, too – something that’s perhaps too easy to forget when you’re concentrating on 15-word intros and the inverted pyramid. The Gravedigger column is not only a fine piece of journalism but an incredible literary work – fantastic writing can be found all over the world in disposable newsprint as well as on bookshelves.

But, given that poets have been turning journalism into poetry for at least a century now, can journalists do the same back and turn poetry into journalism?

With that in mind, this is an experiment.

Yasqot Yasqot

they kill a boy on Youtube and you watch because you barely believe
and facts are few and far between and it matters
that before you pass it on you verify
and they film from a balcony in Alexandria as he advances arms outstretched
on the stone-throwing police
he crumples
and they stop shouting yasqot yasqot

so you Google Asmaa because you don’t know how it started and you watch
the screen flicker
and you’ve no way to know if the subtitles
tell her words right or if she’s still alive or where
but trust a pseudonymous someone not to mistranslate
and watch your friends retweet the news that the regime has fallen
again
even though it hasn’t

there are too many faces on the screen and in the end
you can only parse the numbers when they kneel to pray
or in HD for five minutes at a time before you’d have to pay
so you pick the numbers you believe from the nearest journalists
who aren’t being beaten arrested abused or killed
at the time
though they may be later

and there are at least 300 dead when you snatch your headphones
from the desk and load up al jazeera on livestation and listen
as the crowd roars
for fifteen minutes

and your goosebumps
are not enough tribute
and they stop shouting yasqot yasqot

Microfiction competition

My copy of February’s ICON magazine finally arrived – including a selection of microfiction written by readers in response to a prompt. Here’s my entry, which you can find on p82.

She walks to town. I make maps from her iPhone’s footprints.

Her geocodes build a city for me to explore. Height. Plans. Street View. Sales. She pushes a cold nose up against hard glass, desiring. Each window is a tab.

I stride her steps at home between the hours. She sees new graffiti. I see blurred cyclists. She sees the grit and people. I see usability. She looks up.

At night I move my small hands across the vast city of her skin.