Coding Literature

Imagine if you could write a book that, when completed, actually contained the universe that you described in it. Instead of reading the book, you would flip it open to find a small window into this world, a snapshot of what you had created. Pressing your hand to the image, you would be flung into it, snapped out of this reality and into one of your own creation.

This is the basis for the lore in the classic desktop game Myst. Released in 1993, it places one of these books into the hands of the player, who uses it to explore various worlds called ages in a haunting, puzzle-based quest.

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Reminded of Myst by our recent playthrough of Gone Home, I thought I’d introduce everyone to the title that likely served as inspiration for the latter game. Myst is only the beginning—after its unexpected success, four more installments in the series were released, in addition to a sidequel. The series’ aesthetic might be best be described as future primitivism, as the D’ni people who craft these books have more advanced technology than we do while the inhabitants of their worlds often live in stone-age architecture.

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Stunning visuals abound.

As a young teenager, I found myself utterly entranced with Myst‘s story. The idea of writing an age combines both literature and computer programming, in a way, as one must have both knowledge of the D’ni language and the creativity to write a book. Furthermore, the concept is somewhat meta, as the game’s creators literally did write the ages that the player journeys through. If you enjoyed Gone Home, I highly recommend checking out the Myst series.

Flashback to Age 13

Going off EveryMinorDetail’s stellar post on the variety of issues in Ready Player One, I’ll jump into the personal experience this novel has left me with.

As I’ve been commenting occasionally in class, Ready Player One is bringing me back to a very specific period in my literary life—that of the Young Adult (fantasy) Novel. Picture Bradley, some time in middle school, laying down on my shag carpet floor with Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code held up above my head, flipping through the pages furiously. Or late at night, hidden in a fort of covers, devouring Christopher Paolini’s newest installment in the Eragon series by the light of a headlamp. Or walking out of Borders with the next Percy Jackson novel, trying to finish the first chapter before my mom pulls out of the parking lot.

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And who could forget this dense gem of a series.

I’m sure many of us were this child at some point, probably for a number of years. From the Magic Tree House and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that started it all around age 8, to eventually moving on to high school sports and running out of time for fun reading, there existed a period in which I read young adult novels like nobody’s business. I wouldn’t doubt that this was a major part of why I, and anyone else who is experiencing nostalgia right now, decided to become an English major at university.

Coming back to Ready Player One, my experience in listening to Ernest Cline’s novel has been one of pleasant nostalgia indeed, mixed with a fair bit of cringing. As we’ve discussed, these novels tend to have frustratingly flat characters and, in general, devices that would certainly not be considered academic. But although I’m not sure I’ll ever elect to re-read the thrilling tale of James Patterson’s bird children, that doesn’t mean they weren’t worth reading at that time—or indeed ever, for anyone who gets a genuine pleasure out of them. These books will always have a place in my heart, and although they may have left me with a bit of a manic pixie dream girl complex, I’m grateful for the expanded vocabulary and imaginativeness they hardwired into my developing brain. So although hearing Wade’s thoughts makes me want to shrivel up and pretend I was never a teenager, the truth is that I’ve loved reading Ready Player One for the experiences it has reminded me of.

Weird Twitter

According to the syllabus, it looks like I missed a discussion on Twitter fiction this past Thursday. I’m quite bummed about that because Twitter is actually my main creative outlet, and I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about its unique narrative capabilities.

In 2009, my friend Claire bugged me to get a Twitter long enough that I eventually did. I was hardly even on the Facebook train at that point, and Snapchat was nothing more than a gleam in its creator’s eye. I found quickly that I didn’t “get it”—a sentiment many have shared with me since. It’s hard to get started on Twitter. Do you just start talking to yourself? Should you follow some famous people you’re interested in? And what are all these strange, fake-looking accounts doing following you?

I’m going to intentionally avoid any discussion of Twitter as a company—their unprofitability, ad structure, etc. As an end-user, my experience on Twitter is pretty simple to summarize: I use it as a public, semi-anonymous diary in which my account acts as a digital alter ego.

After 2009, I largely forgot about my Twitter account until two years later, when a friend re-sold me on it with the simple claim, “You can say whatever you want. It’s great!” I followed her back, found the few other people I knew from real life who had accounts, and proceeded to do just that. But this time around, I bothered to google, “who to follow on twitter,” and that’s where it all went downhill for my productivity. Actually—that’s false. Reddit’s where I waste time. Twitter is where my day-to-day poet comes to life.

That Google search pointed me to @Horse_ebooks, my first encounter with what would become Weird Twitter. The listicle described Ebooks as a bot that randomly selected quotes from electronic books relating, perhaps, to horses—nobody really knew—and tweeted them for all to see. Its garbled, at times senseless style led to somewhat of a cult following, and every now and then, Ebooks would churn out something unexpectedly poetic:

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You just never knew what you were going to get. Ebooks had its last tweet on September 24th, 2013 (“Bear Stearns Bravo”), but for many, this was just the beginning of a half-meme, half-lazy art form. At some point in 2013 I began to stumble across various fictitious accounts that all seemed to have a trend to them: an obscure comic book character, a badly pixelated image of somebody’s face, a psychedelic turtle. It’s hard to properly encapsulate the trend; as with many dispersed memes, you just know when you see it.

Along with this visual aesthetic, and a grammatical style similar to Ebooks’ glitchy rants, these accounts tended to produce a sort of detached humor. Part surreal, part absurd, something in the Twitter joke spoke to me.

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Perhaps the most acclaimed Weird Tweet of all time.

In the above example, Fred Delicious displays many of the key elements of this style of joke: atypical capitalization, use of asterisks to designate action, elements of surrealism, and underlying, a basic pun or lewd joke.

Since 2013, Weird Twitter’s styles have diverged and evolved. Some other typical examples include Wint and James Nielssen:

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In the past two years, a new, humorless style has taken shape, one more heavily steeped in surrealism:

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Through the years, I’ve found Twitter to be a fantastic outlet for the short, possibly witty things that pop into my head while I’m in the shower or am just about to fall asleep. It’s sort of a similar pleasure to having a radio show that nobody listens to—you get to feel like you have an audience for your thoughts, but without any of the responsibilities. Though I used to use my real name and image, I’ve since shifted to a fictitious character, whose wacky aphorisms are both my own and, in a way, his own. The constraint of 140 characters forces us to use new grammatical and narrative techniques, sometimes stringing one tweet after another to create a longer story.

Recently reflecting, I realized that if I could only keep one social media outlet, it’d have to be Twitter. Having a kooky alter ego who says whatever he wants somehow keeps me saner in the real world, I think. And of course, as soon as I had that thought, I tweeted it.

God’s Role Needs Refinement

I wasn’t in class on Thursday (and thus totally blanked on posting to the blog, sorry!), so my response to That Dragon, Cancer will have to be based entirely off the experience that I had while playing it.

I already commented on the nature and beauty of walking simulators in my first blog post, and after seeing previews of That Dragon, Cancer, I knew it’d make for a good continuation of that topic. First and foremost, this game solidifies in my mind the existence of the narrative-based indie game. Gone Home and Journey, which we’ll play later in the semester, have both become classics of this style. That Dragon also immediately reminded me of Myst, one of the most acclaimed PC games of all time, with its point-and-click movement and vivid, low-poly graphics.

Of course, each of these games is unique, and That Dragon did not fail to break the mold. Its strengths include several novel storytelling techniques and a powerful soundtrack; its weakness, in my opinion, its its undeft presentation of the tension between the parents and the importance of their religion.

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That Dragon, Cancer is a deeply Christian game. This isn’t in of itself a detractor, of course; the developers have every right to style their game to their philosophy, and the importance of the characters’ religious beliefs could hardly be overlooked. Furthermore, it’s not like I don’t enjoy Mumford & Sons and Sufjan Stevens, with their overt Christianity. But God’s role in That Dragon, as it were, was painted in with too broad of brushstrokes.

At the game’s first mentions of God’s presence and influence, I was intrigued, looking forward to where this theme would go. But as the game progressed and the narrative became more heavily laden with churchgoing diction, I found myself too bashed in the face with it all to fully appreciate the real point of the game—that is, an attempt to convey the potent misery and joy that such a parenting experience would bring. In all, however, That Dragon, Cancer did deliver this message, and did so in a really nuanced way.

Considering that this is an entirely true story, the couple couldn’t have necessarily been expected to produce a perfectly fluid presentation of the slow death of their son. But as a purchaser, consumer, and critic of the game, I would have liked to see God’s role worked into the story a bit more, rather than plowing straight over it.

Campbell’s Universal Mythology

Among the five most important books I’ve ever read was The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell. It was assigned to the other section in my high school English class, but my teacher offered me a copy, somehow sensing that I would love it. This book—in fact it is the transcription of a series of interviews Campbell participated in near the end of his life—was my first real glimpse into the all-important notion of the hero’s journey.

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Seriously, you’ve gotta read this book.

Campbell’s main thesis is that all mythologies reflect the same basic storyline, one that is derived from our common evolution and biological life process. This monomyth features familiar tropes such as the call to adventure, the road of trials, the goal, and the return to the ordinary world. At its core, the hero’s journey describes a chosen individual who must face and overcome difficulty, growing in the process. In Campbell’s own words:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Many would argue that the quintessential hero’s journey is of course Homer’s Odyssey. Its derivative works, from Keeley’s Ithaka to Tennyson’s Ulysses, have become classics in their own right. The most important aspect of the common storyline, however, is in realizing that it is a metaphor for the human experience of growth. Campbell speaks of the life stages of childhood, adulthood, and old age that we all experience. Desire, weakness, bravery and triumph are tropes of our literature (both sacred and profane) because they exist within ourselves.

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the study of the humanities is that the more you learn, the more your classes seem to overlap, telling the same tale in various ways. This Renaissance value of the enlightened person bettering both themselves and others through broad learning is a tradition you and I are carrying on with our decision to major in or study English in any capacity. While the world no longer operates under the notion that there is one universal morality, the utility of our study is rather found in our ability to commiserate with others’ own stories and use the framework of the universal myth to address whatever unknown problems we and humanity in toto will face. In Campbell’s own words:

On this immediate level of life and structure, myths offer life models. But the models have to be appropriate to the time in which you are living, and our time has changed so fast that what was proper fifty years ago is not proper today. The virtues of the past are the vices of today. And many of what were thought to be the vices of the past are the necessities of today.

I should note that many will be familiar with Campbell’s actual magnum opus, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The Power of Myth is simply a shorter and more digestible version, in my opinion, and serves as a fine introduction.

Oh—and if you’re already a fan of Campbell, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn is your next required reading. Once you’ve got your mind wrapped around the idea of the hero’s journey, the next step is to take on factual relativism.

Unhappy Ending: Art Isn’t Always Fun

During our discussion in class today about Braid, one student made the astute observation that, while the game is sometimes so difficult it isn’t even fun, perhaps that’s the point. As the class delved into Jonathan Blow’s opinions on video games, I thought back to another game in which I had experienced this sort of “harsh art” and thought that perhaps this is yet another sign that video games are truly maturing as an art form.

One of the first games I played on my PS4 was a short, narrative-driven walking simulator (a term which is often used pejoratively, though I’ve taken to reappropriating it for ambient aesthetes of all media) called Firewatch. This gorgeously rendered, slow-paced, and emotionally sapping game is without a doubt a piece of art; indeed, it is so narratively focused that I almost wouldn’t call it a video game at all but rather an immersive movie.

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Firewatch places you in the eyes of a lonely man whose wife has begun to suffer from early onset dementia. As she begins to forget who he is, he takes to the woods to escape depression, applying for a summer position as wildfire lookout for the US Forest Service. Throughout the game, the player is forced to choose between suboptimal and morally questionable paradoxes. You are never allowed, in other words, to be completely happy with your decisions, as there is no best option.

I of course won’t spoil Firewatch‘s wonderful story (and if any of my classmates would like to play it, they are free to do so on my console, as it’s only a 2-4 hour game). All I will say is that the ending was, for me, quite disappointing. Indeed, it was an intentional letdown.

So back to Braid‘s at times frustratingly difficult puzzles. If Jonathan Blow was seeking to make some sort of commentary on video games, in their predictably satisfactory endings and linear progression, I believe he succeeded. In the same vein, Firewatch‘s creators gave us an antihero whose climactic ending is but a quiet disappointment.

So why would we play games that are, in some respect, unenjoyable? Because in all seriousness—in terms of giving me pleasure, both Braid and Firewatch would be considered failures. But this is precisely why I feel that video games are coming to a certain level of maturity, that they might have the ability to deliver unto players something other than dopamine. Reading Lolita isn’t fun at all; neither is listening to Schoenberg’s expressionist music or reading Ginsberg’s bleak poetry. What these works do give us is a taste of some real or hyperreal fantasy in which feelings we all recognize but shudder to behold are thrust out, into our faces. And in looking at them in the light, perhaps we gain some consolation in knowing that at least, we are not alone in fearing them.