Archive for May, 2011

Teaser for a new project: The Black Cube

May 30, 2011

The room was clear enough: veils, mosaic, white stucco. Smoke rising from a bejeweled hookah. Old man, dressed in loose flowing robes, smoking said hookah. Quiet, lilting music coming from a set of speakers nestled into the far wall. But there was one thing that escaped clarity, refused to come into focus. A little box in the middle of the room. A sphere, floating three inches off the ground. A pyramid inscribed with a strange design. Every time she looked at it, it was different. It was black, no, grey, no, completely colorless, and from it came a sound that sounded at times like sinuous whispering and at times like a soft, pining song carried by the wind from some far-off place.

She took a step forward. The old man coughed.

“Do you know what this is?” His voice was rough, and his Arabic almost completely unintelligible. If it weren’t such a simple phrase, she though, she might not have understood him.

“I have a guess,” she replied.

The very corner of the man’s lips twisted upward ever so slightly. “Tell me.”

“It’s the Black Cube of Mad Al-Hazred.”

She hesitated. The man waited, silent, smoking his hookah. His eyes were closed and his head bobbed gently up and down. She knew he was praying, uttering one of the Forbidden Chants in his mind. “Save me, oh Mad Arab, from the Darkness and the Things that Writhe in Darkness, from Shub-Niggurath and its Thousand Young, from the Walker in the Wastes and from the mad flute of Azathoth…”

She spoke again.

“This cube is a computing machine. Its purpose is to process advanced image and speech recognition algorithms that will not work on any other machine in the world. The cube is linked via direct Gigabit line to the Mountain View offices of the world’s three largest search engine providers. For the last six months, the search engines have been using this cube to pass the Human Intelligence Threshold and create an artificial intelligence to handle their search queries. These companies refuse to disclose this fact, because they don’t know how the cube works. Nobody knows how the cube works. Some think it’s a quantum computer, some think its an alien artifact, some think it was sent here by God.”

The man coughed again. “So why are you here?”

“To…” she swallowed. It was time to say it. “To find out how it works.”

He laughed this time, a loud, raspy laugh that may as well have been a cough. Little wisps of smoke curled out of his mouth and floated, she was sure, directly towards the box. “And if you can’t?”

“Then.” She raised her right arm, palm facing the old man. The dark pattern started at her fingertips and stretched along the skin of her hand, then further, running along her veins over the forearm, then into the small of her elbow and back out, and ended at her shoulder. Even now, little tendrils stretched further up, yearning to claim the rest of her. To take her mind.

“Then, I intend to destroy it.”

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The Future of Interactive Fiction, Part Three: Why so Dystopian?

May 9, 2011

(This is an ongoing post in my Future of Interactive Fiction series, which is a fancy name I made up for rambling about stories, games, and other interactive media. As I move further in the series, I will try to address more specific topics like genre and theme. You can find previous posts in the series here)

Lately, I’ve completed the wonderful video game Portal 2 (no spoilers, I promise), and really enjoyed it. However, as I finished the game and the credits rolled, I struggled to put my finger on what it was I most enjoyed about the game. Was it the plot? The plot was solid, but by no means mind-blowing. Was it the characters? Some great voice acting, yes, but it’s a little hard to get attached to voice acting in an action / puzzle game. It was, I decided, the atmosphere. That wonderful, insane, dystopian-to-its-logical-conclusion atmosphere:

Portal 2 (again, without revealing anything that isn’t obvious after 5 minutes of play) takes place inside a mind-bogglingly large “test facility” of indeterminate age. The tests are constructed by machines, so the place is less lab and more factory, and one of the ingenious things both Portal 1 and Portal 2 do is let you, the main character, go “behind the scenes” and look at all the guts of the factory, the scurrying robots that navigate cyclopean towers and the catwalks that plunge into abysses unmeasurable to humans but quite navigable by a machine. The sheer alien-ness of it all creates a fabulous mood that complements the puzzle nature of the game, and makes you, the main character, feel very much like the test subject you are supposed to be, powerless and weak and tiny in the face of Science. The reason I call this setting dystopian is that the writers do a wonderful job of juxtaposing the intended result – promotional posters and videos, showing off the power of Science and your value to the world as a test subject, abound – with the jarring reality. Science may help make the world a better place, but if left unchecked, it will make the world utterly unlivable, for humans anyway.

Portal 2 is far from the only game that harps on dystopia. The Bioshock series and Deus Ex are two other examples, and a number of recent high-production RPG and shooter titles have all featured dystopia to one degree or another. So what is it that makes the dystopian setting so attractive to video game writers? The answer is far too complex to cover in its entirety in one blog post (one can readily think of cultural and social reasons for why writers in general may be more interested in dystopias these days), but I want to concentrate on the part of the answer that has to do with storytelling mechanics in video games. Simply put, the dystopian video game is a counterpoint to the hero’s journey, that most common trope of fiction, interactive and otherwise.

To unpack: the hero’s journey is about the hero – a special person. The hero may start from humble beginnings, but in the course of the story, through a combination of skill, charisma, or just plain old luck, the hero rises dramatically and often changes the very shape of her world. The laws of fictional reality bend subtly to her will, and we never have to worry about the hero falling asleep in the wrong place and being eaten by wolves (at worst, the hero will be confronted by an intelligent talking helpful wolf). Video games have taken advantage of this tacit understanding by giving the role of the hero to the player. The hero’s character in the game often possesses special powers; and even if he does not, the sheer combination of the player’s determination, higher intelligence (relative to the AI), and ability to save and reload act naturally as reality-bending devices that allow the hero to prevail against all odds.

But the real world is patently unlike hero’s journey. In the real world, failure is ubiquitous, and the laws of reality do not bend to our will. The dystopian video game attempts to remind us of this fact by taking away some of the player’s “specialness” in the video game world. Doing so is an extremely difficult task, as it is unfeasible to offer the player a sufficiently smart AI opponent, nor to limit her determination, and nobody wants a game where they can’t save and reload. But Bioshock and Portal are two examples of success, and brilliant success, at *tricking* the player into believing she is no longer special without placing artificial limits on her power. In both cases, the atmosphere acts as a subtle but constant reminder of just how very, very un-special you are. You’re not the hero who means to save the world, Portal tells you; you are a test subject, a toy for forces you can’t comprehend, and your success is far from guaranteed. The resolution of the game does not feel like the end of a hero’s journey. And the whole experience, despite the oppressive atmosphere, is so refreshingly different from leveling up and slaying dragons, that the game achieves its narrative goal – of impressing and delighting you almost on the strength of the dystopia alone. It’s a subtle and wonderful interaction between game mechanics, storytelling, and the relationship between game player and game writer that changes the way I think about stories. And that’s really the most a storyteller can hope for – to weave a tale that will stick with her listeners long after they’ve left the campfire.

Aikido: from Fear to Trust

May 8, 2011

For the last six months or so, I’ve been doing aikido. It’s about the longest I’ve done anything that is like a sport, and the first time I’ve practiced a martial art. I’ve done it for many reasons – because I like the philosophy, because I wanted to train myself to do something on a regular basis and stick with it, because I like doing something physical for a change. But somehow, I did not feel really committed, and happy about it, until last Tuesday.

Nothing out of the ordinary happened last Tuesday. I went to practice, I stretched, I did the exercises sensei told us to do. At the same time, something very substantial happened last Tuesday. I no longer felt scared on the mat.

I’ve done physical things before in my life, but like I said, I’ve never really done a martial art. The closest I’ve come to being in a fight-like situation with another person was fencing, which I really enjoyed, but fencing was very different from aikido. You wear padding, and the blades are dull, and yes, you get beat up a lot, but you don’t use your whole body in the way you do in aikido. Again, I am not knocking fencing – I had a lot of fun with it – I’m just saying, I never felt that immediate, terrifying sensation that vital parts of my body were absolutely at the mercy of a person who weighed twice as much as me, when fencing. When doing aikido, I would feel it every practice, twice a week, for four hours on the map.

And then, suddenly, I wasn’t afraid anymore. It’s not that I stopped believing I could get hurt – a bad fall off the edge of the mat could still kill me, and more mundanely, I am very aware of the stresses on my body every time I finish two hours of practice – but my body began reacting to practice in a new way. Instead of tensing up and worrying about what might happen, I relax and I trust. I trust sensei, I trust my partner, I no longer have to stand there and steel myself for having to fly through the air, or getting picked up behind my knees and dropped to the ground (that was last Thursday). I just take the fall, get up, adjust my kidogi (which still happens embarrassingly often), and, in the words of sensei James Knight from Cambridge, get on with it.

In part, my body is acting differently because I’ve trained it to deal with practice. I know what to do when somebody sends me flying through the air, or picks me up and throws me. But I’ve know that for some time, and still, in the back of my mind, there had been this fear that Something Would Go Wrong. I did not trust my partners. I mean, why should I? I barely know these people, and here they are, in my face, locking my wrist and taking complete control of my body, go after go! It took me a long time to realize, on a subconscious level, that I do the same to them. It took me a while to accept my partners as people, just like me. They are not the Other, scary and unknown. They and I are the same blood.

I am sure that I will have more obstacles to face on and off the mat, with Aikido. But it feels really good to be here. And I know I want to practice more. I come back to the mat next Tuesday, aware and mindful, but trusting. And I do not dread the moment when I step on and have to face a pin or a throw. I look forward to it 🙂