a rising mist
The Goodly Mist
A Workingblog for Rob Sherman
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knole

November 10, 2015

knole

I’ve been given some money by the government to do something which might very well fail.

I am presumptuous about its outcomes already, and even now self-congratulatory about its results. I have yet few of the technical skills necessary to complete it. It will take three years, and I sincerely hope not any more than that. If it succeeds, I may very well have exasperated some intelligent people; I can’t even presume to properly upset them; perhaps even in that I am presumptuous, and it just won’t matter that I’m a charlatan. At the moment, the something is just called knole; a codename that I decided I required after watching the documentary series about videogame developer Double-Fine. I watched Tim Schafer, their lead designer and writer, weebling and bobbing his way through San Francisco’s Chinatown, pointing up through the blear at the neon signs of bars and clubs which had given his early projects their first, have-to-do names; ‘Lipo’ became Psychonauts, ‘Buddha’ became Brutal Legend, ‘EZ5’ became Happy Action Theatre; a game which I had never heard of before, and whose marketing material seems to involve smelting children

The placeholding of my projects is not something that has ever occurred to me; whilst ‘working titles’ are certainly a technique that people use across the field into which I have been corralled, they are not nearly as codified as the ‘codename’ in software development, possibly because of the latter’s collaborative processes. Not only is this name designed to give you something monosyllabic and crunchy to talk around in meetings, but it also provides a self-important cant which is meaningless outside the company in which one works. I do not work in a company other than Bonfire Dog, and that makes me lonely; my codename is more of an attempt to feel like a proper developer, surrounded with support, than to obscure anything important from you. Having no work colleagues, I go out drinking far less regularly than the Double-Fine shower (but not as little as the difference between our workforces might suggest), and so it felt disingenuous to name my project after my favourite pubs where I do anything but crawl with my friends. Therefore knole was named after an ancient deer park near my parent’s house that I sometimes walk through, full of haunted trees and fawns with backs like plasterers’ jeans. Across the undulations where the horses once tailed the dogs, you sometimes catch sight of the grand old house for which the park was named; tea-stained and pensioner-wracked, trusted nationally.

knole is a that I am undertaking between the universities of Bath (for Creative Writing) and Bath Spa (for Computer Science), which of course has caused some excellent administrative dithering in its early stages. Now that the dithering has waned, I can get on with my enquiries; simply, how characters in digital or interactive art can be instilled (either by their author, or their interactor) with the pathos, drama, comedy and what-might-only-be-unfortunately-called ‘literary’ qualities that we expect, and often get, from characters in more traditional works.

Of course, there are already many excellent examples of ‘literary’ characters in videogames, interactive fiction and other interactive art; I would not presume to exclude them. However, as well as being fewer and farther between than they should be, these characters seem to rely more on traditional narrative safe harbours, techniques of characterisation found more naturally in books, film and other media. Mass Effect, an example of excellent non-player embodiment often brought up in such conversations, does indeed use playeragency and interaction to reveal character, and bind their player to them and their choices; in practice, however, I have always found these interactions rich in isolation; excellently-written, yet with little animation or verve. The choices in these interactions often have more in common with Viscera Cleanup Detail, encouraging the player to function like some sort of narrative street sweeper, buffing through the options rather than stumbling and pruning through them like any normal, awkward person. When a choice connected to something outside the character’s immediate realm appears, it is often unashamedly binary; not always, but often enough.

I have, after making this wide, tiresomely familiar, most-likely-foolhardy statement, taken on my own pathetic challenge. I focus on creating one character, as intimately as I can, and using every method I can to render that character as completely as possible; to not only author it, but to, once the player has hold of it, to cast off that authorship and give it some sort of agency and growth. By using techniques which I personally, myself, a big limited being, have rarely seen considered in the creation of dynamic digital characters. I hope to show that characters in digital works can use the tenets of their own medium, as well as those of techniques past, to create interactions that are memorable, intricate and radioactive, a sort of benevolent poison which affects our development, and the development of our children, and so on. And that in so being, they will not be hampered by their new responsibilities as reactive, functioning beings, alive with every input to which we can wire them.

Here are a few of the topics, and techniques that I am exploring to make my thing:

  • Animal behaviour, animal/human interaction and pet studies;
  • Artificial intelligence, ambient intelligence, fuzzy logic and cellular automata;
  • The general tenets of good game design, AI in games and those examples, good and bad, that we currently have of ‘character’ in the broadest sense.
  • Identity, narratorship and character in more traditional works;
  • Digital pets, sprites and familiars such as the Dread Furby, Wuv-Luv, Tamagotchi et al;
  • Animal-assisted therapy;
  • Storygames and the illusion of choice;
  • Telepresence (including the delightful and parochial world of teledildonics);
  • Long-distance relationships;
  • Animism and folk religion;
  • Facial animation, voice recognition and image tracking.

All of these studies, and my application of them, will go into creating my own unique being, a ‘literary intelligence’ built only to inhabit a world of my making. At the moment, it is called Wurdergirderdu, and at the moment it looks exactly like the drawing at the top of the page, scribbled by Sarah Alice (also known, elsewhere on this website, as The Ski Ghost) for me years ago on a envelope when we were bored, and now co-opted. Indeed, that drawing is the only concept I have at the moment.

Wurdergirderdu is a spirit-creature of England. It is a creature in England, on England, through it and under it; a guardian spirit of that land, a semi-divine maybe-beast in the animist tradition practiced to this day in countries such as Japan, Canada and Cornwall. Wurdergirderdu stands for everything that England was, is and might be, whatever it is and wherever it stops, and in my vision is its god, patron and symbol, far brighter than the lion or the lamb or the cross or the dragon or the bull.

My PhD work is to create Wurdergirderdu in several different manners. In the first instance, there will be a prose poem, as linear as an escalator, bound on paper and to be read out loud, more or less in one straight go. It will be a panegyric to this creature, describing a protagonist’s walk through a sort of English landscape, a dream-place that I have been bricolaging in my head out of all those bytes of my home country that I have seen, imagined and interpolated over my years. The protagonist will be the voice of the poem, the voice of its reader, and it will describe the adventures and dioramas encountered in this England whilst accompanied by Wurdergirderdu. The narrative will describe Wurdergirderdu as weakened, failing, wounded; indeed, the protagonist has no choice, in my poem, but to carry the sprite on this regal tour of its own, symbolic body. Together they will see so much, meet so many and explore so much more; a structure that I am borrowing, in no small part, from the topographical poetry and morality narratives ofearly English writers such as Langland and Drayton.

I have not decided yet how this poem will end, but it will end, as long as it is read. Tu-TUM-tu-TUm-tu-TUM-tu-TUM-tu-TUM it will go, over a few hundred lines; events, proscribed characters, predetermined outcomes, and so a picture of this debilitated avatar emerges. And then it is done.

Of course, I would get in trouble if I only produced a few hundred lines of poetry in three years; especially with the Computer Science department at Bath, my co-supervisors. The bound work stands a double role, both as artefact and key, chronicle and instruction. It stands as the (very secure) password for, and instruction manual to, the much more complex and daunting half of my work, the half which I will need to learn how to make as I make it.

My plan is to create a direct simulation of Wurdergirderdu digitally, on-screen, as an interactive representation of the creature chiseled out in the poem. Most likely it will be developed for some sort of jerry-rigged mobile device, where I can make use of the dramatic sensors, data and mobility to create a sort of life, and a sort of intelligence, for the creature.

Through animation, it will move as it is described on the page; its injured eyes, its thick fur, its broken brow. It will communicate with you as an animal only can. Behind its eyes I am exploring the varied principles of artificial intelligence to produce something which may not be generally intelligent, but is at least narratively intelligent; something which is authored and then set free to act within its parameters, and perhaps surprise everybody with an authored illusion of sentience; this illusion, the idea of using the mind of the reader or player to fill in the gaps in my computation, is my Exciting New Idea, one which I will probably discover in a book from the 1980s and get very depressed about.

It will, using image recognition, recognise you (or mistake you) and the things you bring it; the leaves of England’s trees, and the seeds of England’s fruit growing or mulching upon its back. It will come to love you or hate you or perhaps something more interesting and unknowable, depending on how you treat it. It will listen, through ears like those of the deer that I saw tiptoeing through the dead leaves, to everything you have to say. Most of all, in its injury, it will love to listen to stories about itself.

The main strut of the interaction between these two half-works will be the reading of the written Wurdergirderdu to the writeable Wurdergirderdu; the reader reads aloud, as if to a child, and the creature on the screen, through microphones and some algorithmic work, marvels at its own story. Indeed, its reactions should reveal to you more about itself, and the bound, arrested world of the poem, than merely reading the poem alone. Of course, I hope to have the creature interact in more ways than this; computers have almost as many sensors as we do nowadays. There is no reason why Wurdergirderdu shouldn’t react to the time of day, the season, the station of the moon; to different temperatures, different touches on its multi-capacitative screen, orientation, location, creating in the nexus of these interactions a sort of ‘circadian AI’, a system for interpreting natural cycles. I may even stop the app functioning outside of England, its animus as of course it would, if you took the soul out of a place.

This is all very loose, necessarily, here at the start of the project, and I’m speaking in quite grandiloquent terms; I’m hoping to break the project down into more manageable chunks and blog about them weekly in a far more workaday language than the above. If you want to follow along, they will all be tagged #knole.

I really am sorry about all the wiffle. I’m an academic now, so it’s to be expected in the first few weeks; it will work its way out of my system, like karstwater, soon enough.

Some other links that will become more interesting in time:

  • The project GitHub, where I will be posting a version-controlled evolution of the digital parts of my work. I’ll be becoming interested in collaboration, bug fixes, suggestions, branching and forkings very soon.

  • My open bibliography for the project, which will form the basis of my final contextualising essay.


And for those of you who are wondering what is happening with my other projects:

  • The Black Crown Project – That link is still dead. I still have no time or money to focus on redeveloping it, though I do have some of the ability; a stark contrast to when the project was originally created, and I could barely fill in a form field or use an HTML tag. The publishers (Random House UK) have very kindly reverted the rights back to me, though the archives of assets still rest with Failbetter Games. Those first need to be retrieved, and sorted, and a new framework developed, and content rewritten to shake off the last scraps of the game’s FTP economy. It is a large and messy job, and the chance of it being done any time soon are vanishingly small. I am going to stand very tall, close my eyes, wag a finger, purse my lips, and tell you all that it will be done.

  • On My Wife’s Back – This project, originally started with the British Library, was always going to be an oozer; spreading out slowly in all directions, getting everything sticky as it went; it seems that I specialise in grubby work. I’m hoping to digitise what I have written of Scinbank’s diary by the end of the year, and there are regular updates on my research map and blog. We’ll even be recording some old, new and invented shanties at the Library in December, as an early Christmas present. Anything new tends to appear on the blog first, and it’s best to always start there.


I’m setting up a mailing list at the moment (to occupy the currently-impotent ‘Volucracy’ button in the top menubar of this blog) which will hopefully curb my tendency to keep everything to myself and fill, those of you who want it, in, from time to time.