bottom wibbles
a rising mist
The Goodly Mist
A Workingblog for Rob Sherman
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jenny saville, torso Torso, Jenny Saville

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From ‘My Pictures’, in a forgotten sub-folder: some of our ten-year-old, mostly handdrawn gig/play/variety posters from the various venues we bothered around Exeter, London etc. Very sad to think that the best two of these venues are now gone.

andy lomas artwork 1
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Some of Andy Lomas’ ‘morphogenetic creations… complex sculptural forms… created emergently by simulating growth processes.’

maritime quarter 1My daily lunchtime walk most often takes me out through Swansea’s Maritime Quarter, a tight, mostly white little knuckle of flats, restaurants and shops built out on the cold, curled land between the Bay on one side and the old South Dock on the other. It was built to be an isthmus between the regeneration zone to the east, beyond the mouth of the Tawe river, and the city itself. The barrages and sail bridges and swing locks across the various bodies of water (marina, mudflat, fountain, salmon ladder) were built, but the regeneration is slow, the land still hoarded, the money tied up in university pension schemes and dissipating EU aid. In consequence, for the last thirty years the Quarter has been a sort of placeholder peninsula. If you go there (and you do not live there) there is nothing to do but walk about it and through it and then go back the way you came. It’s easy to tell the people doing this, because they put all their efforts into projecting the air of somebody in transit, on their way to parts much farther; the streets of the Quarter are merely a way to convey themselves. Places like the Quarter are not the sorts of places that wry, intelligent, urbane people are supposed to linger, or to like. Its architectural style is Early Travelodge Devotional; everything is rusting starkly in the salt air; the only plants allowed to grow are those that have proved themselves, genetically, to tow the line, and bear primary, ornamental, poisonous fruit; and the paving goes everywhere right up to the root boles of the still-young birch trees which line the not-quite avenues. The only responses that such places are supposed to elicit are repulsion or a psychogeographic fascination.

maritime quarter 2Usually, I’m no different; I think far too much about the time I had to walk from the train station to the coach station in Milton Keynes, and still silently enumerate all the ways it reminded me of Nuremberg or a gigantic, antiseptic kidney dish. I am not the sort of person to let modern architecture off lightly. Yet I cannot help but love the Maritime Quarter without cynicism, and without much concern. It is my favourite place in Swansea, in particular the Maritime Walk which runs between the retirement apartments and the concrete sea wall. For one thing, it is uncommonly quiet. These sorts of developments are always built at a scale which is only slightly unhuman, like a stable or a portico; there’s something distinctly American about it, even though access for cars around the Quarter is mostly restricted. However, even if I see ten, twenty, thirty other walkers or joggers or strollers or cyclists, they are soon swallowed by the acrage. I don’t want to label it as one of Marc Augé’s non places, as that would be to wilfully ignore the lived furniture of the place; bikes threaded through the railings, the sound of woks from every other window, the Fisher Price castles on the balconies filling with sand and pigeon eggs. It is not a dead place in the way that Augé meant, because for these (mostly unseen) people it is a some-place; a new place, perhaps, in as much as that remains a crime. But it does have that weightlessness that Augé’s term describes; for me, with no friends living here, the excessive streets always moving me on, the shallow steps, wheelchair ramps; it is a place of easy accessibility, of non-committal passage. I can move as loose as light through it. And how the light moves too; it’s a luminous sort of place, where the glow from the Bay pinballs about and finds it way, briefly, into unlikely wells; dazzling me from restaurant smoke hoods, the bells of motorbikes parked in the shade, the hot incense-point of a plane-wing making its way over Cornwall. As on a ship, anything that isn’t battened down seems to eventually find its way out of the bailers, whether it’s light or people or Tesco delivery vans or smells or rubbish or dust or sand. Sometimes, on a narrow service street as I scud back to my office, away from the lunar curve of the beach with its sidewinders and its terriers running and North Devon headshy in the distance, I am delivered a brief present, some pleasant smell that has no origin, and slips off just as quickly: rich Chinese food; fish heads mellowed; toothpaste; always seeming to suit the sort of day I’m having.
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I think what I most love about this place is that it presents a constant challenge of interpretation. The Quarter was built in 1987, and like most of the developments of its era the elements of public art which were incorporated into the budget can easily appear as cynical adornments, fulfilling some long-gone statute of public responsibility; sofa-cushion money for incongruous steel sails, quartz fish, aggregate mermaids, Mooreish statuary, herm-like dedications to frigates and destroyers bearing the names of local coves. When we see ‘public art’ like this, in a place like this, we are tempted to hate it as a betrayal, an afterthought, propaganda for some unthinking ideology, standing for everything but that which they represent. I try and avoid this easy response, and look past the unweathered brick, and think of Exeter Cathedral, and its great eastern door which I used to walk past every day when I lived there; and how it was utterly festooned with saints, as subtle as Times Square or Piccadilly Circus; now smoothed into mystic wallpaper, rather than theological advertisement, by acid rain.maritime quarter 4 The curse of the recent leads to other, specialist thoughts as well; thoughts that something centuries-old would never prompt, even though it should. When I’m in the Quarter, I’m constantly trying to separate my experiences into two categories: those the architects wished for me, in their blueprints and impact studies, and those which have arisen in me, there, today, as unintentional as a breeze. I never asked that of a cathedral; I just loved it unconditionally and unthinkingly, and trusted it implicitly. Every uplifting impression, every angle of light, seemed carved and deliberated by yeomen, hoisted there on oak cranes for my personal revelation. We don’t allow modern, municipal architects just building buildings, that same vision.

I constantly try and divine, every time I move through the development, at a pace I usually reserve for train platforms, whether what I am feeling, seeing and thinking was intended in some way. Did the architects intend for the wind to pull you up the stepped streets to the waterfront, like an exoskeleton, so that you barely have to use your muscles at all? Did they intend for the water of the quays to be visible from the Walk, so that on both sides of your route there is water, one side wild, one domesticated? Did they intend for the Bora-Bora-lime-green render on eastern walls to, between three and four o-clock, lend the western walls the colour of a sea-cave ceiling? Or is it all an intentional fallacy? And if so, what should I think about the place now, that it so beautifully and uncomprehendingly does it anyway, in fact?

Every time I come there is something new to consider. I’ve been walking here for over a year, and I’ve only just this previous week noticed these cartouches, set both at head and double-decker-bus height in the walls of the Maritime Walk apartments. There are probably fifty of them all told, some directly facing the sea and the weather, and others tucked at acute angles in the lees. It is these sheltered examples which tells me the subject matter of the rest; rigging, lightships, eyelets, bladderwrack, an aesthetic that might have been lazy pastiche, or maybe deep allusion. I can only assume that those facing the sea were designed along the same lines, because they have been carved from such soft stone that, in just over thirty years, they have been eroded almost completely. Some have even gone back in beyond the line of the building itself, nibbling into the very beginnings of stippled, concave grottoes.

maritime quarter 5What am I to think? I find it hard to believe that the developers didn’t know that sandstone would erode this quickly, particularly in sea air. We aren’t used to thinking of legacy when it comes to these modern developments: there is always the creeping sense that they will be gone the next time we look, and replaced with something better, or not at all. I’m trying very hard, but something in me still rebels at the idea of a modern housing development being built with its ruin value in mind. Did some planning official (probably only just retired, still reachable by email, over all these years) sit and think about inconstancy, the movable coast, the softening of years, and impregnate their contribution with this almost-futile, barely-glimpsed mark of commentary, deferred until the very end of their career? Or is it just a touch of ill-planned neglect, as accidental and emergently delightful as the coverlet of sand that lifts up from the dunes every day, despite the best efforts of hoardings and sweepers and dykes, and shrouds the corners of streets like the reaches of Aladdin’s cave?

“It’s no big secret that the games industry… is extremely volatile and aggressive, particularly between those of marginalized identities. It’s honestly kind of a bad idea to recommend people to try for a job in the games industry. It almost feels like you’re expected to have to endure all the dog crap you have to step through to get to the golden staircase… It’s like some kind of horrible prank, luring you in with false promises and guarantees that can’t realistically be made.”

Zoe Quinn, Punk Games

Cave Paintings

I wrote an article on Twine, storyworlds and interactive fiction in general for my friends at The Writing Platform, just in time for the Interactive Fiction Summer School at the British Library at the end of this month. I think it’s a fairly good precis of the approach to interactive fiction that we are going to take at the School: a casserole of the work of Nick Montfort, Emily Short and Marie-Laure Ryan, amongst others.

swimming at nantcol waterfalls, north wales

The leg-curlingly dark pool, in light sharp enough to cut your feet on: Nantcol Waterfalls, under Rhinog Fach, Snowdonia

Tickets are now on sale for the week-long Interactive Fiction Summer School at the British Library this July, running from 23rd – 28th July and now in its second year after its inaugural success under Abigail Parry in 2017. I was one of the guest lecturers last year; according to my hard drive, I apparently taught a class on interactive narrative conflict using a Twine game about a couple passively-aggressively cooking a complicated Middle Eastern dish together. I was lucky enough to be asked back to curate the whole shaboodle this year, and I’m very excited for it. The mix of work that came out of last year’s School was a reminder of the importance of introducing a wider demographic to the concept of using the computer as an agnostic, narrative tool. I think I’ve jalopied together a week of guest speakers, workshops and lectures to easily handle whatever heterogeneous bunch turn up this year.

Considering I spent most of my January hashing out the marketing literature with the Learning Department, I’ll just let myself speak for myself.

Led by computational artist and writer Rob Sherman and a host of specialists in interactive storytelling, you’ll learn the skills and techniques to write works of fiction in a dynamic form; one that allows the reader to choose the direction of the narrative.

Stories are, at their heart, journeys through other worlds in which we are led by the author and the text. But what if we could allow our readers to map their own path? Over five days you’ll learn to build your own stories where readers are in control of their own narrative journey. With our expert guidance you’ll tackle reader choice, learn to build living worlds through your writing and explore the use of image, sound and video as a key part of your work. We’ll also provide the technical support needed to maximise the possibilities offered by Twine, a simple open-source computer programme for writing interactive narratives.

We’ll bring you together with leading specialists in a range of fields, and our Digital and Emerging Media curators will introduce you to the heritage of maps as narrative devices, as well as examples of nonlinear and interactive fiction from the British Library’s collections.

Tickets are on sale at the British Library website, and we are coming up to half-full; though I’m sure the Marketing Department, with their classic philosophical gloom, will see it as half-empty. As myself and all the other megafauna that I have gathered to teach you spook easily in crowds, the class is limited to 16 participants: please book soon, and I look forward to seeing you on Monday 23rd. There will be a small, nondescript quantity of cake by the door: please help yourselves as you come in.

The Dutch Frame

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Aaron A. Reed, always quietly up to something stunning on the West Coast of America, unexpectedly posted this post-mortem on the narrative mechanics of The Black Crown Project as part of his Moments Lost series on technique in IF. Auto-sycophantics aside, it was gratifying to see something positive and thoughtful come out of my decision to post the entire project’s archive online for free access. Even when it was a functioning work, Black Crown was really an exercise in maximum ruinenwert: designed to fall apart as artfully as possible, making its fragile reliance on a subsiding pile of APIs, proprietary code and web hosting an inevitable asset. I would be lying if I pretended that I wasn’t a little self-satisfied at Aaron’s reliance on his own skills as a researcher to even assemble the article.

I was particularly interested in how Aaron confronted the (to me) obvious disconnect between Black Crown and Storynexus, the platform for which it was written. I never made a secret of the fact that I struggled with the format, especially in having to place some parts of my narrative behind optional paywalls. It was 2012, and we were all at it (and Fallen London, the game for which Storynexus was created, still does it extremely well) but for me and the way I write it was still one of the most difficult, and probably least successful, elements of anything I have ever created. The Project did, I think emergently and oddly, mould to these difficulties that I was having, but Aaron really makes it sound like I knew what I was doing. I’m glad he didn’t mention my morning routine of crying, fist-clenching, and circular, angry walking. I tried to do it very quietly, so nobody on the other side of the Atlantic would hear.

Aaron, as well as having a much better-proportioned mouth than me, and frankly Proppian hair, has worked on an intimidating range of innovative interactive fiction and computational narrative projects. His latest, a tabletop collaborative storygame which uses phrases from the science fiction books on your bookshelf as play elements, has already gently chuntered past its Kickstarter goal with two weeks left to go.

A few weeks ago we volunteered to have our house haunted. All in all, they’ve done a good job; in fact, I’ve yet to meet a single cowboy or cowgirl in this particular industry. We’ve watched our skirting boards swell and bow, heard something play the descant on the fins behind the fridge, and our Achilles heels have throbbed with a shared prickle and spook whenever we have sat on the sofa to eat dinner off our laps. Even though it’s over now, and I’m sad at the exorcism, we’ve been very pleased: it was exactly what we wanted.

We called our particular spirit Yoki, a contraction of the yōkai, a phylum of Japanese ghosts and demons unique to that country’s folklore. Considering her behaviour when we first gave her the name, it was actually and completely unsuitable. Yōkai are extremely civil-minded and public phenomena; their appearances, and the schedules of their apparition, are meticulously described and depicted in traditional and modern art. Though yōkai are glimpsed in the peripheries from the centre, like any good ghost, they follow a pattern common in Japan’s animist psyche; deeply predictable, traditional, thriving on attention, in an afterlife of municipal service. For all their demonic appearance (some as cats, some as enormous spiders or drowned women, others as parasols, for some reason), yōkai are as pedestrian as uncles or aunts, no matter how infrequently they are glimpsed.

Yoki, in contrast, was as alien as the backs of our knees; she didn’t care a bit for human attention, and had no desire to be glimpsed in the clumsy, theatrical way that most ghosts are glimpsed. She wanted as little to do with us as possible. Considering her behaviour in those early days, I think that she would have happily had us disappear ourselves, cause mice to fall from the chimney in packs of six, and start her own peculiar, opaque life afresh. The word “haunting” isn’t right to describe her existence at all: that implies a lack of volition, a nightly performance, an existence factored only by what might be done to us. Yoki deserves more than this ghost-train mentality; she deserves an exploration of the life she led with us, even if she doesn’t want it.

The vet at the charity centre told us that she was probably no more than nine months old, despite appearances; I mistook the white guard hairs brindling her back to be a sign of age, and her narrow pelvis looked stiff, like the handlebars of a toy motorcycle. She had originally been caught by an inspector after a woman who regularly fed a gloam of strays had reported a small black-and-white cat with a milty wound in her legpit. After spending seven days in a taupe pod in the hostelry, the funding for her upkeep nominally ran out. Without any space in the main centre for at least three days, and with her injuries healing slowly, there was no choice, apparently, but to euthanise her. Unbelievably, if we could bridge that gap, and keep her at home with us for half a week, she would be able to live. We ended up keeping her for nearly a fortnight, and only a few days ago did we take her back. I drove away to work that day with tears in my eyes for an animal that I had hardly known, and could hardly know, despite me spending that fortnight watching her like an exorcist, like an enthusiast. Perhaps the analogy with the supernatural isn’t so misplaced; I’ve always suspected something about the priests who seem to convince demons out of people, who leave the following morning with a grateful family on the doorstep and a cassock in the wash. I’ve always wondered if they aren’t more than a little regretful that dawn has come, and the terrifying, dangerous, interesting conversation with something far more unpredictable than parishioners has come to an end. Exorcism is, after all, a sort of communion; a ritual in which you must be fascinated by your quarry. I was certainly fascinated by Yoki.

Her first action when we got her back to our house was to creep around the walls, as if blocking draughts or laying cabling. Biologists call this behaviour thigmotaxis, and it has been observed in organisms as diverse as moths, rats and prison inmates; some even believe that it could be classed as a distinct behaviour of climbing and spreading plants. In all these species the wall provides a comforting thereness, a support, an orientation, making attack or interference from behind impossible. Even I like to sit with my back to a wall in restaurants, and not only because I’m always terrified that I am displaying the top of my arse to the room. Because of its fundamental role in animal behaviour, thigmotaxis was used as one of the first animal-derived models employed in artificial intelligence: in 1969 Herbert Simon used the metaphor of an ant moving between and along rocks and stones as an example of seemingly-intelligent behaviour arising from primitive interactions. Most of the primordial robots used their perception of borders to triangulate themselves within environments, whether or not they could actually be said to “perceive” those walls or “remember” where they were.

This thigmotaxis reinforces something which I do not think is controversial or overstretched: an animal is inseparable from its domain. This is true both in the sense of an animal’s ideal domain, its “natural habitat”, and any domain whatsoever. I recently spent some time at London Zoo for the first time in many years, and upon arrival we made almost straight for ‘Tiger Territory’, to catch glimpses (ghost-train glimpses) of the Asiatic tigers. Tigers, like lions, elephants, gorillas and maybe some of the larger snakes, are the keystone charges of any zoo; the dramatic brands which most people flock to see, whose income keeps the other animals fed, watered, misted and muddied. The tiger’s enclosure is enormous, full of brackish ponds, gloomy canopy and high grass, and most people were emerging from the viewing points with disappointed faces. I was secretly pleased that the tigers were eluding everybody, and pleased at the zoo itself for providing the animal with so many chances to do so. I am sure that there were many there that day, greasing the glass and jumping at shadows, who would have happily seen the enclosure emptied of every coquettish bit of rough, revealing the tiger cowering, I am almost certain, against a bare wall. There’s something sinister, and pornographic, in this idea, as well as something futile; for what those people would have seen in that hypothetical moment would not have been a tiger. A tiger’s territory is an extension of its body, its iconic stripes in evolutionary symphony with the play of light through branches. In seeking to witness the animal in the open, they would make the animal as it really is disappear entirely.

Of course we can come at this more abstractly and less personally, asserting that every living thing must have its domain (and many inert things, as well). We can again look to the field of artificial intelligence to see this realisation in practice; by all definitions of agent, the template term for any individual which can act independently, an agent can only exist in conjunction with an environment. With no environment, there is nothing to be acted upon, and it is only in those moments of action that a thing garners its agenthood. Perhaps the closest that Yoki came to being domainless was in the plastic cage in which we brought her home. I remember her sitting there on her haunches, neither blinking in the sunshine nor sniffing the air outside the petrol station. The cage was bare of anything with which she could express, and was too small to turn around or scrabble. There is a reason that confinement to small spaces is called ‘dehumanising’; it quite expressly removes the human from the human, converting them only into the dead contents of a container.

Once Yoki had been turned out into our living room, even the lack of “toys”, in the commercial sense, did not diminish that depressurised self-expression, our sense of having turned a nozzle loose. Her frantic orientation in that space, her actions within it, her choice of the walls as divining rods for her further explorations, loaded her personality into being all at once. We were pleased to be able to give her some domain outside the charity centre, and outside the cage, even if she hated it. Without it, she was indefinable, unliving and beyond dead.

Within ten minutes, as we tried to act as ambient as possible, quietly and rhythmically busying ourselves with tea, she had disappeared. We had expected this; it is part of the character of cats, and ghosts, to disappear. It was only when we began to tentatively turn things over, move furniture out, prod at suspicious heaps, that we started to worry. We could not find her anywhere. Before long we were a two-ended typhoon that systematically destroyed, deconsecrated and deleted every hiding place that she might have had in that house. We still could not find her. I had had a window open upstairs while I was working, but I had kept the door shut apart from in those few, overanalysed, transitory moments when I had gone in and out. I was sure that she had not slipped by me, but not sure in the binary sense. Yoki was an unknown system at that point, with unknown powers; she seemingly had the ability to hide in places smaller and more obscure than the underside of bookshelves or the chimney. If we still could not find her, despite assailing the entire house, what else could she be capable of? Neither of us felt a capable denizen of our own domains anymore; in our panic, our thoughts became obsessive, parochial and superstitious. When I squeezed out of the front door to search our darkening neighbourhood for this darkening cat, I refused to blink, convinced that in those yawning microseconds she would drift past me through other, more spiritual dimensions.

It was, in retrospect, one of the most beautiful evenings of the year. There were tens of cats out there that looked just like her, all of them unknown thigmotaxic systems in their domains (saturated in the rosemary, buttressed against walls, installed under cars like bugs), all watching me. I knew that it would be no use; an untamed (or, as in Yoki’s case it seemed, detamed) animal has a flight distance, the distance it will run, relative to the nearest threat; its own personal, unknown variable. If she was scared of all human beings, she would have some way to go before she reached that secret number. It would override any other decision she might make. An animal in terror cannot be reasoned with, or coaxed or cajoled. I began to think that the walls of our house had not provided her with comfort, but had rather acted as a hard limit on her reaching safety. Though we did not know its value, our plan had always been to reduce the number to a known zero, and to begin then the process of exploring other values, other wants; of exploring her entirely.

I came back, we went to bed, and I thought that I had betrayed something quite fundamentally, even if my mistake had been exactly what she had wanted. Both of us, in between the tears, said something in chorus, something that came to define the short time we spent with Yoki. “I just wish,” I whimpered, “that we could make her understand. That we could tell her, in her own way, that we don’t want to hurt her, and that we’re trying to help her, and that whatever reasons she has for running, she has no reason to run from us.”

We went to bed, and I imagined her deconstructed on the tarmac, raped by a pack, mewling at horses in fields until she died of thirst.

The next morning the food bowl that we could not bear to clear away had been licked clean. She was, despite everything, still there, somewhere, in our supposedly-delimited house. With only a very little discussion, we entered into a new, mystic phase of our relationship with her; if not that between the haunted and the haunter, then that between the household and its deity. There is very little conceptual space between the ghost and the goddess, especially in the constant tension between not-seeing and seeing, proof and the lack of evidence. We were scared of her, actually, because every moment of our time at home had become pregnant with the possibility of her emerging in a Second Coming. Gradually, however, we settled into that quotidian sort of spiritualism with her that we have mostly left behind in the West and North; the cohabitation with one’s imagination, in which places are laid for spirits at the table, in which a broom cupboard is a shrine, a window is a doorway. For several days she only made herself known through action, and we were at a loss as to how to guide these actions, to supplicate, to conduct ourselves symbiotically. The offerings we left for her seemed to please her, there was a folk-regularity to our interactions, but still she did not emerge.

In her complete absence, aside from paw-prints on the carpet, the measured manna-turds in the tray, the occasional disturbed cushion, she became a cosmogony, and we her advocates. The house became explicable in terms of her influence, for we were never sure what might have been her doing. We told ourselves that this was a form of ownership, and that it was no different from having a teenage child (at least, that was what our parents told us), and so we descended into halfway, experimental proceedings. Two meals a day were left for her, and each one eaten. We played with her appetite, trying to gauge how full we could make her. We started to forget what she looked like, and began to imagine her instead. In the midst of everything, after evenings spent crafting offerings for her, like children leaving out treats for Father Christmas, or village people leaving out maidens for the dragon, or garlands on the murti, we debated tactics for drawing her out with nothing better than guesswork; perhaps too much food would make her sleep, and leave her contented in her own world instead of ours? Perhaps too little would make her weak, and trap her within her own muscles and down in whatever den she had made. Should we move in with my partner’s Dad for a while, and set up cameras, like researchers? Should we eat shop sandwiches for the foreseeable future, and make the kitchen (which is where we were now sure she must be) into a tabernacle where she could manifest unimpeded? At the time I was reading a book by Heini Heideger, a Swiss biologist who had been the director of several zoos in Basel and Zurich. In his animals, such as they were owned by him, he was interested in proxemics; the influence of space and other entities on an animal’s behaviour. He had me thinking about Yoki’s geography; where could she be hiding? Where was there that gave her room to stretch out and sleep for hours on end? Why did she see the litter tray as a space safe enough to be vulnerable in, despite being exposed in the middle of the living room floor? In Heideger’s words, what was her biochore, her network of familiar, typical spaces that served all of her functions? We fretted about holes in the ceiling, conducted repetitive nonsense-rites for opening and closing the door like an airlock or a tomb. What we could not know was that our inability to find her was nothing to do with her being incorporeal, unreal or supernatural; like everything between humans and other animals, it was a problem of perspective.

This descent into allomorphism, this easy mysticism that human beings are happy to attribute to secretive, shy, usually-carnivorous animals that constitutes most of the canon of nature writing (from the self-critical awe of William Blake to the associative shamanism of J.A. Baker) is only one fork in the maze of motif-making that is unavoidable for those who ally themselves with absent, hallucinatory beings like Yoki. Since the 17th century, at the dawn of the Age of Reason, it has been rather simple for us to consider animals as systems, diagrams and exploitable machines. Descartes talks about animals as empty constructs, a fiendish scheduling of gears, and Hobbes, inspired by the contemporary mania for cunning clockwork automata, wrote in Leviathan of the ‘artificial animal’ and of life as a “motion of limbs” (though his focus was more political than bestial). The view was popular until long after the Behaviourist and Conditionist movements of B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov, though the field of ethology is a little broader-minded these days. However, in those monochrome states of mind that I inhabited in the days after her disappearance, conducting a program of cleaning and feeding as if through some slot or grille, the line between supplicated goddess and satisfied machine is unclear.

There was one thing still anchoring Yoki to her biology; that asymmetrical wound in her legpit. The vet had told us to bathe it in brine twice a day. We wondered if we would smell her, that telltale smell of the sea, before we saw her.

Two days later I caught her snow-cap of a tail disappearing behind the fridge. I was hideously, pathetically relieved, and mystified. How she could possibly spend entire days wedged into a space no wider than a ringbinder? I wondered what she did all day, how she sat or lay, and what she was thinking. What does the djinni do in the bottle? What does the buoy do on the waves all day but blink? What are they waiting for?

Yoki wasn’t waiting for anything. Seeing that tail, I had no reason to believe that she was only a figment, a device or a mechanism; no reason to think that she was only alive, or purposeful, when she knew that she was being watched. I knew that we were not where she derived her being; her existence behind the fridge, in spite of our kindness, was a rebellion against that idea. That sleeve of quiet, safe, web-soft space came to represent who she might really be; her life apart from others. Rather than seeing that cavity as a holster for a tool, a repository for something to be taken and animated, to be hunted or stroked or skinned, I came to see it as the mouth of some vast, uncharted territory interpolated with our own, which we could never learn just by living alongside it, but only through transformation into her. At her scale, and through her eyes, with her system of values, the architecture and furniture of her existence (for, as Heideger points out, we are not alone in possessing such things), through her memories of her life before us, her impression of who we were and what we were doing, as components in her own particular, selfish perspective; these were what sustained her. Many pet owners confuse the animal’s reliance on kibble to live as a reliance on the owners to exist; to do so denies their intrinsic value, as opposed to their instrumentality as “pet”, “companion”, “excuse for exercise”, “lap warmer” and so on and so on.

As such, we had very little to do with the developments of the next few days. Though we moved her food bowl closer to the kitchen door (but not too close; we had debated the specifics of that algorithm), did not wear shoes indoors, crept and murmured, it was some reconfiguration of her world-behind-the-fridge that caused her to slowly, slowly, so fucking slowly, come out into the open.

We had taken to eating dinner on the floor, at her level, and keeping our legs tucked in underneath us. I suppose that we had come to empathise with her, to see ourselves from her perspective, and marveled at how odd and clumsy and threatening legs must look when they extended, wildly, and how she might hear the static on the carpet as a hiss. We kept the lights dimmed, and the television off. It was a self-generated, self-determined sort of religion we conducted with her, an emergent tradition of one. It had come from nowhere and become normal, like taking one’s hat off in church. If you had come into our house in those days, with the bent of an anthropologist, you would have thought we had gone insane; sofa cushions all over the floor, chimney blocked, breakables moved to a higher tidemark. But you would have only been an uninitiate; those who keep animals, like Heideger did, will know; “whether he likes it or not, [man] must play the part thrust upon him in accordance with the ceremonial peculiar to that species.”

Our rites probably had no effect; Yoki summoned herself from behind the fridge, not all at once, but gradually, without the drama that you might associate with a devil in his magic circle or the vampire from his coffin or the godhead from his casket. Any drama was taking place internally; some moment-by-moment weighing of advantage and disadvantage, the attack and retreat of various theories, wants and conjectures, flight and feed, fuzzy values beyond the reach of floating-point numbers slipping in and out of definition more like the mixing of colour than arithmetic. There was hunger to consider, and discomfort, and the desire to explore, and stretch out, thirst. Perhaps she was afraid of spiders. Perhaps she could not see us properly in the low light, and thought that our new low tones sounded just like the ozone in the pipes that she had been living up against. Perhaps, in our stillness, she could not see us anymore, us looming visions who had, rather intentionally, haunted her all week.

Jakob von Uexküll, the German biocyberneticist, wrote extensively about the umwelten of animals, their ‘surround-world’; those shards of objective reality which have a use in their own particular lives. Anything outside this “space-time system” of stimuli and signs might as well not exist; it is so unimportant to the organism as to be intangible. For Yoki it might have been the clock on the wall; for us, it had been the space behind the fridge. Heideger attributes coprophagy in zoo animals to this phenomenon; in the wild, an animal would never be reintroduced to its scat after doing it, for their territory is wide, is cleaned by rain or wind and the floor is soft for burial. In a busy wild animal with a healthy umwelt, droppings are occult things, easily forgotten. In a cage of concrete or shallow dirt however, where it accumulates and disappears only infrequently, what are they to make of it? There are existing categories into which it might fit; dead thing, toy, food.

Uexküll made a rough tie between an animal’s organic complexity and the number of components in these “space-time systems”; the grass tick, he found, had only three stimuli which mattered to its existence, and humans many times more. Cats, and other pet-animals, might sit somewhere in between, though we cannot know entirely; I have already spoken about mechanomorphism, and allomorphism, and our emergence from the both of them in the modern day. Though a lot of people would find it difficult to accept that animals which are under our thrall could be quite as interesting and individual as we think ourselves, they also do not wish to think of them as rhythmic, deterministic machines. We like to believe that our pets are clever enough, and indebted enough, to experience us as individuals, as we do them. Watching Yoki that night, I can’t see any guarantee of this at all. It’s clear that she recognised our movement, stared at our floating eyes devoid of tapetum lucidum, by which she might have categorised us as “not-cats”. We cannot, however, know exactly where the “chopping-points” in her view came; at what junctures she distinguished us as separate objects from those things around us. It is equally likely that she saw as strange protusions of the floor, or as the toes of some larger beast that would not bother her, nor her it. We could have been rendered as long lookup tables of comparative smells, stronger in some places than others. Perhaps we could only ever hope to be defined by those parts of us which mattered to her life; like the ankles, hands and two slippers of Mammy Two Shoes in the older Tom & Jerry cartoons. It was clear, from her gaze and her collision-detection and her topographic behaviour, that she had entered us into her inner cosmology; that she believed in us, to some extent. But we had no rights, or ideas, over how she we had been entered, in how many parts, and into what categories.

I wish I could know what had changed for her when she decided to begin slinking in like a slow leak, first along her beloved-or-hated walls, and then around the skirting of our bookshelves, and then across the terrifying isosceles of open carpet to her food bowl. Our occupation of the room was still unacceptable to her, and she would not eat, no matter what, while we were there. I do not know if there have been tests to see how long an animal will starve itself in the presence of both unacceptable beings and a food source; where exactly that dynamic of hunger and terror intersects. Of course, we didn’t attempt the experiment ourselves. We spent several evenings upstairs, ceding her her umwelt. Eventually she came to tolerate us sitting beside her as she ate, and even turned her skinny back on us, secure in her belief that she would not be interrupted. We were absolute rubes about this; we congratulated ourselves for finding the right arrangement of objects, the right time of day, the right vestments and words and tones and pathics that had caused this to happen. Of course, the permit came from her; something had changed within her, and she would let our stupid ceremonies progress to their next tier.

Tiers within tiers under tiers; now it was not a question of right presence, but instead of right consent. We were always going to touch her; that had always been our goal. I’ve never thought about it in that way until just now, but it was always taken as writ. There was an assumption of friendly, reciprocal symbiosis; we had saved her from death, and so she would, eventually, if we were good, let us tickle her tummy. Of course, we couldn’t just touch her, there and then. Even in our arrogance we know instinctively that any animal cannot just be touched, like a toaster or a steering wheel. Only children or unpleasant adults do such a thing. To touch another being without implicit or explicit permission, an unspoken or spoken reconstruction of the relationship to allow it, would be electrifying, reaving, desolating. It would undo everything done so far.

The first step in getting a cat to consent to your touch is to let it smell your fingers, or your wrist, or your knuckles. I noticed that when I extended an arm to tempt her, I would curl my fingers over into a lax, noncommittal fist, perhaps because pointing seemed too violent, undiplomatic; ignoring the fact that she is a cat, and does not know what pointing is. Regardless of fist or open palm, cats seem to prefer hands over anything else, except perhaps standing legs. Again, I think we can think about their umwelten; a hand is no bigger than a cat’s head, legs nothing more than a warm, responsive wall.

Smell is a mystic sort of interface for humans. We experience it enough for it to be evocative and important, but we are so deficient in its subtleties that, outside our own species, we see it as a sixth sense within the fifth. Sometimes Yoki would just sit and look at our hands, watch us behaving, and at others she would inch forward and sniff all over, desperately, more interested in particular, minute regions of a fingertip than others. We could only gasp with delight, and proudly guess what we had been touching that was so agreeable, so vital to the ceremony. Perhaps it was some chemical in coriander that she liked (we ate a lot of tacos that week), or the dead skin scratched from our legs and ankles after wearing tight socks all day. Perhaps she smelt the food that we had been giving her, or the outdoors, or the taffeta-tattered scent memory of long-dead pets from our childhood; dogs under my partner’s nails, cats under mine.

I was upstairs when Yoki finally touched her. Of course, she didn’t call to me; her voice was spirit-level-steady, and she waited for me to come downstairs of my own accord to find her with one, quivering finger running up and down Yoki’s spine. At a rate that was Goldilocks-perfect, honed through years of interfacing with animals, one finger became two, and two became a hand, and soon it was as if things had never been different. We still do not know if consent was really given, in the way that we mean it; she did not run away, and years of observation told us that butting and bruxxing and purring all meant “more, please, do not stop”; but it was far from unequivocal. That spoilsport umwelt again; perhaps she accepted it as a neutral physic of her new world. Perhaps it was no different to rubbing against a tree or the corner of a door, and there was no gratitude there. Perhaps, even more interestingly, she knew that it was something that we wanted to do, and we were permitted, for her own good, and perhaps for ours as well.

We now could bathe her wound once a day; the smell was much worse than when she had arrived. She never struggled, but seemed unaware of the significance of our actions; she would slide away halfway through a treatment, trailing flecks of J-cloth and smelling of pickles.

There was a brief time, when I was away for a weekend, when the psychic darkness returned, the individualising, stupefying terror, and it overrode her civilisation and her new, discrete umwelt and all our unspoken agreements and she leapt, in blind knowledge, behind the oven. It took Sarah two days to coax her out with a broom, and we had to break off the running board of our ancient kitchen just to get at her, melted in trauma amongst the woodlice. Until then we had given her the run of the kitchen and the living room, knowing that her base behind the fridge provided her with a known and manageable escape. We were by now getting frustrated, however. We knew that she would take time to lose her fear; I have since read of cats hiding for months before emerging. We did not have months; we had a week until she needed to be back in the centre, and her wound was angry and not narrowing. In the end, we changed her umwelt by force; the only violent act we committed against her in her time with us. A clatter of the broom, and she ran into the living room and beneath the sofa; the kitchen door was shut, and she never saw her secret places again. They were winked out of existence as surely as if we had bulldozed them.

Our old accords were quick in returning. After a day or so of desultory hiding, we resumed what we had before. She never gave herself up utterly; the wrong pressure on the floorboards three metres away, the sound of a car door slamming, the electrostasis of us just behind her, would always reconfigure her into that crooked, uncomplicated hillock of an animal as we had received her. But the taboos, one by one, shrivelled and died; first her head, then behind her ears, then the base of her tail, and then finally her white belly, stained with vet’s anaesthetic. Though she had barely been a ghost before, she could certainly never haunt us again; we ranged over her with a forensic intensity that would spoil any horror story. We counted the eczemas on her chin, the textures in her iris, picked the caulk from her eyes. We brushed her everywhere, and she loved us for it; performing what Krieg sniffily calls “motor extravagances”; useless displays of stretching, twisting, turning and self-integration.

One thing that I have rarely seen in other cats was Yoki’s fascination with her own reflection. I remember lifting every one of my childhood pets up into the hallway mirror at my parent’s house, willing them to look, “who’s that there”ing, and each one of them had looked past the reflection, utterly bored and permissive. But Yoki took every reflection, no matter how dim or partial, as a fantastic sign. I could not say that she saw herself but she saw something, another cat, a body outside her own. I’m not immune to those feelings myself; I sometimes, when taking the time to study my own face, or my own body in a mirror, receive a similar, more self-conscious vertigo of the self; the sense that what I am looking at is an object, a thing-in-the-world, quite different from the ideal inside.

Those reflections, whether in the television screen or the makeup mirror or the milk-soaked apparition in our discarded dinner plates, were observed solely from a little eyot of red blanket that we had lain on the floor. In all those days I rarely saw her move from there, and I got the impression that even when we were upstairs asleep she remained aboard. If I was feeling particularly reductive I might say that she reminded me of a robot whose sensors can only detect in monochrome, and which grinds to a halt if its leaves the black line drawn out for it on the white floor. I considered her umwelt again; perhaps in the agony of leaving the kitchen some sort of imprint had occurred, and she was now stuck there. She spent most of her time morbidly kneading the bunched fabric, an example of eccentricity which Heideger would never have tolerated in his zoos, and which we mostly ignored on account of it being adorable. Regardless of her marooning, she was suddenly a normal, tactile presence in our lives, and we in hers; to say that she acted like a completely different cat is no exaggeration. There was little trace of her old personality, though she remained voiceless, her meow only theorised, and physically careful, always curling her tail around her body like somebody who will not put their coat down at a party.

It would have been wonderful to let this continue, once familiarity had set in and a beat was set. But Yoki’s time with us was only migratory; it had lent to her mysticism and our desperation to understand and please her. We thought about keeping her permanently, but we could not guarantee her fifteen or twenty years of absolute security (we could not guarantee ourselves that much) and her wound was not getting any better. We felt in that week that we were approaching some Rubicon of familiarity. Every day she became less tense, less of an animal, less godlike or ghost-like or mechanical, and in their place something reciprocal and rather delicate was coming about between us. The longer we left it, the more intricate and priceless this something became, the more worried I was about the damage it would do to snap it in two.

On the day, we gave her a big breakfast to make her heavy and lazy, and her eyot-blanket was used to line the cage. I’m ever more convinced of Uexküll’s theories when I think about that cage; it had sat in the middle of the living room since the day that she arrived, like Chekov’s Gun, and despite the horror with which it was associated in my mind, I never saw her shrink from it, or indeed give it any sort of association. It was as invisible to her as phone signal, as unimportant to her surround-world as keys and photographs and anything mounted higher than two feet from the floor.

We sat and let her sniff us, and we stroked all of those forbidden places which she now disregarded, and which we disregarded in each other. She liked what she found on our fingers and knuckles, or at least was used to it; she looked over our knees and hands and faces and thought that nothing had changed. We pretended, we simulated, that it had not, for as long as we could. The littoral moment, after which there was no return, was at that point when we had to pick her up; she had never let us do this before, had never offered herself for it. As soon as the hands, which until that point had been her lax, submissive subjects, looped with agency around her middle, that nascent delicacy was trashed. She keened and scrabbled, but the cage was shut and covered, the lock baffling her will. We covered the cage with another blanket and carried her like a reliquary out to the car.

I drove very slowly, quite unlike myself, and annoyed everybody. I turned around to watch her looking up at the passing trees and lampposts and sky above the lip of the door, and we cried as if we were taking her to be killed. Every now and then came a wet, trailing little mewl that we had never heard before, and we launched into last-ditch theories as to what it could signify; was it an automatic alarm, a plea, an attempt at a sort of brokering language? We tried not to let her hear us crying, because we did not want her to worry what we were signifying. Again, for the hundredth time since we had decided to take care of Yoki, we wished more than anything that that skein of specieism did not exist between us; we felt mutually suffocated by cowls preventing us from really communicating with her, kidnapped as we were by our own biology. We wished that she could understand that we would never be able to look after her properly, but that we would always consider her ours, that our entire lives had become configured around her in recent days; not to misunderstand us, that our house was a mess designed for her and that we did not mind; that she was special like other animals had been special, that the vet at the centre would not try to kill her, that the swelling would go down, that there was only a little further to go, that this traffic was not our fault, that somebody would soon come to take her, a family who wanted to be haunted and blessed for good, that that bump in the road was unavoidable, and that one, and not to cry or wet herself and

We argued about her, as quietly we could, from the front seats. We were both upset, but could not make the other understand. Cowls of different thicknesses, different opacities, in unbearable layers about our heads.

Heideger writes that all conduct with an animal is the stuff of mystery; that it involves mitigating, understanding and navigating a both natural-and-unnatural arrangement. There are few animals other than humans that will tolerate the companionship of other species, let alone actively invite it. Heideger was the director of several zoos in Switzerland in the 1930s, and spent much of his life thinking about the animals that he kept against their most natural instincts. He wrote about his worries of repetitive, pathological behaviour, depression, isolation, a lack of stimulation, about misunderstandings that could prove deadly for people or the animals themselves. He worried about mentally-unwell people who would break into his zoos to stab sleeping animals with scissors, or force them into sex. All of his worry, all of his writing, came down to something not unlike detective work, or mediumship, or gambling or scrying or faith; a co-opting of belief, clues, evidence, hunch, rumour, performance, self-knowledge and science into an act of optimistic broadcast. The relationship between animals and humans, he considered, would always be one-sided and less-than-satisfactory, in part because of the animal’s near-silence on such matters, and in part because of humanity’s insistence on proceeding anyway. Indeed, the human visitors to his zoos were treated in his books with a weary sort of reductivism; a sense that understanding them was a separate, infinite challenge, something which he did not have the years or inclination to attempt.

Yoki is still living in her taupe pod at the charity centre, and is doing very well; her wound is healing, and despite the sparseness of her surroundings she still has a domain; her red blanket is curled in one corner, and she has toys and paraphernalia aplenty. Soon she will be well enough to be advertised on the charity’s website for somebody to take her home. In the meantime we have tidied our own house, and thrown away the dirty litter and vacuumed all the corners, but it remains transformed. Despite her slight build and her disappearances, she has illuminated our space like a sonar, and filled the house like insulation. We now know about the places under the countertops and behind the fridges, places that we didn’t know could support life. I still get glimpses of time as she must have known it, particularly during those long days and nights in which she must have thought and dreamed and been alive. I look forward to the day when she can creep along walls again, be afraid for a little while, be worshipped and feared and believed in again, entering into a relationship very similar to those conducted by billions of people with quintillions of animals all across the world everyday; relationsips of joint hallucinations, metaphors, falsifications and misunderstandings.

A Lifetime With Dom

dominos virtual assistant, dom

A close study of Domino’s intelligent assistant, conducted ‘in the field’ while waiting for a Four Cheese.



The world in which it lives, the world which it is, stands at about 400 pixels wide, and I’ve looked everywhere across them, but no matter what I can’t seem to find any genitals. This makes me very uncomfortable; we demand to sex our agents, in ways we wouldn’t demand of our friends or colleagues or pizza delivery drivers.

I can’t tell whether, in Dom’s case, they have been considered unimportant for the representation, or whether they are so off-brand as to be entirely suppressed. Of course, perhaps what I am looking at here is not the entirety of the agent’s dimension, but is instead only some sort of viewport. Perhaps the genitals are hidden from me down below, just below the rim of my screen, tucked up into some resting pit.

In their absence, and the absence of any of the other usual, unfair, limited tells (hairstyle, cosmetics, bone structure, pitch, gait, scent) I shamefully and instantly default to thinking of it as male. ‘Dom’ could of course be ‘Dominique’, and though I cannot find any gendered pronouns in Domino’s’ marketing material, I think that my particular choice of gendering might be what was intended, however accidentally, all along.

Perhaps I’m not supposed to be seeing Dom as mammalian at all. His design is a deliberate retrofitting of the technology of the 1970s or 1980s, decades that I have scarcely passed through and yet whose references I constantly understand. Encoded CRT scanlines progress over Dom’s pixellated blue eyes, his only affordance, each of their false pixels made up of a matrix of tens of actual pixels on my phone’s high definition screen. There is even a clever convex layer effect when using the app, giving the impression of an oscilloscope’s bubble dome. Domino’s knows what people expect when they look at an agent; they expect HAL and his definite, thick interface and those like it; a cultural memory of blue gridlines on the porthole screen of a computer the size of livestock. We expect particular aesthetics, and it’s best to court expectations.

Even with all of this simulated machinery, there must be a pair (or a set or a cluster or just a hint) of something squishy around here somewhere. If I find it, then I’ll know how to think about him.


Quality Control

Dom has since spoken to me to tell me that our Stuffed Crust Veg Supreme is undergoing controls on its quality. Still no voice, no z-indexed Adam’s Apple; but the printed text that relays this message is not purely informational, but instead implies a personality. The punctuation, syntax and vocabulary are the personality of Domino’s itself, insipid wan infuriating Michiganese. It is an overfamiliar tone, comfortable in its domain and the narrative that it is orchestrating for me. It is only now that I realise that this domain and its narrative are designed visually to resemble a clock-face. Midnight marks both the inception and the conclusion of our time together, and Dom is encircled by this grim reminder of the entirety of his existence; not unlike a mayfly, he will be gone in the time it takes to cook and deliver me a pizza.

It is difficult to tell whether the information around the edge of the clock is diegetic or not. Dom appears to be aware of it, but with nothing apart from those blue eyes to place him, I cannot tell where he ends and where his task environment begins; whether the circle delineates his chubby cheeks or whether he is peering at me through some knock-hole, and is truly enormous. This would make more sense; his task environment, after all, is vast, encompassing not only this viewport on my phone screen (Laurel’s ‘arena’, Huizinga’s ‘magic circle’, this particular staging in which our mediation takes place) but the entire logistics network of the Domino’s chain, from Kyoto to Cairo. It’s a small domain, in terms of expertise, and does not require much of an ontology, or much intelligence. I know that his reactive comments, in the guise of an intelligent search for answers on my behalf, is receiving atomic data and relaying it to me atomically, hashed through with a gutsy delight written in interchangeable strings.

The Quality Control segment of the clock now lights up, and so we are approaching the halfway mark of our time together. Whether or not it forms a part of his biology, Dom watches the segments ding into completion with interest; even though he will no longer be needed when they have all lit, he seems anxious for it all to be over on my behalf. Thinking about this now, this seems like a distinctly unrealistic way for an organism to behave; to will itself out of existence through sycophancy. Artificial servants are nothing new, but I can’t think of any agent throughout history or literature, machine-made or divine or revenant, that blindly worked itself into its own doom without some self-reflection. There’s very little drama without it. There would be an interesting tension if instead Dom both sought the completion of his life’s work (that is, informing me when my pizza might be done) and dreading his oblivion; perhaps subtly sabotaging the segment’s progress, lying to me, acting less like a readout, the model employee, and more like an organism. They’ve given him eyes, after all.

I sit on the sofa, and watch him get giddier as we approach the next phase of his performance; my partner wonders what I am doing still craning my neck into the Domino’s app, when we ordered the pizza nearly twenty minutes ago. I’m interested in this little thing, I tell her.

Apparently there might be something wrong with our pizza, and this next segment is taking some time to satisfy its precepts. With no change in the domain, and nothing to react to, Dom’s role is uncertain. We’ve entered a sort of lagoon in our narrative, where there is no current to pull us on just yet, and we enter into lazy, scummy feedback loops. He says nothing; sometimes his eyes rise and bulge very slowly, in what I think is supposed to be a minimal, mindful breath. I’ve since learnt that Dom will respond to spoken questions (in direct parody of Apple’s Siri agent) with a stochastic pizza-pun response, eagerly hijacking a reductive nostalgia for the magic eight-ball. I didn’t know at the time. It might have been fun to ask him direct questions.

He keeps blinking at what seem to me like realistic intervals. I create artificial, self-satisfying little stories for what exactly is irritating his vision each time. I’ve programmed my own agent’s blinkings, and assigned each one an origin story.

if BlinkTimer <= 0 {
BlinkBehaviour.Active = true
BlinkSource =
choose("tears", "dirt", "blood", "insect", "fatigue", "palsy")
BlinkTimer = random(300)

I realise, now, later, that I was just playing the arsehole with Dom; I know that I was not supposed to be going this far with him. Dom is supposed to be a gewgaw, a half-time orange, the least a being can be; a widget.

Of course then, being an agent myself, and with no feedback forthcoming, I dig my fingertip into the phone screen in desperation. So far Dom has been without what Dr. Leon Watts calls Social Presence; believability and tangibility through interaction with another. So far he has cheerily moved between his discrete states and relayed his information without acknowledging my input; now, in this quiet, stagnant phase, he overreacts to my prod. His whole realm sunders; he vibrates in pain. I know that it is pain because he helpfully says ‘Ouch.’ He tells me to be careful where I’m sticking that thing, I suppose in the way that any Domino’s employee might, before they prosecuted me.

Of course, Dom has no internal state or facility for memory, apart from the trawl of marketing data that Domino’s must have collected on me over the last ten years, despite me asking them not to. He does not remember how many pokes I have given him, and he will not remember this assault on our next meeting. He makes no distinction as regards direction, pressure, genuflection or speed, cannot tell if I am trying to comfort him, massage him or elicit him to play. His world makes no room for pleasure; only a sort of wry mischief, a constant mythic cycle. It reminds me of Punch & Judy shows; each performance sees the crocodile get the sausage, Punch getting a concussion, and when the curtain falls a fugue descends, and all is forgiven and forgotten instantly. In Dom’s case, however, the curtain descends and rises every sixtieth of a second.

I don’t stop poking and sweeping and bodging him, purely because I am trying to elicit some sort of trauma. Within a minute I have moved right through the rotary of his pre-written responses and back again, and so I shrink away defeated.

About three miles from our house, in the Domino’s kitchens, there is the clatter of pans, arguments about tips, the smell of nylon and the snap of clasps on helmets. The next segment lights up; Dom notes the passing of time without sadness. His world is changing, and he changes with it, seamlessly. He is still happy to serve me.



It is revealed to Dom, and relayed to me with a rictus of triumph, that my pizza is now in the oven. He knows this, I first of all guess, because a data signal has been sent out by the computer system that is threaded through those distant kitchens, linking oven readouts, order databases and greasy paper receipts hanging from their clips. None of this is particularly vital to my order; all I really need to know is an estimated delivery time and perhaps when the pizza has left the kitchens in a sweaty saddlebag. Dom is telling me this instead to make me feel intimated; to invest me in the secret narrative behind the counter.

If I sound like a pillock, it’s because I am incredibly, uncomfortably right; Domino’s builds its brand on a scale between convenience and coquettishness, ‘right now’ and ‘soon, soon’. There would not be any need for Dom if you could make a pizza in a minute or two; that would leave no time for these little lagoons, no need for the segments and their anticipation; there would, in short, be no story to tell, even if the story is really quite stupid and boring. Dom is one of several attempts by his makers not only to nix the frustration we feel while we wait for our order to arrive, but to also take the naked information of that order and juggle it into some sort of arc, an entwicklungsroman cycle. Dom is our guide in this, and despite all my snobbery I have been sitting here for twenty-five minutes letting him guide me around that cycle, engrossed.

Human beings don’t react well to bare data; we struggle to process it properly. There is a reason that the oracles in Delphi used smoked sage and never gave a straight answer, and it is not because there was no straight answer to give. Dom is the same performative, psychopomp tease; he should have access to the most granular information that we might need, at the minutest detail possible (even unto the readouts on those huge ovens) but through him such information is normalised, smoothed, veiled and spotlit. This approach goes back, again to Laurel, Huizinga, and before; computers as theatre, play as ritual, human beings as childish audience, medium as medium, interface as tholos.

In hindsight, I think that perhaps Domino’s has gone even further. Perhaps there was no link at all between Dom and the kitchen, ever, and my pizza was nowhere near done, or in fact was already on its way. Using the received wisdom of the company’s vast psychological profiling of their customer base, Dom was able to predict exactly when and how to tantalise or to sate me. There’s no need to model belief as part of his design, or anything so fuzzy; I’m not as unpredictable as I like to think. To prove the point, his announcement that things are finally cooking makes me say “ooh”, and I relay the update to the room at large. Everyone nods in happiness, and I turn back to my apparatus to conduct the next reading.

I’m extremely impressed with Domino’s authorship of this experience. They’ve got me now, right to the end.


Out For Delivery

After this point the anticipation gets terrific, aching in its artificiality. I can be under no illusions as to where Dom’s animus is, where he hangs his hat, where his genitals, if he has any, might be tucked away. The pizza has left the premises of the restaurant three miles away, and is now apparently beyond his foresight and farsight. He is the kitchen; the kitchen is him. He hangs in its air like a fetish, lurks behind every make-line like a domovoi. Though he can project himself, be summoned, as plasm, into my home and onto my screen, there are limits to what he knows.

All we can do is wait; my story has gone dark, has submerged ominously. Soon, our driver Mark “Deliverance” Hutchins (or so Dom tells me he is called) will appear at my door with his hot bag. I don’t know if the nickname, or even the name itself, is randomly assigned. It’s part of the performance, the characterisation extending from Dom retrospectively onto the vast, logistical, human machine that preceded him. Domino’s is finally trying to make their employees into believable agents, despite the caps.

To me this sudden blackout, this running dark, is a choice and not a constraint. I see no technical reason why I could not track my pizza’s position on the road, as I might an Amazon package, if only to plan when to open my second beer, when to warm the plates, when to put on some trousers. I suppose it might have something to do with employee privacy law, and the fact that Domino’s makes its drivers use their own cars to drive down costs, only paying them for their petrol retrospectively and at the meanest rate possible. But it doesn’t really matter; it’s a stylish choice. I am now invested in the narrative to such an extent, and all our stomachs are rumbling with such feedback, that Dom can afford to abnegate his only function; to provide me timely information. To get technical now would only spoil the ending. Even when it is artificial, partiality is the key to any good agent, and to any organism. If they had made Dom more useful or more comprehensive, they might as well have rendered him as a lifeless ticker, a map overlay, or a limp toolbar.

I know that I have been playing the arsehole with Dom. I’ve been a clever dick. I’ve been “spoiling the sport”, as Huizinga said; the worst crime that a ‘user’, a player of games, a participant of performance, can commit. I’ve made fun of something fun; I’ve pointed out the smallness of something small. However, I would never deny that Dom was interesting, or believable, right at the very root of what it is to be believed. Domino’s, especially, has been experimenting with these traits in its advertising since the transmodal conjuration of the ‘Noid in the 1980s. Though I am sure that his commissioning executives would say that Dom serves a very different function, I think he might be a realisation of that early promise of a company’s patron personality, its spirit animal, its logos, made possible by the simple technologies of today. As if in confirmation, I have spent most of this last hour watching Dom, willing him to do more, aching for a partner in my self-centred paracosm, my ongoing, warpish imaginary worlds. He has worked on me.

But it is important, sometimes, to play the arsehole. It is important to query this consensual, casual animism which is becoming the new norm for the municipal data with which we want to conduct our lives. It is important precisely because this animism is never casual. Huizinga said that all play is serious, and means something, even when we insist that it is meaningless. Even when Dom’s pathetic circle was joined, and all of his segments lit up, and his lifetime was over, and the pizza arrived early and I forgot to ask the friendly, underpaid driver if his name really was Mark and if anyone really called him “Deliverance”; and even when I had a richer interaction with that driver in three seconds than I had had with Dom in the previous hour, conducted through the interface of cheese-steam leaking from the pizza boxes; even then, Dom meant something to me. I still haven’t forgotten him, or his on-brand blue eyes closing.

Empathy Machines: Love, Guilt and Paracosmics in Interactive Characters

furby title

This is a short panel paper, with slides, that I gave to a non-specialist audience at the Bath Spa University Early Stage Researcher Conference. As is becoming tiresome, the creature was in attendance on the desk beside me housed in a portrait monitor.

Hello everyone. This beside me is the largest fraction of my PhD project so far. I am deliberately showing you a rough, early prototype, and I do not want to say too much else about my work at this point. However, I believe with quite unacademic confidence that I can predict what you are seeing, and what is going through your minds, when you look at this collection of shapes and lines moving on a 2D field. No matter how many people I show this to, and no matter who those people are (whether academics, lay friends or random people on the internet), I can comfortably predict that this paltry, primitive abstract will coalesce in your minds into the impression of something greater; something alive, animate, and with purpose.

This inherent human tendency and compulsion is very useful to my work, and to the work of all artists, working in all disciplines. This entity that you see on this screen represents ten small .png files and about 200 lines of code; however, by combining them in an authorial, intentional manner I can reliably induce in you what amounts to a hallucinatory experience. Here, I mean ‘hallucinatory’ in the extremely abstract sense of seeing something which isn’t actually there. In this case, you are hallucinating a face, the features of an animal, a being, without explicitly being told to.


This is a well-known, primeval feature of the human brain, with its roots in the developmental stages of childhood; academics from the fields of literary theory, psychology, anthropology, paediatrics and many others have been fascinated for a long time by these tendencies to see life, and its attendant narrative, where there is none. For my purposes I have grouped these traits, and terms such as ‘animism’, ‘anthropomorphism’, ‘zoomorphism’, ‘personification’ and the more everyday ‘imagination’, under the general concept of paracosmics.

paracosmics quotes

A paracosm is generally defined as an imaginary world held in the mind of an individual. Though it tends to refer to geographic hallucinations such as Tolkien’s Middle Earth or the detailed fantasies of certain outsider artists such as Henry Darger here, I believe that we can usefully apply it to any hallucinatory, ascriptive experience; when we imagine the characteristics of someone we have never met, picture a fictional character eating breakfast, see a face in a rock, daydream about flying over a fantastical land or ascribe animal characteristics to people (or indeed vice versa), we are creating a ‘cosm’; a hypothetical, hallucinatory space in which to model something that isn’t real.


I still find it amazing how little this ability needs in order for the imagination to be stimulated. This is an extract from a three-minute animation made in 1944, depicting three abstract shapes moving around a field; no different in composition and content to the ‘being’ which sits beside me here. This animation was shown to thirty study participants (all women, oddly), who were simply asked to describe what they were seeing. All but one participant spontaneously produced a narrative of the events unfolding, characterisation of each shape and its relationship to the others, even the emotions that they imagined them to be feeling. Many professed to feeling real emotions themselves; sorrow for the small triangle, anger at the large, and so on.

Moving on from these psychological and artistic studies, recently I have been branching out into a study of the paracosmic manifestation right across human culture; high to low, everyday to sacred. This will, I hope, allow me to explore other ways of thinking about my prototype here as a character, or as the suggestion of a character, onto which an audience will project their manifestations.

The famous computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum, in his book Computer Power & Human Reason, takes a moment about halfway through to compare the modern computer with one of these manifestations. He describes an ancient technology which has reliably and consistently performed important tasks through interaction with human beings in the material world. At the end of this extremely long sentence, he reveals that he is talking about…

teddy bear

…the teddy bear.

Indeed, toys are an ancient technology, as old as our species; they are artefacts that induce a paracosmic effect in both children and adults, often through their incorporation of some deliberate design elements that are suggestive of character, individuality and agency. They are, in a phrase, empathy machines; built things designed, in their building, to reliably induce attachment and paracosmic engagement, almost to a ritual degree. Heider & Simmel’s animated shapes were exactly the same, as was this toy horse from Ancient Greece. Even today, beneath museum glass, it is an invitation to imagine the animal it represents, both in its shape and in the metaphor of movement produced by those spinning wheels.

horse slide and piaget quote

The influential child psychologist Jean Piaget famously believed that children engage in this “widespread animism” throughout childhood; attributing thoughts, feelings, intent and life to inanimate objects, whether characterised or not. Whilst modern psychologists such as Nathalia Gjersoe have shown that children are actually quite able to distinguish between inanimate objects and living beings under laboratory conditions, even at very early ages, it is still evident that whilst children are playing with them, toys encourage them to create vivid paracosms, emotions and imaginings spontaneously. This is something which the play theorist Johan Huizinga and others have called the magic circle; the extrasocial space in which play, imagination and belief in things unreal is permitted, and outside which logic and utility might instead take precedent. We cannot deny the enormous emotional, creative and imaginative effect that comes from interacting with artefacts inside this magic circle; Pamela McCorduck writes about this in relation to another sort of cultural artefact, the clockwork automata popular in 17th century Europe: “we [were] not fooled for an instant, just enchanted.”


Toys have undergone a technological advancement in the last twenty or thirty years; the introduction of microelectronics has led to toys whose personalities and responses are not only imagined by the child, but are real and hard-coded. This was perhaps most culturally noticeable in the 1990s and early 2000s with the introduction of electronic pets such as the Furby and the Tamagotchi; toys which reacted back to children, which changed over time, which acted as if they had a life of their own; which were, in the words of a rather utopian article in Time magazine from the year 2000, “artificial life-forms”.


And it is in the power of such artefacts to induce empathy and paracosms that we start to wade into murkier ethical waters. It comes down to this: if our empathetic drive can be manipulated by almost any artefact, with only the barest suggestion of life or animacy or character, how easily might this drive be abused? How might that ‘magic circle’, in which we can be influenced by such artefacts, be grown or shrunk without us realising it, or moved into new arenas of our everyday lives? I think this question comes down to the purpose of that manipulation: why are we trying to convince people to ‘believe’ in something, to see life where there is none?

Looking to toys, especially in the last one hundred years, that purpose is commerce. The term ’empathy machine’ has never been more appropriate, and the introduction of reactiveness, of interactivity, in these latter-day ‘digital toys’ allow companies to even more tightly focus their efforts to invest children’s ideas, their emotions, and thus the buying power of their parents.

And it is thus inevitable that the emotions and ideas that are generated by interacting with a Furby or a Tamagotchi are, in the main, exploitative. In their design, they often only produce two emotions; love and guilt. Love come from the toy’s design, its appealing appearance, as well as the personality portrayed by the simple digital technologies at its heart. The guilt comes from the tight feedback loop in a child’s or adult’s interaction with it; the toys cry and whinge if they are not fed or played with, they grow grumpy or sad, and even die. The Tamagotchi manual is full of warnings and admonitions for people who do not clean up after their little pet, or feed them daily.

It is in this matrix of guilt and love, combined with the toys’ novelty and marketing narrative, that the Furby and Tamagotchi found both huge commercial success at the point of sale and ongoing engagement within the homes of their customers. The mania that surrounded the Furby when it was launched is well-known, and the phrase ‘Tamagotchi Effect’ was coined after research into a widely-reported phenomenon of obsessive and intense emotional attachment to the toy by children and adults alike. Many schools and workplaces banned them; I remember my own primary school doing so. Such was the power of the paracosmic, personifying tendency in those who played with them. This tendency is not, as many reported at time, a problem in and of itself; but it is a problem when that tendency is exploited for profit.

gender slide

Such cultural artefacts are not merely economically influential; they can have political and social influence as well. It is not widely reported that the Tamagotchi was originally developed as a sort of training tool for young Japanese girls to be doting mothers. There have been many controversies (too many to list here) involving the enforcement of arbitrary gender divisions by toys, a real concern considering how influential these artefacts are in shaping perceptions of the world.


We cannot take the disingenuous position, either, that these effects only influence children. As I believe I have shown, our knowledge that something is not actually real does not mean that we cannot be influenced by it seeming real or alive. As Heider & Simmel’s study shows, even a few shapes can make us feel something fundamental; and when we feel something fundamental, we are vulnerable to influence.

In advertising there are countless studies that show how important emotional attachment is to brand loyalty; and personification, anthropomorphism and narrative technique are some of the most effective tools that we have for generating paracosms, inference and emotions. Giving your brand or product an identity, the hints of a personality, an invitation to embody, is a popular way to do this.


In a recent paper with the excellent title Deconstructing the Meerkat, researchers from Queen Mary University looked at the ridiculously successful use of cute, funny, anthropomorphised meerkat characters to sell car insurance, and went on to propose a set of principles for creating such characters in the future. This manipulation and its purpose must be noted in terms of advertising ethics. When you can induce people to choose your website over all others with the promise of a free doll, based on a character fantasy that has nothing to do with what you are selling, we cannot deny that the paracosmic artefact can influence big kids as well as small ones.


We might extrapolate out from commerce and move into the more global, political effects of inducing the paracosmic tendency in human beings, with the purpose, perhaps, of sidestepping logic and rational debate and promoting in their place patriotism, jingoism and non-rational narratives, in order to influence voting patterns or law. Here is an example of the magic circle growing from the size of child’s bedroom to the size of a nation; Uncle Sam is a national hallucination. As I have already noted, the fact that Uncle Sam is not real does not affect the complex and emotive myth that he represents, and in deploying him as narratively logical, just another person, and inducing personification in the population, what he represents suddenly becomes simpler, more appealing and more human. In the narrative and character of Uncle Sam, as elsewhere, purpose is everything.


Of course, purposes can be positive as well as negative. While commonly a dirty word when it comes to nature writing or natural science, the anthropomorphism that is at the centre of the advertising campaigns of animal charities are important drivers of revenue for those charities. In imagining and anthropomorphising the internal states of those animals we are driven to sympathy, empathy, and the giving of charity. Some may argue that this is commercial manipulation like any other, and there’s a debate there, certainly.

In the medical sphere, both animals and anthropomorphised robots are used with the purpose of providing succour, companionship and mental engagement for the very old and the very ill; acting as stimuli for the atrophied paracosmic abilities of these people. At a recent event I was lucky enough to meet Robin here, a project by roboticists from the University of Hertfordshire to simulate the symptoms of diabetes in a robot, with the (now-proven-successful) hypothesis that caring for a ‘sickly’ robot might help young diabetes sufferers manage their own condition without supervision.

So, if we accept the incredible associative and paracosmic powers of the human mind, then the ethical ramifications of manipulating those powers comes down to purpose. So what is my purpose, my agenda, with my character? Well, my purpose is I hope, artistic, subversive and self-reflexive.

I am interested in exploring these paracosmic tendencies in human beings, in our unstoppable urge to see agency wherever we look, and determining how this might relate to the construction of fictional characters in any medium. I want to use the power that characterised artefacts have over us to critique the practice, and push it to its very limits. Though I have only just begun my project, already my creature, my collection of shapes, is influencing you in subtle yet fundamental ways! This is fascinating to me, and I plan to take it as far as I can. However, I hope that I have shown that there are far worse purposes for manipulating the inbuilt, inescapable tendencies of my audience.

Thank you very much, and I leave you with Jeff Winger, putting it far more pithily than I have here.


Empathy Games

When we meet for our monthly catch-ups, Bath Spa’s Empathy Research Group resembles a boardroom meeting for the world’s most nervous, and self-deprecating, security firm. Imagine such a thing. Believe me, we know better than any how difficult that is.

With members from the fields of literary criticism, creative writing, psychology, neuroscience, developmental psychology and now latterly, through myself, the digital arts, we often feel like departments in such an introspective, publicly-minded conglomerate, one whose business is the observation and judgement of others. No firewall, lead vest nor Faraday device can stop our enquiries; even non-existence isn’t a shield. Luckily for everybody else, we worry about what we are doing a lot.

In all our various fields, we apply ourselves to the problems of that most human (or, according to some of our members, firmly universal) trait of imagining the unobservable states of other entities, a powerful and fraught exercise. In our meetings there definitely is the atmosphere of audit; gathered from our various specialties we report on our work, and hear about the work of others. We keep minutes and welcome new members in strict timetabled order as we sit stiff-backed around the panoptic awkwardness of square-set tables. We stand in small caucuses at the windows, looking pained or revelatory. We sit with coffee and laugh giddily at both our own shortsightedness and our ingenuity, experiment on each other, talk about ramifications, kindly critique and suggest, look to the future, get almost teary-eyed with utopianism. Eventually we conclude and disperse, until next month, for the next balancing of sheets; back to our own fiefdoms, taking home napkins rolled around slices of the chair’s excellent banana cake, as dense as earth.

I’m one of the only members working in the field of interactive artforms, and whilst reaction to my talks and reports has been enthusiastic, encouraging and rigorous, I have realised that very few in the group are engaging with these forms outside of the intellectual tourism provided by our meetings. Not many would consider turning to games in the ways that they might easily turn to a text, an essay, an academic paper, a film or a piece of music.

So, for them as well as everybody else, including myself, I’ve started a public list of games which I feel engage with the theme of empathy in some manner. I haven’t called it homework for the Research Group, but I sincerely hope that some of them take it as such. I hope that anybody finds this list useful, or interesting, or perhaps will settle for it not being offensively ommissive. I hope to add to it throughout the future, and as it is a public Google Sheet there is nothing to stop you from adding your own entries and justifications.

The focus of the list is, however, my little Research Group; a sort of corporate bonding exercise, without the body-hot scotch eggs on cardboard china for afters. To be honest, I am excited at the thought of this group of impressionable, inquisitive, highly intelligent thinkers engaging with what to them might be an entirely new artform; few of us get a chance to do that, in adulthood. I’ve tried to provide as much gateway material as possible, including basic instructions for getting and playing the games at all. Writing this column has reminded me of how contingent the videogame medium is; the intermediary technologies and ontologies that you need to understand in order to just access the art are an absolute thicket in some cases. After you’ve purchased a machine that has the graphical capability to even render the artwork into being (hence my inclusion of some basic web games), there comes the tribalistic storefronts, the corporate loyalties which are second-nature to those of us who have seen our development as aficionados bound to our development as consumers. This is before we even get to the thornier problems of haptic and diegetic literacy. Do you need to understand the history of the health bar to understand the significance of its exclusion? Can you really appreciate the savour of a game well-made when you cannot get your avatar to move out of the corner of the first room? Is this your fault? I remember rolling my eyes at my granddad as a pre-teen, entranced by the (still-frankly-marvellous) metaphor of the translation of his muscle movements into the movement of a cursor on a screen; out of the hands of adults, I must have thought. But, as my little corporation of twenty-five shows, ‘non-gamers’ and ‘Luddites’ are other things besides. They are poets, artists, scientists and thinkers. All humans must be given the potential of access to a form if it is to be treated as a contender for the exploration of human themes such as, let us say, empathy. At the moment, this is the best I can do.

knole Prototypes #2 & #3 Functioning Speech Recognition & Text Input

I completed two prototypes this week. Compared to previous efforts they were trivial to put together, but they represent a developmental milestone. For the first time my godlets can receive, interpret and process human language, albeit to a primitive degree. As the plural suggests, however, my attempts have bifurcated my project into two separate branches; in parts because of my lackings as a programmer, the restrictions of the engines that I am using, and the narrative metaphor right at the centre of this project.

Each of the two prototypes receives language input from the user in a different way; the first uses voice recognition, provided as a boxed feature by the IDE Construct 2. I have had prior misgivings about Construct, primarily around the paradigms that its ‘no-coding-required’ ontology imposes upon my work, but my reasons for using it have always centred around the ease of eventually implementing voice recognition. As I’ve now found, it can be deployed in minutes, with a brief clicking-through of sub-menus, and because Construct is an HTML5 wrapper it leeches Google’s API for fast, accurate results. Since popping it into my project I’ve received a lot of rumbling, cooed admiration for the results that I do not really deserve; as well as having little understanding of the processing involved, I used Aaron Clifford’s excellent demo-project Speech Commander as a blueprint, or rather as a source of plagiarism. My ignorance of this technology versus my desire to include it is a dynamic that does worry me; I feel that I should understand its functionality before making it so central to the godlet’s functioning.

This first prototype displays the speech that has been recognised by the microphone in a string beneath the godlet’s chin, so that I can make sure that the feature is working properly. On my first pass, the results were very slow to appear, sometimes taking as much as five seconds to materialise. This is obviously not ideal for a simulation which is meant to represent the pricked ears and instant reactions of a skittish animal. Switching the vocal monitoring to Interim Results rather than Final traded speed for accuracy, and all at once my godlet seemed to become more attentive; even though there is not actually any bodily reaction yet, just the ability to have my meaning transferred into the program fills me with a sort of sympathy for the beast. All the time, not as a designer but as a user or an observer, I am straining to provide this agent with intelligence. I want it to understand me, to be alive, and I will perform severe mental contortions to make this happen. This is something that I realise lies beneath the mien of even the most cynical technologist, game player or academic; whatever their surface desires (to undermine a simulation, to point out flaws, to see the join), they cannot help but naively, basically seek intelligence, life, agency and logic within a system like this, using any hint provided to aid their imagination in the task. They may refute as imperfect, but they cannot ignore it entirely.

I am not even sure if the loss of accuracy in this approach is a problem, either; how good a listener does my godlet have to be? You only need to read a few books of mythology to know that gods are notoriously bad listeners anyway. And most organisms, even without a human grasp of language, can still react to outside stimuli in elemental and unequivocal ways; loud sounds are alarming, soft sounds comforting. Perhaps such reactions would provide meaning enough, without knowing whether I just said ‘queen’ or ‘cream’.

The second prototype is an attempt to find a way to include language input using Gamemaker: Studio (for which I finally have a professional license, courtesy of my university). Gamemaker has been a far more robust engine for my prototypes, aside from voice recognition which it does not natively support. According to the developers it might be possible to implement as an extension, and I am certainly interested in the interfacing possibilities with Windows 10’s Cortana software. Indeed, this is where my formal training in voice recognition might arise, once I find the time to experiment with it. The Gamemaker community seems oddly hostile to the idea of developing this feature for the platform; the various topics posted on the official forums asking about it are answered with exhortations to ‘leave Gamemaker to what it is good for’; by which is meant, I think, 2D shmups and platformers. I disagree, of course. I am using Gamemaker to create a chatbot, a tabernacle, an AI, a simulator, a research discourse; far divorced from the commercial videogames which made the software well-known. I have submitted to the metaphors that it engenders (‘rooms’, ‘objects’, ‘steps’, its peculiar way of handling rotation) in order to use it for my own purposes, and For now this means that my prototype Gamemaker godlet, with its BOD architecture and growing complexity, receives the typed input of a user rather than the oral. In the pursuit of textual aesthetics I decided to limit these inputs to eight characters or fewer. Round the back the godlet has a new piece of anatomy, mListener, which receives the user’s typed phrase as a string variable, before alerting the POSH plan of the fact that there is a new input to consider; the variable is then passed to a currently-zygotic bListening behaviour module, and it is here that the actual processing of each phrase will take place.

In both prototypes, I decided that this new functionality should assume a non-diegetic, biological form. For now a red circle hangs pendulous between the godlet’s eyes, like a Hindu bindi or the ‘muddy pellet’ of Taoism. It swells and shrinks in time with the godlet’s breath like a wen or an artery. It is jumpy at the touch of a mouse or a finger, but looks so sore that it cannot help but invite a prod. It also serves practical diegetic functions; in Construct, it indicates (more clearly than Google Chrome’s in-built notification) whether the microphone is receiving or not. In Gamemaker, it engorges to accept the player’s portentous eight characters, before subsuming and digesting the word once the Enter key is pressed. The boundaries between internal and external representations of the godlet’s state as a formal system are of continuing interest to me; how much of the system is made apparent to the user? What organic indicators are there of internal state? How much of a ‘beast’, with a beast’s attendant tone of coat, flush of skin and meaty appurtenances, will the godlet be?

It is obvious that the split between the two prototypes will become more and more annoying as time goes on. Some features will rely on vocal recognition, and others will not. I will need to maintain two different, partial versions of the godlet, and even then will eventually have to reconcile the limitations of my approaches in some way. Despite Gamemaker’s shortcomings in its lack of voice recognition support, I am so keen on its advantages that I am considering serious alterations to the project in order to accommodate it. Suppose that I step away from voice recognition entirely so that I can keep using Gamemaker and only Gamemaker; what does this do to my narrative, to the nature of my godlet? It certainly becomes more removed from the organic, from the zoomorphic; can it be a creature if it has no ability to hear? The fewer sensors it has, the less alive it might seem. Then again, is this being a creature at all, or just a representation of elemental forces and social functions, as all gods truly are? Perhaps a god does not need to listen like a thing with cochlea and nerves; perhaps that is too prosaic, too everyday, for a spiritual avatar.

Instead, perhaps my compromising approach in Gamemaker of deliberate, almost-ritualistic input of portentous typed phrases comes closer to humanity’s interaction with the divine. Throughout our religious traditions we can see that human relationships with otherworldly beings cannot be conducted naturally or in real time, as they might be with our family and friends. Instead, they are meditated by narrative processes that require delay, brooding, stricture, ceremony and delimitation. I have mentioned the Japanese animist tradition of Shinto elsewhere; despite being supposedly soaked in the deities of the natural world, all around them, its practitioners cannot merely call out for luck or riches or happiness, as if they were asking for another cup of tea or a bag at the supermarket. An interaction with a kami, a Shinto spirit, must be deliberately non-trivial. Rules must be followed, so as not to make the spirits feel insulted, as well as to support and legitimise the vast furniture of Japan’s state religion, to provide bonding between worshippers, and to enforce a way of living. In Shinto, one of the manners in which this is achieved is through ema; small wooden plaques on which wishes are carved. They are governed by their own devotional grammar and aesthetics, and restricted in repository to specific shrines and holy places. The dialogue between divine and mundane is heavily mediated; it is not merely a chat over a fence.

My approach in Gamemaker is similarly mediated, initially as a result of limitations in the technology; perhaps, however, there is a narrative expediency to it. This allies with my changing thoughts around the godlet’s accompanying analogue text, the other half of the knole project. I had at first conceived it as a lyrical poem, though very little thought went into this decision. It was an arbitrary choice, one merely designed to provide me with a linear, literary counterpoint to the computed, non-linear godlet, and to talk critically about the differences between ‘physical’ and ‘digital’. To be honest, I have been frustrated and uninspired by it over the last few months, and have hated being wedded to its approach. Nothing I write has any bite nor body, and seems so tangential to the main representation of the godlet as simulation that I cannot make it stick. Instead, I have been thinking more about better aligning this text with the narrative metaphors of the godlet’s fiction, and using it in a way that honours the unique qualities of linear texts as opposed to multifarious ones. In my diversions into religion, ritual and tradition, I have come to think that perhaps the task to which a linear text is most suited is that of sacrament, of religious ceremony. A set of unimpeachable instructions, of chronological imperative, of holy writ, a code by which to act; a program to execute in the name of the numinous.

So now I am thinking that a better approach for this text might be to create some sort of holy scripture for the godlet; a mystic manual for whatever religion this being engenders. Rather than one long narrative, it would instead provide discrete, poetic instructions for interacting with the godlet in different situations; proscribing the ceremonial architecture between ‘worshipper’ and ‘worshipped’. Such a text, with its abracadabras, thou-shalt-nots and in-the-beginnings (though all longer than eight characters), will provide a more narratively contingent manner of exploring the godlet, of experimentation within its defined set of rules; the essences of both interactivity and religion. A tie will then be created between more traditional modes of narrative interactivity (the instructional religious text) and modern modes (the videogame or simulation). In conducting deliberate, playful, investigatory liturgy with the godlet, in making conscious, weighty prayers instead of organic conversation, and in seeing the godlet’s heirophantic apparatus swell and wither in response; that might be the trinity of mechanics, metaphor and relationship that I have been looking for.

Or perhaps I’m just huffy and lazy at doubling my workload.

A Talk Given To The Bath Spa Empathy Research Group, 29th February 2016

I will try and include as much of what I covered as I can; but I will not try to write as I spoke, because I speak like a human being, and that’s dull. I’m also not going to abandon the opportunity to include some things that were flung off at the last minute because of timings, or to engorge other things in hindsight. I’ll skip the explanation of my project that the group required; if you want such introductions, you’ll need to make them in the archives.

Let’s begin instead at my research question, as it is still standing.

“How can digital interactive characters, such as those encountered in videogames, better come to embody the same ‘literary’ qualities enjoyed by those found in more traditional works of art, whilst maintaining their unique qualities as dynamic agents within a system?”

When dissected, the nubs of this question lie at the juncture of similarities and differences between characters in traditional media (such as films, books and other artforms that do not rely on digital computation) and new media (such as those that do). The terms traditional and new are to an extent arbitrary, debatable and troublesome, but I won’t be entombing them in brackets, obeli, quotation marks or any other apologetic punctuation. I have arbitrated them precisely for my inquiry; though the lines between them are anything but defined, and I am studiously avoiding the word ‘technology’ for a reason, I must ask you to accept, for the purposes of bearing each other over the next 7,000 words, that the use of the digital computer to make art does something fundamentally isolating to that art.

This very art, which includes many different permutations of code, software-driven simulation, art ‘generators’ and, most visibly and controversially, videogames, presents unique opportunities to experiment with the most basic factors of human expression; opportunities that lie in the qualities of the form. However, such opportunities also couch enormous, sometimes-hideous challenges to those who would make such art, particularly in a world that already often assumes that there exists a cool, stable and distant relationship between art and technology, and the definitions of those words. These challenges, along with the relative youth of the new forms, engender certain deficiencies in new media art today. Some of these are the fault of new media artists, and some of them are the fault of the world. One which remains the fault of both is the deficiency of character.

My project, knole, uses both traditional and new media to explore and ameliorate this deficiency. As a practice-based PhD, these explorations, salves and personal solutions to the problems of character take the form of an artistic work. I will develop two distinct versions of one character, a guardian nature-spirit of the English landscape; a semi-divine, semi-intelligent atavistic godlet represented both in linear, material, traditional form and as a computer simulation. The simulation has already been prototyped several times, and I present one of these prototypes below. It is still a primitive simulation; the only behaviours which the godlet can yet express are breathing and blinking.

Though it cannot yet tell that we are here, watching its every twitch, nor respond in any sense, it was very important for me to begin this prototyping process early on in my PhD, and show as much of my cack-handed code to as many people as possible. Despite its locked-in affability, this simulation is still a character, and in making it public I can ask some very basic questions of the people who encounter it, and garner some very interesting answers.

Perhaps you can help me in this regard, as well. Please spend some time with the simulation below, and then answer some, or all, of the questions underneath it. If you come to any particularly excellent conclusions, in your own opinion, you are very free to email them to me.

  • What are you looking at?
  • Is it alive?
  • Is it healthy?
  • What is its name?
  • What does it eat?
  • Is it happy?
  • What does it think of you?
  • Could it understand you, if you tried speaking to it?
  • What is it waiting for?
  • How could you please it?

Of course, I have already told you that it is a animist, animated worship object, and you are its heirophants; this cannot help but imbue your answers to those questions with a certain sibylline quality; a mysticism. The penultimate question in the list above is a leading one, as more than one person that I have shown it to have already told me that the creature is ‘expectant’, ‘hypnotic’, or ‘calm’. Despite knowing more than anybody about what this simple being might eventually be, at the end of my project, there are still things about it which surprise me, every time I sit with it. I imagine differently every time how the breath from its nostrils might sound. Its mood, beneath that mien, shifts slightly with each sitting. It is however always, unchangingly, serene; I sometimes even use it as an aid to mindfulness; to slow my breathing after a difficult day.

It is so willing, so permissive and trusting, that I feel dreadful about the things that must be inflicted upon it in the future, under pressures of narrative. The features that I am building for it, even now, will disturb this peaceful monad and change those encoded circadia forever.

It is at this consideration of my character, even in this nascent phase, that my work intersects with empathy, and with the remit of this research group; especially the complex and sometimes-contradictory empathy that we might feel towards fictional characters1 which is the bread of our work as writers. It is in this particular empathy that I believe lie the biggest challenges to creating digital characters that resonate with an audience. They are challenges which were either nonexistent in traditional media, or which have been subsumed into the ontology of the forms, and whose partial solutions become merely naturalised technique.

I must define my terms here, especially in such a subjective space. What might I, or any other, mean by a ‘resonant’ character? We might instead talk about ‘good’ characters, not in the sense of moral virtue but in the sense of skillful depiction. ‘Resonant’ is a placeholder for what we really mean, which is harder to access than we might at first think. Other adjectives we could use for such characters include, depending on medium, genre or speaker, ‘well-drawn’, ‘life-like’, ‘believable’, ‘relatable’, ‘tragic’, ‘rich’; these words do not point to one quality which all fictional characters share, but rather a cosmos of systemic qualities in unique combinations. In the pursuit of expediency I have been using one word to stand for this class of superior character, one which is not without its own politics, subjectivities and caveats; ‘literary’. Though I probably will replace it with a more appropriate term soon (if one exists) I have, for now, attempted to make quick mappings of some of the qualities that we might expect these ‘literary’ characters to possess2. One of these mappings is below, flanked by two exemplars of such characterisation from extremely different realms of artistry; on one hand, The Man With No Name from Sergio Leone’s peerless trilogy of Western films, and on the other Emma Bovary from Gustave Flaubert’s novel of almost the same name. Though these characters are bipolar in terms of context and persona, in their construction as narrative artefacts they share some (though not all) of the attributes listed between them, as well as many more that I have not delineated. My use of the word ‘artefact’ is a pointed one; alone, these are static vignettes of people, the petrification of the mind of their authors. Once they are encountered by their respective audiences, however, these literary qualities produce a transformation. This transformation, like the qualities themselves, goes by many different names. It may be said that we come to ‘care about’ these characters, that we are ‘invested’ in their fate or merely ‘interested’ in what comes to happen for them, even if we do not necessarily, openly, like them. Perhaps the most conventionally-accepted way that it could be put in English is that we ‘feel for’ them. This feeling, this transformation and enlivening of a codified, partial person in the imaginations of an audience is the kernel of empathy in fiction.3

literary characters diagram

Other languages than English, as so often and so usefully, provide fresh perspective on the concept of ’empathy; In German, empathy as we might mean it in English is represented by the word ‘Einfühlung’, which directly translates as ‘feeling into’, and the dimensionality of this term is important to note. In empathising with a character we are not merely ‘feeling for’ them; this sensation, a recognition of their lives from outside without further engagement, is more accurately covered by the word ‘sympathy’. Empathy requires a degree of interaction, construction, aid; the scant material of the text, the immobile, suggestive glimpses of a person, provides a template out of which our minds build an entire being. We are not merely understanding the character on the page; we are helping to create them.

Much scholarship already exists around these ideas, most commonly formalised in literary criticism as reader-response theory or reception theory. This school arose out of the postmodern movements in literary criticism of the 1960s, following the examples of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault in their departure from traditional thought on such concepts as ‘the reader’ and ‘the text’. Reception theory was opposed almost diametrically to the much older traditions of Formalism and New Criticism, which (if I may, in honour of their philosophies, be very reductive) held as tenet that the ‘text’ of an artwork, the author-originated, objective fact of an artistic thing, was all that was required to understand it. As an artefact, so it had for many years been said and is still being said, a work could stand alone and be judged; the reader, along with their enlivening perspective, was irrelevant, if not damaging to analysis.

As I think can be guessed, reception theory is much closer to my own heart; if it is not less close-minded than its antecedents, it is at least close-minded in a way which I find comfortable. The theory states that reading a text, or more accurately consuming any art, is a collaborative, performative enactment. It is not passive; it is a willed gorging, and in that gorging a theatre takes place between author and reader in the stage of the back-brain, or perhaps more accurately between text and reader. In interacting with the work, the audience imparts meaning and significance, rather than merely deriving it from something already complete. In doing so, they alter the objective significance of the work, and that alteration cannot, as the Formalists and New Critics hoped, be rinsed off in order to leave behind an integral remainder – an artwork derives its full existence from being viewed and understood. The ‘skillful depiction’ of a character in such a work is not skillful in its completeness, but rather in its suggestive emptiness. Perhaps the word ‘resonant’, after all, is the best adjective to describe such characters; like drums, their power comes from the spaces left in their middles.

My gateway into this school of criticism has been the work of Howard Sklar, a Norwegian academic of English literature who in his paper Believable Fictions outlines his position; if not pithily, at least comprehensively:

“This essay centers on the question of readers’ beliefs in the reality of characters in fictional narratives, and the ways in which they might respond as a result of that belief. I will attempt to show that, although there are significant differences between real-life emotions and the emotions that readers experience while reading fiction, the two types of emotions share important similarities. This is especially true, I contend, in terms of the processes that we undergo when responding emotionally to fictional characters, whom we intuitively regard as real people.”

Sklar, 2009

Sklar posits in this essay his own translation of reception theory; that human beings, in arriving at a text, boil up their own personal experience, their empathetic faculties, their literary affordances and many other traits in order to render a character entire from the recipe of hints and quasi-instructions that a text represents. Sklar’s work certainly preserves the
sense of depth of the German ‘Einfühlung’; in his descriptions of the process of reading, we can almost imagine characters as cunningly-constructed yet empty vessels, worked in such a way as to invite the reader to choose them for filling. The vessel has worth in and of itself, as a beautiful, inviting and self-extending object; but it is most certainly an object of potential, an tool of use and personal interpretation of that use.4

Later in Believable Fictions, Sklar makes what I believe is his most important point; delineating the work of Keith Oatley and Mitra Gholamain, he states that in reading or imagining a character, in empathising with them, we are undertaking a simulation of them. The enormous capabilities of our imaginative brains can take the worked material of a text and extrapolate to a dizzying extent; creating, in essence, that character as a micro-world, an hypothetical ecosystem full of redundant, invented parts perhaps not useful to the text directly, but important to the reader in recognising that initial jumble of fictive clues as a eventual formed being. This concept of ’empathy as simulation’ is key to my research into digital characters.

At this juncture we may return to new media, in particular videogames (if only because of their extensive and publicised canon) and their debatably-unique property of interactivity. It may be said that in games we do not merely simulate and experiment with the clay of the artwork in our minds; such artefacts may be manipulated and altered materially by their players. While I am of the opinion that these manipulations and alterations are often encoded and permitted (if not predicted) by the designer themselves, it is certainly true that each player will, in their very interaction and experimentation, experience a different artefact from many others. While far fewer games make full use of this property than might be at first thought, their designers terrified of straying from the lovely corset of ‘story’ (whatever that really means) and narrative structure, the Platonic ideal of a game is, certainly, less a story and more a world in which a subset of stories might be told by the audience to themselves.

I am choosing not to address the arguments surrounding the question of whether such artefacts as videogames can be considered art, as the root of that word attests; the debates are beneath all of us, and often conducted through ignorance and snobbery rather than actual formalist inquiry. This negation frees us up to now recognise, in the unique qualities of the media, the challenges posed. Allowing one’s audience choice to alter an artwork outside of their own imaginations introduces a degree of uncertainty for the artist. No longer is the objective experience of one’s artwork fixed; if that experience is some sort of ‘key’ to unlocking a truer, personal experience in the mind of the audience, then in games that key becomes protean and indefinable.

Characters in digital media are part of this chaos themselves, and inherit its qualities; characters in such worlds, in order to realise the potential of the medium, to allow players to explore their own stories, must be to an extent dynamic, amenable to change, reactive to the player’s challenges; to be, in essence, far more complete and well-rounded than we ever ask any of the fragile characters of fiction to be, in their delicate, immobile webs of tenth-drafted artifice. In such instances, how can characters ever hope to be ‘resonant’? How can a designer ever build such characters, allowing for as much player discrepancy as possible while making sure that the characters remain true to themselves and their own construction? To be reductive yet relevant once more; who would Emma Bovary be, if Flaubert was required to turn her over to his audience?

Videogames do, of course, already make use of simulation (divorced from empathy) as a process; indeed, they are nothing simulations of processes. The computers on which they run are logical systems, governed by binary determinism and fast cycles of calculation, and so these computers became, very early in their development, extremely adept at modelling or emulating other logical systems in the form of programs; such a computer is called a Turing Machine, and almost all modern computers are Turing Machines. A videogame is an artistic program, a point which I will staunchly defend; but it is, at its very heart, based on the same predefined logic of the machine that runs it in a way that a book or film is only partially. A book or a film can exist without adherence to grammar or composition; a game which deviates from the grammar of the code in which it is written will almost certainly not run. As of yet, a non-deterministic grammar for coding computers, akin to natural language, has not been developed.

As a result of this, many traditional videogames are based on understanding, exploring and undermining these logical systems, themselves created to a scheme of arbitrary rules, restrictions and allowances which constitute the gameplay. A Mario level is an system that we have elected to participate in, and as such must recognise the impositions made by the designer upon us; we can only jump so high, we lose if we touch an enemy, and we can only progress if we reach the flagpole at the end of a level. The human brain, presented with this environment, must find ways to exploit its rules in order to ‘beat’ it; the language of competition, and challenge, is intrinsic to such designed experiences. In some ways, the process undertaken by a player interacting with a game is similar to that of a reader interacting with a book; the player extrapolates from the information that they are given, simulating the environment in their minds, examining it from all angles, testing hypotheses and attempting imaginary solutions before applying such solutions to the game itself; not unlike the bookworm testing and constructing character, situation and plot in their minds. Unfortunately, these processes are, at the ganglial level, completely insular; while our cerebral engagement with games like this takes place in our cortex, empathetic appreciation of art takes place in the shadowy back garden of the brain, in the amygdala. The problem of creating resonant characters might involve uniting these two disparate flarings of our brains, though it is not yet clear how we might go about that. I will not write here that no games have succeeded in devising such characters; many have5. But the problem is a fundamental one peculiar to the medium, and must be considered at that same fundamental level as we go forward.

Games have approached this problem of empathy in many different ways, almost all of which attempt to sidestep the problem entirely. Two of these approaches might be reified as environmental empathy and non-human empathy.

Environmental empathy is present in all those examples of games that creates a connection between the player and the setting of a videogame. The worlds in which these games take place, especially in latter years of improved graphical fidelity and parallel processing, are dynamic, reactive, unpredictable, rich and integral. Huge investments of artistry and engineering are made to ensure that the environment itself has resonant, complex qualities; that it invites the player to invest and engage, to simulate and imbue the environment with those elements which are not there, materially, in the game. Crucially, these environments fulfill their unique promise not just of being picturesque, but of being interactive; they change through the agency of the player, and yet in that interaction rarely lose their artistic integrity.

Below is a video showing some of the environments from The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, a fantasy roleplaying game in which participants may choose any life they wish for their character, couched within a vast Nordic landscape rich with nature, history and that most vital of elements; the continual suggestion of something more.

Even in experiencing this landscape sub-optimally in a non-interactive video, as opposed to picking through it yourself, there will be (I predict) an effect that it has upon you. In its hue, movement, complexity, hinting at ecosystems, winking depth and granular texture, in providing just enough, it is inviting you to complete it. It is very difficult not to connect with these scenes; to simulate them completely in one’s mind, to seek to understand them, to flesh and stone and wood them out to the horizons. You are, quite inescapably while watching the video, imagining how cold the water is, how the sun might feel on your face; where those paths lead, what predators hunker under those branches. In one of the vignettes, you might have seen a salmon arcing from the spray of a river running down off a mountain. I was once quite involved in the fan modification culture for this game, in which amateurs would create new content using the same editing programs developed by the game’s designers. In poking through the game itself, using those programs to peer at the backside of the computation, I have seen that salmon for what it truly is; a looping, randomly-triggered animation, a flash of engineered glintingly placed in those places where a salmon would leap, if this were real at all. Even in knowing this, I cannot help but imagine, in the split second of seeing it, the creature’s anatomy, its flesh cooked by its blood, its roe, its death and life upriver even though I know that it will never get to its spawning grounds; indeed, its spawning grounds have never existed in the game. Skyrim‘s empathetic strengths lie in these small, serendipitous details. Somebody I knew made a modification which created shooting stars; simple animations tracing across the game’s night sky. The player installing the mod could decide on their frequency, and in my game I decided to set them to be as rare as possible. Though I played the game for hundreds of hours I still remember the only time that I saw one, as I crept through an alpine forest at a designer-defined midnight.

I think that very little difference can be drawn, other than subjectively, between these evocations of landscape and D.H. Lawrence’s constructions of the Peak District, or the sharp, autumnal quasi-Venice of Don’t Look Now. Perhaps we could argue about the purpose of each of these works, their complexity, their reliance on commercial success; the relationship between humanity and its technology. What I cannot see otherwise is the unity between them in their relationship to the audience; they are all deliberate performances of truths, powerless without their witnesses.

Unfortunately, for all its geographic sublime, Skyrim has a problem which many games of its sort share; the game’s environment, in becoming akin to a character, is unfortunately the best character in the game. There are many videos of the sort above on Youtube and elsewhere, tracking like gazes across Skyrim’s biomes, and there is a reason why very few of them show any intelligent life. The game garnered a sadly-deserved reputation for unsympathetic, dull and unringing characters; so badly observed as to be laughable. Their animations are stiff, pre-programmed and bear little relation to the world around them; they repeat pre-recorded lines which serve only to devolve plot; they fall through holes in the code with tragic regularity. It is little surprise to me to realise that, of the probably-hundreds of characters that I have played in this game, almost all of them were hermits, recluses and mendicants. As soon as the mandatory opening scenes have played out, I stride out into the taiga, living beneath the trees, picking berries, arching deer. There is a desperation to avoid contact with others, so sure am I that they will damage the pact that I have made with this game; that is, to believe in it.

As a counterpoint, non-human empathy comes closer to handling these problems of empathetic characters in games, if only because games which use non-human characters are actually attempting to simulate living beings. In the video below, we see a game called Shelter, in which the player shift-skins into the life of a wild badger protecting her young brood as they grow into adolescence. As with Skyrim, its merit is aided by the resonance of its environments; here, however, far more effort is made to ally the interactivity of the medium to the representation of character.

The game, of course, relies on anthropomorphism for its character’s resonance, and the utility, suitability and even morality of humano-centric portrayals of non-human characters is an old debate, exercised in this research group many times before. While such debates in nature writing are rather long in the tooth, in games there is an acceptance at a deep, mechanistic level that anthropomorphism is a good thing. Little questioning has taken place, that I can find, which challenges it as an approach.

It is not hard to understand why it is so popular as a technique; anthropomorphism provides a steep luge between the characters as beings and their role as components in a logical system.

If we consider a game, classically, as a system of interrelated parts operating according to the logic of the system that hosts it, then character is only one of these parts; each is subject to the ontology of that system. Shelter, if I may (a touch unfairly) abstract it, could be said to be the story of one large object, controlled by the player, moving across an environment seeded with obstacles, traps and other paths to failure, while escorting other smaller, slower objects which, while not directly controlled, can be influenced by the larger object. The aim is to reach the goal-point with as many smaller objects intact as possible. At a fundamental level, then, Shelter is little different from many other abstract systems; in most modern videogames such a mechanic has become eponymous as the ‘escort mission’, and is a popular mechanic.

When written in such a formulaic manner, the characters are harder to empathise with6, less able to carry moral or narrative messages for the player to imbibe. Many games do not attempt to animate their mechanics further; puzzle games don’t (often) rely on narrative dressing for their quality, but instead on the effectiveness of those mechanics in creating ‘fun’ and ‘challenge’. Many more games, however, embody and distort these formal elements; Shelter‘s use of animals, and suggesting their mechanical interrelationship as familial, is all the player needs to soften those systemic edges, to find the story in the functionality, and to generate a world in which to give their actions context. In playing from the point of view of a mother badger, every possible action that might be taken within that logical system is suddenly given organic, enveloping weight. Not only do we simulate her internal state, in our empathy, but we perpetuate that state through our control of her actions, which in turn reinforces her role. Of course, this internal state is monotonal, revolving primarily around fear (of fire, of large birds, of anything, really, that is not a food source or her child) and the opposing sensation of safety; the game betrays the centrality of this dyad in its name. However, this simple opposition is skilfully allied to the central engagement of the game, which lies in the player’s exploitation of logical systems.

There are things about this approach which make me uncomfortable, however. In relying on animals as character, and placing them within the formal frameworks that constitute so many commercial games, designers are often making an admission that it is easier to simulate an animal within these systems than it is a human being. This is true only if we accept a rather dim, Cartesian view of non-human animals; that they are simpler creatures, with easily-systematised personalities, so close to machines that their reverse-engineering is a facile thing. I, as you might have guessed, try to think differently about them, even if it is sometimes difficult. There is increasing evidence that a behaviourist conception of animal intelligence is disingenuous, and that many animals are far more advanced than we could have previously imagined. It becomes, in this, a question of granularity. The games that employ animals as characters, it might be said, are employing them in a shallow manner; as leitmotifs rather than as individuals, and with little cognitive depth beyond that which suits that imperative of the limited design.

A third and final game that I wish to show you takes a different approach, one which is extremely interesting in its superficiality. The game is called Thomas Was Alone, and was made by one man called Mike Bithell. It involves the control of two-dimensional blocks, of differing colours, sizes and abilities, in order to traverse a stark environment of platforms, pits, traps and pools. It is, in that description, perhaps the archetype of the game as simplistic logical system; indeed, the plot even explicitly describes these blocks as simulations within the programming of an unidentified supercomputer.

Please watch the video, and make sure the sound is on.

Though Thomas Was Alone is deterministic, goal-oriented and most certainly game-like, that calm, avuncular voiceover entirely reframes the experience of playing it. It gives an authorial interpretation to the world, its characters and your actions, contextualising them with a device so divorced from the proceedings that the simple act of switching off your computer’s sound reconfigures the experience entirely7. Though the technique is deliberately shallow and extremely pointed (I do not think a game could use this specific technique again without bearing unfavourable comparison to Thomas, though that has of course never stopped people), once you are playing the game any disjunction between the narrative artifice and the game itself is invisible. Once again, one’s actions in the game are constantly interpreted, parcelled and recognised within the suggestion that the voice provides. When I was told that two blocks disliked each other, I found myself re-ordering my solutions to the puzzles, almost unconsciously, so that those two blocks did not have to touch. Claire, the floating blue cube, felt heavier and more unwieldy than the two-by-one red rectangle Thomas, and perhaps would have even without the art and mechanics reinforcing that fact. Here, all is illusion and suggestion; a conspiracy between Bithell and his audience to use the desperation of the human mind to bond, to interpret, to build, in order to make something far more complex than exists there in the code.8

Perhaps what Thomas reminds me most of, in its methodical abracadbra, its spoken definition of a set of narrative rules that exude as much formal power as the mechanical rules of the game itself, is a wonderful, misleading ramble in Joseph Weizenbaum’s excellent book Computer Power and Human Reason in which he veers from his discussion of computers to talk about a much older technology, which provokes reliable empathetic and imaginative responses through a user’s interaction with it; he reveals, at the end of the paragraph, that he was writing about the teddy bear.

I have unsuccessfully avoided that word ‘technology’; we must be cautious with it, as we often forget that analogue toys are technologies in their own right; worked artefacts designed for uses. More often, in popular discourse the terms ‘technology’ and ‘toy’ extend only to the electronic products of the 1990s and later, physical objects embedded with micro-circuits and the ability to compute, even if that ability is often overstated. Sometimes, these terms are united in discussions of videogames themselves, though in these instances it is more often meant as an insult. I refuse to take it as such. Toys are, demonstrably, narrative objects, and rely as much on empathy as any other form of art. Indeed, historically their empathetic power has exceeded all else; they are often designed to be utter lightning rods for the imaginations and hallucinations of the children (and adults) who play with them. They are constructed to be appealing curiosities, relatable, experimental, kind, winkingly permissive and interactive to the whims of their owners. I have spent some happy, nostalgic afternoons recently re-reading the manuals that came with many of my childhood toys, preserved by enthusiasts in online archives. In review, they are masterpieces of suggestive, empathetic writing; invitations to participate in a completion of a loop, a consensual storytelling between child, artefact and designer. Unlike a videogame, the boundaries of the narrative play that they encourage are rarely set; indeed, it seems that as toys have become more and more computationally dependent on consumer electronics, the prescription by the designer has increased. The simpler the toy, the more expansive, imaginative and rich its use in play. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is irrelevant; it provides lessons for designers designing now.

Of course we must ask, in comparison, what the design of these toys is for, if we wish to unpick the significance of the empathies and self-narratives that they generate. Increasingly, almost indistinguishably in the last two hundred years, toys have fulfilled a commercial function. They are designed to be bought, to be played with and to be talked about. They are designed for children, whose tastes and whims are easy to prescribe from stereotype. Their goal (with few exceptions) lies not in the service of art, or introspection, or difficult emotion; and as such they provoke empathies, simulations and narratives centred around two primary emotions over any others; namely, love and guilt.

This unintentional horror is a Wuv-Luv; a defunct gestation simulator, derivative of the more popular Furby, by toy company Trendmasters9. My mother has owned one since 2001, and currently hers is sitting in my bedroom, gutless, waiting for my experiments. I have memories of its midnight den on the stairs of my childhood, and its time-activated whine keening out into the darkness as I snuck down for a slice of cheese. It still works, and in nostalgic review it is an interesting example of this commercial narrative design that such toys follow. Considering that it was a direct response to the Furby buoyancy of the late 1990s, it has always seemed the more desperate and strained of the two products; its eyes just a little too bulbous and liquid, its mouth so small that it passes through the territory of the non-threatening and into that of deformity. Like other toys it is covered from head to lotus feet in an impossibly soft, synthetic fur10. Touch, of course, is an underutilised yet incredibly deep antennae for empathetic and suggestive feeling; for adults, perhaps the closest corollary lies in in the fringe cultures of dakimakura, Dutch wives and other aids to loneliness. Part of me gets very sad that we often only think about the dynamics of touch and texture in our adult objects when sex or isolation are involved.

Everything about the Wuv-Luv, from its name to its coat’s brindle, from its (albeit simplistic) movements to the logic of its behaviour (its apparent love of play, its apparent care for its children, its programming for constant attention) seeks to furnish the child which owns it with a toolkit for constructing its interior life. One’s interaction with these behaviours (or lack of it) gives rise to other behaviours; the toy becomes ‘tired’ and ‘ill’ if it is not ‘fed’, and appears to sulk if you ignore it; calling out into the darkness of an unlit house for succour. Love and guilt, in sometimes unbearable quantities, all deriving from the simple, apparent processes of a tiny microchip encased in insoluble epoxy to protect its secrets.

The Furby, the more popular of the two toys, contains perhaps the most interesting example of this narrative lure common amongst electronic pets; a combination of textual suggestion and mechanical illusion. The manual that comes with the toy states that, when first activated, the Furby will speak to its owner in ‘Furbish’; a simple grammar of sounds corresponding to the few wants and desires that Furby might have; ‘feed me’, ‘hug me’, ‘let’s play a game’, and so on. However, the manual goes on to state that after a period of time spent playing with and talking to the Furby, the toy will start to ‘learn’ human words, and repeat those words that it has ‘heard’. The apostrophes are, obviously, warranted; a simple dissection of a Furby will reveal that it has no capacity for voice recognition, vocabulary storage or much onboard memory whatsoever. The English words that it speaks are pre-programmed, and are intermingled with the Furbish to a greater and greater degree as the microchip’s simple clock function ticks up. The combination of the suggestion of intelligent learning in the ancillary literature, however, and our predisposition for imbuing life-like objects with a simulated life, meant that the toy was banned from the premises of several US government agencies on the grounds of the security threat posed by its supposed abilities. Sometimes our narrative gullibility is so strong that it can influence policy11.

Furby State Diagram

Tamagotchi State Diagram

The two diagrams above, mocked up by myself in my spare time (because this is apparently how I like to spend my time), each depict the abstracted functionality of a Furby and a Tamagotchi, the two most popular of these turn-of-the-century products. As far as can be gleaned from manuals and other online resources, these represent everything that the toys can possibly do. In computing, we might call these finite state diagrams, and while they may look complex, it is impossible to imagine what a similar diagram might look like for even a simple living creature such as a housefly or a phytoplankton; indeed, the term ‘simple’ there is a humano-centric one in extremis. This is the true internal state, the interior life, of these toys; in comparison to our fecund imaginations, they seem rather measly. A few reactive behaviours, some appealing costume, a dab narrative sense of pacing and plot, and a canny designer has a chance to cause an explosion of association, extrapolation and invention in the mind of their audience; to leave the invention, in the main, to those who do it best.

I think that it is somewhere in these examples, amongst these ideas and links and thousands and thousands of words, that digital characters might find a route to success. Somewhere between the toy, the traditional artwork, the environment, the animal and the biological algorithm lies a major question, a question of computation. It is a popular assumption that the division between new media and old sits at the boundary of computation; that newer forms of art have at their disposal machines that can make real-time calculations to create an ever-shifting complexity and resonance in these forms. This is, in fact, only partly true. Art has always involved computation; what changes between old and new art is the location of that computation. As I think I have shown, engagement with any art is a form of simulation, of non-binary construction, by the most powerful interconnective computer yet known in the universe; our brains. It is only recently in our history that we have been able to create devices that can compute at all, and their computation is far removed from that of our minds; digital computers’ reliance on logic, data and concrete processing, passed on to the programs that they run, has influenced what sort of art that might be made with them. I am an amateurish programmer, and my godlet is not an attempt to transcend the problems of character by changing the nature of the computational paradigm in the computer. Rather, I see toys, and games such as Thomas Was Alone, as a way to coexist with the limitations of everyday computing; a naive and regressive alternative. Instead of lamenting the restrictions that the computer imposes, perhaps we can start to turn back and back to the device that art has relied upon for so long; the soupy, indistinct and fantastical capabilities of our heads.

Perhaps, in the end, my godlet will be something separate from what I have planned here; the problem with doing creative practice as research is that, sometimes, the creation will not cleave to the criticism, and one will end up with something very different indeed. Nevertheless, I thank the research group for providing me with an opportunity to think about these questions at considerable length.

1. By ‘fictional’ we can take this to mean ‘any character of an artistic text’, for our purposes. The division between ‘fictional’ and ‘non-fictional’ is a commercial one, and I do not think it is unreasonable to state that any character written, painted, composed, filmed or otherwise orchestrated by an artist is fictionalised, even if their portrayal strives to be merely documentary. <

2. Please assume that I am using ‘literary’ in my own sense for the rest of the essay. <

3. An interesting aside which I did not have time for on the day of my talk: is the empathetic collaboration between reader and artist, then, necessary for all good characterisation in art? Might there be characters with which we cannot empathise, but which nonetheless are worthy fictional beings? An immediate and familiar example might be Sauron from The Lord of the Rings. It would take a bloody-minded feat of psychopathy to empathise with Sauron, to imagine his internal state and personal worldview; nevertheless, he is a major character in one of the great works of popular fantasy, with a history and cultural presence all of his own. However, I think it could easily be argued that Sauron is not a character at all; at best he is a narrative elemental, a plot device whose motives, if there are any, are less important than the fact of his adversity; it is against his single-minded, shallow evil that the characters of the Fellowship find their mettle, sorrow and kindness. <

4. A monition may be required to the above quote; elsewhere in the essay Sklar reassures the reader that most people do not truly believe that fictional characters, once read, become real; however, he does affirm that the ways in which we empathise with real and imagined people are not so different at all. These points are borne out biologically, if we can take a brief, final step down that route; interesting studies exist in which participants are shown fictionalised images of people in pain, anxiety or happiness whilst they are placed in an fMRI machine; though the participants knew that they were part of a neuro-scientific study into the emotive centres of the brain, the activity in their brain bore out a strong empathetic response to such images. While it is not stated explicitly in the studies, it seems reasonable to predict (as somebody without access to an fMRI machine) that these responses were negligibly different from ‘real’ responses at the level of brain matter. <

5. As a result of this talk it was suggested that I create a list of games which explore the idea of empathy or succeed in producing it. I’m looking forward to this task, and I will be sharing the list both publicly and with the research group. If you have a game which you think ripe for inclusion, email me. <

6. Though by no means impossible; I direct you to studies undertaken as early as 1944 in which a short film of silhouetted shapes, moving on a plain field, were spontaneously described as emotive agents with personalities, prejudices and desires by viewers. The amount of suggestion required to provoke empathy in a human being is remarkably small; though debates continue as to what particular element is the trigger, psychologists such as Nathalia Gjersoe believe that it is self-initiated motion, uninfluenced by the environment, which causes us to imbue something with an interior life. <

7. In fact, it would be interesting to test this; to have two sets of participants playing Thomas, one with sound and the other without, and to compare their experiences. <

8. Though I have never heard Mike Bithell speak about Heider and Simmel’s experiments (see above) I would be astounded if he was not aware of them. <

9. An interesting and apropos name in and of itself. <

10. Of course, we cannot help but be fascinated by what lies underneath that fur. Such ‘denudings’ and repurposings of commercial toys for uncanny horror exist throughout our popular culture; perhaps a direct response to the almost-manic, sometimes-cynical empathetic reinforcement of their marketing. Perhaps this is something to exploit, or explore, in my own project. <

9. Similar reports answered the subsequent, begging question as to what children’s toys were doing on the premises of a government agency in the first place. The answer, that employees were frequently bringing them into work ‘to relieve stress’, begs further, interesting queries about which empathetic or narrative needs were not, and are still not, being met in the lives of adults. <

knole Prototype #1a – The BOD Architecture

[ link to prototype (.exe) ]   [ github repo ]

I’ve just released another prototype of knole’s titular landscape god, but there is nothing new for you to see. It still just sits on its own neck and watches, breathing and blinking slowly, and I still question whether or not a god even should breathe. My placeholding art is still holding the place, though hopefully I will soon feel confident enough to show some other concepts; many people to whom I’ve shown it even like the clean lines and demarcated, symbolic biology, and feel that I should keep it that simple and abstract throughout. This would certainly irrigate my theories (cribbed from others) concerning the power of human imaginative abstraction, and significantly lower my workload.

In its quiet, introverted self-regulation it still has, in the words and work of my supervisor Dr. Leon Watts, no ‘Social Presence’; that is, without some method of interaction, it cannot enter into the user’s conceptual ecosystem of interpersonal relationships as a recognised peer or self-willed organism; this is the very definition of an agent 1. However, in showing it to friends and colleagues I am beginning to question this assertion; their personal ecosystems are doing a very charitable job of trying to include the god as an imagined agent, if not one in reality. They project its presence on its behalf, agree on the potential of its participation in a social relationship with them; even if the god, all the way down to the very genesis of its code, has no concept of participating with its subjects at all.

The main differences between this prototype and the first lie in the architecture of that code. However, rather than being simply due to an act of machinist housekeeping, these differences constitute entirely distinct ways of thinking about what it means to be a creature, an agent, a god, a creation and its creator. At least for myself.

I have mentioned here before the Behaviour-Oriented Design (BOD) architecture developed by Dr. Joanna Bryson from the University of Bath; and I am going to do so again, completely artificially, as I think that I could do with the practice. BOD is a general, language-agnostic set of principles for building intelligent digital agents, whether they be robots or entirely-software based entities 2. It involves programming the agent with two internalised, interconnected layers of functionality; a set of behaviours, modular, self-contained programs that each control an aspect of the agent’s internal and external appearance, actions and mien, alongside a reactive planning script that decides which of those behaviour modules should execute at any particular time.

BOD architecture diagram

In BOD, each distinct behaviour of the agent (in knole’s case, the breathing and blinking behaviours) are hermetic objects in and of themselves; ancillary, independent programs that can conduct their own internal calculations and computations quite happily. These behaviours can model internal processes; such as, for example, listing all the obsolete chocolate bars once sold in the United Kingdom; or external actions, such as putting on a bolo tie. These behaviours do not need to run one at a time, but can run in vast parallel if called upon by the plan to do so. Their object-oriented design, like that of other programming languages to which I cling parochially, removes any worries about interdependencies, conflicts or fug when it comes to running these behaviours. They are logical islands.

Though they can conduct their own business internally, any influence they might have over the world outside of themselves is controlled by the reactive plan. This script decides which behaviours to trigger in any particular instant, based on a combination of the agent’s internal state and the state of that part of the external world that the agent can perceive. The plan makes such a decision once every program cycle (for knole, this is once every 60th of a second). Dr. Bryson calls these plans POSH (Parallel-Rooted, Ordered, Slipstack Hierarchical), and they are structured in a very particular way to allow certain decisions, or factors in those decisions, to take precedent over others.

This structure has three parts, or aggregates, which are influenced by the internal state of the agent and the sensual data being received from the external, perceptual world, and which in their turn influence the acts that the agent might then commit. In order of importance (or position in the hierarchy), these aggregates are:

    • Drive Selections – This is a process of constant checking, once every program cycle, of the agent’s current goals. These may be short-term or long-terms goal, and are subject to constant deletion, creation and re-categorisation based on new information received either from inside or outside the agent. Suppose, for our nostalgic, pseudo-Arizonan example agent of above, that there are no more chocolate bars to be wistfully remembered, and so that lofty goal has been attained; no longer relevant, the agent can delete that drive, turn off the behaviour and move onto the scintillating business of fastening its culturally-reductive neckwear.


    • Competences – These are the major functionality of a POSH plan, in which the agent acts (through behaviours) to achieve the goals chosen during the drive selection. They represent lists of hypothetical and conditional actions, which must fulfill the parameters of the actions above them to be initiated. For example, an agent can only put on their bolero if they have first bought one; therefore, the [buy bolero] action would come above [put on bolero]. Down the list the agent goes, taking those actions which are both highest on the list and possible to fulfill. Usually, there is a default action which is activated if none of the other conditions are met; in our agent’s case, this might be simply a furtive, rebellious whisper of ‘Shucks’.


    • Action Patterns – In many cases, no deliberation over an action is needed; it executes in the same way, and in the same order, every time it is called, with no conditions to fulfill. These action patterns are syllogistic to reflexes, and often don’t even need to pass through the reactive plan at all; they can instead be directly triggered by senses, or even other behaviours and actions. They represent the most instinctual, systematic components of an otherwise-rational agent.


BOD design diagram for knole

This prototype was an attempt to reconstruct my godlet as a BOD agent. Construct 2, the software I used for the first prototype, was not up to snuff for this task, and so I returned to Gamemaker: Studio. Perhaps Construct could have handled the BOD architecture, but I find the way it structures and represents the architecture to be confusing and restrictive. One of things that I like about BOD is its modular, object-oriented structure. Building my creature in this way allows me to think about my creature in this way, to compartmentalise it in an almost-cartographic fashion; the diagrams in this post, I think, looks more like a map than anything else. Construct 2, with its event sheets and terraced UI, only serves to block this conception, forcing me to consider my creature as a temporal, linear process rather than a spatial system. I can also code by hand in Gamemaker, which is certainly faster than clicking through sub-menus with a £5 mouse.

Above is a diagram of the general structure of my godlet using BOD. Even though it is all a little artificial, the creature now has a believable, living metaphor at its centre, even if it is a mechanistic and reductive sort of metaphor. In Construct, the breathing and blinking were the entirety of the godlet’s internal function, animations that were programmed to begin and repeat without any structure to give that beginning or repetition any meaning. With these two behaviours now separated into modules and subsumed into the larger organisational structure of BOD they have a purpose, and indeed form an amoebic narrative. The creature breathes and blinks because the POSH plan, a metaphor of cogency, is telling them they should. Of course this isn’t anything like true agency; in the discourse of BOD these behaviours are merely action patterns, and once called to activate they will run in the same manner every time, much like a reflex in an organism. However, I have built some fuzzy variables into their functioning, which in the future may be altered by other factors both internal and external; these variables include the rate of breathing, the range of motion in the components of the face and the speed of the blink. It will be interesting to see how these cyclical, impregnable processes will be influenced. As always with object-oriented design, there is an ongoing question of control; when objects contain their own variables, and are trusted to coexist with many other objects in a complex space, how does the designer create a rule-set for allowing interaction between those objects? These interactions are key to more complex and interesting behaviours, but a schema has to be imposed; as the godlet becomes more complicated, the interrelations, interferences and persuasions between objects will become harder to plot. Perhaps this is where the truly emergent, unexpected behaviour will arise; then again, perhaps it will just be a nightmare to debug.

The other issue with this approach lies in the question of granularity of the cognitive metaphor that I have created using BOD. The creature, and its development, are predicated on an ‘illusion’ of intelligence and life. I wish to demonstrate how a simulation of life only needs to be as developed as much the fiction requires it, and no more. Where that requirement ends, however, is a thick line to draw, and begs a further question; for the creature to succeed as a dynamic character, does the designer need to invest in the illusion, as well as the audience? How much functionality must I build which, while having no impact on the audience’s external experience of the godlet, provide me with an internal experience, a personal fiction, that might help me develop the rest of the simulation?

Both behaviours in my prototype demonstrate this case in point. In the blinking behaviour, I have carried over a lot of the functionality from Prototype #1, including the mechanical action of the eyes opening and closing, and the random activation of that action; at a random point every 400 milliseconds, the blink is triggered. This little action pattern is plenty good at giving the illusion of a living being to a observer. It is easy to imagine, when the functionality is hidden, that the godlet is not responding to a random timer but is instead clearing its precious, holy corneas of grime. However, in the BOD prototype the random activation of the blinking is encased in a new conceptual metaphor, represented by the invisible object [mIrritationDetector]. This object is there on the godlet’s face, even if you cannot see it; a dimensionless bindi positioned directly between its eyes.

Here is the code that it runs:

if IrritationCounter > 0 {
IrritationCounter = IrritationCounter - 1
} else if IrritationCounter <= 0 {
Irritated = true
IrritationType =

So, every 400ms the [mIrritationDetector] gets irritated, and broadcasts that irritation to the godlet’s reactive plan, along with a randomly-chosen ‘irritation type’ represented as a string; this type might be “dust”, “insect”, “tear” or even “user’s finger”. The reactive plan then causes the blinking behaviour to run. It’s an odd and unnecessary bypass.

In a similar manner, the breathing behaviour is placed in an arbitrary container of its own, one reified by me, the designer, as a way of thinking about my being as being. The godlet’s reactive plan only runs if the variable Alive is true; in turn, the Alive variable is only true if the invisible object mAir is present in the godlet’s world (its ‘room’, in the ontology of Gamemaker). If I remove the mAir object, the creature is no longer alive. However,

if Alive = true {
if instance_exists(mAir) {
bBreathing.BehaviourActive = true

Both of these systems are arbitrary and redundant; the roundabout route of the irritation from detector to POSH plan to behaviour does not change the outward appearance of the behaviour at all; which most AI developers, including myself, might argue is all that matters. The Alive variable is just another set of brackets around functionality that I wish to run regardless; I have no intention, currently, of ever setting that Alive Boolean to false, or of deleting the mAir object and having the godlet suffocate. It would be perfectly reasonable to argue that such structures are a waste of code, memory, program cycles and time. knole functioned, to all appearances, in the exact same way without them.

These complications, then, were created primarily for myself, rather than for anybody or anything else. Perhaps in the future I will need to start thinking about memory allocation and performance; keeping the godlet graphically and functionally partial, a tortured head rather than a free, enacting body, was certainly motivated as much by this as by my desired fiction. For the moment, however, these useless lines of code and invisible, symbolic objects are part of a necessary and ongoing imaginative simulation of what my creature might still be. I set Alive to true< because, one day, my godlet might not be alive; and in creating that postulate of a god that might not be alive, I learn something about its divinity, and also learn something about that which it might value. Gods traditionally have little to fear, for they cannot be obliterated; what does it do to a being's animus to be vulnerable in that manner? What if-elses does it add to its POSH plan? Even further granularity could be imagined; a debate arises about the fuzziness of living, philosophically and mechanically; is it simplistic to represent living as a binary value? Should it instead be a scale, a program in and of itself? The irritations in the godlet's eye, with their pointless taxonomy, may not always be pointless; just because it does not yet cry, that does not mean that I want it to have no system of self-responsibility when it finally does. Perhaps it will fall in love with a particular type of insect, themselves a sort of virtual agent inside the godlet's room, and permit this insect to drink from its caruncula. When building agents, the illusion that we construct for ourselves as creators is as important as the illusion we construct for our audience. Until I know what my knole is, as much as I will ever know this quiet, expectant non-participant of a deity, I cannot preclude the infinite structures, associations, relationships and cogitations that might lurk invisible between its eyes. While such a non-prescriptive process makes for a sloppy codebase, it matters to me.

1. An interesting thought occurs regarding the more populist use of the word ‘agent’ to represent spies, assassins and other clandestine shenaniganeers. It’s an oddly general term for such people, the word meaning as it does ‘something or someone who acts’. In computing, the use implies a certain degree of will; an agent collects information from around it and uses this to inform an independent decision as to the most rational action to next take; this implies autonomy. Apart from a few exceptional examples, the operatives of MI5, the KGB and the rest are more like subroutines than agents; a cellular component of a much larger operation, acting according to instructions sent from somebody higher up. There is actually very little power to act rationally in them at all; indeed, the entirety of a spy agency functions more like a single agent than the agents that comprise it.

2. knole is a combination of the two; primarily software based, with little method of actuating in the real world, but sensible to that world through arrays including geolocation, aural and visual recognition, gyroscopic arrays and temperature indicators. Probably. I’m still not sure how most of it works.

pheasant image

I never saw the beater who brought the pheasants to Cob Cottage and slung them over the wall, like panniers full of cooling lunch. In my mind they are an utter stereotype, one I don’t need to describe to you, one that we can all picture as they disappeared around the keystone of the house wall and up the slope and into the fields. It was some sort of day, weather-wise, warm I think, and the riflers had not needed any excuse; they had sent the beaters rifling through the furze. You often heard the munch of the guns off in the hills, though you never heard the bird’s response. They die in far greater numbers than the riflers would ever want to eat; that is, in greater numbers than zero. Pheasants can be rustic meals, but not many people profess to enjoy cooking them. To get any sort of taste you have to graft onto them the fat of other, less-rigourous animals; the little that the birds possess has the colour of bronchitis. In fact, the whole carcass, once it’s skinned, looks like the cautionary tale of a lung.

In that part of the world, and in this time of the world, such gifts over the garden wall are commonplace. On the shoot days, once the trigonometry had been had, once the long machines had been loosed and exercised, once it had all been worked out to a certain number of decimal places, all of the houses that border the fields and woods are left entire braces of dead birds by the retreating beaters, who swiftly pick their way back home to something tastier.

We had been sunbathing in the small walled garden next to the track that led up around the cottage, up the hill and under the kitchen; we were lain beneath the small, avuncular crab-apple right in the centre of the lawn. It was only a little patch, but the grass had such a tog and was pleated right up to the stones of the wall so that it felt that we were actually bathing in a manger of water, bedded and plugged in motionless algae. The man who owned Cob Cottage, who I already found terrifying and who would later spoil everything and lose himself the house, the importance of love, everything, told me with what might have been expertise (I didn’t know him well, and never came to) that the birds needed to be rested in the fridge for at least an night before we butchered them. The plural there was assumed; the women who I was with in that house were not asked. I didn’t see the pheasants, in particular my pheasant, until the next morning.

The sun was gone the next day, and though it didn’t rain there was a bitter curl of wind coming over the lip of the garden. As I dressed up inside, with everybody who would be staying indoors that day idly and impatiently tugged the lapels of my fleece, lovely hot breath in my ear, telling me that I had nothing to prove to him, that I did not have to humour him and that we might have a nice day ourselves, instead. That he might do all six himself. In that anteroom it felt as if I was preparing for a duel, or an execution; certainly that I might never be seen again if I stepped through the kitchen door, back into the garden that I had loved the day before.

We were all being pathetic; the idea of pulling these murdered things into modules was upsetting me even as it was exciting me. At this point in my life I still ate meat, and had for a long time felt like a charlatan; a stuffed breast. I saw this brace of opportunities, slung into our deep self-satisfaction, as a way to be the cyclic creature that I had always wanted to be; a Möbius intestine, keeping my refuse, my usage, my vileness, hermetic in one perfect unimpeachable bracelet of being.

This placed a lot of responsibility with those birds that even then were chilled to their middle, completely foreign, queued for us outside.

I was nearly buckling as I walked out, under the scaffold that the thatcher had put up, and met him on the lawn.

The deckchairs had been tidied off, even though they had not been in the way at all, and the crab-apple looked planed and newly installed; as if it had not been there yesterday. He stood with a plastic margarine tub full of knives and looked immeasurably content. He had already finished four of the birds while he had been waiting for me, and now stood listening to the stream and the bugle of children on the near horizon, flush with his extraordinary life, snugly fitting what he had chosen to do with it.

At the top of the tree were two gnarled joists that I had not noticed before, mortises that twisted away from each other at near-perfect right angles. On each hung a pheasant by its neck, knotted through a length of twine. He had taken the dun, colour-of-the-world female, allowing me to luxuriate, to sightsee, in the roomer male. I thought it inappropriate to couch it in terms of all those comparisons that I could make (its rosemary neck, its yoghurty nibs, its Quetzalcoatl brow) but I could not help it; we are often incapable of seeing these animals as anything other than communications at us that must be answered. The female on the other side of the trunk, a bird that the male had probably never known, failed to respond as nature intended.

We set to work, trying not to look at each other around the ridiculous gibbet he had made, while the women inside occasionally, languidly glanced from the kitchen window, further and further disintegrating into the mist rising from the words they were saying, and the stock they were making. It was so cold inside the bird.

I could now, removed from that day, really ramble about that pheasant, up and down; I could tell you what its grain bladder reminded me of, how its guts moved in my hands, about the colours and the textures and the evacuating smells and the tricks of gravity and the things he said to me that were warm and encouraging; but it would just be something to write. It’s a very easy thing to do, and it is hard to do well. What I think I might focus on, instead, and what is interesting me these days, is the process by which I felt that I understood a small part of that pheasant in parting it from itself, and how that feeling of understanding, if not understanding itself, made me extremely unhappy.

I have been reading about birds recently, but I have also been reading about computers, specifically in the work of Joseph Weizenbaum; Weizenbaum was a computer scientist and co-founder of that discipline, and thus excellently placed for his later jeremiads against the use of easy, lazy metaphors when speaking about computers and their relationships to the greater world. In Computer Power and Human Reason, Weizenbaum delineates the ‘computer metaphor’ which, even by 1976 when the book was written, had in his view begun an uncontrollable, Utopian replication through the populist imagination, cloning itself into every conceivable topic of thought. As we had come to understand how computation worked in the first half of the twentieth century, and began to experiment with ever-more-powerful applications of computers, it became very tempting to see every aspect of the world as a pronounceable system in which individual parts work in unison to produce an output, just like a computer. Such a temptation, Weizenbaum thought, could lead to only a barren justification for acts of unhumanity and inhumanity, both catastrophic and commonplace, and a gross misunderstanding and dilution of the truth of the world. To quote the book’s closing lines, “what could it mean to speak of risk, courage, trust, endurance and overcoming when one speaks of machines?”

Like all metaphors, I think, and as Weizenbaum thinks, the ‘computer metaphor’ is an exercise in abstraction; applying an idea to a disparate context, and then using that idea to deduce a new census, a Solution, to each disagreeable aspect of that context in turn. A mind is like a computer, we still say, so let’s debug it. Society is an algorithm, so let’s re-write it. The result of such systematising, in Weizenbaum’s view, are almost all bellicose and leviathan; wars, massacres, napalm clinging to the jaws of babies. Applying his ideas it is hard to say that we have moved out of this conceptual bind in the last forty years; this metaphor is still applied, irresistibly, to every aspect of our lives, the only difference perhaps being that it is as much the preserve of commercial bodies as academic ones these days. I watched the stream of a panel discussion from a game developer’s summit recently, in which a group of A.I. developers stated that the production of “content” (that is, what is actually in the game, such as character, dialogue, narrative) by human beings is too unpredictable and slow a process, and that by applying the up-and-coming metaphors of A.I. a ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’ might be found; automated systems that generate new stories, new motivations, new characters and plots from sophisticated, seismographic algorithms. A story is, after all, just a program run from initial rules. So, let’s run it.

Such metaphors, whether they are about computers or not, are comforting to anybody wrestling with soft, indistinct problems or trying to understand something enormous, as I was on that day. It was tempting then to frame that process of butchery, of revelation, of biology, in so many different ways. There was, for example, an intimacy I felt as I dressed, or rather undressed, the bird’s body; I had to touch its neck a lot, and felt the hungry veins there; it seemed to shrug off its pelt willingly as I cut into the interdermal membrane that kept it dry inside a heath. I had never been so close to any animal, not even a pet; I had never been permitted. It exposed its dimpled pecs to me, though that implies volition, and I went further in I flicked at the precious glans of its heart, not thinking how that would have felt in life. I also felt and focused on this gradation of insides, me inside clothes inside a garden inside a pheasant inside something else entirely, and there was a sort of sense made there. My hands were so cold by that point that I had to dip my gory fingers into the mug of tea that had materialised beside me. Hanging there, I saw it most as a delicate, interpolated network of things, horripilating in the wind that was getting up. Most of its systems were not working, and I was snicking off the interconnections, making sure that they could never work again. And that is how the computer metaphor got into the small space between me and my pheasant, and I started to see that word ‘system’ again and again. It was easy after that, and just horrific.

The man, who had done far worse things than this, came around from his own bird, once he was satisfied that I had cleaned right the way back to the spine. The last thing to do before decapitating it for the oven was to clip off the feet. They were lax and loose, signal-less, the most immovable things that I had ever seen; covered in mismatched, yellow crazy-paved scales. They looked painful. There was a smile on the man’s face, a normal smile, and he told me that he had just that moment made a decision not to try and trick me. I was happy about that, but confused. He brandished wire-cutters, clamping the bird’s ankle between the blades, and he told me that if he had been feeling cruel he would have told me to hold the foot as he snipped. I didn’t, and I watched what happened next. As the blades sheared through the bone with the sound of a ripped stocking, the claws suddenly curled in of their own accord, all the way tight into a fist. He told me that it was just the tendons spasming and reacting to pressure, and that when he had first done this, with another man, he had been told to hold the foot, and when it held him back he had screamed.

I am trying so hard, and I did try then, to dispel the overlapping solomonic circles of metaphor that surround this bedraggled (though perhaps something needs to be alive before it can be draggled), poor (how?) organic matter that I see as a bird. I am trying not to rely on the easy, elegant translations of sexuality, cookery, cartography, class, fraternity and most of all logic that I could perform upon this article of the environment that I might call a bird. Most of all, in that unifying clench of its foot, in which an input is reacted to, I am trying not to see it as a machine. It’s too reductive and Cartesian, a denial of the bird’s terror, the crime committed against it, the indignities it has suffered; an enormous assumption on my part, and unfortunately an enormous comfort. The feedback loop was too tight; there was too much correlation between the tweak of the wirecutters and the sad reaction of the innards; I had already lain out the IF->ELSEIF->ELSE patterns that such a toe-curling implied. And even now all this time later it becomes hard to see the life that once imbued this apparatus as anything other than a self-perpetuating circuit or, even worse, a performance of life, with no back to it.

I felt sick by the time I had finished, and the feathers snagged about the lawn for days.

Weizenbaum states that a metaphor is only useful, and not harmful, if it enriches both the contexts which it utilises. I am not sure whether this is the case here; the bird is dead, it has helped me to understand some other thing a little better, and makes me see systems everywhere and wish to replicate them, no matter how incompletely. But even with everything taken apart and itemised, even in seeing the far bus of its lungs, I worry that something is missing from my model; and, even more horrifically, I worry that there is not.

I drove that pheasant halfway across the country to glaze it, wrap it in bacon (I didn’t think this much about the pigs) and eat it. It was too hot, and too dry, and a waste.

knole Prototype #1 – Encoding A Pregnancy

[link to prototype]   [github repo]

I am now just getting on with it and making a start on the actual coding of my virtual godlet. This is something which, historically, has been completely beyond my grasp; I find it usually very difficult to begin making anything until I’ve spied some sort of syzygy happening in my head; until all the spheres of my thinking on a topic are in alignment. Of course, all of you sensible people know that this is a rare event, certainly one which I have yet to witness in my lifetime, and when one is dealing with computer code it is a lost cause. Unlike natural language (in which I might ask you, for example, ‘what’s the smell of parsley?’), it is impossible to predict with any certainty whether what I ask of a computer will be understood in any sense whatsoever. Putting aside the complications of dialect, translation or channel, if we take human beings as, in small part, information processors, we see that they share certain expectations of semantics; a human response to a sentence that contains the words “what” “smell” and “parsley”, in that particular order, will be understood by the asker to some degree, even if it is not the response they were looking for. And once we have that basic understanding parlayed between us, the originator of the sentence can always return to the words at any point and prune, snip, train, trellis, topiary, coiff or shave them as needs must. As long as the inherent meaning of the sentence remains, or a new one is established, the individual parts may as well be the follicles, or foliage, that those verbs signify. They are components to be easily styled, removed, augmented or bouffed without destroying the trunk of the meaning.

This ideal consensus on language, which means that a first draft of most written natural language can stand alone as a parseable piece of work, rarely migrates to the context of computer code. The difference, I think, comes in the nature of the processing of the two different language-modes. When I am writing a natural sentence, the biological computers receiving and transmitting it are close to one and the same, within an acceptable degree of wet, mystic tolerance. My brain (that of the speaker/writer) and your brain (that of the hearer) have subscribed to a communal pattern of interpretation that we can agree upon, and which allows a fuzzy, thick-as-thieves, nod-and-wink as to the inherent meaning of the shared transcript without an exact, binary translation of what I, the speaker/writer, completely meant.

With a digital computer, not the case. We often speak about the problems of having computers recognise natural language, but there is still discrepancy in handing computers instructions written in supposedly-formalised programming languages. A programming language is, to a similar degree, a human construct; the computer must always translate what I am typing into a machine code that can actually be executed on its physical components. No matter how automated the instruction there must always be, as far as I can tell, a clumsy, mucky human defining something somewhere in the chain of proscription. Therefore no matter how precise and elegant that negotiating language, it will always be dictated by an entity entirely alien from the one that must understand it. Even a single line of code can contain errors of typing, syntactical heuristics that humans understand ‘just because’, not to mention assumptions as to the computer’s ability to ‘know what we’re getting at’. With all of these rules-of-thumb and degrees of error, it is always very likely that the code we have written, which we believe is hermetic and executable, will just grind the program to a halt, with no real indication as to why. As I am starting to understand, we cannot assume the computer to be another language-using entity like ourselves; though it has been created by minds like my own, I and it do not share a jot of common sense, lexical generosity or culture. It cannot (as yet) fudge my statements into something that it can understand ‘just because’. It instead operates with a mathematical unambiguity, through a language “clearer and more precise than the spoken languages like English or French” 1 in the words of J.W. Forrester; a statement that I can agree with, even if it glosses over the paralysis of self-expression that such a language presents to the creator.

It’s taken me quite a lot of space here to write through my ideas to the point at which I can say the following; if it has to be this way, and you do have to work with such an unimaginative, taupe correspondent, then it’s best to find out where you are making mistakes and assumptions (the stuff of imaginative discussion) very early on in the process, before your ways of working get too cozy and the relationship starts to sour.

It is the start of the second term of my PhD, and as well as thinking about the above I have become sick of talking about my work without having anything post-verbal with which to illustrate it. I have already begun to fiddle about with Construct 2, a development environment for HTML5 games which has a very sunny, persistent manner in asking me for money. I’m still not its biggest fan; instead of coding scripts directly (as I’d become used to in Gamemaker: Studio) a Construct 2 game consists of ‘event sheets’, lists of conditions and actions chosen from a fractal series of menus that could have been hand-coded in about one-third of the time. It does have its advantages2, but my main reason for using it lies in its native support for Google’s voice recognition API. I have put together a small prototype of knole’s titular creature, consisting of some non-committal artwork and some basic looping functions. The voice recognition is already installed; with no work on my part, my deity has its oracle, its psychopomp, a form of priesthood. It can hear the prayers of those that speak them near its (that is, your) microphones.

I haven’t implemented any feedback or reactive behaviour into this prototype. What is important, at this initial stage, is to test my approaches to creating some illusion of life. Without a conscious decision, and apparently ignoring the fact that my character is divine, I have begun by encoding a semblance, a performance, of breathing and blinking. I suppose I settled on these two functions for several reasons:

  • These are very low-level behaviours, relatively ‘easy’ to interpret, which can loop with no contingent input from an audience.
  • Breathing and blinking are perhaps two of the initial qualities that we expect, in the absence of any other vitality, from a living being with lungs and eyes. I have decided, independently, that lungs and eyes are a good starting point for getting people to identify with my creature, even if it is divine and has no need for them. Kittens and celebrities and people’s mothers have lungs and eyes. People like things to have lungs and eyes, and for those lungs and eyes to do things, quietly and diligently. Without some sort of diligent, quiet, primitive animation, no amount of interaction would counteract a very atavistic sensation on the part of the audience that there was something ‘wrong’ with my creature. Prothesis of biology is nothing new when gods are concerned; just look at Zeus and his rampant, transcendent teledildonics.
  • They were quick to code up, and allowed me to test my architecture for the creature with little fuss.

This ‘architecture’, my chosen way of theoretically constructing and organising the encoded ‘self’ of my creature in programming language, is based very much on the principles of Behaviour-Oriented Design, a method of building believable computer agents developed by Dr. Joanna J. Bryson, now of Princeton and Bath universities, during her PhD.

To over-simplify her work, agents (let’s call them ‘creatures’) in this system have separate modules of ‘behaviour’, self-contained micro-programs that chug along quite happily on their own within a large network of other independent behaviours until called upon by something called a ‘reactive plan’. Such a plan is a series of rules which determines which behaviours ‘run’, influenced by both internal and external factors. In the mammalian metaphor of my creature its behaviour, its goals and its ‘plan’ for acting can be influenced both by stomach-aches and thunderstorms, depression and the sight of dew.

In the argot of BOD, then, my prototype’s breathing and blinking are action patterns influenced by a drive selection. In these foetal stages, my creature’s low-level drive could be said to be ‘stay alive’, ‘collect air’ or even ‘pretend to be a living animal’; however I choose to frame this drive, it leads to the creature prioritising, over all others, its breathing behaviour. In more complex agents, there are many arenas of conflicting drives, all of which jockey for priority throughout the agent’s existence. For now, though, we have only lungs and eyes, and even those only function in the most mechanistic, abstract fashion. There are no other factors to consider in its behaviour; it has no concept of fear, because I have not told it what it must do when it experiences the thing I call its fear; it has no concept of hunger, because I have not told it what food is nor that it should crave it. I might not imbue it with these things at all. But for the moment, with nothing to constrict its throat, it hangs there and breathes; in and out, without, very literally, a care in its world, forever.

If you have a copy of Construct 2 you can download the .capx file from knole’s Github repository and look at how these primitive actions are structured for yourself. Though I am currently using BOD for my theoretical applications, I haven’t encoded that architecture into the prototypes yet; Construct 2’s event sheet architecture doesn’t lend itself to it incredibly well. The creature as yet doesn’t have a concept of ‘staying alive’, which might be the thing which compels it to breathe; or a concept of ‘irritation’, or anything to irritate it in the first, place which might cause it to blink. It does these things because it is told to do them, without causality of any kind.

Looking at the functions themselves, at the moment there are no biological simulacra encoded into the architecture; only logical process. Each drawn component of the creature’s face (its brows, its eyes, the various segments of its nose) are separate objects, all of which move at certain rates, in certain directions and up to certain thresholds, simulating the motor functions of a face. These movements are controlled by separate breathing and blinking event sheets, but the values of all of these rates, thresholds and directions are stored separately as number variables within each object itself. There’s a smidgen, then, of BOD’s modularity, but I’m not quite there yet.

This is how the breathing functions, in pseudo-code:

-> Start 'breathe in';
-> if creature is 'breathe in'
and face (less than) upper threshold,
move face up @ preset rate;
-> if face is upper threshold, 'breathe out'
-> if 'breathe out'
and face (more than) lower threshold,
move face down @ preset rate
-> if face = lower threshold, 'breathe in'

And so on, in a contented loop. The blinking happens concurrently, shrinking and growing the eyes at a much swifter but randomised rate. While I did not test whether the two behaviours would interfere with each other, they seem to make good subliminal bed-mates. What is most important about this architecture is that it is extremely adaptable; every component’s movement, the threshold of that movement and the rate that it moves can change. Once the god has things that it can react to, whether that input be vocal, tactile or otherwise, these inputs can change those numbers, and so complicate its behaviours. The passing of time could make the creature’s eyes droop and sag with tiredness, or a tender finger run along its jowls might make it hyperventilate.

Though in this prototype I sought to bring my way of thinking, my authorial, human language of ‘creatures’, ‘wants’ and ‘breaths’, around to the precise concepts of the computer, to perform a translation between myself and the machine as an initial lemma, the next and important step is to use this mathematicised abstraction of my godlet to explore the shared vocabulary of the human mind that I share with my audience; that emotive syntax of smelling parsley. Even in these very early stages I am witnessing the tabula rasa that coding a creation presents; how everything, every preconception and grant taken, must be explicitly stated there in the code. I cannot write what I like; the rules of grammar in programming are far more ironclad than in English, and everything must be stated very dully and fully before I can begin to play with them. But it is not dull to do so; I am getting excited at how the creation of every single element of this creature’s internal world assumes my authorship. What reasons will I give the creature for breathing? What will irritate it into blinking? What will I tell it to like, and what will I tell it to hate? It will be interesting to start realising some of the principles of BOD into the work.

Of course, this translation is going through several different exchanges now; from my brain to the computer and back into the brain of you, the ‘reader’ of the creature’s face. But it is in that final process, from the computer language into the language of your imagination, that the most telegraphing effect will take place; a sharing of semantics between myself and you. The computer is no different from any other artistic media; I am using it as a vector for significance, relying on our shared animalisms, our closed-circuit sentience, to provide a system out of which all of the personal peculiarities of you witnessing the creature, as part of your particular life, might arise. There are some things that I can predict about your reaction (that you will see my thresholds and rates as the breathing and blinking of a being, rather than as maths) but there are other things that I cannot. I would be interested to hear your initial reactions to the prototype, but I’m happy to report that most of the people that I have shown it to are very taken with it, even at this simple, allegorical phase.

People’s eyes are drawn to its reassuring, regular, cyclical movement, even its lack of reaction. Though there is as yet no sound to accompany it, when I look at my silent godlet I hear behind my ears a wheezing, sucking snort as it draws the nonexistent air inside. Through the movement of the simple lines that make up its nose, people will into being the three-dimensional chambers and membranes that such a nose must have in real life. My tutor even said that it was ‘hypnotic’ to watch. It’s an odd feeling, using digital, documented architectures to test what is, in the end, an organic sort of computation; a parsing of subtle, inexpressible data, garlanding and enmeshing the code with imagination and inference, like fronds of laurel on bobbed curls.

Unlike a computer, the human brain will always compile something; it will never lock entirely. Even when we give it such an impoverished test as this, it cannot help but engorge it into a plump, living deity, pregnant with pauses, expectant to begin.

1. As quoted in Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason, in a less-than-flattering context.
2. For example, unlike most programming environments if you change the name of an object or variable it is changed everywhere, which functions a little like a cosmic spellcheck in a universe where an ‘i’ before ‘e’ after ‘c’ can cause total and utter heat death.
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