Now that I am starting to grope into my PhD in great fistfuls, and work out exactly how I might start to build my digital godlet, I think it’s time to focus on specifics. At the moment I don’t have many of those; my notebooks are filled with misty calls to ’empathy’ between the human agent1 and the creature, as well as long, hopeful lists of potential interactions that will, I am sure, prove very difficult to code into being. However, one specific has stood since the beginning of this project, and persists as the mechanic upon which everything else must rely; the ability of the human agent to read the poem, which tells the creature’s story, aloud to the digital creature itself.
Fundamentally, I am talking about natural language processing; the now-banal ability of computers to take the waveform input of a human voice and understand that input as words and sentences, in a computerish sort of way; this is not of course the same as ‘understanding’ in a human sense, but rather involves transcribing those words into parseable text, or ‘strings’, which the computer can use for something else. Most people’s everyday interaction with this technology is limited at best; despite Google’s best advertising efforts, not many of us walk down the street and boss our phone out loud, as if we had a small staff of lice understairing in our fingercreases. If we do use NLP at all, it is in clipped, unbroken phrases; to dictate a text message when we are using our other hand to balance a ziggurat of biscuits, or to ask our phone something provocative in front of all our friends who have not heard its reply. I haven’t yet found much evidence of computers being read anything beyond functional, spare instructions.
Therefore last night, as I am now a Computer Scientist and I do things with a shining, experimental rigour, I lay in bed with some Medjool dates and a cup of oily tea2 and read my phone some poetry.
I decided on W.H. Auden because of his personal significance to my work, his varied and testing use of meter and rhythm, and because his was the first volume that fell when I flailed my morningstar of a hand across the shelf. I opened the Simplenote app on my phone, turned on the microphone, and started reading. I did not try to choose poems that were simple or regular or full of small words, nor did I read them in a way other than I would read them to a human audience. I just pressed the icon and starting speaking.
Below are the results. I think that you can tell which are the originals and which are the transcriptions, but I don’t mean to be dismissive in that. This was a crass experiment, and the phone did far better than I anticipated.
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech:
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
August 1968 the ogre does what oh geez can deeds quite Impossible 4 man but one price is beyond his reach the ogre cannot master speech about a subjugated playing among its desperate and slain the Argus talks with hands on hips while drivel gushes from his lips
Who could possibly approve of Metternich
and his Thought Police? Yet in a liberal
milieu would Adalbert Stifter have written
his noble idylls?
Vice-versa, what God-fearing Magistrate
would dream of shaking hands with a financial
crook and Anti-Semite? Yet Richard Wagner
Wild horses could not drag me to debates on
Art and Society; critics with credos,
Christian or Marxist, should keep their trap shut,
lest they spout nonsense.
Pseudo questions you could possibly approve of matinee and his thought Police yes in a liberal milia with apple box sister have written his Noble levels vice versa what god fearing magistrate would dream of shaking hands with a financial crook and anti-semite Richard Wagner wrote masterpieces wild horses couldn't drag me to debates on Art and Society critics with Kratos Christian or Marxist should keep their trap shut less they spelt nonsense
No, Plato, No
I can’t imagine anything
that I would less like to be
than a disincarnate Spirit,
unable to chew or sip
or make contact with surfaces
or breathe the scents of summer
or comprehend speech and music
or gaze at what lies beyond.
No, God has placed me exactly
where I’d have chosen to be:
the sub-lunar world is such fun,
where Man is male or female
and gives Proper Names to all things.
I can, however, conceive
that the organs Nature gave Me,
my ductless glands, for instance,
slaving twenty-four hours a day
with no show of resentment
to gratify Me, their Master,
and keep Me in decent shape
(not that I give them their orders,
I wouldn’t know what to yell),
dream of another existence
than that they have known so far:
yes, it well could be that my Flesh
is praying for ‘Him’ to die,
so setting Her free to become
No Plato no I can't imagine anything but I would less like to be in a disc incarnates spirit unable to chew or sip or make contact with surfaces Aubrey the sense of summer or comprehensive Picchu musical gaze at what lies beyond no God has place me exactly where I have chosen to be the sub Luna world is such fun where man is male or female and gives proper names to all things I can however can see that the organs nature gave me my ductless glands for instance sleeping 24 hours a day with no show of resentment to gratify me the master and keep me in decent shape not that I give them their orders I wouldn't know what do you dream of another existence and that they have known so far yes it well could be that My Flesh is praying for him to die so sitting her free to become a responsible master
‘Here war is simple like a monument’
Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan
For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.
But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:
And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Here war is simple like a monument here war is simple like a monument a telephone is speaking to a man flags on a map of a cert that treats for sent a boy brings milk in bowls there is a plan for living men in terror of their lives who first at 9 who were the first at noon and can be lost an arm and miss their wives and I'm like an idea and I too soon but ideas can be true although men died and we can watch a Thousand Faces made active by 1LY and maps can really point to places where life is evil now Nanking Dachau.
In my view these are not Auden’s best poems, but the phone is not concerned with that and in this instance neither am I; what we are concerned with is comprehension in terms of computation. In short:
- Does the computer transcribe the poem accurately from the diction3?
- Does the computer produce something, in that transcription, that can then be used in further computation as defined by me, the designer?
The answer to both of these questions is broadly ‘yes’, which is important for my ongoing work with knole. I am not a native programmer, and my PhD is not concerned with the technical possibilities of NLP. Instead, I wish to find the easiest path to using it in my work, in order to do interesting things subsequently, artistically. For my purposes, this means technology that works with little back-end input from myself; it does not interest me, other than in the way that all things are broadly interesting, how the words change from sound input to process-ready strings. What matters to me is what those strings look like when they do reach the computer. If there is too much discrepancy between the intended input by the speaker and the received input by the computer (in my case, the creature), authorial intent and narrative is made gobbledygook. I would still have a program that hears, that is interactive with one’s voice, but there would be no defined understanding of the voice, even if that understanding were defined by myself the designer.
These quick, initial tests are promising, however; it doesn’t seem that I will need to modify existing technologies very much to get what I want. I do have some ongoing thoughts:
- This technology, as we can see, is not designed for long stretches of input; I was lucky that the microphone did not automatically turn off after a few seconds, as I have known it do before. Ideally my creature would ‘listen’ more of less constantly, processing language or other aural input as it occurred; however, I have not done any research into how this might affect the performance or battery life of whichever device my creature ends up occupying. As it is not designed for lengthy input, so we see it struggling with punctuation, which tends to be absent from the shorter command-language of the digital assistant, in which one must must manually say ‘comma’ to have the corresponding glyph appear in the text. Whether this will be a problem I am not entirely sure, as often in oral poetry punctuation is a signal to the reader, rather than the listener; a comma tells the reader to pause, and so the listener hears a pause. The same applies to line breaks; if a poem’s audience ‘hears’ line breaks, it is in the vocal interpretation of the reader. In fact, it might be interesting to see if an audience could accurately delineate these breaks on the page just by listening. In any case, my creature does not need to display an accurate textual output of the poem, only respond to elements within its reading.
- However, this does then bring up the question of prosody; that is, the performance of a poem encompassing tone, rhythm and voice, or more accurately the meaning inherent in a poem outside the bald vocabulary and syntax. As we can see above, this is not something that could easily be encoded into NLP. Perhaps something could be jury-rigged involving differing responses based on the time between units of speech, or the volume of that speech serving as a crude barometer of emotion. I suppose I will find out when I start trying to build this little bleeder.
- There are some interesting errors on single words; for example, in August 1968 there are three separate interpretations of the spoken word ‘ogre’ in one, very short poem. This is an ongoing problem of NLP, and how much it affects my project will depend on which units of speech I rely on for my creature to compute. Will the creature be listening for ‘keywords’ to react to, or rather ‘keyphrases’? Will it react to several words in juxtaposition, proximity or comparison? If I rely on single nouns or verbs, the errors could become a problem, unless I build in a simplistic ‘spellcheck’ in which common errors are automatically normalised to the intended word. This will be more simple for me to do than most other users of NLP, as I will be curating a fairly small possibility space of speech for the creature to react to.
- This leads onto the question of homonyms, an important stylistic device in the poetry of many of my favourites, including Dylan Thomas, Auden and Ted Hughes. How can the creature distinguish between ‘hair’ and ‘hare’ if it has no way to ‘see’ the written version of the word, only the reader’s reading of it? I suppose context will be important to understanding what is meant.
- Obviously, the speech recognition struggles with some of Auden’s proper references, the pretentious old river delta.
- The speed at which the poem processed on-screen whilst I read it was fairly impressive; perhaps only lagging one second or two behind my voice. However, this is a fairly unacceptable delay when one is trying to represent a living creature listening, organically, in real time. I am not sure how this delay could be improved; again, perhaps I will be saved by my teensy possibility space.
Of course, I must not worry about errors too much, or treat them merely as ridiculous failures of my authorial intent; as I have found in my own work, the mishearing of words can open entirely new worlds within a text, and allow a degree of rebellious, fruitful interaction with the intended meaning. Such is the power of interpretation, in analogue works, and perhaps there could be an interesting correlation with interaction in digital works, as well.
If the creature mishears a reader, or the reader deliberately misreads a word in that delightful, bloody-minded way that people like to interact with computers, how can a designer create an environment in which that mistake has value, both in the creature’s response and the reader’s?
Though there is a lot of academic writing and positivist chicanery to come in regards to my PhD project, diminutively named
A few years ago I happened to visit Longleat Park with my family, in my Dad’s Orinoco-green jeep-simulacra with its orrery roof and arse-heaters. Longleat, at its own centre, is a stately home; though its movement through time has been anything but regal. From its owner’s pornographic impastos in the drawing rooms to its transformation into a Middle-English safari park in recent years, I get the sense that the National Trust would wilt around their green-lobed blades if they ever got their hands on it. We were there, along with a parade of other brightly-coloured vehicles, to do something which I to this day find not only absurd but grotesque; we joined the slow queue along the tarmac as it wound past the entrance gates and into the woods, a queue no different in composition from that we had been sitting in an hour before on the A303. It stunk of caramel and onions inside the car, and I could see the snot-glint of grease on every haunch of leather, but of course we could not open the windows. I had one of those apocalyptic, drifting instances when I realised and recognised what everything around me was constructed from, its heredity; from the seatbacks to the diesel in the engine, and the fat girl’s proto-bicep in the car behind us. Luckily, this granularity did not last.
The landscape we were moving through was former huntland, with that posh grass you only seem to get on the posh ranges of grand estates; curated by ewes, thick as a club sandwich, as unbroken as garnet. The woods were sparse and very old, and there was a tiger, predictably, shivering in its colour almost like a fox. The lion’s den was empty for the winter. The macaques had tortured all the squirrels. There may have been a rhino but I may also be dreaming that, now; I see it parked beside a rosehip hedge, as congruous as a battle tank in Wiltshire, with the syrup dripping into its armour.
The whole day was glum and gross, and we hadn’t even reached the shops yet. Longleat is not a circus; the animals looked healthy, and were not badly-conserved. They just looked embarrassed.
We reached a curve in the road; on one side were the woods, and the Park, and on the other an open, massive, slow basket of field, on its opposite side thick with ferns and the chain-link fence, keeping out the greater part of England. As we sat there idling, I caught a large-scale reconfiguration happening in the dogtooth pattern of the ferns. I had been so used to the limited, blaring palette of Longleat’s charges that I could see nothing apart from the fact of movement over there. Eventually, it resolved itself; a small, closeknit herd of deer, wandered through some gap from their territory outside. The main motif of the group was an enormous stag, his antlers a petrified, Celtic diagram. His fawns and does were flush against his coat, and I could barely pick them out in his fallow; could scarcely tell what was eyeball and what was autumn hide.
We had startled them, and they were rammed right up against the boundaries of our experience. Everybody in their cars turned away from the exotic obvious and watched, steering-locked, as the wild family unused to fences negotiated its length, looking for their way back into anonymity. They were the colour of the ferns at that time of year; the colour of the diesel in the engines, and old computers and brown meat around the wishbone and ash and bare branches and every grey sky of England that we had come there to forget. And yet we watched him and them, at the very edge of their freedom, resplendent in their camouflage. The plane on which we all sat shifted, and I (and I will speak for) everybody else on that road experienced a form of moral vertigo, the distinct feeling that humans feel when they see a thing within its nature, unaware, while we crawl along on wheels and eat coconut from the bag. Its an pre-Catholic, primeval sort of guilt; a recognition that past the glare and bombast of what we think we might like, the tropical and the dazzling, there might be a native alternative, a dunner dinner for our eyes, something all the more remarkable for it.
If feels as if knole, and what I will be attempting with it, might spring in part from that day; that distant clutch of ferns, chevroned like a prison uniform, and the doe’s eyes like a pelt, hiding on the background.
I’ve been given some money by the government to do something which might very well fail.
I am presumptuous about its outcomes already, and even now self-congratulatory about its results. I have yet few of the technical skills necessary to complete it. It will take three years, and I sincerely hope not any more than that. If it succeeds, I may very well have exasperated some intelligent people; I can’t even presume to properly upset them; perhaps even in that I am presumptuous, and it just won’t matter that I’m a charlatan. At the moment, the something is just called knole; a codename that I decided I required after watching the documentary series about videogame developer Double-Fine. I watched Tim Schafer, their lead designer and writer, weebling and bobbing his way through San Francisco’s Chinatown, pointing up through the blear at the neon signs of bars and clubs which had given his early projects their first, have-to-do names; ‘Lipo’ became Psychonauts, ‘Buddha’ became Brutal Legend, ‘EZ5’ became Happy Action Theatre; a game which I had never heard of before, and whose marketing material seems to involve smelting children.
The placeholding of my projects is not something that has ever occurred to me; whilst ‘working titles’ are certainly a technique that people use across the field into which I have been corralled, they are not nearly as codified as the ‘codename’ in software development, possibly because of the latter’s collaborative processes. Not only is this name designed to give you something monosyllabic and crunchy to talk around in meetings, but it also provides a self-important cant which is meaningless outside the company in which one works. I do not work in a company other than Bonfire Dog, and that makes me lonely; my codename is more of an attempt to feel like a proper developer, surrounded with support, than to obscure anything important from you. Having no work colleagues, I go out drinking far less regularly than the Double-Fine shower (but not as little as the difference between our workforces might suggest), and so it felt disingenuous to name my project after my favourite pubs where I do anything but crawl with my friends. Therefore knole was named after an ancient deer park near my parent’s house that I sometimes walk through, full of haunted trees and fawns with backs like plasterers’ jeans. Across the undulations where the horses once tailed the dogs, you sometimes catch sight of the grand old house for which the park was named; tea-stained and pensioner-wracked, trusted nationally.
knole is a
Of course, there are already many excellent examples of ‘literary’ characters in videogames, interactive fiction and other interactive art; I would not presume to exclude them. However, as well as being fewer and farther between than they should be, these characters seem to rely more on traditional narrative safe harbours, techniques of characterisation found more naturally in books, film and other media. Mass Effect, an example of excellent non-player embodiment often brought up in such conversations, does indeed use playeragency and interaction to reveal character, and bind their player to them and their choices; in practice, however, I have always found these interactions rich in isolation; excellently-written, yet with little animation or verve. The choices in these interactions often have more in common with Viscera Cleanup Detail, encouraging the player to function like some sort of narrative street sweeper, buffing through the options rather than stumbling and pruning through them like any normal, awkward person. When a choice connected to something outside the character’s immediate realm appears, it is often unashamedly binary; not always, but often enough.
I have, after making this wide, tiresomely familiar, most-likely-foolhardy statement, taken on my own pathetic challenge. I focus on creating one character, as intimately as I can, and using every method I can to render that character as completely as possible; to not only author it, but to, once the player has hold of it, to cast off that authorship and give it some sort of agency and growth. By using techniques which I personally, myself, a big limited being, have rarely seen considered in the creation of dynamic digital characters. I hope to show that characters in digital works can use the tenets of their own medium, as well as those of techniques past, to create interactions that are memorable, intricate and radioactive, a sort of benevolent poison which affects our development, and the development of our children, and so on. And that in so being, they will not be hampered by their new responsibilities as reactive, functioning beings, alive with every input to which we can wire them.
Here are a few of the topics, and techniques that I am exploring to make my thing:
- Animal behaviour, animal/human interaction and pet studies;
- Artificial intelligence, ambient intelligence, fuzzy logic and cellular automata;
- The general tenets of good game design, AI in games and those examples, good and bad, that we currently have of ‘character’ in the broadest sense.
- Identity, narratorship and character in more traditional works;
- Digital pets, sprites and familiars such as the Dread Furby, Wuv-Luv, Tamagotchi et al;
- Animal-assisted therapy;
- Storygames and the illusion of choice;
- Telepresence (including the delightful and parochial world of teledildonics);
- Long-distance relationships;
- Animism and folk religion;
- Facial animation, voice recognition and image tracking.
All of these studies, and my application of them, will go into creating my own unique being, a ‘literary intelligence’ built only to inhabit a world of my making. At the moment, it is called Wurdergirderdu, and at the moment it looks exactly like the drawing at the top of the page, scribbled by Sarah Alice (also known, elsewhere on this website, as The Ski Ghost) for me years ago on a envelope when we were bored, and now co-opted. Indeed, that drawing is the only concept I have at the moment.
Wurdergirderdu is a spirit-creature of England. It is a creature in England, on England, through it and under it; a guardian spirit of that land, a semi-divine maybe-beast in the animist tradition practiced to this day in countries such as Japan, Canada and Cornwall. Wurdergirderdu stands for everything that England was, is and might be, whatever it is and wherever it stops, and in my vision is its god, patron and symbol, far brighter than the lion or the lamb or the cross or the dragon or the bull.
My PhD work is to create Wurdergirderdu in several different manners. In the first instance, there will be a prose poem, as linear as an escalator, bound on paper and to be read out loud, more or less in one straight go. It will be a panegyric to this creature, describing a protagonist’s walk through a sort of English landscape, a dream-place that I have been bricolaging in my head out of all those bytes of my home country that I have seen, imagined and interpolated over my years. The protagonist will be the voice of the poem, the voice of its reader, and it will describe the adventures and dioramas encountered in this England whilst accompanied by Wurdergirderdu. The narrative will describe Wurdergirderdu as weakened, failing, wounded; indeed, the protagonist has no choice, in my poem, but to carry the sprite on this regal tour of its own, symbolic body. Together they will see so much, meet so many and explore so much more; a structure that I am borrowing, in no small part, from the topographical poetry and morality narratives ofearly English writers such as Langland and Drayton.
I have not decided yet how this poem will end, but it will end, as long as it is read. Tu-TUM-tu-TUm-tu-TUM-tu-TUM-tu-TUM it will go, over a few hundred lines; events, proscribed characters, predetermined outcomes, and so a picture of this debilitated avatar emerges. And then it is done.
Of course, I would get in trouble if I only produced a few hundred lines of poetry in three years; especially with the Computer Science department at Bath, my co-supervisors. The bound work stands a double role, both as artefact and key, chronicle and instruction. It stands as the (very secure) password for, and instruction manual to, the much more complex and daunting half of my work, the half which I will need to learn how to make as I make it.
My plan is to create a direct simulation of Wurdergirderdu digitally, on-screen, as an interactive representation of the creature chiseled out in the poem. Most likely it will be developed for some sort of jerry-rigged mobile device, where I can make use of the dramatic sensors, data and mobility to create a sort of life, and a sort of intelligence, for the creature.
Through animation, it will move as it is described on the page; its injured eyes, its thick fur, its broken brow. It will communicate with you as an animal only can. Behind its eyes I am exploring the varied principles of artificial intelligence to produce something which may not be generally intelligent, but is at least narratively intelligent; something which is authored and then set free to act within its parameters, and perhaps surprise everybody with an authored illusion of sentience; this illusion, the idea of using the mind of the reader or player to fill in the gaps in my computation, is my Exciting New Idea, one which I will probably discover in a book from the 1980s and get very depressed about.
It will, using image recognition, recognise you (or mistake you) and the things you bring it; the leaves of England’s trees, and the seeds of England’s fruit growing or mulching upon its back. It will come to love you or hate you or perhaps something more interesting and unknowable, depending on how you treat it. It will listen, through ears like those of the deer that I saw tiptoeing through the dead leaves, to everything you have to say. Most of all, in its injury, it will love to listen to stories about itself.
The main strut of the interaction between these two half-works will be the reading of the written Wurdergirderdu to the writeable Wurdergirderdu; the reader reads aloud, as if to a child, and the creature on the screen, through microphones and some algorithmic work, marvels at its own story. Indeed, its reactions should reveal to you more about itself, and the bound, arrested world of the poem, than merely reading the poem alone. Of course, I hope to have the creature interact in more ways than this; computers have almost as many sensors as we do nowadays. There is no reason why Wurdergirderdu shouldn’t react to the time of day, the season, the station of the moon; to different temperatures, different touches on its multi-capacitative screen, orientation, location, creating in the nexus of these interactions a sort of ‘circadian AI’, a system for interpreting natural cycles. I may even stop the app functioning outside of England, its animus as of course it would, if you took the soul out of a place.
This is all very loose, necessarily, here at the start of the project, and I’m speaking in quite grandiloquent terms; I’m hoping to break the project down into more manageable chunks and blog about them weekly in a far more workaday language than the above. If you want to follow along, they will all be tagged #knole.
I really am sorry about all the wiffle. I’m an academic now, so it’s to be expected in the first few weeks; it will work its way out of my system, like karstwater, soon enough.
Some other links that will become more interesting in time:
- The project GitHub, where I will be posting a version-controlled evolution of the digital parts of my work. I’ll be becoming interested in collaboration, bug fixes, suggestions, branching and forkings very soon.
- My open bibliography for the project, which will form the basis of my final contextualising essay.
And for those of you who are wondering what is happening with my other projects:
- The Black Crown Project – That link is still dead. I still have no time or money to focus on redeveloping it, though I do have some of the ability; a stark contrast to when the project was originally created, and I could barely fill in a form field or use an HTML tag. The publishers (Random House UK) have very kindly reverted the rights back to me, though the archives of assets still rest with Failbetter Games. Those first need to be retrieved, and sorted, and a new framework developed, and content rewritten to shake off the last scraps of the game’s FTP economy. It is a large and messy job, and the chance of it being done any time soon are vanishingly small. I am going to stand very tall, close my eyes, wag a finger, purse my lips, and tell you all that it will be done.
- On My Wife’s Back – This project, originally started with the British Library, was always going to be an oozer; spreading out slowly in all directions, getting everything sticky as it went; it seems that I specialise in grubby work. I’m hoping to digitise what I have written of Scinbank’s diary by the end of the year, and there are regular updates on my research map and blog. We’ll even be recording some old, new and invented shanties at the Library in December, as an early Christmas present. Anything new tends to appear on the blog first, and it’s best to always start there.
I’m setting up a mailing list at the moment (to occupy the currently-impotent ‘Volucracy’ button in the top menubar of this blog) which will hopefully curb my tendency to keep everything to myself and fill, those of you who want it, in, from time to time.
My latest kitten has just learnt (or, perhaps less impressively, just grown) to jump clear from the kitchen floor and into the fridge. I have an irresponsible habit of leaving its cheese-thick door ajar when constructing lunch, and for the past week or so with almost no fail I have heard the corn-grind of his nascent toenails on the lacquered wood, hoiking himself up and into the cavity. At first it was laughable that this compact oik, this tiny hoiker, no longer than an Evian, with a rib-cage like an arm of bangles, should be able to leap eight times his own height. But, of course, on comes life, filling him up, changing his schematic, upgrading him, hardening his bones and his claws. Every day his face grows more and more concave, more SETI-like, though his enormous eyes, the colour of lager, never cease dominating. He pips the pip of the pipistrelle when he is pleased to see me or is hungry, and his tail lashes like a cat. His tongue, when he deigns to display it, is as sweet as a banana chip. He eats like his own tapeworm, and has found the longest stretch of unbroken space in our house, an isosceles from the tip to the tip, and he runs it daily, religiously, back legs pulling forwards and to the right, threatening at every moment to throw him out of control. With all of these disparate likenesses in him, it is becoming no trouble to rally some of them to his cause and pull himself up into odd places, especially if they contain nice smells.
Usually I catch him before he can haul himself into the body proper; he manages only a hit of melt-water, floating with spring onion skins, before he is deposited back onto the kitchen’s plain. Other times, however, my sandwich is complicated, and requires numerous trips, strategies, avid concentration, and I forget about him. And when I finish and come back to it all I can see of him is those eyes, rustic, hot and alien, weirding me out from amongst the darkness between the tofu and Crunch Corners.
In some ways this is adorable; a precious sight of a precious thing being obliviously capricious, reveling in breaching the rules which are only enforced half-halfheartedly. I sigh, remonstrate him all up on one level, in the same high, fairytale registers in which his natural prey speaks; this being the only way to get him to look at me, to turn his amber instruments my way. In that moment I feel as if I have just won some research time with an expensive telescope.
In other ways it is truly unsettling. Here on the greasy, misted shelves Teddy (that is his name) lurks with the vivarium, dripping packages, the eeking plastic and the compartments, and in so doing takes on all the attributes of a commodity himself. He is lost amongst the other discrete objects in the fridge’s depths; or rather, is not lost but merely indistinguishable. It is no longer important that he belongs out in the warmth and attention. He is no different in weight, distribution and unit cost from a pack of four chicken legs, a few tins of sweetcorn, a Tupperware of cold rice, or indeed an Evian.
If I squint, he disappears entirely.
What is worse is that these commercial attributes are not imagined; they are part of him already. It is only the sterilising airs of the fridge* which bring him into focus. He has, of course, always been a commodity; there are many kittens like him, and there will be many more, and yet all of their owners will believe them unique. He is mobile within bounds; when needed, he is stopped and ceased to make an opportunity for photographs, a feature for guests, and a giver of pleasure. He was bought, quite materially, for a large amount of money; we were even fooled by his packaging, his blue fur like something synthetic and highly flammable, those unbelievable, high-resolution eyes. He is maintained with unguents, pills and pastes. He will grow obsolescent before other, less-rarefied cats.
I do not like this feeling. I do not like it revealing his ubiquity, his seriality, his place on the shelf. He was bred to be beautiful and gawky and loving. Soon we will clip his testicles off, as one takes off the ugly head of a carrot.
I do not like this feeling, and so I pluck him out the fridge always, as soon as I can, before he can charm his way into this carton of blueberries, fuzzy with their own, coquettish fur. I put him down, trill at him, have him trill right back, and shut the door. He goes to sleep in a perfect cursive. His eyes shut, impossibly. He loses his charge so easily.
It would be very easy, if a little odd, to begin this piece with some final remarks; certainly far easier than dreaming up some opening words of my own. The done thing is to lead with a quote from somebody else, centred on the page like a cartouche. It’s a reassuring start, to have another person go before you and pharmaceutically compact whatever it is you’re about to spend 3,000 words discussing into something elegant and digestible. However using a person’s last ever words, what they choose or do not choose to say in the final, rattle-to-a-halt moments of their life, has an altogether different effect.
Now, this might be a mite awkward, but I’m desperate to start as I mean to go on; that is, profoundly. And where better to find profundity but in the dying words of some of the finest examples of public humanity from history? Even a very brief prescription from the Internet provides me with no shortage of options.
Hold still, and swallow. They may be big names, but they’ll go down without any trouble.
“Et tu, Brute?”
Julius Caesar (probably apocryphal)
“Kiss me, Hardy.”
Admiral Horatio Nelson (probably apocryphal)
“One of us must go.”
Oscar Wilde (attributed, probably apocryphal)
You might think that it’s a bit parasitical of me, perhaps even disrespectful, to hijack the immortalities of these noble, unforgettable men, in those long-gone moments as ignoble and mortal as veal, but rhetorically it’s a safe bet. Last words, especially those uttered by the historically surveilled, frequently mean more to us than any of the millions that they spoke beforehand; at the countless breakfasts, wars and podiums throughout their lifetimes. Their quotidian wisdoms are treated quite roughly, back when everything is good and their hearts are healthy and there isn’t a single shadow on their stomachs; they are dislocated into paperbacks or poetry or blog columns or, for the most part, ignored entirely. But when the final moment comes (and it is too late for anything else) we record whatever they say fetishistically onto the populist imagination, whether it is controversial or meaningless or useful or transcendent.
I think that this impulse might find its cause in the marine survivals of our brains; those wibbly bulbs and leftover nodules which, when we were just flotillas of cells in need of teeth or horns or bioelectricity, used to warn us where the shadow of a ichthyosaur ended and the light from the surface began. It certainly does seem that, as organisms, we are far more concerned with the borders, or termini, than with the content of a thing. There is an importance attached to beginnings and endings that has migrated from those primitive flight responses and into our dramatic apparatus, those misunderstood amygdalae which help us to appreciate good stories.
The first words of our narratives, of a person’s life, are harder to dramatise, as we have a raft of unrealistic expectations and little to compare them to. Still we search for something gnostic in the ‘Dada’ or ‘Plop Plop’ of a toddler, and judge her accordingly. When that toddler moves on from the admittedly-rich ‘Plop Plop’ material and becomes a celebrated activist, for example, and her words become countless, and she is hale and wealthy in partners and goes to live by a lake we still celebrate her words, albeit with less granularity – there are just too many of them. And if that activist falls down while buying flowerpots aged 88 and the passerby who holds her head, as light as a tulip, hears her say ‘Winchester’, and feels that head grow ever so slightly lighter, that one word completes the loop all the way back to ‘Plop Plop’, and its oracular qualities; her two best pieces of work, in the eyes of the world.
The importance of these first and last words is largely defined by how society, at least some society, views the twinned acts of birth and death. While many of us do not explicitly believe in reincarnation there has often been an unspoken sense of transition, of transference, rather than finality, during these life-events; a change in geography, in mode of transport, rather than a line ending or beginning. The dying or borning person is osmosised, with some atoms in this world and some in whatever turgid, crisp landscape comes next or came before. This is perhaps why we listen to the dying especially, as we might sonar, echo-locating for some insight. Like peering up into the lantern of an Unorthodox church, we squint into the apertures the departing make with their words, hoping to catch a glimpse of blue sky beyond.
Of course, not everything about last words is celestial, forever floating off from us; they have a tendency, as well, to root the dying to our world, and to us. They can be intensely carnating, transmuting history’s polished figurines, those who we are only ever encountering rendered in marble on museum staircases, into a softer, myrrhic squish, part of the same tapenade of personhood as ourselves. Whatever the material or accomplishment of the person who utters them, last words often characterise and make vulnerable, denuding those we never even thought of as having bare skin. Caesar, for example, felt betrayed, as we all have, and probably died with a lump in his throat and a turd in the chamber as he tried not to cry; Freud just wanted the curtains shut, as the light was hurting his human, human eyes; countless others have lost their historical composure, the manners and vestments and right sort of shoes which place them on the guest-list for exclusive encyclopedias, and instead call for their mothers, a glass of water, or just a diagnosis. Their achievements are forgotten, and they become just another bin of nerve endings, knotted and stanky, which in that moment is tipping, farting, bubbling, sphincting, pouring away.
Of course, the imperative to marble, the need to make these figures statuesque and public-domain, cannot be put off for long, and these last few words, these self-written panegyrics, are always in the end co-opted by the utterer’s estate, politicised and mythologised to serve their burgeoning logo. This is especially true of suicide notes, a special sort of last statement which can play havoc with the precious commodity of a celebrity’s public frontage, especially if they were not known for their pith or their mental illness. Even spoken epithets can prove troublesome to the marketing; take Nelson’s last words, most likely misquoted at the beginning of this essay. For much of recent history, ‘Kiss me, Hardy’ was altered to ‘Kismet, Hardy’, kismet being a Turkish word meaning’ fate’. This clumsy switcheroo ignored the fact that ‘Kismet’ did not enter English usage until thirty years after Nelson’s death. It is likely that Nelson’s sacrosanct words, rather than being misheard, were altered on purpose; the man’s useful martyrdom to the red-blue-and-white-blooded Jack-brand of England was undermined, in the eyes of patriots who like to quote him, by their misgivings about where exactly Hardy was going to kiss Horatio.
In this stonemasonry of history, chiselling out all of these useful personalities, it perhaps would not have mattered much if Nelson’s words had been changed, for they were never meant to be answered, or questioned, or refuted. For all their political power, last words are not part of a conversation with these people; they belong to the same oratorical family as the eulogy, the father of the bride’s speech and other phatic communications; they exclude all information in favour of self-promotion, remaining unquestioned and performative, the audience deadened by the notion of ‘respect’. Once performed, they cannot be impeached, or broken into; they may as well be chiselled in stone underneath their speaker’s busts, part of their unchanging character, a character they have always played in the ongoing bill of our culture.
When we look at final words in this way, then, it is entirely unsurprising that videogames rely upon them so heavily to solve their own problems of characterisation. In fact, it is only with the rise of interactive art such as games, art meant to simulate a living space, that we have even had to think about characters in this same way, as living and unpredictable. With painting, writing, sculpture and other forms, what is presented is in some way a mausoleum of ideas, in the most respectful sense; a diorama of thoughts already thought, conclusions already reached, arranged for appreciation like skulls in an ossuary, the flesh long-sloughed, can become chandeliers or retaining walls with a little mortar and lateral thinking. Certainly, I have written about the interactive power of all art elsewhere, but it remains the case that on the page, the canvas or the digital stock, traditional art relies on the events of its narratives being done with, long before the audience comes by in their present to appreciate what remains; what is left picturesque, and sublime, now that everything has been finished. It is in this way no coincidence that most of our stories, in one way or another, begin with ‘A long, long time ago’.
The promise of videogames especially is to move away from such static, historically-dictated structures. We believe, perhaps a little naively, that the barrier between the audience and the artist, the character and the player, the speaker of last words and the mourner by the bedside can be removed entirely. We hope that we might take up a role in something living and unmythologised and still-changing, where the pithy phrases have not been coined just yet, and the words, the good and the bad, the memorable and the ordinary, are still being spoken and influenced by our presence in the story; that the stories themselves might be told later, with ourselves a part of them. But there is a struggle with this new paradigm, ranging across the realms of stay-at-home coders and the centuries of designers in the larger companies. Despite the potential and investment in the medium, these artists cannot depart from cultural imperative; they are intelligent, rarefied human beings who read books and watch many films and learnt the trade of story and worldbuilding through such prisms. They have spent their lives walking, hats in hands respectfully, through a marble, busted landscape of those who went before, uninteractive, holy statements written everywhere, on every surface.
It is not only philosophical problems they face, either, but computational ones; creating any being from scratch, one which has at its disposal even a finite variety of reactions to any situation, requires at the very least a rough simulation of a personality, and this has very, very rarely been done well. On a handful of occasions, perhaps.
And so we come to the current, halfway exercise, one which remains, at its heart, dead.
Let’s sit down to play a game. Almost any big one released in recent years will do. The environment loads up around you, one that is superficially inviting and full of winkling holes. However, this construction is almost always less vital than it looks, flatter, more referential than representational; these lands in which you love to tread are lands of symbols, of caryatids and atlantids lovingly copied from reality but still mute and solid through. As a player, you are told by scattered murals, cunning furniture and designed avenues that people once lived here, but are now evacuated or murdered. You creep through biospheres, meticulously simulated with a healthy understanding of how rocks might erode, though often they are devoid of predator or prey. The player especially is isolated from any richness in this ecosystem, other than in a linear snakes-and-ladders of a virtual food chain. There may be characters living in front of you with whom you may speak and interact, but this interaction is perfunctory to such characters as environment, part of the larger environment that holds hegemony over your experience. Neither you, nor these companions, have much chance of changing this environment; it is heavy with the feeling of a public museum, a place where everything has already happened and been said, where velvet ropes segregate you from the dynamism, and your only role is that of a tourist, or at best an archaeologist, reading their parting statements.
This does not describe nearly every game, but it is coming to describe more and more; especially those with larger budgets and larger ambitions, though the indies have not solved this problem either. Of all the tomb paraphernalia that these games employ, of all the formats that such last words can take, the audio diary is the current, duogenerian favourite; consisting of collectible widgets scattered throughout the gameworld, devices onto which the world’s inhabitants have recorded their dying breaths, the motif shows little sign of the self-reflexive mockery that game designers and game players have started to enact with other, insomniac features such as in-game graffiti. The audio diary began, as far as limited research can tell, with the Shock dynasty of roleplaying games, and has irrigated into more-recent, lauded examples such as Dishonored, the latter-day Fallouts, Alien: Isolation and the Dead Space series, games universally marketed as possessing an in-world rich, elegiac and open to interpretation. For these, and many other games being released now, the audio diary becomes the current vogue of ‘environmental storytelling’, a greased wheel on which to deliver some life into these arrested places.
So often the feeling when exploring these gamespaces is that of viewing an impressive diorama. There is a sense of simulacrum, of isolation from the events which shaped these arenas so long before you arrived. Of course, with the audio diary your loneliness is accompanied by simultaneous commentary, like those cumbersome talking guides that you are lent when visiting a national monument, explaining why everything went so mournful. While such pathos is no mean theme for any piece of art, it is becoming the sole subject that ‘artistic’ or ‘atmospheric’ or ‘narrative’ games can deploy. It seems then that such gamespaces, with the story distributed neatly throughout their dimensions in compartmentalised, canopic packets, are really just collections of last words; dropped about the topography and substituting statuary for character, sarcophagi for real people. What is more, the glimpses of the story which such diaries provide pay little homage to the fact that these recordings were made in the environment by limited yet dynamic individuals; when the player comes across them, most often in the location where the narrator lost their lives, blunt, silly crags of story fall out of them, stonking great obvious fistfuls of archetypes and clanging plot development that are often clumsy or hopelessly troped.
If we take Bioshock to be the most modern and accepted foothold of this device, I can defend its use; in that game the city of Rapture’s death, its stillness when compared with the occasional mushroomed bursts of violence and nonsense was mechanically and narratively apropos, embodied by the almost-glossolalia which the game’s main enemies, the Adam-addled Splicers, raspberried into your ear just coherent enough to make you feel sorry for them. The audio diaries in Bioshock, identically-modelled tape recorders (or, rather, mass-produced as part of the communal product line in the otherwise neoliberal Rapture), could be explained away in their ubiquity and convenient placement. It stood to reason that in a world that once held so much sense, the only way to navigate it would be by the final words of its once-sensible inhabitants. The appearance of each recorder, when found, was subliminally comforting, the sound of a measured human voice wonderful after so much wandering alone. The characters on the recordings were fleeting and incarnated just like Caesar and his blubbing; even if the words weren’t truly the character’s last, and they went on living after the recording was made, in a world enacted by the player’s attention, they may as well have died as soon as the recording ended. Indeed, some of Rapture’s long-dead inhabitants were solely developed through a succession of fragments, cunningly landscaped across the player’s path. Most, however, were fragmented and Jurassic, and like palaeontologists finding only a shard of an archaeopteryx in a valley wall we the players extrapolated everything, constructing a Dramatis Personae for ourselves. We did not need to meet these people; they came pre-assembled by the history around them and the circumstances in which time had left them. These were the last words of Bioshock’s world, as pure as any else in our culture, and it did not matter to us that we did not get a say in crafting them.
Like so much of Bioshock, this was a clever solution to a fundamental burden of games design. Living humans are difficult to render or artifice, and so by making them former, unacquaintable figures of a history, they take on all those benefits of the dying breath of the celebrity; knowable and human, yet removed from the interaction of the game, politicised out of being individuals and into the public domain of Rapture’s themes themselves.
Out from Bioshock, though, it seems we have not found a different way to do things, and so instead we ape and we ape and we ape. We have taken this audio-diary-as-inscription to the extreme, entirely divorcing the marriage of mechanic and metaphor that it once represented and turning it, instead, into punctuation, a sigil that indoctrinated players will recognise and disregard as standing for something more complex.
Even in Rapture, the content of these recordings do not always represent last words in their intricacy and ambivalence; they often have convenient context, and a conventional, prosaic structure, so that instead of burbled thoughts, gasping weakness, or even just the intestinal grumblings of a human being in a moment, what we are instead given is little different from paragraphs in a textbook, clinically detached from their surround; this character fully explained Randian determinism before dying, that character made a clumsy, Chekhovian gunshot before she ran away, nullifying any ambiguity or mystery in the room in which her words are found. The language these characters use in their last moments is that of an author, a director, a spin-doctor, treating the plot as press-release, as viral marketing to the theme. Human beings do not truly speak in that way.
The aping has abstracted even further, so that our response to these devices is not surprise or delight but instead Pavlovian expectation, as phatic and unargumentative as the words themselves. Many games seem infested with nooks and crannies, incomprehensible sewers and alcoves, built not because of geographical accident or storied reason but because these are the places where audio diaries should be found. We are expected to act as if coming across these hideyholes is a Zen-act of realisation, as if we were not already actively searching for these places because we know that they are the only locales where we will find anything human in these totalitarian, happened worlds. Some games even remove the notion of chance altogether and simply tell you, by means of a counter, how many more last words you still have to collect. Not unlike Nelson and his kisses, the fact of these character’s last words have been co-opted, levered in to filibust a solution. They are no longer warming or relatable, elegant or humanising. They are just another asset, just another mechanic to be grokked.
What brought about this lambast in the first instance was a website that I discovered a few years ago, far from any signposted niche or filter bubble of my usual browsing. I cannot remember how I found it; I did not Stumbleupon it, algorithmically. I have decided not to link to it, to honour this happenstance, but it is still out there, as far as I know. What this website represented to me, however crudely or categorically, was how we parse this phenomenon of last words within our society. It was named Last Words, and it was a crumbling Geocity, a remnant of a time a long, long time ago when websites were personal, matte, twinkling lists of links, and Lycos still had a shiny coat, and it was a simple thing to come across these shrines to one person’s interest, unannounced, in your wanderings.
The website was a subsidiary of a larger domain called Planecrashinfo, which trod a fine line between encyclopaedic and symphorophiliac; every publicly-known aviation disaster throughout history, military and civilian catalogued minutely. No engine was too underpowered, no crew too small, no crash site too remote to be included. As I scrolled down the list the causes of these tragedies blurred into a greypoint mix of formerly-innocuous words
which started to make me feel a little bilious.
There were some pictures, but not many. There were some famous incidents, though most had not even made the news, as far as I could tell. I think, when you totted up the casualty lists, that the total number of dead in these events ranged into the tens of thousands. Here was the banality of death, a screaming and smoking spreadsheet far removed from the bedbound, Homeric platitudes of all those famous last words. The final moments of those ten thousands, their legacies, have gone unknown, drowned out inside the thrumming, whirring blenders that those planes became as they fell out of the sky, all pureed instantly. Whatever they were, I’m sure that they did not reveal much plot, or resolve any tension, or hint at the ineffable, or have the whole thing make sense in the third act. I imagine, instead, confusion, cowardice, a mite of bravery, and possibly a very real embarrassment.
It was while browsing Planecrashinfo that I found the link to Last Words, and saw it for what it was; the pinnacle of this entire, accumulative, voyeuristic exercise. The author, and I the audience, were little different from the player-character in our games collecting their tapes. The website took advantage of a narrative peculiarity in the aeronautics industry, separate from other, less-chronicled modes of transportation; planes are amongst the only public vehicles which contain within their fabric the ability to write their own epitaph, to speak their final bit, if something does go wrong. Through the principles of the black box, and the evidence of those final transmissions to whichever clerical, benedictine air traffic controller was within broadcast range at the time, this website meticulously recorded the last words from each of these planes, all the screaming, pleading, unknown humanity in the main cabin behind filtered and interpreted and smoothed through the one or two voices elected to speak for them in such a situation; those of the pilot and co-pilot.
When I visited Last Words there were perhaps twenty or thirty entries on this website, the carriers involved in the disasters ranging truly international from Air France to United Express to AeroPeru. Some only had a typed transcript attached, though always helpfully translated into 11-point English from the original, hollering tongue. Some, though I have no idea how, had the actual recordings available for download. And like any good, indoctrinated collector of stories, any game player who finds the artificial little alcove where the secrets are stored, I sat down, clicked play, waited for the crackle, and started to half-listen as I got on with something else. I was making a salad, I think.
After not very long I stopped trimming lettuce and frying croutons, and started to really listen, and to read the transcripts properly, giving myself up to the mode, and I started to cry. Expectedly, nothing like a girl’s blouse. I have only ever cried at media like that once before, when I watched the trailer for a documentary on intensive pig farming which finally sent me vegetarian. I listened to these men, almost all men in this stupid world, these professional pilots in starched white shirts and with voices like kindly grandfathers as they lived out their last seconds of life on the job. Some of the recordings are minutes long, a creeping degradation in altitude, a worsening rattling that, in the end, simply unclips the left wing like a gate latch and kills them all. It takes some of them a long time to realise what is happening. Some of them make brief pleas for help to the air traffic controller in a strangled jargon of metres-per-second. One pilot laughs when he realises what comes next; another just states ‘That’s it, I’m dead.’ Every recording ends abruptly in static, and I almost laughed myself at how troped that has become.
It was very clear to me after this encounter how dishonest we have been in valuing last words as they really are; that is, as the product of a flawed machine, a disaster, a body unprepared to take a breath and say something lasting, something that kerns well on a cenotaph. Some of those cenotaphed greats with which I began this essay have hinted at this biological, human urgency in their last recordings; consider Goethe’s “mehr licht!” (more light!) and Richard Nixon’s simple, adorable “Help”. However, we will never allow such men, the very currency of history, to die saying something so ordinary or honest; I have seen other, ‘wiser’ words attached to them, as if they had had the time and forethought and organisation to start writing second drafts. These are most likely false as well, their actual last words even less literary.
Even if they are honest and mortal, last words are too privileged, too manufactured, too weighty in the balance of a person’s life, and nowhere more so than in videogames. Our current industry practice of moulding our character’s entire selves in a few snatched, unrealistic moments of dialogue has become the default solution to a pressing and ever-growing problem: how do we reveal our characters, and keep them authored and manageable, when the precepts of the medium requires that the players interact, trample, troll, be disobedient? This solution enforces respect and distance in order to make the gameworld a dead one, a memento mori with all the life in the past tense. The characters are remembered by the things they did and the things that they uttered as they passed from view, and any act of rebellion that we might wish to begin is neutered. Overusing the ruth of the well-placed audio diary, as we do now, makes games into parodies of themselves, politically-expedient and prepared statements rather than troublesome playgrounds or forums for debate. There are horrific obstacles to building living characters, to making them answerable and discursive, making their flaws and contradictions and unheroics apparent and manipulable to the player. But the solution we have engendered is to rely, instead, on the static roominess of environment, of world, the illusion of choice in navigating it and giving every story we have to that environment; an act of landscaping designed to make everything look as natural and emergent as possible. The artificial audio diary must have less presence in a medium which has such drive to be organic.
I do understand how far we are from adopting such a drive fully. It is easy to sit here being churlish about how some of gaming’s best characters exist after the fact, in correspondence, and how if we ever meet them at all they are so very often disappointing; much the same way, I imagine, that Freud or Wilde or Nelson might have been, if we had been there as they passed away. The audio diary, and last words, will have to do the narrative job that they have always done for just a little while longer; perhaps, however, we might have a compromise for now. If we do have to wait to get to know our characters a little better, and have our questions of them answered, to impeach as we have always wished, perhaps we can treat their memorials, their last words, with a little more honesty and thought. The audio diary should be more like the black box and less like the paean, an honest and unedited accident of circumstance which stands for a person more completely in its mundanity, its relatability and what goes unsaid than a tacky memorial. I have lost faith in those big, important words that I used to begin this essay, and I might be better served if I close it with something more banal and terribly, terribly sad.
“Unload it, unload it-”
First Officer of IAI 1124A Westwind, November 8th 2002
“Let’s do like this-”
Co-Pilot of Birgen Air Flight 301, February 6th 1994
Passenger in Seat 5, Row D, Air Canada Douglas DC-8, July 5th 1970 (attributed)
I shall be going to my own personal sort of Gap, all sycamoreish and lonely. I won’t be available in any format.
In the meantime, there is a short, glacial period in which you can still book your tickets for Crossroads Of Curiosity, the festival of derivation at the British Library of which I’m a part.
Enjoy your weeks.
She might have been a councilwoman; she had a municipal look to her.
It has now been a span of many years, at least several, and I have forgotten everything about her from the head down. I think that she was large, but I have forgotten. I think that she was pale-skinned and mole-filled, but I have forgotten. I have forgotten where I saw her, who she was with, what her hands were doing, and what she wore. Above her all, extending past her actual limits like a gillie, camouflaging whatever there was below her neck, hung her head, to all appearances on top of nothing. I don’t even remember her face or neck or ears all that well, because it was her hair which made me notice her and keep her. It has been a canoptic sort of relationship; I have removed the extraneous material from her, and kept only what is necessary to write about her now, as a fleeting glimpse. I think that if she were to read these statements about herself, she would laugh and be worried.
Whatever else I lay over her and under her when I glanced at her, all those several years ago, her hair was cut into a winged bob, tipped like a sphinx and high-buzzed at the back, and its lower third had been dip-dyed the streaked crimson of fresh muscle or a changed bed, and in seeing that, and coveting it enough to remember it, to annihilate the rest of her, rather than camouflage her, I have used her. Her hair, devoid of the rest, has become a tool hung, ready to have roles ascribed to it, uses and totems and reductions and essences. I am ashamed of myself, and apologise to her here, for finding no use for her for so long that I have forgotten the rest of my Gaze, for keeping her bottled for so long without her knowledge. I apologise to all the others, as well, but she will stand as their symbol, even if in making her so, and in hearing such an apology, she would roll her eyes, vape and go straight back to her spreadsheets.
I will be installing myself, entirely announced, at the British Library’s Crossroads of Curiosity event on Saturday 20th June, in which the Library will descend from the top stair to join the more adult architectures of London in staying up very, very late. Until at least eleven!
The event is to celebrate the launch of David Normal’s lightbox installations, originally exhibited in a place much in need of patterned light: the Nevadan desert, and Burning Man festival. David used thousands of public domain images from the Library’s collections to create his work, and the Library has taken the opportunity to celebrate all those artists, like myself, who have used its collections to inform, inspire and construct their own output. There will be talks, art installations, performances and music by DJ Yoda, a man who I apparently once saw at university and adored.
I’ve already had to write some bumf for the event, so in the spirit of it all allow me a little paste:
As part of our Crossroads Of Curiosity event, one of the Library’s most curious recent denizens will be joining us on the evening of 20th June; Interactive-Writer-in-Residence Rob Sherman.
A writer, musician, multimedia artist, games designer and ‘world-builder’, Rob spent six months creating the beginnings of an intricate, satirical and fantastical ‘alternate history’ for our exhibition about polar exploration, Lines In The Ice. From handbound, hand-aged diaries to reworked traditional shanties, from secret computers to fake artefacts, Rob used many different mediums and technologies to weave together the life of Isaak Scinbank, a forgotten (and entirely fictional) Arctic explorer in a sprawling collection of works called On My Wife’s Back.
Rob will be hosting one of his ‘holistic exhibitions’, first held at the Library during his residency. He will be curating and constructing his own corner of the festival, mixing the artefacts, writings and ephemera of both himself and his characters, with little distinction between the two. Come and visit Rob to ask him questions, peruse Scinbank’s belongings and his own, explore digital maps and objects, and watch Rob at work at his recreated ‘resident’s desk’, as well as submitting your own ideas, suggestions, criticisms and even belongings to the narrative of On My Wife’s Back; Rob promises that everything will be considered.
Rob will also be performing, and contextualising, new, reworked and traditional songs from his residency at scheduled times throughout the evening.
Look for me in the Last Word Cafe in the Piazza, lighting candles, huffing mould, and curating a peaceful little shelter in the midst of all this genius.
On Saturday, there was a peep on the Failbetter Games forums, from the moderator Flyte, to the effect that The Black Crown Project, my rather excessive, microbial, non-epic, cough-em-up, text adventure shenanigan, published by Random House, would be taken offline entirely on 31st October 2014. It has taken me a little bit longer than Flyte to respond to this news, and I can only apologise for that. I suppose my first response is to the initial comment underneath Flyte’s post, by a Failbetter forum user named Rupho Schartenhauer. It reads, “Well, I certainly won’t miss it.”
That’s a shame, Rupho Schartenhauer. I will.
Now, I’m doing my usual trick of burying the actual semes of what I am saying within a lot of asemes, so I’ll put the gist of this post out on its own, with slightly more pointed lettering, if you are only here for the grave information.
The Black Crown Project will be taken offline entirely on 31st October 2014.
This decision was one that I, Random House and Failbetter Games had to make, after a not-insignificant amount of time, concerning the project’s future. Though I am saddened, in ways that I will always find difficult to articulate, that The Black Crown Project will no longer be playable in any meaningful form, it is a decision which I was made fully part of, consulted upon, and endorse. I will miss it (Rupho), but I understand why it is disappearing below some ground.
Despite all appearance to the contrary, text adventures like Black Crown are not free to run. The hosting costs are, for a company like Random House, minimal, and would never have been a problem had we built the game on a platform which Random House owned and had developed themselves. But, as was very public, this was not the case. We partnered with Failbetter Games, and Popleaf Games, to devivsect an original story in an original corpus: facilitated, edited and promoted with Random House’s skill and experience, enlivened with Popleaf Game’s visceral flair, and skinned with Failbetter Games’ Storynexus platform, a platform which had been developed and iterated upon many times already to become an excellent tool for making branching text narratives.
However, to state that Failbetter Games was merely a ‘skinner’ would be highly insulting, and a little disgusting. I consider all of the people working at that company to be my friends and teachers. In particular, Alexis, Paul, Henry and Liam listened to my ideas with patience, interpreted them by pen, code and design and with clarity, speed and always their own deviations.
Most importantly, along with Dan Franklin, Harriet Horobin-Worley and many others at Random House, as well Berbank and Jon at Popleaf, these people taught me how to make The Black Crown Project. This is an important point, and easily overlooked. I was never entirely sure how I would actually create this thing that I had so smugly proposed and wheedled into the shockingly receptive halls of Random House. As will never not be the way with fiction, the form and process of the thing became entirely apparent by the end, with the help of everybody else. Failbetter Games rebuilt their engine to make Black Crown look and function the way it has now for a year, and will continue to for another month. They provided endless stress-testing, and links into their API for the content outside of Storynexus such as the Miasma objects. They, and everybody else, offered Skype connectivity, English words, walks, warm liquid, large windows in their offices out of which to stare, and always, always their support.
The Black Crown Project was my first professional piece, and I’ve admitted to many people that it was a difficult one to finish. For a variety of reasons, including my own weaknesses, it made me undyingly ill, both physically and mentally, and pushed my personal relationships to the brink of something unspeakable. I asked too much of myself, and everybody around me. But everybody around me helped to make something which, despite its flaws, its shudderings and hedgerow transparency, seems to have given a lot of you joy, sadness and an experience which, I now feel comfortable saying, is still completely unique.
Unfortunately, despite the endless charity which was given to me, none of the companies involved are charities themselves. Failbetter Games is a company who are expanding in all the ways which they have worked for and deserve, and maintaining Black Crown, with its ring-fenced code, unique features and separate, demanding bug queue, is not something which they have time or money to do. It is the same with the others. No more money can be spent on something which refuses to produce much in return.
It is no great shame or secret that Black Crown was not a successful project financially. The amount of speculation, trust and liberalism that went into its production unearthed a distinct optimism in me. I have been shamed by everybody’s behaviour and professionalism, and continue to be today. My Great Thanks stands as a headstone to this. But taking all such things into account, it remains a simple fact that Black Crown was an experiment in creativity and commerce, in which I believe I delivered on the former but not the latter. In its current incarnation, Black Crown will not make any of us any more money. It is not a populist piece, and the economics do not stand up. I stand by the decision made, and will defend it.
However, this does not mean that I am not bereft, and upset for those of you who still play the game. I have been constantly touched, in the manner of a stingray in an open pool, by the magnaminity, individual creativity and vociferousness of every fan. There have been songs written, art made, light-lighting slash fiction released. There have been long discussions on the nature of my work which, rather than superciliously detaching myself from, I have engaged with as a fan of my own work. Every single ___clerk___ inside The Black Crown Project no longer has to wonder about designations. All of you may curl your fingers (and no thumbs) in and over the pain; you have reached the ____highest rank____.
Now that I have been nice to everybody who deserves it, some business regarding things to come.
One of the prerequisites of taking Black Crown offline was that the entire archive of assets, from qualities to storylets to artwork, was backed up and maintained in a readable format by Random House. The actual logistics of this are still being decided, but rest assured that everything will still exist, de-articulated. The way to put them back together might rely entirely on what winters inside my own skull, but have some faith. I once drove to Devon with a concussion. It will be safe.
As to what happens with the Project afterwards, and in the coming whatevers, this remains to be seen. As many of you have been promised by email, I was not finished with the work by half; there was more artwork to come, more of the Eremite’s ephemera, hundreds of tweaks, clarifications and new storylines, as well as the digitised diaries of one Mr. Oscar Parlay, master of the Suite. I have not forgotten about these promises, but I cannot tell you how they will be realised.
Random House is still very interested in the IP, to use the lingo and never again, as am I. More importantly, I am interested in seeing the work in its current iteration, with my poetry and prose and song and artwork and weaknesses and failings, released anew so that people can continue to play it if they so wish. I have been toying with the idea of converting the entire project into a Twine game, a free, open-source software with which I have been gaining literacy through my work with the charity Shelter UK. Many of the original features of The Black Crown Project, if not all of them, can be replicated within the Twine code. Porpentine has helped me with this, inadvertently. However, this conversion would be a fairly daunting undertaking, one which I cannot personally afford at the moment without some form of reimbursement. There are other options, perhaps, but before anything is decided pens need to be twirled, windows need to be looked out of, lunches need to be eaten, and talks need to be had.
For the moment, I am working on several new projects, only one of which has been announced. Until Feburary I am the British Library’s Interactive-Fiction-Writer-In-Residence, which is extremely unwieldy but also exciting, like a bastard sword tanged with Aurora Borealis. I will be attached to the Lines in the Ice exhibition, which details the Victorian quests to snap through the Northwest Passage over Canada, and the resultant heroism, pathetic nonsense, cannibalism, love and hideousness that this all entailed. I’ll be creating original artworks inspired by my reading and research at the library, and what I have planned has a lot, perhaps too much, in common with The Black Crown Project. However, it might interest some of those that are reading this send-off. I will be physically at the Library for many drop-in sessions and events, and so do follow my progress on the official research blog.
Well, that’s it, really. I’m devastated but determined that the two years of work, entirely unequatable, is not lost entirely. You now have about 25 days to play as much of the game as you might like, and save any artwork, screenshots or copied text to your hard drive before the earth goes over it, and it sinks into a form which is not retrievable. I will potter about it, for as long as I can, and answer any further questions you have via email, but please do keep them brief. I’ve gravetending to be doing.
I used to sign off my Black Crown blog posts, and forum posts, with a twattish, capitalised Yorkshire shepherding pidgin which was the voice of the Hogherd, my semi-divine administrator character within the game. I always felt that I was insulting somebody, inadvertently, when I did it, and I’m not really sure if it was as haunting as it was meant to sound.
HYAAAA HYAAAAAAAAAAAAA HYYAAAA COOM BY COOOM BY
My residency at the British Library, attached as a tug to the upcoming exhibition on the Franklin expedition and the search for the Northwest Passage, now has a title, which is helping to rein in all my calving thoughts.
It will be called On My Wife’s Back, and I hope that you will follow my progress over the coming months as I try to pull something Shermanish from all the fervent, hushly white mythology that surrounds the Franklin and Arctic exploration in general.
Above is its logo, of sorts, in the original Greek sense. This title, this logo and its themes, will encompass what is looking to be a pretty bastard variety of new work, from writing to art to music to essay to video to hardware, and from now all news to do with the residency, including all of the material that I will release, will be found on my research Tumblog. There’s nothing much there at the moment, but I’m sure something will bob up soon.
In the meantime, I do hope that you’ll come to the Library and see me, gloaming through the Rare Books Reading Room, before the exhibition itself, ‘Lines In The Ice’, starts in November.
A tiny party of you might have been looking over my blog and website for the past few months a little worriedly, wondering where I’ve got to. Of course, things are happening, behind the sub-domains. There’s a sort of rumbling, huffing squawk that you’ll sometimes hear, and occasional gouts of hot breath that you can see rising into the air More than anything, you might have seen a certain aesthetic emerging. White on white, with little dashes of red. The pattern of snow, on every stylesheet, forming a sort of Arctic hoarding while I get on behind the skeines, carving this website into some sort of order.
I don’t even like snow very much. It’s a folksy sort of acid, charming the feet off your ankles, making pressings of all your nerves, and causes great, cheery delays on the trains running into London, which struggle at the best of times with the maelstrom of slight damp, fallen foliage and teenagers pushing each other off the platforms.
However, I’ve chosen it as my new digital camouflage because it has a nice obliteration to it. It’s the colour of the internet, anyway, and I thought that, rather than get all clever with my hex codes and background images, that I would just choose something for my blog that represented the medium in which I’m choosing to write. The web, hungry for anything, ready to obliterate at the slightest mistake in one’s syntax. It’s a lot like snow, isn’t it? So inviting, but so horribly judgemental.
It’s appropriate, also, for my next piece of art, the funding for which I have just found out, this week, is migrating over to me for the winter. For the past five months, as well as fannying with HTML and doing some sort of job in the daytime, I’ve been making applications. Overusing words such as ‘institution’, ‘pedagogic’, ‘democracy’ and ‘Philip’, drawing up Gannt charts, paring down to word limits (you must know how that hurts me). I was hunting for money, for support, for funding, but all of this pairing and peeling and stitching of words and chart-making put me in mind of preparing for a sea voyage. Admittedly, I’ve never taken a sea voyage, not outside a ferry, and I suspect that I’d find it horrible, but I’m still enough of a quivering, genteel mast of glycerine to enjoy the metaphor.
And, it appears, that my funding application was watertight. We have our money. Our voyage is going ahead.
For the next five months I will be Writer-In-Residence at the British Library. Despite my lack of experience or sea legs, and my obvious weakness to scurvy, I will, after all, be the official artist to a sort of naval expedition, one that tacks back into the past, looking for long-lost sailors. In the Folio gallery, a meandering knock-hole underneath the escalators in the Library’s foyer, an exhibition is being put together. It will contain the Library’s collection of documents, personal effects and paraphernalia relating to the lost Arctic expedition of John Franklin in 1845. Franklin was one of those longitudinally impossible men of 150 years ago who managed to be both Governor of Tasmania and a north polar explorer in his lifetime, though the latter was only by dint of all the other candidates being either too chilly-willy, too married or too Irish by half.
With two ships, the Erebus and the Terror (arrogant, tiny little ships, named for primordial horrors) Franklin set off with his crew and the blessings of the Admiralty to find the Northwest Passage, the mythic, ice-free trading route over Canada and down into the Pacific.
I don’t like to link to Wikipedia and be done with it, but in Franklin’s case it’s the only sensible thing to do.
Franklin was a much braver man than I am, but I do see parallels in our work. As an attaché to this exhibit, producing original artwork and writings relating to the Franklin voyage, and the subsequent attempts to find his vanished crew, I feel as scared as if I was about to take to the ocean. Throughout my applications for this position, I have been getting tongue-tied between the words ‘exhibition’ and ‘expedition’, and the gap between them has certainly shortened. Looking at the body of work in front of me, the amount of time and research that has gone into the Lines In The Ice exhibit, as it will be called, perhaps the practices are not so different, after all. As I sail through the Library’s archives, seeking the stories of Franklin’s adventures, the odds he and his crew faced, and how a great trooping line of subsequent explorers, down the years, have uncovered the sad tale of what happened to those several hundred men, their elderly commander, and their two malaprop vessels, I feel more and more like an icebreaker myself. My research will uncover documents forgotten for many years, and as my crew I will have the resident curators, bookbinders, scholars and excellent cooks that make up the Library’s staff. With them, I will discover terrific vistas, great pains, and create something entirely new to sit alongside these old, old log books and ship’s diaries, something which the public can enjoy until March, when winter is getting woolly, and the exhibition ends.
I am still working out what it is I want to do with my time at the library, but rest assured of the following:
– I will have my own cabinet in the exhibition, to fill with whatever I like;
– There were plenty of ideas that did not make it into The Black Crown Project, my last piece, which are due a stiff pint of sea breeze;
– I’ve stockpiled an awful lot of ship’s Twine for the task;
– You do not have to be with me aboard the British Library to participate, but I have been told that I make a charming mate in person.
There will be more details here and elsewhere when the charts have been finalised, the hull caulked, and we are ready to set sail. Once all this is in place, we’ll be heading out from Port St. Pancras, north and west, following the stars until the bend in the earth sunders them. We’ll be seeing what we can find in the lines in the ice. The British Library is an odd vessel to charter, shaped more like two steamer ships pulling perpendicular, and it has particular dearth of masts. Still, if you are interested, do come and join my crew.. The galley does a cracking doorstep sandwich.
And if you won’t be coming to join me, don’t cry, don’t send out search parties, and put the kettle on. I’ll only be months.
I was at a variety gig some time ago, staged in an former keeper’s lodge at the gate to one of Britain’s less provincial towns. As well as feeling London like a shadow on the lung, I could taste the soap in my beer. The doorman wore tattoos like eczema at the corners of his lips. It wasn’t at home.
My opinion solidified after a few hours of awkward listing about the dance-floor, and resolved itself into the need to leave very quickly and get on a train. Unfortunately, the sprawl of the audience was, for some reason, centred on the only door, and nobody was intent on moving. The current band had been popular ten years before with a very slender wedge of humanity, and most of them were here tonight, being overwhelmed. The fact that I might want to leave was as inconceivable to them as museum lighting was to a pharaoh’s capstone. I had to squeeze around them, apologising.
However, in the centre of this static storm, unmoving and full of cardigans and Rorschachs of backsweat, I came to an impasse. The only way through to the door was between a ferociously nodding man and a pregnant woman, who stood sipping mango juice with her back against a wooden post.
I still feel awful about what followed, and I think that a large part of this guilt is due to my superstition, and the superstition of many, concerning pregnant women.
Most media that I can access portrays them as fecund, ripe, bountiful, Wildorf-esque beauties waiting for enlightenment to crown. And this woman was beautiful, blonde bobbed and florally dressed in blue, and she wore her bump less like a delicacy and more like a fuel tank, necessary for her extreme performance. I have been very unkind to her in the above drawing. She was nowhere near as monstruous as I have depicted her, but then, nobody is. She just terrified me.
What terrified me most was that apocalyptic fragility to her. I am an immeasurably clumsy man, my hands like combine harvesters with the pedals jammed, but even accounting for this I am surprised that pregnant women allow themselves out of the house. It seems to me that even walking, considering their payload, is like balancing a cascade of champagne flutes on aerosol spray. And there is such potential, with only a small mistake on the behalf of anybody encountering them, for such annihilating misery, such miscarriage, that I find it best to give them as wide a berth as possible.
I had a bag on my back, and I tried as best as I could to nudge the man in front out of the way, but he was too busy trying to emulate a twelve-stringed guitar with his one-stringed mouth. He pushed back. And so it was that I slammed, almost neatly, into her.
She gaped up at me betrayed, mouth sagging with implication. In my mind there was such a smoking, Biblical tower of sorrow in her, at the thought of what my clumsiness could do, that she transformed into this clenched, incandescent clump. Her hands went to her stomach and I almost vomited. I apologised as profusely as I could, gibbering over the violin solo. Two men beside her, who were not her friends but who felt out the roles that they must now perform, marshalled protectively, flanking her like Chinese lions outside a restaurant. I think one of them even bared his teeth, but if you asked him about that now, he might be embarrassed and feign all knowledge of it. We all get a little canine when the fundaments of life are involved.
After a while, or what must have been one-eightieth of a second, her anger turned to understanding, as she read the signs of her body as surely as her own handwriting. She knew that nothing had died, or gone moronic. I pinged out into the night, free of the trial, almost on the point of tears.
It is perhaps six months later, and I still think about that woman, and when I see somebody pregnant I instantly become aware of my tottering, unpredictable body, and my unaccountable limbs, and how they might, if I am not careful, inadvertently deconstruct a life. Sometimes I am angry at her, for not understanding that it was not my fault, and that it is difficult to for the rest of the crowd to maintain the aura around her when she stands in the thick of it like that. I then feel awful for being angry, of course, and go on avoiding women like her, dubbed numinous by society, and desperately safeguarded against people like me.
I spent an agreeable few hours in the National Gallery this afternoon, sketching instead of job-hunting. If it was not very racist, I would rank nationalities of tourists by their propensity to stand in front of the painting that I am sketching for a very long time, before practically mushing their wattles across my page to see if I can draw at all. It would be like an extremely passive-aggressive UN report.
I call this ‘Sleepy Jesus, Grabby Jesus, Aborted Hands, Heaney’s Dewlap, Sutherland’s Eye, Leigh’s Beauty.”
After spending a large amount of time very close to it, I think that Vivien Leigh’s eye and its environs might be the most perfect example of matter yet in existence. A prime piece of God’s precipitate.
The first draft of this post was written at about half-past eight on a Sunday morning in the Midlands. It was winter, and half-past eight is not so long after dawn, at that time of year. I had just completed the countdown that would lead to me getting out of bed, and I almost grizzled at the icy laminate and my dirty toes. Outside the window, the clouds stretched away into the south-east like dunes, and the sun had just made deep, trip-up footsteps on their leading edges. It was hurrying into the world, flinging off all of its frankly Victorian attire, letting it all shine out as it whooped down at the edge of the unseen sea.
I revealed the inside of the window with my breath, as I stood and took all of this in. This was a resolution of mine, as it was the New Year, to witness everything more clearly, and appreciate those times that I was not looking through a screen. On that Sunday morning, when I looked into the glass, I could see all sorts of grease, dotted like microbes across the plate. On both sides of the glazing fingerprints have been dragged, looking like the handiwork of a raptor. The overhead cable that was slung just outside vibrated softly, to the tango of pigeons beyond the curtain, precarious on their tiny raptor feet.
That morning seemed like an auspicious, quiet sort of time, before anybody else was up, to compose my goodbye to you. There have been other drafts since then, in libraries where hundreds of others have hawked and ticked on their own pieces of glass, and now as I finish typing this I am sitting in my bedroom, peeked at by a lime-green poster of the moon and all its seas. If you do not mind, I’ll continue to pretend I’m still there, in that morning, before the kettle had boiled and the heating had gargled on.
For those of you who have been asking, the Black Crown Project, my Sibylline little browser game, now has all the Work that it needs. It is finished. We had the party without you, unfortunately. I made the cake pictured at the top, with too much food colouring, and myself and the editors went on a hike at the edge of London to sluice out our hearts. I shan’t be writing much more, if any. The main shaft of the story is all there, and you can complete it in one of several agonising ways. I may, in the near future, add more endings, or more storylets, or more branches, depending on what I think up at this sort of time in the morning. Keep an eye on the forum. The Hogherd may come, rattling his bucket.
I’m going to make a cup of tea, very quickly, as it is freezing in here; I’ll be very quick.
Now, some of you might feel a little antsy about that. You might feel that you have just gotten a handle on it all, and now, look, in the corners, more stuff networking away from you like fungi, growing when you are not looking. Personally, I think that this is the way that it should be, and I’ll write it and distribute it if it comes to me. It might very well be the case that I never think of anything else interesting ever again. The whole process of creating this Jörmungandr (about 500,000 words now, not to mention all the art and the design) has completely ignored its tail and broken me down into thousands of bits, completely transformed me. It has made me complex, troubled, rebarbative, rude and overthought. I need to take a little bit of time to repair myself, and my writing. Just look at this post. Even with editing it is still too thick, too self-aware. I need to become protozoan, like the grease on the windowsill, a microbe instead of a macrobe, just simplify and simplify.
There goes the heating, a purumpurdump coming from its depths. The sun is properly up now, after its dip. It is shaking itself very vigorously.
Regardless of whether there is ever any more content, I will continue to stride around the forum, purumpurdumping myself, answering all of your questions. Please do post there and let me know what you thought of the game, what the experience of playing it was like, what you would have done differently, and all those things that people say they want to hear about their work and secretly do not. I do. I promise.
On a more prosaic note, I will continue to handle any and all bugs, if you can alert me to them, until there are not any more. I will also be looking for paid work doing more of this sort of thing, if you are having issues that you believe that I can solve, like the lack of an epic narrative, or the final decision as to what your character should eat for breakfast before they walk out of the door to murder things.
Excuse the tear; the daybreak just hit me in the eye, through the kitchen skylight. I haven’t cried at all, in this entire process. I won’t miss any of you at all.
Oh, perhaps I will. I could not be this self-indulgent without caring about you an awful lot. I have already said thank you elsewhere, but I will say it again. Since I was very small, I have wanted to do many different things, besides writing, but writing was the only thing that I could ever do with any certainty. Black Crown questioned that certainty, and made me very unhappy, in its own way. However, in futzing my way through I have discovered another love, one which I thought was out of reach. I now know that what I wish to do is design, make games, digital stories, interactive art, ludic expression, whatever you want to call them. I don’t just want my characters and my worlds and my secrets to stand still, to fester for a short time and then be relegated. I want allow people to contort my characters into all sorts of humorous positions, to have the leaves still flutter on the trees in new ways even a hundred years from now, and decide just for myself, once and for all, how much art can be made this way.
I think that I may have already made a little art. I would like to make more. And due to the people I have met, the coterie that I have accrued and the almost constant liquor of advice, support and educations that I have slung back, I have a better chance than most.
So thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, for letting me spend a year filling in spreadsheets with plot devices instead of profits, and writing quotes from imaginary books instead of quotes from imaginary customers for some new washing powder. For spending your time being scholars for something that does not matter at all. Thank you for the encouragement, license, advocacy and platform, for letting me speak about what I do, and in the process working out exactly what it is that I do.
Thank you so much for everything, every single one of you. There will be more soon. I do not intend to waste any of it. Ignore how mopey I was being, in an earlier paragraph, even earlier in the morning.
It really is day now, somebody’s getting up, my feet are not so cold, and I think that I have said goodbye properly. The sun has forgotten the ocean, and is coming to see us. So should you, again, and soon.
I was sitting on the tenth floor of an office building on a Friday morning, which in this particular building meant that the weekly fire alarm test was about to begin. At ten o’clock exactly, a zodiac of blinking red lights criss-crossed the ceiling, and a bored voice assured absolutely everybody that whatever happened in the following ten minutes or so would be entirely unreal.
Almost every table stopped its discussions, silent for the announcement; it was so loud that nothing could be done until it had finished. Very few people apart from myself actually looked up, trying to locate the source of the voice, and follow whatever abstract pattern could be made from the warning LEDs. They all kept their shoulders hunched forward, fingers raised, shirts rucked and mouths slightly parted, so familiar with this ritual that all involved knew that, after playing statues for a few moments, they would be allowed to continue with their days, as long as they could put aside any instincts that arose in them.
They were playing statues. They were already excellent at controlling themselves.
Those following ten minutes were some of the strangest I had experienced in my life, purely because I had the good fortune to be able to step outside my own brain and see the wiring that really needed testing.
What I watched was a group of well-educated, well-dressed and pleasant human beings conduct an internal war. They were trying to shrug off the shackles of fifty thousand years or so of biological and cultural conditioning and ignore every startling sign that they were about to die.
The lights in the ceiling flashed red in sequence, a colour which has meant war, has been blood, has enraged animals, since the last time we all grew new bones.
A man’s voice screamed about fire, about not using the elevators, in a ululation which brought to me the images of being crushed underfoot, of twenty or thirty skulls cracking at once in a deluge of corduroy and anodised aluminium and polished leather tumbling down the stairs. I thought of choking on the fumes of melting electronics filigreed with lead, or jumping from a window, with wonderful views over the Thames all the way down.
And in the midst of the murderous insistence they sat, and clattered politely on their keyboards, and cleaned their computer screens with detergent, ate crisps and blew the salt from their fingertips.
I came back to my mind thunderstruck by how well we had all evolved, but I could have been wrong. Perhaps there was somebody else, tucked away behind a row of printers, whose heart quickened with mine, just a little. Somebody who dreaded ten o’clock every Friday morning, and who could not believe that they were not already running.
One day on the DLR, the monorail which runs gingerly through London’s drowned former docklands, was an example of what most would call an insane person, alongside me and another two hundred or so men and women and several children.
He was dressed head to toe in orange cloth, the colour of cartoon radiation. Everybody knows that this denotes the uniform of the public servant, the ones at risk of being invisible in the most dangerous places. Around the azimuth of his head was a pair of headphones the colour and texture of white goods, as if somebody had carved a circlet from a dishwasher, and he spent his journey drumming violently across his knees, stamping his feet, and singing up and down his register hoarsely and loudly, his eyes tight shut. It is the sort of thing that disgusts almost everybody, one of the trials of public transport. Everybody did very badly at this; they would try to stare at their shoes, but fail, if only because of how he moved. He would swing from bar to bar, sit down, stand up, switch spaces; he was like a canary, hopping back and forth. His mouth moved spastically, in a pale imitation of some song that billowed out from under his dishwasher headphones, like steam.
There was a canniness to him, though. He peeked up every so often, to see who was watching him, but he never approached or accosted anybody, not even the women in the carriage, who hate the fact that they expect this sort of behaviour. I have been on the Underground many times and looked up to see people, veterans of the roar between each carriage, opening those forbidden doors, letting in the unnatural wind, and shell-shocking everybody with their shouts for money or burgers.
I continued to watch him, and he would catch my eye for a moment before creasing his brow and billowing into some public duende, moaning and groaning, and jiving on his arse.
These hummings, rising whines and falling cadences sounded like a machine being ignited and doused over and over, or the glossolalia of somebody not possessed, but maybe looking for attention at church. I gave it to him. I tried to hold his gaze, and transmit some sort of warm glow, a radiation of my own that would leave residues of kindness about him. I wanted him to know that I loved how different his brain was, that there was no reason he could not sing and stamp out of time on this train all day if he wanted to. It was as good as sitting there quietly, or reading, or talking to a friend. I wanted him to know that I appreciated him.
I don’t think he cared, or noticed, and he did not look back when we both left the train at the terminus. Next to the escalator were five flights of steps, and I ran up them, not caring that everybody was looking at me, buoyed up by my own self-improvement and enlightened observance of the world around me. I really was very kind, to accept him like that, on behalf of the whole carriage.
I watched his glow shrink in reflection, as he rounded a corner. And now I cannot remember what I was wearing. I don’t suppose it matters.
A few weeks ago, a weather system boarded the train home from Birmingham New Street; vortices of hair hair, a cold front of white, white teeth and, walloping along at knee height, two screaming faces; a family, the silvered barometer of a buggy, and their voices. The train was busy, and so the mum took the smaller girl, a grizzling ball of slick, red elbows and cheeks, up the carriage to find a pair of seats, whilst the dad sat opposite his older daughter, next to me. I was not particularly subtle with my gaze; he would look up every now and then and smile at me encouragingly, before champing at his gum, and showing me the back of his throat.
He had the most immense teeth, perfect white in that way teeth are not, even at birth before they have chewed anything. Like a Newton’s Cradle he clacked the ball of gum back and forth, showcasing the sound of his tart, elastic tongue prising it apart, followed by the tinkle of squeezed spit, cltcha, tchsss, cltcha, tchsss, over and over again. He wore his hair in a ponytail and cap, and despite all of this I really liked him, just to look at him. He was obviously quite into his precious stones, and he wore rough-cut examples of each at every pressure point imaginable, except any that required piercing his flesh; over his heart, around his neck in a little papoose, thronging his wrists, purple, green and white. He smiled constantly, with that oafishness that I really cannot detach from the chewing of gum, down at his daughter, who also chewed her own gum.
They both cltchaed and tchsssed, and the two sounds were like two glasses filleed to different heights.
She asked where her mum was, and he answered that she had fallen out of the window; she began to cry, and he smiled and waited for her to realise that it was a joke, that their love was implied and he was only teasing her. She asked him for “the iPad, Daddy”, and he drew it out of its case and opened a learning app for her. It was obvious that he loved the thing; he swooped and tapped across it with all the dexterity of a conductor, his little finger stuck out at all times. He was tricking her into improving her own poise, walking her through games where insects crawled across the screen and she had to squash them, or where a cup moved with a ball inside it for her to follow. She grew frustrated, now and then, and he smiled at her. The screen’s background was of Vishnu sat upon his throne.
I watched them for the rest of the journey, not minding that my gaze was gazed upon, and he not minding either, as he smiled at me, and then at her. She grinned up at him, and he would unfurl his own, gigantic teeth, the gum cltchaing in both of their throats, one a reduction, or a potential, of the other.
I am back from holiday, and starting a new series; descriptions of moments in my life, extended or singular, which held my attention longer than they should. Some of them might be small, some big, but I hope that I can show why I stood or sat or crouched staring at them for so long, filing them away for future use.
I’ve done some drawings for them, as well.
A few weeks ago, I found myself at Heathrow Airport, not waiting for a flight. I watched the various tropes blunder around the too-wide halls on plastic wheels; an American woman, trying to rustle up some enthusiasm for healing crystals in her dour, unctuous English man, who ignored her stoically while she peeked and peeped at him adoringly over his hamburger. I saw very little romance, and when it was time for me to go I wandered into the toilets.
I was, of course, as quick as I could possibly be; the smell was like that of a cure for something worse, and between the lemon-streaked mirrors and the lemon-streaked urinals there wandered a cleaner, looking for a gap in between the muzak. It was tremendous, all-encompassing; tinny, beatless, meandering and almost extinct now, rarely found in an age where classical music is copyright free and all-purpose. Here, its last remnants try to cover the rising smell through a synaesthesia, mixing with the peeps of men’s shoes on the tiles.
As I walked out, trying to hide the damp spots across my thighs, I fell in behind a security guard. He wore a tangerine tabard, bars of argent across the back, and walked with a whistle.
As we approached the door, in less than a single moment, he performed the kindest act that I had seen all day. I was not unhappy, at all, and had seen a more or less trundled procession of expected kindnesses since I got here; the retracting of stretched legs, the attendance of a waiter, an awkward, smiling circle of teenagers steadily being planted by their parents, drooping under backpacks.
But the security guard tried to slip his past me; at the entrance to the door was a sort of plinth, made of white plastic and topped with three buttons, red, yellow and green. It was a feedback system, a convenient way for the men who held their breath and tried not to touch the porcelain to give their opinions on the experiences. Beside each button was the image of simple face, one smiling, one apathetic, one disgusted.
The security guard has not even been to the toilet – I had certainly not seen him leave a cubicle or a urinal – but as he swept past the altar, his hand flicked down, with a pam, into the green, smiling face, before he whistled off, like a plane, into the bright depths of the airport.
I do not think I gave any feedback myself, but I did watch him go. I decided then and there that I would actually record this gaze that I forget about sometimes, that can make people uncomfortable, and begin to catalogue the minuscule things. I do not know if this man knew the cleaning staff personally, or whether it was just a genuflection that he made without thinking, on seeing that big, green button, but it was one pam closer to a commendation for them, or a night off, and I knew that he would never tell anybody how he helped them.
Of all the people who have ever written about the English landscape, and the trepanning pressure that such a landscape has on their own brain, distinct from everybody else’s, the most revelatory, and devoid of mawkishness, is the poet Ted Hughes. I have adored him ever since I found my mother’s copy of Crow, the cover dominated by the unshaved talons of the titular bird, picked out in Scarfe-like ink, and turning to a page at random read my first of his phrases; “utility coat of muscles”. How could I not love him, after that divining glance?
As only a cursory glance at both of us will satisfy, I have climbed up by his impressive tail and into my own writing. There are certainly differences; I wish that I was knapped out of chert like he was, saturnine like an idol. Every time I read my work or his aloud I stove in the words with a hobnailed, patent tongue, all London consonants and Oxford vowels. Listening to him read his poetry on record, his tongue was like a fishtail, or the paw of an otter, wet and clever and naughty. As a Yorkshireman and, later, a long-time inhabitant of England’s wisdom-tooth counties in the South West, he perhaps understood better than any other the length and breadth of the various British landscapes, and what gave them meaning and gestalt. Landscape, as any amateur psychogeographer worth his site-specific salt will attest, is a political, anecdotal, circumstantial, psychological and traumatic gumbo of stuff, far more than the sum of its parts. Hughes was intimate with that knowledge, and the quality of his work shows that; Seamus Heaney, also introduced to me through my mother’s ancient copy of North, dubbed him “a guardian spirit of the land and language”. Consider the following lines, the first-ever from his first-ever poem in his first-ever collection, The Hawk In The Rain:
I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up
Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth’s mouth,
From clay that clutches my each step of the ankle
With the habit of the dogged grace, but the hawk
Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.
A man, for all the controversy and the ease of forgetting in his own life, who was after my own heart, years before it had been germinated. His death in 1998 went past unnoticed, as I was only ten years old, and busy playing commissar to my brother’s comrade in the back garden. I would have mourned him, if I had known. A man who both loved and very rarely hated the English landscape, who could not really live without it. He was, by passion and topography, within it, much of the time. Through his art he compartmentalised it in a yet-vast breadth of life, a canon of work that weighs down the table next to me, as I type this. On paper it is thicker than my two arms. A man so divorced from machinery that did not require petrol, or the piston of a human foot, that he is more like an ettin, or an elemental, in my mind. I cannot even imagine him using a kettle; Hughes was not a man of high technology.
Now, it is very typical, amongst contemporary commentators, to be assured of the fact that a historical figure would have “adored” a certain technology, had they only been alive to see it. Jane Austen would have loved Twitter, they say, Newton would have loved Wolfram Alpha, and Gilgamesh would have been a media-savvy archon, allowing himself to be papped leading Enkidu from the wilderness in a blacked-out Jeep.
I think this is a dreadful rhetorical tactic, but I am now going to make an assurance of my own; I think that Ted Hughes might have hated the idea of Sir, You Are Being Hunted, a videogame about upper-class robots where a new England is generated for every game, every stile, hedgerow, moor, tor, weald, ward, county and side of country calculated with mathematics. I think that he might have hated it because it conducts a bowdlerisation of what it means to stand in a field in England, a typically English field, and how to speak about it.
This is precisely where I cleave away from my maker, and get severely interested in what Big Robot Games are attempting here, what their attempt at a truly “local” exercise in procedurals denotes.
I am not writing this to preview Sir, You Are Being Hunted, or offer a critique on its “Stalkers and Walkers” aesthetic, or give much opinion on a game that I have only glimpsed in alpha, over the shoulder of somebody who has actually paid for it. What has interested me about this game is the phrase “procedural English landscape”, and how the accompanying philosophy to that phrase seeks to align a modern dichotomy; the generic outputs of procedural generation, and the colloquialism, and specificity, of a digital England, with a jolly big E.
I am also not seeking to compare the efforts of Big Robot and Ted Hughes side-by-side, or ask which is superior. You will have your own, most likely guessable, conclusions on this matter.
Hughes often focusses on an apolitical, personal, subjective view of landscape. Another poem, this time “The Thought Fox”, a confluence of the writer and a vulpine immigrant:
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
Though no specific landmarks are mentioned here (as in many other of his poems), Hughes here conflates his process with his inspiration, that view, that night, just outside the window, in an England full of its own semiology. His self-generation of England is directly connected to his experience of it, interpreted through the gaseous, widening influence of the brain. This is where procedural generation and specific art concerning landscape, personal to the author, comes into contact; both are imperfect semiological systems. In his book Mythologies, a collection of essays concerning the symbolic significance of mass culture, the French philosopher and cultural commentator Roland Barthes wrote about the differences between the sign, signified and signifier; how the representation of something is different from the meaning of something, and how to measure that difference. Barthes uses examples as diverse as soap adverts, professional wrestling and a patriotic photograph of an Algerian soldier to discuss his views, but the concept of “the English landscape” will do for our purposes just as well.
In poetry and in algorithm, the landscape of a place has its signified and signifier very close together; without descending into psychogeographical masturbation, the landscape as it is and the landscape as we represent it are close, but not the same. One is distilled from the other. So, we see that both poetry, Hughes’ chosen form, and computer maths backed by artistic direction, use abstraction to create a “personal” view of landscape.
Now, I am aware that Sir, You Are Being Hunted takes a more ribald and at times atlanticised view of the English countryside; the ‘Englishness’ extends out from the dead trees, moorland, hedgerows, ambient soundscape and foul weather and into more political, humano-centric stereotypes, such as the passive-aggressive village signs (randomly generated, of course), the granite war memorials, the specifically English foodstuffs, the tweed, and the class-war paradigm between humans and robots.
I thought of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Dickens, Austen, Withnail And I and indeed Hughes himself when poring through screenshots of the game, and it is likely, given the nature of the developers, that this is deliberate. The developers have stated that the game is a “mockery of the English country gent and his ecosystem”, and the the core mechanics certainly back up this claim; the player is a human, hunted for sport across Hebridean islands by upper-class robots, utilising stealth, scavenging and manipulation of the classist paradigm to survive. It skewers English inherited privilege quite nicely indeed, and the introduction of middle-class “squires”, as well as numerous peasant non-combatants, could create an environment of which the player is only a small part. However, such a political message requires a stage to set it, and this what the splatmaps and Voronoi diagrams and almost-endless coding provides; a billion billion different stews, of all the ingredients that make England English.
This coding provides the game’s islands with hedgerows and walls which, in the real England, would be the product of thousands of years of land law and primogenital gerrymandering. It brings into being randomised villages whose roads would have been linked by utility, festival, tradition and desire over centuries. The algorithms are extremely elegant, nested one within the other; the islands themselves, and their fractal, eroded litorals, are dotted with towns, dotted with houses, their gardens, and each informed by the other, by a set of rules that will produce, unfailingly, until the internet’s wake, a googleplex Albions. And within each of these algorithms are qualities that paint the stones with moss, the trees without leaves, and the wind with its whistle.
I believe that these qualities are commonly called “lived-in-ness”.
They are one of the El Dorados of videogames; a set of systems that will artfully, and infinitely, create the signifiers of heritage in a gameworld.
Bethesda Softworks used Speedtree, a propritary flora-generation tool, as well as their own in-house technology, to create softly rolling wealds, skittish venery and rich copses of biologically appropriate species in their games Oblivion and Skyrim.
Minecraft utilises the concept of biomes to create worlds that give the loosest signification of true landscape, while creating a separate semiology all of its own.
And Sir, You Are Being Hunted loads, albeit very slowly, a new country with every boot, using Perlin noise and what they call “blurring and dithering”.
And so procedural generation creates, if not a different poetry, then its own take on the narrative co-opting of landscape. Though the technology was developed in the late 20th century as a solution to memory issues in the hardware, procedural generation has become a staggeringly popular tool in game development, and is an unpredictable, zesty component in the debate surrounding “ambient storytelling” and the way that games can herd narrative without becoming extremely attractive cattlegrids.
I do think that Hughes would have hated the process, perhaps seeing the most sacred of English traits, to be witnessed within their context and subsumed by their uniqueness, reduced to a series of sliders in a development suite, or patterns that can be replicated over and over again into nonsense. However, there is something telling about the developer’s focus. They begin their apologetic for their game with the words, “we live in the English countryside”. In these words, they become as valid interpreters as Hughes ever was. Whether they, and the technology, succeeds in telling an adequate story of English landscape remains to be seen; perhaps that is not their aim. I will still love Hughes more, but that is my prejudice. This game is, at least in its technology and direction, an inheritor of a literary tradition of abstracting one’s environment. The difference between it and Hughes’ oeuvre is one of method, not message. Hughes pulls the thought-fox from his head and lays the tools, one by one, down on the page. Big Robot lay the thought-fox in an orrery, containing the elements of Englishness in constellation with every other, and set the spheres turning. Of course, sometimes the spheres clash, and a village is drowned in a lake by faulty contour mapping, or a hedgerow hangs rootless twenty feet above the ground, but perhaps this is where the artistry lies; in the bug queue.