Saturday Busking

Parkinson's busk photo with arrow

Having an irresponsible amount of fun rejoining the Newcastle Allstars Steel Orchestra for a busk on Saturday at the bottom of Northumberland Street, in aid of Parkinson’s disease charity fundraising.

Biggest workout I’ve had in months.

Screenwriting rant

Tldr; passive-aggressive vagueing about narrative structure being haaaaard

Screenwriting has been interesting so far. I picked it because I wanted to expand my writing skills a bit, because I thought I would like it more than stage scripts and because it might be relevant to any attempts at games writing/narrative design I make in the future. I don’t think its too early to say that its achieved all of those pretty well already. I’ve already learned a lot about the format, about screen directions and plot structure (reading the screenplay for the Night Manager was a really helpful exercise), but there are some elements I’ve struggling with as well.

Namely, dramatic structure. The good old ‘who’s our protagonist, what do they want, why can’t they have it’ formula, with 5 main plot points starting with the inciting incident and ending with the character changing in some way, maybe getting what they wanted, but never in the way they thought they would get it. That one, as reductively misrepresented here.

On the one hand, I’m definitely not claiming it doesn’t work. I can’t claim better than the combined history of cinema and television, which both seem pretty sold on it. Learning it and sticking to it is almost certainly going to serve me very well in future projects. But right now, as we’re pitching our script ideas to our tutor and plotting out our screenplays, it feels like satisfying all the demands of narrative structure in a novel way is more or less the only metric of whether or not a script has the potential to be any good.

Which makes sense, I suppose. A script has to be pitched, directed and produced, after all, and I don’t pretend to be an avant-garde genius that knows a better way of banking on the narrative potential of a piece of writing. My complaints are probably all fairly typical prose-writer-y complaints: I do feel a bit naked with all my precious backstory exposition and internal character voice stripped away.

It’s not as if I don’t like my current dramatic-structure-approved screenplay idea, but it is definitely a few numbers down the list of ideas I’m excited about working on. The others were all beyond the scope of what we get to do on this module or just didn’t fit the narrative structure well enough for me to convince my tutor they’d be worth working on.

Which is also reasonable. It’s not as if I’m going to try something that actively goes against that formula, if only because I lack a compelling reason to do so. I can keep my less dramatically-satisfying ideas for other projects. But it would be nice to get something more than a working understanding of screenwriting and colour-by-numbers screenplay out of this module.

There definitely are scripted narratives that rely on elements other than dramatic structure in order to be good. But that doesn’t get me anywhere, unless I’m in a situation where I can surrender the burden of making-the-thing-good to animators or graphic designers or software engineers.

Who knows where I’m going with this rant. At the end of the day, this has already been a great learning experience. But even if a colour-by-numbers screenplay does end up happening to help me secure a decent mark, I’m going to see if I can’t find a way to bend this piece of coursework a little bit more to my purposes, one way or another.



Writing with constraints

I’m reading about the Oulipo at the moment (tldr: they’re a movement of mostly French-speaking writers and mathematicians that impose constraints upon their work to spark new ideas and creativity). I came to them off the back of interactive fiction and tabletop games, since those are both forms which impose very specific restrictions on their creators and/or audiences, but so far the Oulipo has gotten me thinking more about poetry.

I used to really hate writing in traditional poetic forms: sonnets, haikus, vilanelles, etc (limericks get a pass), but more recently I have found adhering to specific forms or rules productive in one or two cases. I intend to pursue this further, trying out some new forms perhaps or finding some new ‘constraints’ to play with once I dig a bit further into the reasoning behind the Oulipo, but here are my examples for now:

Predictive – written using phone’s ‘suggested word’ function, cut down and formatted (it seems that this is what my phone thinks I type about):

On the other hand
you’re looking forward to the utopia
a lot more than just being able to be
in the morning

all art is truth through a film and
I was stressed about deadlines
and a good idea to be
in the morning

and that abomination of your control
the statue of liberty
and hang out with everyone

a mushroom cloud, black poison
a mushroom, cloud computing is truth in sand.
a mushroom soup
a mushroom cloud, the narrator of your vision

I was so happy for each update on Saturday,
the one about adding an additional download
four times a day I hope
you have a war of words between stereotypes and hearts

the first time since I was waiting for each update
on Saturday I was stressed about deadlines
and a random number
for the first time since the battle

for the first time since the battle for
the first time in space I probably wouldn’t be much fun
for the first time since his spinal cord injury
and hearts are you holding

a good holiday season is constantly changing their minds
and hearts in the chaos
resulting from the tidal wave
striking the first eighteen years of your control

over your control over the statue of a known individual
on the other hand you’re looking forward
to being able to be
severely limited in the morning

and hearts are
we going back to the bottom of a bustling city
it would help if they were not meant to exist
on god’s green acre

an expression of a known issue with the new year
everyone has reportedly been extremely violent
a known abomination has reportedly been sighted
near the first eighteen years of your experience.
Nothing is Sacred – a sestina (six stanzas, each with six lines, and each line must end with a specific word in a rotating pattern):

‘Nothing is sacred but the sea,’
says the sailor, nearing port.
The cold wind stirs the whiskers on his chin.
He is no longer proud to be alive
the last remaining of his crew
a crime that he repents in vain.

The others prayed to God, in vain
for ‘nothing is sacred but the sea,’
or that’s what the captain told the crew
just as they were leaving port.
‘There’s only one law – stay alive,’
he said, as he rubbed his bearded chin.

The beard upon the captain’s chin
did shield him from the cold in vain.
A man needs more than warmth to stay alive
adrift upon the starving sea
and when for gold he would not make port
he made enemies of the homesick crew.

To mutiny he lost the crew
and they split a gash beneath his chin.
Pirates now, they could not return to port.
They sought some blessed sanctuary in vain
but found nothing sacred but the sea
and just one law – ‘stay alive’.

But they could not all come back alive
not without food, so lots were drawn among crew
for no meat goes to waste at sea.
Of those men with hollow, trembling chins
twelve of thirteen prayed in vain
and only one came back to port.

It was a ghost ship that returned to port
or, almost – the thirteenth sailor was still alive
his fellows did not die in vain.
When they asked what happened to the crew
he answered, red juice dripping from his chin
that nothing is sacred but the sea.

Music for Verbing

headphones image

Because why should programming, studying and make-outs be the only activities with a prescribed soundtrack?

Happy listening!

Wikis – idea dump

Our upcoming group project (with Garry, Daniel and Ashley) is about public data, and we talked a lot about wikis and using Processing to engage with the content of Wikipedia, as an example of public data.

Anyway, this post is a list of bits and bobs and ideas that came from the class and our group chats so far. No idea if any of this will go anywhere, but I might come back to it even if it doesn’t feature in our project.

-Page views – which pages are the most visited, and how does/has this changed over time?
-Content authors. How much can we find out about the authors/editors/moderators of wikipedia? To what extent do specific people/groups of people have influence over its content?
-Edits. What are the most edited pages, and edited by who? Is it a matter of updating them, improving accuracy, or  is there contention over bias/political content? Edit wars? Could be interesting to look at the edit history of specific pages.
-Comparing different wikis: Wikipedia, Simple English Wikipedia, RationalWiki, World of Warcraft Wiki (and fandom wikis in general), Wikimedia Commons, Conservapedia, Liberapedia, Uncyclopedia and so on. How many authors/editors are there relative the amount of content? Is there discernable bias? How big are there, what are there most popular pages relative to each other? Etc.
-The status of wikis and related digital resources as a part of our knowledge/extensions of ourselves, in a comparable manner to a prosthetic limb or a physical piece of technology.
-Can we retrieve live data from these sites, i.e. their current popularity, and somehow convert that data into sound? If we were comparing wikis, we could use each as an ‘instrument’, maybe.
-We could focus on particular pages, and project things from their popularity or content. The more people are visiting (or google) ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, say, the closer we are to *midnight* (thinking Doomsday Clock currently).
-Dashboards and GUIs: sci-fi GUIs, video game GUIs and their real-life equivalent. A sliding scale of importance from ‘looks cool’ to ‘is functional’?

Being subject to computers is faintly terrifying

Everyone knows that humans and computers are good at different things. We’re probably all fairly used to that by now. Most of us have lived through that glorious “wow, computers can do anything, they’re so smart!” phase (some of us less recently than others), and the subsequent frustrating “wait no, why would you think that, computer I didn’t tell you to do that!” phase.

Its a generalization, but I feel like we know their quirks, and are kind of used to whatever level of machine ‘intelligence’ we’re living with at the minute. It’s not that weird anymore. It’s like living with a dog – if you train it, it can do a lot of things, but you still have to do things in specific ways to get it to ‘understand’. The AI/dog comparison is one I quite like actually, which I got to see explored a big more in the short film See a Dog, Hear a Dog at Transmediale.

Just like the film, however, I’m not sure I’m ready to take comfort in that comparison just yet. Why? Short answer: face-swapping.

I mean, holy shit. Is that not terrifying?
Wait! I’ve got more.

I’m being melodramatic, obviously. These are more funny and than really horrifying. But I do have a point with all this, one which is better summed up here, on PBS Idea Channel in their video The Vague Horror of Face Swap.

Long story short – to us, faces are important. The face is a metonym for the person. Figuratively speaking the face is the person, in the sense that we use the faces of other people as a short-hand way of understanding all sorts of things about them. And these pictures prove to us that computer barely understand that short-hand at all, but go ahead and do what it is they think we asked them to do anyway. Which is kind of unsettling.

The video tries to explain why this is so unsettling by relating it to the expression ‘hell is other people’ (Satre, explored here by PBS again). Long story short, again – the existence or presence of other people can make us uncomfortable because we can no longer just passively ‘be’ like we were before, we have to actively ‘act’. On some level we start agonising over how we come across in a way we didn’t have to before they arrived and we became subject to their perception.

I don’t think its too much of a leap to say that that uncomfortableness steps up a notch when we become subject to the perceptions of machines. Suddenly there is an other with a huge amount of influence in our lives – much more power than we would ever entrust to a pet – an other which is far less us, and far more impoverished in terms of how we’ve taught it to understand us.

The less like us they are, and the more importance they have in our daily lives, the more pressure there is to ‘act’ correctly in order to make sure we get the right results. The consequences of failure won’t always be as low as the comic screw-ups of face-swapping algorithms. When you phrase it like that, the consequences of how we handle the evolution of technology and artificial intelligence suddenly feel every bit as ominous as they did back a computer first beat a grandmaster at chess.

Deep Blue beats Garry Kasparov in 1997

I’m not trying to scaremonger. I just think its interesting. It related to my old favourite, cosmic horror, and these kinds of anxieties have always been fertile ground for sci-fi, see Isaac Asimov and that whole subsequent outpouring of I, Robot and A Space Odyssey type fiction. I’m not going to directly compare my daft little game project to anything so well-thought-out as that, but video games do have their own fine tradition of menacing AIs, and I was definitely trying to channel a little of that into humour when I wrote the dialogue for Computer is Bored.

I do feel like some recent sci-fi kind of misses the nuance of why villains like HAL 9000,  VIKI and GLaDOS are interesting villains though. I mean, they’re good villains because they’re threatening and characterful and have some awesome moments, but for me the kicker comes in the moments when they are less malevolent and evil, and more just fulfilling a function their creators gave them. In these moments heroes are essentially fighting off a dog that doesn’t realise its retrieving a stick that will kill its owner.

Be warned, at this point I start relating everything to video games and Doctor Who, so if that doesn’t appeal you’d be well within your rights to lose interest at this point.

Either way, I think the Process from Transistor are a great example of this kind of sci-fi threat. Since the game is set in a virtual city, they are essentially half grey-goo and half computer program, reshaping the city to the whims of its inhabitants until something goes wrong and they start resetting everything to zero. Fighting them it ultimately futile, because it cannot be stopped by force, only told to stop, and the one person who had the permissions to do that is dead.

Any persons the Process encounters are absorbed and rendered into ‘Functions’, pieces of software or code that perform whatever task that person was ‘for’. For example, a renowned historian and archivist subject to the Process becomes ‘get()’, a Function that locates entities and brings them closer. This reduction of people into Functions is not malicious, or even callous, it is simply the only way the goal-oriented Process knows how to deal with entities that are not itself.

Long-story short, for me, playing Transistor gave me an inkling of what it might be like to exist within a computer program which had been told that all variables should be reset to zero. It creates a scenario in which a humans have entrusted a lot more than just face-swapping to the subjectivity of computers, and it doesn’t work out too well for anyone. The human villains are deliberately set up to be massive disappointments, explaining their intentions and putting up no resistance, asking only that you forgive them for the inhuman disaster they inadvertently caused.

Doctor Who has some great villains like this too. The nanites, from episode The Empty Child and the clockwork droids from The Woman in the Fireplace are both brilliant. The former are ‘healing robots’ that horrifically misinterpret what a healthy human is meant to look like, while the latter were accidentally made to prioritise repairing their ship over looking after their crew, and so used their crew for spare parts. As gruesome as these episodes end up, the villains were only ever simple machines faithfully trying to do exactly what their benign creates told them to.

Anyway, I digress. Long story short (third time’s the charm) – machine subjectivity is terrifying, or for people who don’t relate to everything through horror and video games, maybe just plain old interesting. If I can make something of this in my future work, that will be no bad thing.

HSS8120 – Last minute prep

Outcomes of the project in collaboration with Jade (Pellucid Publishing Presents) and final prep for presentation (A Story by You)







HSS8120 – Narrative Agency

tabletop games

I think tabletop roleplaying games are awesome. I’m not personally a Dungeons and Dragons fan, but that is the kind of nerdery I’m talking about. Someday, I’m going to launch into a big long pretentious rant about the wonderful collaborative, creative venture that is tabletop roleplaying games, but today is not that day.

For now, here’s a good quote about them:
We no longer tell stories – we listen to them. We sit passively and wait to be picked up and carried to the world they describe, to the unique perception of reality they embrace. We have become slave to our TVs, permitting an oligarchy of artists to describe to us our lives, our culture and our reality. […] However, there is another way. (Vampire: the Masquerade, 1992, p. 21-22)

I found that quote in this paper, which acknowledges the hyperbole in it. People who print roleplaying games are every bit as invested in the cultural significance of their medium as TV pundits and film critics, goes the reasoning. But I think this quote does a good job of capturing the part of the appeal of interactive mediums like roleplaying games and video games. You get to tell a story, or even better, you get to be in a story.

‘most players experience roleplaying sessions quite vividly. They have not just listened to a story, they have actually played a part in it, without them it might have finished differently.’ (On the Roll of a Die: a brief ludologic study of pen-and-paper roleplaying games and their rules)

It’s like experiencing a narrative from a film or a TV show or a novel, except the audience (if you can still call them that) has agency, and that can make it all the more engaging. Maybe it’s a kind of engagement that appeals mainly to people in which the ‘I-wonder-if-I-can-make-something-like-that?’ impulse is especially strong. I know that impulse is pretty much the whole reason I started writing and became interested in game development, so I’m definitely biased.

I do think agency is a huge part of the appeal in any kind of game, though.  You don’t just let games wash over you like a song or a film. Maybe you do still ‘consume’ interactive media, but surely its a much less passive kind of consumption. You’re more engaged. Assuming you’re not a grizzled white man with military training, your options for the ‘surrogate you’ to help you engage with the game can sometimes be quite limited in games. Or even if you were, you may well want to experiment with being someone else. Well, tabletop games, or video games where you can customise your character, are a little better in this regard.

This is all very well and good. Games are awesome, tabletop roleplaying games are awesome, and they are an underrated medium for creativity and problem solving. It’s a good spiel, and I buy into it. Jane McGonigal’s Ted Talk ‘Gaming can make a better world‘ (which Ashley put me onto) is probably the most articulate expression of this view that I’ve seen.

Most importantly I think she handles the criticisms leveled at games and gamers well and fairly even-handedly. According to her stats, more collective hours have been spent in the fictional universe of World of Warcraft than the sum length of human history, and by the age of 21 the average American will have spent approximately the same amount of time playing video games as they have in education. I’m sure to some people that sounds like a terrible thing – what a waste of life! But she makes a good case for it.

Urgent Optimism+ Social Fabric + Blissful Productivity + Epic Meaning = Super Empowered Hopeful Individuals

That’s her formula for how online games galvanise and train the people who play them in a positive way. They’re solving problems and saving the world, just not the real one, and the appeal of that is understandable. “We are witnessing what amounts to a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments.” is a quote she uses, from Edward Castronova, and she does a good job of spinning that as a positive thing, or at the very least, a rational thing that is not inherently bad.

She tells Herodotus’ story about the kingdom of Lydia, in which the people were starving and alternated between days on which they would eat, and days on which they would play dice games. According to the story, they would be engaged enough in playing games that they were able to endure the hunger. The kingdom survived eighteen years this way, but the famine wasn’t ending, so the people gathered together to play one last game, and the winners left to find a brand new place to live, leaving enough food for the rest of the people to survive where they were. Thus, the games weren’t just an epic distraction or a surrogate life when times were miserable: they actually saved the kingdom (in the story).

But as much as I want my favourite mediums to be able to save the world, or at least be more significant than a compelling distraction, I’m skeptical. Because ‘a mass exodus to virtual worlds’ sounds an awful lot like some of the scary trends of the past year.

You know the ones. The ones where social media echo-chambers were super comforting but then turned out to not be remotely representative of how the rest of the world thinks. Or the ones where it felt like, at least from some people’s perspectives, that huge numbers of perfectly sane individuals were taking leave of reality in favour of narratives that told them solving their problems was a simple as playing a game, or voting a particular way.

So I’m curious about how the act of adding agency to storytelling really works. Its engaging, yes. But can it actually be empowering? I don’t believe games, even the roleplaying games, are really free from that so-call ‘oligarchy of artists’. There are still games developers and dungeon masters, and even when there aren’t, someone still made the rules that give that narrative meaning, and those rules still privilege certain experiences in ways that the player doesn’t have control over.

Long story short, for my presentation I want to host a short roleplaying game, and with any luck I’ll be able to use that to experiment a little bit with ideas of control, agency and who’s really telling the story.


Image credit: the first picture was nicked from Wyntercon’s website here, the second from the World of Warcraft wiki, and the third from Jane McGonigcal’s talk.

HSS8120 – Presentation Crowdsourcing

Multiple Minds screenshot 1

HSS8120 – Project (a step-by-step guide)


Still not 100% sure who  documentation is ‘for’ exactly, but I have a sneaking suspicion that its for the same person as a manifesto, just after or during the creative process, rather than before. Which is to say its for some combination of: me (to help me keep track, reflect, etc), the same audience as my work (should anyone unfortunate enough to be exposed to it want to find out more) and any other creators who take an interest (should they want to know more for the purposes of their own work).

In the interest of all that, here is a step-by-step guide for how to duplicate my project.

Step 1. Overhear Jade and Megan brainstorming ideas for a collaborative manifesto on a Wednesday (?) afternoon not long after the assignment is set. Don’t really pay that much attention to conversation, just enough to overhear something about the idea of redaction, i.e. blacking out, putting lines through or otherwise censoring words.

Step 2. Later that week, ask Jade for advice about how to bind your illustrated poetry pamphlet. She will tell you about Japanese book binding, the kind that makes interesting patterns across the cover of the book in string.

Step 3. Get inspired by the idea of redaction, the fake books on the studio bookshelf, and articles and conversations with Tom about the way that news outlets/government/scientific authorities rely on trust in different ways, come up with an idea for a collaborative project with Jade (hereafter referred to as partner).

Step 4. Allow ideas to solidify over a period of 2-3 weeks, adding more chats with partner and further research when necessary (and when that doesn’t help, try a healthy dose of imminent deadlines)

Step 5. Meet with partner again, and come up with a concrete plan for the project: to create books that somehow proclaim to be very important but are bound in such a way as they can barely be read. Partner will suggest using a calculation based on the content and frequency of words in the text to determine the binding pattern.

Step 6. Write a piece on a tenuously post-truth inspired topic, approx four pages long, and give it a title (try to think about the shape of the text and the placement of key words in the line as much as the content itself).

Step 7. Show piece to partner (while keeping the title a secret), who will come up with another title.

Step 8. Post both titles (your own and partner’s)

Step 9. Write a new piece inspired by partner’s title, and repeat until you have 7 or so pieces. Around the 5th time you will most likely start to feel the grin of writing so much despite (or perhaps because of) the focus on quantity over quality. Varying the formula a bit is likely to help with this.

Photo taken by Jade

Step 10. Having produced the content for the books, hand the project over to partner for the process of creating and binding the books themselves (using the calculation process), although remain interested in the process and continue thinking about their final presentation.

Step 11. tba