Oct 02 19 2002

Another World

I'm sketching out a strange hypertext story called Another World. It's an experiment. It's not finished -- it's barely begun -- and normally I wouldn't talk about it.

I'm writing about Another World here, in part, because it begins as a response to problems raised in this Weblog cluster during the past year. It starts from Anja Rau, and her disturbing questions about hypertext fiction: "Has it no tension? No excitement?" It starts from Torill Mortensen and her game response to my probes about games: "look at two decades of computer games and tell me everything we learn about, say, sexuality." It starts from Tim Parks' reminder in the October 24 NYRB that hypertext shouldn't be considered an infant any more; when movies were our age, they'd managed to accomplish a hell of a lot. It starts from long correspondence with Espen Aarseth. It starts from Jill Walker's reminders about the importance of Online Caroline.

Another World is a game. You are the Resident Administrator of a new Colony on Another World. You make the decisions. You choose what to build, and where. It's a little like SimCity. (It's loosely coupled and multiplayer; there are other colonies out there, and they can influence your colony. But they're a long way away...)

Another World is a hypertext. The most interesting thing about your Outpost is that it's filled with people. Your inbox is filled with memos, letters, and directives. You see people on the street, hear what they say, listen to their arguments and read their stories.

Another World is about ideas. It's got plenty of politics. Voices will be raised, tears may be shed, and people might take off their clothes.

If you visit this space often, you want to see the newest notes. That's why weblogs put the newest notes at the top. If you're coming here in the middle of the story, though, today might not be the best place to begin. (We don't have to begin at the beginning, but some starting points are better than others)

The topic page for Another World is sorted chronologically, with the newest addition on the bottom. That's easy to do in Tinderbox, which lets you sort notes however you like -- by publication date, by author, by color or wordcount. This way, you can hear the story as it unfolds, day by day, or revisit it later in an order that makes sense. This seems an obvious concession to the conflicting needs of emerging narrative and archived histories. (more on AnotherWorld)

In Another World, you're running a tiny Outpost on another world. You're working for the Company, which wants you to build an efficient, thriving community. You're expected to gather natural resources and ship them back to the Capital, where the Company will turn a tidy profit. You're expected to gather indigenous artwork, which fetches excellent prices back home. You're expected to gather scientific knowledge, to keep the peace, to protect the villagers, to promote tourism, suppress revolutionaries, improve education...

None of this matters terribly to most of the people in your settlement, since they have pressing things to worry about. For example, Jules is a beautiful, and painfully young, elf who is desperately in love with a 13-year-old human farmgirl. She loves him -- or, at any rate, she lusts for him. None of their parents would think this a desirable situation, if they knew about it. But it's a small town.... (more on AnotherWorld)

The denizens of Another World include humans, elves, and demons. Why?

First, elves and demons are a convention of games: they mark Another World as gamelike rather than "literary". Another World is meant to be an olive-branch to the game world, and elves and demons are a convenient shorthand. Many people -- including some leading game theorists -- understand that Tolkien is the key precedent but completely misunderstand why these fantastic folk are important.

"Tolkein’s importance has little to do with the maps that adorn his endpapers. Yes, Tolkein spoke of writing as a journey through imagined worlds, but this perception is not uncommon. Neither is it necessarily helpful in understanding either Middle Earth or interactive art. Yes, he kept elaborate notebooks. This is not uncommon, either: we know many of the War Poets through their notebooks. (Tolkein on The Somme was 24, and if no poppies bloom in the Dead Marshes, we still recognize the muck and thirst of Flanders refracted through the memory of the Burma Road and Stalingrad and That Fucking Island, the land even Marines would not name.)" -- Mark Bernstein, "And Back Again", First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game, edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. MIT Press, in press.

Second, it's a useful way to evade a political headache. Another World is an immigrant drama, a story about the tensions of a world where your neighbor is Not From Here, where none of us are very familiar with the Fields We Know. If you don't like humans, elves and demons, think Normans, Scots, and Welsh ("I can summon spirits from the vasty deep!").

Or, for that matter, the Blacks, the Jews, and the Swedes in Old Chicago. Or, the Romans, the Cimbri, and the Ubii. This saves us from layers of unwanted contemporary politics; we can generalize about elves and still march in the Columbus Day parade.

Torill Mortensen asks, "what would elves see in people, anyway?" In fact, there's a long tradition. Tam Lin (or Thomas Rhymer), one of the Child Ballads, is the story of a fellow who meets the Queen of Elfland on the road and spends a night dancing with her -- a night that lasts 40 years. (Brenda Laurel told a variant of this story at Digital Storytelling 4) For an edgy, modern view of faery love, see Lauren Hamilton's "elven-American princess" Meredith Gentry:

"Faeries, after all, are sexual predators, deeply concerned with power and seduction, and (like all immortals) fascinated by pain." -- from my review (but note that Hamilton's fairies are not anything like the elves of Another World)

Finally, the point of archetypes is their archetypical. In Another World, elves are materialists: they live in the moment and can't imagine why any intelligent life form would worry about anything they can't observe. On the other hand, demons are mystics. Humans are alien outsiders, muddled, but not without a certain attraction to elves and demons alike. (more on AnotherWorld)

Prof. Ken Tompkins (Stockton) sent an interesting email about Another World. He writes:

Not sure if you intend to provide a running commentary on "Another World" but, if not, let me encourage you to do so. It is not only a fascinating project but one that would seem to have a powerful engine for educational use. If the model serves, wouldn't others be able to adapt your "engine" for other plots that could be used in the classroom? It seems likely from what you have said.

I also think that there are many of us out here who would very much like to watch you work to see how you make decisions, how you implement them and how the whole design issue is handles. We seldom see under the hood; we could learn a great deal more about all of this if we did.

That under-the-hood view is the core reason I've been writing about Another World here. In principle, yes, the engine could be adapted to other stories -- especially to tell other stories about Another World. The Card Shark engine is much more general, though.

Torill Mortensen, thinking of MUDs and such, asks about Another World:

"Where is the politics supposed to come from? Is that the game AI? Who will raise their voices, who will cry and who will undress?

The characters of Another World are simply that: characters, written on the page. It's one interfolded and interlocked set of stories that unfolds differently in each reading. It's a sculptural hypertext, quite close to Card Shark and Thespis.

Take Miles Corbett, the correspondent for the Times who wants to be your friend, your advisor, your confidant, and who has such good contacts in the Intelligence Community. I don't want him to be a "player character", because a role-player having a bad day could ruin everything. I don't want him to be a robot, because he'd be at least as hard as Julia to program -- even without worrying about dramatic pacing -- and he's just one character.

Instead, I'll simply write about Mr. Corbett, his intrigues and his passions and his singular advice. In some readings, you'll see a lot of Mr. Corbett. In some readings, he'll fade into the woodwork, or leave the stage early. When he turns to you and says,

"Wake up! Look about you! Look at that boy over there. Yes, that exquisite elf lad, Jehann's boy. Tell me: don't you want him?"

This might mean one thing in your reading, and something else entirely in mine. Everything Corbett says and does is written down: at most, the computer decides what would be best to say at each moment and what is best said later, or not said at all.

Another World is a bagatelle. It's an interesting project, but it's peripheral. At best, it's a talking point, a probe, an amusing way to remind people that, if I can do this, you can do a hell of a lot better.

That means it needs to be built quickly, cheaply, and with tools that aren't too unpleasant to use.

Another World also needs to confess its limitations. Like puppet theater, it needs to admit the many things it can't do, to beg its audience to overlook the obvious faults and to have a good time.

One of the ironies of Another World is that, though it's prototyped in Flash, it's going to look like it's put together with cardboard and duct tape. There's just no budget for pretty. Most people think this would be fatal off the bat -- that if you don't have great chrome, you don't have a game.

I'm guessing that people won't miss the chrome, if only I can get them as interested in what's going to happen as the Company intelligence agent creeps through the forest, armed with knife and camera, and he nears the clearing where our teenage farmgirl is trying to seduce the gorgeous elf lad whose friends (artists, mostly, and some musicians) are flirting with the Resistance.... (more on AnotherWorld)

How can Another World be exciting? Since it's a hypertext, we don't know how people will begin, or where they'll go. There are few borders. But there should be plenty of tension.

There's the interface -- a new mechanism to explore. New games are always exciting to people who play. (Some people despise anything that looks like a computer game, but they won't like Another World anyway).

There are the characters. Jules, the beautiful, shy young elf. Roma, a farmgirl who would love to take him to bed. Roma's father knows his Shakespeare, but doesn't want his only surviving daughter to make a terrible mistake. What will they do? Can we watch?

Outside town, there's an archaeological dig in progress. Rumors say, they've found something important. Rumors say, they'd better work fast, because the Administrator wants to build a new development on the site. Rumors say that one of the grad students working on the site is having an affair with the leader of the Resistance, behind her Professor's back. It's a small town. There are always rumors.

Jules' friends want to talk to him about doing some favors for the Resistance. And then there's Miles Corbett, correspondent for the Times and rumored intelligence agent, who has a camera and who has been spending a lot of time near the glade where Jules and Roma have been sneaking stolen moments.

(Of course, in some readings none of this might happen. If you decide The Company needs to build a new mine right where Jules goes bathing in the twilight, then Roma won't ever come across a beautiful young elf, naked in the stream.) (more on Another World)

Another World has to be put together quickly, using widely-available parts. It's not going to be a small project, but the budget for time and tools needs to be small.

The main engine is built in Macromedia Flash; I'll talk more about this later. The data files -- including all the writing, is stored in a set of XML files. (Another set of XML files holds user information and games in progress) The XML files, in turn, are created with Tinderbox. There's no special support for this in Tinderbox; I just whipped together some simple XML templates and Bob's your second cousin once removed.

The nice thing about this is that I get a decent writing environment (Tinderbox) that creates nicely parseable files that Flash can read. Maintenance is easy, and we don't need to worry about arcane specs or building a game editor. (more on AnotherWorld)

In Card Shark and Thespis (pdf) (flash), I argued that, in a first-person interactive story, we must not be the hero-protagonist, that we must instead be weak and unimportant.

Illusions that place the reader on stage necessarily founder when promised freedom of action is contradicted by the limitations of the simulated environment. IF asks us to find a creative, imaginative, and successful resolution to the dramatic problem. The imaginative reader is bound to think of things the creator never envisioned, and the reader's best thinking inevitably generates the dullest response: "I don't understand." The computational environment can never match our aspirations, and allusions to unlimited computing power of the future (the starship holodeck) can't rectify the fundamental problem: readers will always want to do things nobody (and no computer) could anticipate.

Another World seems to contradict this: in Another World, you're the powerful Resident, the chief representative of the all-powerful Company. You say, "Build a market here!", and a market is built. You say, "Expand the archaeological work, and put a hotel and museum by the dig", and tour companies spring up overnight.

But your budget and your authority don't supply easy answers when two love-struck kids (an elf and a human, for pity's sake!) intrude on a demon Initiation Rite, or when aboriginal ideologues threaten a general strike, or when you just can't get that irritating reporter out of your office. You've got power, you can do lots of things, but its the wrong kind of power.

(Another goal of Another World is to show that the Unimportant Player conjecture -- the argument I call "My Friend, Hamlet" -- applies beyond Tragedy. )

(more on AnotherWorld)

One of the big challenges for Another World is to find some new way to reconcile computer games and sex.

For the most part, games flee from sexuality. Partly, this is politics: game players are often young, and the game audience is drawn from countries (US, Japan, Korea) where the sexuality of young people is a sensitive topic right now. Partly, this is marketing: a small but vital part of the American audience are early adolescent boys who are famously allergic to overt displays of sexual feelings.

But part of the problem, I expect, is that the novelty of computers has tended to push artists toward the extremes: extremely literal representation in games and extremely allusive metaphor in hyperfiction.

Alvin Ray Smith says, "At Pixar, they have a word for almost human but not quite: monster." Monsters are interesting. Movies about monsters (Toy Story, Spirited Away, Ants) are fun. But sleeping with monsters is another thing. Cultures tell lots of stories as guides to sexual behavior, but almost everyone has the story about sleeping with monsters. It never ends well. (Occasionally, the monster is divine, but even then it's usually a mixed blessing for everybody)

Hyperfiction, hypermedia, and cybertext have tended to run in the other direction, and where love and desire appear, they have often been metaphors or generalizations. Though Shelley Jackson wrote My Body, the titles read merely the body and though the body in question is hers, it's not obvious that she'd have written a very different story if she had another woman's body instead.

This is yet another case where immersion is a suspect quality, where My Friend Hamlet is in for a rough time. April is in my mistress' face. My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun. (more on AnotherWorld)