March 14 in Philadelphia: Platform Studies, Material Computing, and the Atari VCS

Wednesday 9 March 2011, 6:34 pm   //////  

Platform Studies, Material Computing, and the Atari VCS

Nick Montfort, MIT

A presentation in the
Workshop in the History of Material Texts
University of Pennsylvania – March 14, 2011 – 5:15pm
Van Pelt Library, 2nd Floor

Platform studies is a family of approaches that aim to help us understand the relationship between computational platforms and the creative work that is done on them. At a high level, two realizations are particularly important to platform studies: First, that creative production on the computer, using computation, is culturally relevant; and second, that we can usefully look to the underlying systems and structures that constrain and enable this creative production. In this talk, I will describe how participating in this workshop helped me to engage with the materiality of texts and then of computing, how I initially sought to investigate the relationship between textual studies and computational media, and how, working with my collaborator Ian Bogost, I found a deeper, productive connection between digital media and textual materiality that is based on the concept of the platform. Along the way, I will discuss and use as my main example the Atari VCS (a.k.a. Atari 2600). This famous early cartridge-based game system was the focus of my and Bogost’s 2009 book, Racing The Beam, the first book in the MIT Press series Platform Studies.

The People’s Republic of IF is Shiny

Monday 7 March 2011, 10:50 pm   ////  

As if polishing a statue of our glorious leader, the Web secretariat of the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction has hoisted a fine new website. It has everything the old site had, but shiner and more expandable – which is important for a Cambridge-based group with a destiny that is manifest, a group that continues to share IF with the Boston area and the world.

Please do note that PR-IF will be at PAX-East 2011 with a suite and a conference room. All events are open to the public and do not require a PAX-East badge. I’ll hope to see some of you there.

The ELMCIP Knowledge Base is Online

Friday 4 March 2011, 12:24 am   ///  

Interested in electronic literature, and a new large-scale resource listing works, authors, and more? The ELMCIP Knowledge Base is now available in beta form. Also, check out this screencast about the ELMCIP Knowledge Base.

By ELMCIP, we mean Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice, a research project that extends throughout Europe and is funded by the Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) JRP for Creativity and Innovation. ELMCIP is a project to try to understand creative communities working in electronic literature. Among the many involved parties are friends and collaborators Scott Rettberg (the project leader) and Jill Walker Rettberg.

In describing the newly opened Knowledge Base, Scott writes:

We are still working on the design and some features are still in progress but we are happy enough with the work-in-progress to open it up to more readers and contributors. I hope that you will join us in developing this important resource. We need your help to make a good platform into a great resource.

Here, as it stands, is the list of works in the Knowledge Base. Take a look, even if you want to browse, but particularly if you think you may wish to contribute.

Best Failed Search Ever

Wednesday 2 March 2011, 2:31 pm   ////  

Search: 'i never promised you a cheeseburger' One result: 'The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Judiasm'

I guess that answers the perennial question, “I can has cheezburger?”

The IF Theory Reader Arrives

Tuesday 1 March 2011, 1:47 am   ///////  

Almost a decade after the project began, the IF Theory Reader is finally here, thanks to the hard work of editors Kevin Jackson-Mead and J. Robinson Wheeler. The book has been published by Transcript On Press and has made it out in time for PAX-East, where Kevin’s group The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction will be hosting a hospitality suite.

There are 438 pages in this book, which can be downloaded as a PDF for free or purchased as a paperback for a mere $13.26.

My own contribution, “Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction,” has a first page which (except for the title of the article) is entirely occupied by a footnote. Perhaps ominously. I did, however, revise the article for the N+1th time, trying to make it a bit more accessible. I began writing this particular piece back when this book project was first being formulated, and am very, very glad to have it officially published after all these years.

The compendium of writing about interactive fiction that we finally have here includes 26 articles – the same number, I should mention, as there are letters of the alphabet:

  • Crimes Against Mimesis – Roger S. G. Sorolla
  • Toward a Theory of Interactive Fiction – Nick Montfort
  • Characterizing, If Not Defining, Interactive Fiction – Andrew Plotkin
  • not that you may remember time: Interactive Fiction, Stream-of-
  • Consciousness Writing, and Free Will – Mark Silcox
  • 2 Brief Dada Angels – Ryan Stevens, writing as Rybread Celsius
  • Object Relations – Graham Nelson
  • IF as Argument – Duncan Stevens
  • The Success of Genre in Interactive Fiction – Neil Yorke-Smith
  • Parser at the Threshold: Lovecraftian Horror in Interactive Fiction – Michael Gentry
  • Distinguishing Between Game Design and Analysis: One View – Gareth Rees
  • Natural Language, Semantic Analysis, and Interactive Fiction – Graham Nelson
  • Afterword: Five Years Later – Graham Nelson
  • Challenges of a Broad Geography – Emily Short
  • Thinking Into the Box: On the Use and Deployment of Puzzles – Jon Ingold
  • PC Personality and Motivations – Duncan Stevens
  • Landscape and Character in IF – Paul O’Brian
  • Hint Development for IF – Lucian Smith
  • Descriptions Constructed – Stephen Granade
  • Mapping the Tale: Scene Description in IF – J. Robinson Wheeler
  • Repetition of Text in Interactive Fiction – Jason Dyer
  • NPC Dialogue Writing – Robb Sherwin
  • NPC Conversation Systems – Emily Short
  • 10 Years of IF: 1994–2004 – Duncan Stevens
  • The Evolution of Short Works: From Sprawling Cave Crawls to Tiny Experiments – Stephen Granade
  • History of Italian IF – Francesco Cordella
  • Racontons une histoire ensemble: History and Characteristics of French IF – Hugo Labrande

Again, congratulations to Kevin and Rob, and thanks to my fellow authors. I’ve read many of these articles before; I’m looking forward to sitting down and reading everything, previously seen and unseen, in this excellent codex.

Reader’s Block

Monday 28 February 2011, 11:33 am   /////  
Reader's Block, David Markson, Dalkey Archive, 1996

Reader's Block, David Markson, Dalkey Archive, 1996

A pivotal point in this book – one that is reassuringly labeled “A Novel” – is the paragraph that reads, in its entirety, “Spent Adidas.” The other shoe drops. Imagination finally spills from one isolated paragraph to the next. This two-word paragraph does not stand out as unusually short among many that relating incidents or facts; literary, artistic, or philosophical deaths; and sometimes simply an author’s or some famous character’s name. How can we avoid being overwhelmed by the weight of what we know, what we have read about other lives? How can what we have learned about history frame, rather than imprison, what we seek to create as readers and writers? Why even attempt to imagine, when truth is stranger and so weighty? These questions raise themselves like ghosts in Hades scenting blood. As in Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a powerful image of a writer’s path of thought. Then, the poesies that succeeded in Borges’s “The Circular Ruins” takes a different turn in Reader’s Block, after a struggle.

Get Yer Art, Culture, and Game Studies

Wednesday 23 February 2011, 11:56 pm   //////  

This and That Thought, a Turbulence commission, is a robot riot. (Turn on your sound before beginning!) The new issue of Culture Machine grapples with e-lit and the digital humanities and looks to be made of win. And there’s the happy occasion of a new issue of Game Studies, focused on game reward systems.

Book Meets Tube, Explains Tube

Monday 21 February 2011, 12:49 pm   //////  

Learning from YouTube by Alexandra Juhasz is an open access MIT Press “video-book” published on Vectors. It’s made of “texteos” (with YouTube-like videos at the core) and is hilarious and incisive. I suggest you vread it right away.

Choose from 1 Ending to this Blog Post

Sunday 20 February 2011, 6:38 pm   /////  

There’s a nice Slate article on the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series, quoting not only both of the main COYA authors but also Zork creator and Infocom implementor David Lebling.

Label This One a Failure

It’s tough to write about the ideas that didn’t work out. Sometimes the negative results actually aren’t very interesting, and it’s better not to discuss them. In other cases, it’s impolite to point out other people’s roles – to blame them – and impossible to discuss the failure otherwise. But when a failure is not too big of a deal, possibly instructive to bring up, and as least as much my fault as anyone else’s, that rare opportunity to post about it presents itself.

In 2005, those of us blogging at Grand Text Auto had the idea of starting a “label.” We wanted something that would riff on our blog’s name and serve to showcase larger-scale projects that we did. The idea was that our creative projects would benefit from being associated with each other, just as our blog writing was more lively and had wider reach thanks to the shared context of Grand Text Auto.

After going through our usual best practices process of name development – perhaps, based on experiences like these, I’ll one day start a naming firm – we chose to call the label [auto mata]. With the square brackets and everything, if you want to really give a shout-out, although “Auto Mata” could work if that’s what fits your house style.

I offered to design the logotype. Now, I’m much less likely to start a career in graphic design, and certainly couldn’t drive that auto very far if I did, but I do like to indulge my dilettantish design interests when the opportunity presents itself. This is what I came up with:

Admittedly, it doesn’t exactly slap one in the face.

I don’t think my understated logo was the real problem with [auto mata], though. First Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern’s Façade (July 2005) and then my own Book and Volume (November 2005) were released “under” (perhaps “with” is a better preposition) this label. And that was it. No other “extraordinary e-lit, digital art, and computer games” appeared as [auto mata] releases, which was one big problem. A list of two things isn’t doing that much helpful association or offering people very much to browse. I think if we had kept adding a piece to the [auto mata] catalog every few months, we’d have accumulated a very interesting collection that people would be looking at. We might even encourage the crossing of boundaries between (the stereotypes of) literary work, visual art, and computer games that Grand Text Auto was all about. But we weren’t all regularly doing larger-scale projects that were downloadable. [auto mata] couldn’t really, in any straightforward way, “release” an immense, functional Atari VCS joystick.

Another problem, though, is that [auto mata] was just a list on a Web page. We didn’t build much buzz around [auto mata] itself, or work to promote the label per se as opposed to the two pieces that were released under it. Perhaps this work would have done itself to some extent as our list of publications grew and our offerings drew in people from different communities. But, unfortunately, the work wasn’t done.

Michael, Andrew, and I often mentioned [auto mata] in promoting our pieces. The site is still up. But now it’s 2011, and it’s worth noting that both Façade and Book and Volume have been published again in the fine context of the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 2. Although some “previous publication” information is included for each piece in the Collection, Michael, Andrew, and I all neglected to tell the editors that these two pieces are [auto mata] releases, so that information (provided within the pieces) doesn’t appear on the introduction pages where other bibliographic information is available.

Ah, well. I don’t regret the discussion that led to our developing [auto mata]; nor do I regret the not particularly onerous efforts that we took to get this label launched. In a different situation, such a label might have served not just to catalog work, but as an incentive or rallying point for the Grand Text Auto bloggers in creating work that could be proudly presented alongside other pieces. Perhaps a similar label could still do that for a different group of people.

Gatsby + NES … Abyss Gent?

Tuesday 15 February 2011, 10:25 pm   /////  

If you’re a fan of the ideal (not the reality) of video games that are adapted from literary works, and particularly if you liked Gatz

Do check out The Great Gatsby for NES. Old chap.

Put Another Token in the Jukebox, Baby

Tuesday 15 February 2011, 7:52 pm   //////  

“D.P.O.” is a pretty amazing X-Files episode, featuring not only an arcade, which is central to the episode, but also a Lenscrafters cameo, glimpses of a Jerry-Springer-like show and a music video, a reference to the land art piece Lightning Field, a rural boy pranking cows, Jack Black, and a Playboy centerfold with at least a passing resemblance to Sarah Michelle Gellar.

I particularly like how Mulder picks out the suspect by locating his initials on the high score screen of a Virtua Fighter machine. One thing I’m wondering about the arcade in this episode, though: It has a jukebox, which is rather instrumental (no pun intended) to the way the episode … plays out.

Was it really common for arcades to have jukeboxes? In my recollection, which may be rusty, arcades were noisy enough thanks to the games themselves. I suppose one could have turned the games’ volumes down to let other music be heard, but there weren’t jukeboxes in the arcades I remember, from, say, The Gold Mine up through Le Fun. Did your arcades have other soundtracks, beyond those coming from the cabinets?

Portal Past

Monday 14 February 2011, 3:09 pm   //////  

Truth is often stranger than fiction. Sometimes fiction just exaggerates for effect, of course. In the world of this commercial,

  • Early Macintoshes have a green-on-black, all-caps display.
  • Interactive fiction text goes only 3/5 of the way across the screen.
  • Macs use 5.25″ floppy discs.

These changes were no doubt thoughtfully made to construct the “retro” in a more intense way, allowing for a readable and seemingly old-school display and collaging different aspects of 1980s home computers. This way the green-on-black display and 5.25″ disks can live alongside the iconic presence of the early Mac. Plus, GLaDOS gets to say the multisyllabic word “Macintosh” at the end of the video. The creators of the video surely knew they were doing it wrong but decided to try to construct something more 80s than 80s.

I wonder if they knew they were making a tribute video for Rob Swigart, whose game/novel Portal was released by Activision in 1986 on 5.25″ and 3.25″ disk for Amiga, Macintosh, Commodore 64, Apple II, and PC.

Swigart also contributed to another early entry in the “pseudohacking” genre, the Activision game Hacker, which sported an all-text beginning that looked very much like the on-screen display in the video.

The commercial testifies to our memories of the 1980s by making things up. But there was Portal on 5.25″ disk in 1986. This video documents the Amiga version. Interesting to see that the first commenter on there can’t believe that something like this could crawl out of our memory hole, through the portal from the past.

Results

Sunday 13 February 2011, 4:13 pm   ////  

Google’s spam cop, Matt Cutts
the head of the Webspam team
in the sprawling, subterranean world
found 2,015 pages with phrases like “casual dresses,”
snoring, diamond drills, bathroom tiles,
a Google no-no.

Liquid nitrogen and “fairy tale pumpkin”
will flag a Web site that goes from zero
zero influence on the latter, he said.
Chinese cooking can bolster your profile if
organic search results
warn against using tricks

to snooker his employer.
You could imagine a dozen contenders
“Samsonite carry on luggage,” for instance,
And bedding? And area rugs?
Who is that someone?
The next it was essentially buried.

Cf. “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search” in The New York Times

Here’s the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 2

Wednesday 9 February 2011, 4:30 pm   //////////  

Thanks to the hard work of the editorial collective, Laura Borràs, Talan Memmott, Rita Raley, and Brian Kim Stefans, and to contributions of more than 70 (often collaborating) authors, we now have an incredible new anthology: volume 2 of the Electronic Literature Collection, which offers 60 new reading experiences for the networked computer.

(Here’s the ELO’s announcement about the new volume.)

To make the first volume of the Collection possible, my fellow editors and I limited ourselves to the sort of e-lit projects we could easily publish on CD-ROM and on the Web. The formal range of the ELC has expanded in the new collection, which documents several projects that wouldn’t, themselves, fit on disc. The range of languages represented has also widened, and the collective has brought it own perspectives and concepts to offer a different sort of selection than is seen in the first volume.

I’m certainly pleased to have some of my work included: Book and Volume and the first program in the ppg256 series. And I’m glad that Laura, Talan, Rita, and Brian worked so carefully and at such length to gather and edit this diversity of material. They’ve made this project a success for the ELO and for e-lit readers. And finally, as a reader, I’m also really looking forward to diving into the pages and windows of this collection.

Pocket Curveship

Thursday 3 February 2011, 11:42 pm   //////  

Curveship running on a tiny computer, the Ben NanoNote.

Curveship runs on the Ben NanoNote, by the way. It could be faster, certainly – I and others will be working on that. But it does run, which is a good start and bodes well for the ability of Curveship games to run on many different platforms.

Happy Chinese New Year.

Curveship 0.5 Released

Happy Groundhog Day. Today, I’m releasing Curveship, my interactive fiction system that models not only the fictional world, but also the narrative discourse. A development version (0.5) of this Python framework is now available for download. You can find the links, along with some description and documentation of the system, at curveship.com.

(Original photos by April King and Postdlf, Wikimedia Commons; they & these modified versions are CC by-sa 3.0.)

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