Video Games Tending To Zero

I’ve been interested in testing the lower limits of digital objects, looking at how simple and minimal something can be while still being understood as falling into a fairly familiar category. My ppg256 series, which consists of 256-character Perl poetry generators, is in this vein, as are my attempts at very small stories and poems in forms, “Ten Mobile Texts.” In the realm of sound, Tristan Perich’s One-Bit Music and Shifty’s One-Bit Groovebox are somewhat similar projects that attempt to show that if you bring eight bits, you aren’t bringing eight bits too few – you’re bringing seven too many.

It’s also possible to wonder what the smallest possible video game is, or how to push video games toward minimality. First, let’s take a step back to see what the smallest possible game of any sort might be: The Game, in which one simply tries to avoid thinking of The Game, and, if one does think of the game, one loses. This one’s interesting because it can’t be won. Neither can Space Invaders, of course, but The Game is different: a player can’t even be conscious of playing without losing.

Somewhat akin to ppg256 and The Game is Jason McIntosh’s obfuscated (or at least very compressed) game, a 494-character Perl program in which you plunge down a canyon, inflecting yourself left and right to try to avoid hitting the walls of a canyon, which slant and are unseen until the last moment. is made of a very small amount of code, but there are plenty of games with less – Pong, for instance, is simply a circuit and doesn’t have any code. One thing I find interesting about and pleasing in some minimal games is the highly abstract nature of the visuals, something also seen in Pong. This Perl game actually has many of Pong‘s luxuries as well, including multiple lives and a report of your score at the end of the game.

Players wait for the next lightning strike in Ian Bogosts Thunderstorm.
Players wait for the next lightning strike in Ian Bogost's Thunderstorm.

Although made up of a whole 1024 bytes each – of assembly – Ian Bogost’s game poems for the Atari VCS incline toward minimality. The most recent entry, Thunderstorm, is a game about watching a thunderstorm and guessing, after a flash of lightning, how long it will take for thunder to sound. Simple as it is, this game uses audio as well as video channels, features color (although rarely), supports two-player competition, and is winnable.

As it has in music, physical computing has weighed in on minimal video gaming. Rob Seward’s three-person Tag is played on a 5×7 LED grid and has been hailed as “the simplest video game in the world.” Interestingly, Clive Thompson goes on to note that Seward’s game Boo is even simpler, with a single light bulb for a display. One player lights the bulb and the other attempts to hit a button as soon as possible afterwards.

There are some things that all of these games have in common: Something surprising happens in all of them, and that surprising thing is critical to the gameplay. Randomness provides the surprise in and Thunderstorm. The players provide it in Tag and Boo. A representational excuse (you’re falling into a canyon, we’re watching a storm, got you!) can be used, but it’s the unexpected, not the connection to reality, that makes these games work. And there’s just one last thing to note: I think that surprise even plays an important role in The Game. Ouch … I just lost The Game.

Have You Played Atari Today?

<i>Asteroids, Tempest 2000, Pitfall!</i> (for Intellivision!), <i>Air-Sea Battle,</i> and <i>Yars' Revenge</i> set up and waiting for players in the Trope Tank.
Asteroids, Tempest 2000, Pitfall! (for Intellivision!), Air-Sea Battle, and Yars' Revenge set up and waiting for players in the Trope Tank.

I have been wanting to have some sort of end-of-year fest, however small-scale and short-notice, and I was also looking for an excuse to unpack and reconfigure my office (a.k.a. the Trope Tank) after hauling much of my video game stuff back from the Boston Cyberarts Festival. So I decided to invite some MIT folks over, including CMS and GAMBIT game-players. Excuses to celebrate included this here new blog, Racing the Beam (not so new, but still a good excuse for a party), and MIT’s recent decision to promote and tenure me. I was very pleased to host a contingent from the Literature department, some CMS students and staff, and the person who has kindly loaned me that fine Asteroids cabinet, Jason Scott. There was an emphasis on the Atari VCS at the event. Players battled at Joust (and contemplated the symbology and implications of the game), played Space Invaders as a team, found Barnstorming simple but serene, figured out Yars’ Revenge, grooved with Tempest 2000 on the Jaguar, and failed to beat Ghosts ‘n Goblins on the NES. (Still, that was a lot better than I can do during an offhand attempt, Josh.) Thanks to all who stopped by.

Robot Jams

I heard Ensemble Robot last night at AXIOM. It was a suitably outrageous performance and a nice final event for the 2009 Boston Cyberarts Festival, which officially ends today. Ensemble Robot has robot musicians who play alone and with human performers. Two of them, a robot glockenspiel and a one-string robot instrument/performer, were at AXIOM last night. They played several pieces, including Belle Labs. The final number involved using one of the robots as an instrument, controlled by a MIDI guitar. It was a nice finale that sounded fittingly extreme, but I have to admit that “slaving” this former silicon-based collaborator to a person in this way disturbed me a bit. I also wish that there had been time for questions and discussion, so that I would have a better idea of how autonomous the robots were, if they were listening to the other performers, and so on. In any case, if you have a chance to hear this unusual group, I highly recommend it.

The performance, which included people playing on hacked-together non-electronic instruments, reminded me of the amazing sort of things that used to happen at MITRES, the MIT Electronics Research Society, back when they had their open mic/show and tell nights. I noticed that Ensemble Robot artistic director Christine Southworth is an MIT and Brown alumnus; perhaps the coincidence runs deeper.

Mario and the N64 Platform

Jason Scott speaks about Super Mario 64 and the N64 at Notacon.
Jason Scott speaks about Super Mario 64 and the N64 at Notacon.

Jason Scott, an archivist and documentary-maker who deals with creative computing, gave quite an interesting talk about Super Mario 64 at Notacon 6 in Cleveland on April 17. I believe it’s the first platform studies talk I’ve heard by someone other than Ian Bogost or me. Jason goes into the concept behind platform studies, pimps our book, Racing the Beam (special thanks for that one), and discusses how the substantial achievements and particular design of Super Mario 64 related to the corporate context of the time, the expectations of players, and the Nintendo 64 hardware. This was at an event that is a hacker conference, not an academic one – I hope we academics can keep up in terms of bringing technology and culture together. The talk is almost an hour long, with some questions at the end, and is well worth the bandwith and the time.

Newton and the Counterfeiter

My colleague Tom Levenson (also a fellow blogger) has a new book coming out in a few days, Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist. If you hop over to the Barnes & Noble page for the book, you can see the video that he went to shoot in London not too long ago. This should make it clear that Tom is not only a science writer who uncovers intriguing episodes from the lives of famous scientists (Einstein in Berlin) but also an Emmy-award-winning filmmaker who has done a slew of NOVA documentaries. The video (and the book) delves into how Newton worked in his seldom-discussed role as warden of the mint, inviting us to read about how a great scientific mind turned to police work. I hope that when I need to promote future books, I’ll be able to get away with writing computer programs or doing something else that’s easy.

Parade Lap

Welcome to Post Position. This website is what we call a “computer blog.”

More specifically, this is where I will post things, including my positions on interactive narrative, imaginative and poetic digital writing, the material history of computational media, and video and computer games. The subject matter will range from platform studies to minimalist poetry generation, and there will almost certainly be posts with critical takes on electronic literature, discussion of my own work on developing interactive fiction and an interactive fiction system, reflections on teaching this kind of thing at MIT, and many other types of wackiness. I might even write about plain old books that aren’t very directly connected to digital media matters. I might discuss non-computational academic matters, or offer materials from “old school” writing projects that I’m working on.

As many who wander here may know, I’ve been blogging for the past six years at Grand Text Auto. In posting and discussing things on this blog, I’ll certainly be influenced by that collaborative venture. Post Position won’t have the energy of that entire group, of course, the same broad community of readers, the same special projects, or the general job listings and announcements of other people’s events. But some things that flourished in that context should be found here are well: links to things online worth reading and playing, 1k (and longer) reviews of books (and probably other things), April Fools hoaxes and other pranks, discussion of my computational writing practice, and pieces of critical and polemical writing that wouldn’t easily fit elsewhere.

I’ll try to keep this space open for the sort of conversation, discussion, and even vigorous argument that Grand Text Auto has hosted. I’ll do whatever I can to make this an inviting space for those who want to comment. Unless the spammers end up winning, for instance, you will not need to register or take an elaborate test to have your comment appear, even if the moderation queue catches it for a short time.

I’ll say more soon, but for now, welcome.