Michael’s Narrative Candy Store

Michael Mateas gave the keynote today at Intelligent Narrative Technologies 6. With reference (early on) to the Hero’s Journey, he presented a sort of “developer’s journey,” noting that indie developers (as seen at Indiecade) have been turning away from concern with structure and mechanics and toward narrative. He similarly encouraged those working in AI and narrative to turn from structuralist narratology and look at concrete traditions of narrative based in communities of practice.

I thought his repudiation of structuralist narratology was in some ways similar to someone in computer graphics objecting to the pixel or the polygon becuase pixels and polygons do not provide any guidance as to how to create beautiful images. He’s right, and if people are missing this, it’s worth pointing out. But the core problem is with one’s expectation for structural understanding. If people are interested (as Michael is) in modeling “internal processes and conflicts” mapping to “external conflicts” … what are these external conflicts made of? Aren’t they made of events? And wouldn’t it be great to have a solid model of events so more complex narrative phenomena can be built up out of them?

Michael gave us an array of options for work motivated by specific poetic ideas, and these (in keeping with his practice) were extremely grand plans, with a panpoly of dissertations needed to make real progress. His suggestions were that we build huge AI systems, implementing Beckett, Boal, detective novels, flash fiction, and the levels of intentionality in Virgina Woolf. I don’t object to attempting to deal with goals of this sort, but this tour of the interactive narrative candy store seemed to be proposing 23 different manned space missions.

My idea: Why not create & compose simple models of narrative aspects that are indeed culturally grounded and for which there is a poetics, but which seem lower-level (or easier to start on) than the ideas Michael has – aspects such as repetition (seen in Beckett, of course), ellipsis (and its relationship to suspense, as treated in Michael Young’s research), and the like?

These sorts of questions seem to have easier starting points and offer the potential to generalize to some extent across genres, while yielding specific insights as well.

A repetition or ellipsis system would be as culturally grounded as any one that Michael suggested, and it too could be “fully realized” and produce outputs.

My very simple system “Through the Park,” described in “Small-Scale Systems and Computational Creativity,” is an attempt to show how low the stairs are for those interested in investigating ellipsis. Although extremely simple, it is a real model of an aspect of narrative and has been useful to me in thinking about it.

Ian Horswill pointed out in the discussion after the talk that understanding repetition may not be easier than generating romance novels, flash fiction, or work like that of specific authors. This is true, but with repetition there are more concrete starting points. One can certainly start with a lightweight simulation of the world, and of narration, and then elaborate.

Richard Evans mentioned that the repetition in _The Odyssey_ and in Beckett’s plays doesn’t have much in common. I would say that this is true, but that they have _something_ in common – creating a coherent and distinctive texture of language. On the other hand, even within the _same work,_ or work by the same author, there will be different types of repetition that do different things. That’s what makes this aspect of narrative (or, really, textuality) a rich one. It seems to me that these different uses, within a single work or across different works, could be understood analytically and modeled computationally in useful ways. The focus on a single aspect, rather than a genre or community of practice, would make this more tractable and offer a foothold.

Trope Tank Annual Report 2012-2013

Trope Tank home computers

I direct a lab at MIT called The Trope Tank. This is a lab for research, teaching, and creative production, located in building 14 (where the Hayden Library is also housed), in room 14N-233. Its mission is to develop new poetic practices and new understandings of digital media by focusing on the material, formal, and historical aspects of computation and language.

Trope Tank Atari VCS

The Trope Tank is a physical facility with unusual material computing resources from the past few decades – as well as places for researchers to sit and work with their more modern computers. The facility and materials provide for visits from classes, discussions with visiting researchers, and support for creative and research projects. The lab space continues to house the monthly meetings of the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, the Boston Area’s local IF group. Trope Tank equipment has supported talks this year at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery, Microsoft Research in Redmond, UCLA, the University of Maine, and other venues.

This academic year, two Trope Tank affiliates are becoming faculty members:

– Clara Fernández-Vara, who took part in the Tools for the Telling project back in 2007-2008 and has been a visiting scholar at the Trope Tank this year, is joining the faculty of NYU’s Game Center at the end of summer as an associate arts professor.

– Amaranth Borsuk, who was guest organizer of the Purple Blurb series in 2011-2012 and is a current collaborator on _The Deletionist_, is joining the faculty of The University of Washington, Bothell as an assistant professor. She has been a senior lecturer there.

The Trope Tank’s series of technical reports, called the “Trope Report” series, now features five items and is archived in MIT’s DSpace.

There have been two major research projects (both with artistic aspects) and one creative, poetic project this past year:

– The book 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 was published last year by the MIT Press (and is also available for free download as a PDF). Various subsets of the ten authors have been doing presentations related to the book in many different contents.

– The story generation project Slant was initiated and the first paper was accepted at ICCC 2013. It will be presented there, in Sydney, next month. The project involves integrating or developing new work based on decades of research by Nick Montfort, Rafael Pérez y Pérez, and Fox Harrell; those three and Andrew Campana have collaborated to initiate the project.

The Deletionist is a current poetic project by Amaranth Borsuk, Jesper Juul, and Nick Montfort which will premiere at E-Poetry next month at Kingston University, London.

The Trope Tank will continue to support research, creative work, and teaching this summer and beyond. This is a laboratory to allow people to work with material computing systems; while it is not an archive, museum, or library, and does not offer all that such institutions do, it does provide for hands-on access to the history of creative computing. If you are interested in using the systems and materials in the Trope Tank, please contact Nick.

House of Leaves of Grass

What miracle is this? This giant tree.
It stands ten thousand feet high
But doesn’t reach the ground. Still it stands.
Its roots must hold the sky.


HYMEN! O hymenee!
Why do you tantalize me thus?
O why sting me for a swift moment only?
Why can you not continue? O why do you now cease?
Is it because, if you continued beyond the swift moment, you would soon certainly kill me?

[This “House of Leaves of Grass” is a 24K poetry generator that produces about 100 trillion stanzas. Vast, it contains multitudes; it is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. By Mark Sample, based on “Sea and Spar Between.”]

Lede, Based on a True Story

Sometimes I encounter language that sounds like it was computer-generated, or that sounds like it would be even better if it was. Hence, the slapdash “Lede,” which is based on the first sentence (no, not the whole first paragraph) of a news story that was brought to my attention on ifMUD.

This very simple system does incorporate one minor innovation, the function “fresh(),” which picks from all but the first element of an array and swaps the selection out so that it ends up at the beginning of the array. This means that it doesn’t ever pick the same selection twice in a row.

Happy Thanksgiving, my fellow Americans.

Two E-Lit Gatherings in Europe

I was at a workshop in Bergen on Tuesday and a conference in Edinburgh Thursday through Saturday. There were many interesting things to report or at least mention, and I’ve only managed to note two of them on the blog so far. I’ll also mention that in Bergen, I did the first transverse reading of the full ppg256 series, reading through the seven generators’ output four times. I was very pleased with the art gallery setting, the other readings and screenings, and the way my reading went.

Fortunately there is good documentation of both events in the ELMCIP Knowledge Base, a resource that lists critical work, events, and presentations about electronic literature as well as works of e-lit themselves. For these two events, abstracts and (in the case of the “Remediating the Social” ELMCIP conference in Edinburgh) full papers are included in the Knowledge Base as well.

For instance, my presentation in Bergen, represented by an abstract in the Knowledge Base, was “The ELO and Two E-Lit Exhibits.”

And, my keynote address at the beginning of the ELMCIP conference in Edinburgh was “Programming for Fun, Together,” for which a corresponding paper is available. I covered the main topics of the paper in about the first half of the talk and spent the second half trying to explain how to program in Commodore 64 BASIC, using concrete-poem-generating programs (including 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10) as my examples. I began by developing a program that prints “H” or “I” at random, using bpNichol’ favorite letter (“H”) and an adjacent letter that can be seen as either a rotation of “H” or a component of it. A one-line program was developed to printing either one uniformly at random. In part, this was my response to the less interesting but certainly more conventional “HELLO WORLD” program. I continued to show how a program that printed “x” or “y” could be quickly developed by modifying this one, after using Commodore BASIC itself, via the ASC function, to determine the appropriate new ASCII code. Then, I converted that program to “our” 10 PRINT (that is, the program I and nine co-authors have written a book about) and showed how the distribution and pair of characters could be changed.

In presenting these various 10 PRINT programs and developing new ones through modification, I wanted to show that BASIC programming can truly be undertaken in an exploratory way without a great deal of background. I also wanted to share with the group some of the amazing facility for poetic experimentation that is provided by a 30-year-old computer, inexpensive even at the time, that allows you to program immediately after being turned on.

Jill Walker Rettberg liveblogged my keynote (bringing back another wonderful historical tradition in digital media!) and there was also some discussion of the talk on Twitter.

My only regret related to the talk was that Rita Raley, who was scheduled to be the respondent for my talk, was unable to make it to the conference due to the storm damage and flooding in New York City. Scott Rettberg filled in and made a worthwhile connection from collaborative, social programming activity to collaborative writing, also questioning my four points about programming socially for fun.

The Edinburgh conference, which featured an exhibit at the Inspace gallery and performances throughout, resulted in a book that includes not only academic papers but also “artist’s pages” documenting the artistic works. I hope you’ll be interested in taking a look at the good supply of online “Remediating the Social” material.

Purple Blurb at MIT this semester!

Yes we have Purple Blurb! The first event is in less than a week – sorry for the short notice; I hope you locals can join us. Here are the details:

Monday October 1, 5:30pm in 6-120

Rafael Pérez y Pérez, Fox Harrell, and Nick Montfort

In conversation about narrative generation and MEXICA, GRIOT, and Curveship

Three creators of poetic and imaginative systems speak about computational creativity, narrative generation, and the way systems for this sort of work are culturally generated. Rafael Pérez y Pérez is creator of the plot-focused MEXICA system for the generation of stories and is Profesor/Investigador Titular C in the Departamento de Tecnologías de la Información at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Unidad Cuajimalpa, México D. F. Fox Harrell is creator of GRIOT and the Alloy algorithm, which generates literary and multimedia texts based on conceptual structures. Harrell is associate professor of digital media at MIT in CMS/WHS, a principal investigator at CSAIL, and head of the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory. Nick Montfort developed Curveship, an interactive fiction and text generation systems that allows for parametrically controlled narrative variation. Montfort is associate professor of digital media at MIT in CMS/WHS and head of the Trope Tank.

Thursday November 8, 5:30pm in 32-155

Tracy Fullerton

“Finer Fruits: Experiment in Life and Play at Walden”

A joint event with the CMS Colloquium

Walden, a game, is an experiment in play being made about an experiment in living. The game simulates Henry David Thoreau’s experiment in living a simplified existence as articulated in his book Walden. It puts Thoreau’s ideas about the essentials of life into a playable form, in which players can take on the role of Thoreau, attending to the “meaner” tasks of life at the Pond – providing themselves with food, fuel, shelter and clothing – while trying not to lose sight of their relationship to nature, where the Thoreau found the true rewards of his experiment, his “finer fruits” of life. The game is a work in progress, and this talk will look closely at the design of the underlying system and the cycles of thought that have gone into developing it. It will also detail the creation of the game world, which is based on close readings of Thoreau’s work, and the projected path forward for the team as we continue our sojourn in experimental in play.

Tracy Fullerton, M.F.A., is an experimental game designer, professor and director of the Game Innovation Lab at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she holds the Electronic Arts Endowed Chair in Interactive Entertainment. The Game Innovation Lab is a design research center that has produced several influential independent games, including Cloud, flOw, Darfur is Dying, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, and The Night Journey – a collaboration with media artist Bill Viola. Tracy is also the author of Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, a design textbook in use at game programs worldwide.

As always, all events are free and open to the public. The Purple Blurb series is supported by the Angus N. MacDonald fund and Comparative Media Studies / Writing and Humanistic Studies.

A Thousand Twitters

News of a strange new social network, Monolyth, reaches us from December of this year and from Chris McDowall.

To sate the great appetites of the system, which will only publish messages at least 140,000 characters long (and will abbreviate longer ones), authors turn to unusual techniques.

One of these is generating massive texts using modified versions of Taroko Gorge, one of which is included in the blog post.

“Taroko Gorge”: The Vandalism Continues!

As I wrote a few days ago, I made a statement about “Taroko Gorge,” and all of its vandals, at the ELO conference in Morgantown, WV.

Sepand Ansari created a Beckett-based “Taroko Gorge” remix at the ELO conference. And now I have the URL for this piece, “Waiting for Taroko Gorge.”

Kathi Inman Berens has created “Tournedo Gorge” “to mash the space of computation with the female, domestic, and tactile,” as she discusses in her blog post.

Yo Dawg, I Hear You Like Taroko Gorge

In his just-released “Argot Ogre, OK!” Andrew Plotkin presents mash-ups and remixes of (almost) all the “Taroko Gorge” remixes to date (and of course the original “Taroko Gorge”), producing such poignant lines as “LAWN DARTS linger” along with single-source remixes and some different stanza shapes. Anyone interested in this thread of poetry generation projects should check it out and should certainly “view source.” Or don’t, if you don’t want to discover more about the secret of the monkey.

This, my friends, calls for a recap of the generators of this general sort to date – eleven of them, so far. Note particularly the two generators mentioned only in comments (“Whisper Wire,” a third remix with visual elements by J. R. Carpenter and the fanlicious “Takei, George” by Mark Sample, which was released after my post) and two other generators released after my post (“Alone Engaged” by Maria Engberg, made at and perhaps redolent of Georgia Tech, and a generator for the the Harry Potter wizarding world of Weasleycest, “Fred & George” by Flourish Klink). In alphabetical order by title, here is a linked list of all of them so far:

Alone Engaged by Maria Engberg
Along the Briny Beach by J. R. Carpenter
Argot Ogre, OK! by Andrew Plotkin
Fred & George by Flourish Klink
Gorge by J. R. Carpenter
Takei, George by Mark Sample
Taroko Gorge by Nick Montfort
Tokyo Garage by Scott Rettberg
Toy Garbage by Talan Memmott
Whisper Wire by J. R. Carpenter
Yoko Engorged by Eric Snodgrass

Winter in Brazil, Southern Edition

Like my collaborator Noah Wardrip-Fruin, I have come to Brazil for the winter. But not to a nice warm part of Brazil — I’m in Passo Fundo, in the far South, at the 14th Jornada Nacional de Literatura. Here, it has been cold outside, but there has been great excitement about writing and literary art.

Nick Montfort speaking in Passo Fundo

I have been correctly identified as a space man as I’ve shown and discussed interactive fiction, poetry generation, and other forms of electronic literature.

I gave a longer talk this morning about these topics, which was translated into Brazilian Portuguese as I spoke. Tomorrow, I will speak on a panel in the main tent to about 5000 people about certain types of “convergence” in writing and literature. The type I will address is a convergence between authors – collaboration.

Generador de la Historia “The Two” en Español

Thanks to Carlos León, there is now a Spanish version, “Los Dos,” of my simple but (I think) provocative story generator “The Two.” The system was previously translated into French as “Les Deux” by Serge Bouchardon.

Stop by and check them out; all three are available in JavaScript versions that run right away in a browser. For those who are interested, the original Klingon, er, Python, is also available for each of the three languages.

The reader who takes the time to try to actually understand the output and resolve the pronouns in it will see that often this task is complicated by ambiguity in gender, although syntax and power relations also work to suggest certain ways that pronouns can be resolved. The need to leave the gender of the characters indeterminate in the first line posed particular problems, and slightly different problems, for the French and Spanish translators, who each found a solution.

Rettberg on After Parthenope

If you’re interested in story generation or Processing, do check out Scott Rettberg’s new screencast describing the process he undertook in writing and programming After Parthenope. He goes through the nuts and bolts of the piece and how it rolls out language using a hand-crafted trigram model; he also explains some of the pleasures of authoring a system like this.