Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and The Principles of Screenwriting is a fantastically written exploration of dramatic writing. I particularly enjoy his advice that all protagonists must be empathetic, if not necessarily sympathetic. He illustrates by examining Macbeth:

Macbeth, for example, viewed objectively is monstrous. He butchers a kindly old King while the man is sleeping, a King who had never done Macbeth any harm—in fact, that very day he’d given Macbeth a royal promotion. Macbeth then murders two servants of the King to blame the deed on them. He kills his best friend. Finally he orders the assassination of the wife and infant children of his enemy. He’s a ruthless killer; yet in Shakespeare’s hands he becomes a tragic, empathetic hero.
The Bard accomplished this feat by giving Macbeth a conscience. As he wanders in soliloquy, wondering, agonizing, “Why am I doing this? What kind of man am I?” the audience listens and thinks, “What kind? Guilt-ridden … just like me. I feel bad when I’m thinking about doing bad things. I feel awful when I do them and afterward there’s no end to the guilt. Macbeth is a human being; he has a conscience just like mine.” […] Macbeth is a breathtaking display of the godlike power of the writer to find an empathetic center in an otherwise contemptible character.

Concept Art World is a fantastic resource for game design concept art. Beautiful digital works from many different aesthetic approaches.

Game publisher Electronic Arts was voted Consumerist’s annual Worst Company in America this year, beating out rival game company Activision and even Bank of America. Consumerist’s analysis of why this happened reveals that gamers are fed up with the publishing and pricing models of game content. Chris Kohler for Wired elaborates:

So it comes down as it often does to the almighty dollar: Consumerist readers, enough of them to massively swing the vote towards EA, think that videogames cost too much money.
“There have even been numerous accusations that EA and its ilk deliberately hold back game content with the sole intent of charging a fee for it at a later date,” Consumerist continued in its awards announcement.
Of late, it’s publisher Capcom that has come under fire over this: Owners of the new fighting game Street Fighter vs. Tekken have found that there are 12 characters already included on the disc that Capcom says it will sell access to at a later date.
To make ends meet, Capcom needs players to pay more than $60 for its games. That much is clear. But a $90 price tag at GameStop would be unthinkable. So it sells the game for $60, then asks gamers to pay more to unlock more content.

This is a warning to publishers of digital content of many kinds: an increase in technology costs will not automatically excuse price raises in the eyes of the consumer. Consumers have accepted that content is valuable, and they have formed expectations of how much content is worth. Games need to find a way to lower costs rather than increasing prices.

Tan Lin is a poet, artist, and filmmaker whose work challenges the idea of what constitutes a “book”, and what it means to have “read” something. Many of his works, particularly HEATH (plagiarism/outsource) and Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking, involve multiple platforms including social media, RSS feeds, email, post-it notes, and programming languages.

In a recent interview, Lin takes a Cagean approach to reading, radically departing from the notion of the book as a codex or even self-contained object.

What led you to use so many different forms of technology in the creation and publication of a book? How would you define a book?
People forget that a book or codex is a technology. My interest with HEATH and 7CV was to treat the book as a distinct medial platform through which a lot of ancillary information passes, much like a broadcast medium like TV or a narrow-cast medium like Twitter or Tumblr. Reading is information control, just as a metadata tag is a bibliographic control. So I wanted to highlight the book’s medial and time-based underpinnings.

It’s interesting to see authors challenging the notion of the book, but by the end of the interview, it became clear that Lin was radically confronting the nature of what reading means. Lin argues that reading is an experience that cannot be extracted from extraneous subconscious perceptions (smell, location, etc.) and indirectly compares it to a Zen mood state.

But a Zen meditative state isn’t reading is it?
My print-based and web-based works both tend to operate with the minimum amount of material necessary needed to constitute what we call reading. I’m interested in the forms of non-reading and boredom, which surrounds all reading and aesthetic experience as its customary default. I mean I like it when works are boring. When I go to see a Cage performance or a Merce Cunningham dance, I am bored half the time. There’s nothing wrong with that. 7CV is about skimming material, appropriating other titles (like The Joy of Cooking) and indexes, and extending the book by enlisting 30+ grad students at The University of Pennsylvania to spin off what publishers would call ancillary titles. Can 7CV be made more interesting by individual readers? Absolutely. This is common in academia, a profession defined by writing books about other books, i.e., generating secondary source material. But there’s no reason secondary source material cannot be more interesting than original source material. Do you have to read 7CV to have read it? Not at all. Moreover, there are many ways to not read a book: you can leaf through it, read reviews or synopses of it, or just lie and say you read it when you didn’t. I was at Columbia where I got a Ph.D. in literature, and there were about 250 books on my orals reading lists—books I had to be able to talk about—but I probably only read a third of them. In fact, though, I had read all of them, just in different ways.

I’m not sure I’m convinced by his definition of reading, but the questions he raises are important, and these are things we need to discuss.

Sometimes actually explaining what our field actually is to the uninitiated is difficult. This 90 second talk by Mark Marino is essentially an ad for electronic literature.

A classic video of Bush’s Memex by Paul Kahn and Krzysztof Lenk of Dynamic Diagrams is available on YouTube. The animation was originally distributed at the ACM SIGIR conference in 1995, and is a great interpretation of the diagrams in “As We May Think.”

Hypertext pioneer Ted Nelson will be teaching a final “bucket” course this winter at UC Santa Cruz that will encompass all of his work on computer technologies and his ideas for future improvements. The course, “CINEMA OF THE MIND: Philosophy and Art of Designing Interaction” promises to be fantastic. HTLit will be sitting in on the class and will report back with details.

Classes begin January 9.

Labrintesto offers a Chronology of Electronic Literature that begins with Bush’s As We May Think. There are some strange omissions (no Ted Nelson until 2007?), but it’s a great starting point and a helpful resource.

Jon Satrom performs interesting glitch pieces. His portfolio consists of videos of his performances, full of color, chaos, and cats. There may be the JODI-esque tendency toward boundary exploration, but with pieces about rainbows and dinos, nobody is taking himself too seriously.

Satrom’s portfolio is fun, but more importantly it presents an interesting perspective of glitch art: its performative quality. I’ve been deeply interested in the aesthetics of glitch work recently, specifically the idea that depending on the glitch process, the “art” might lie in the process—what was removed or changed—in the finished product, in the code, or any combination thereof. How, then, do we showcase the interesting parts?

Satrom does live performances, and his videos certainly capture that performative quality. We see the code. But we also see flashing colors, spinning beachballs, and ghostly almost-there moving images. The art is in how it all comes together.

Alan Kirby declares once and for all that “Postmodernism is Dead.” Philosophers and popular culture—everyone, it seems, but English professors—have moved on. The postmodern canon is all decades old; it's time for academia to stop calling postmodernism "contemporary."

Most of the undergraduates who will take ‘Postmodern Fictions’ this year will have been born in 1985 or after, and all but one of the module’s primary texts were written before their lifetime. Far from being ‘contemporary’, these texts were published in another world, before the students were born: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Nights at the Circus, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (and Blade Runner), White Noise: this is Mum and Dad’s culture.

So if contemporary works aren’t postmodern, what are they? Some would argue for the New Aesthetic, and while Kirby doesn’t cite James Bridle, his assessment places heavy emphasis on interactivity, participatory culture, ephemerality of the material text—ideas which complement the New Aesthetic’s fetishization of digital influence (even in analog arts and technologies). Kirby uses the (intentionally?) problematic term “pseudo-modernism” to refer to the products of today’s culture.

A pseudo-modern text lasts an exceptionally brief time. Unlike, say, Fawlty Towers, reality TV programmes cannot be repeated in their original form, since the phone-ins cannot be reproduced, and without the possibility of phoning-in they become a different and far less attractive entity […] Radio phone-ins, computer games – their shelf-life is short, they are very soon obsolete. A culture based on these things can have no memory – certainly not the burdensome sense of a preceding cultural inheritance which informed modernism and postmodernism. Non-reproducible and evanescent, pseudo-modernism is thus also amnesiac: these are cultural actions in the present moment with no sense of either past or future.

What Kirby calls “banal” and indicative of “puerile primitivism” are merely the products of an oral culture. He further complicates his arguments by comparing only trite instances of today’s popular culture with postmodernism’s highest art objects. It might be more fair to compare the postmodern authors with serious hypertext authors, or to compare postmodern film with the more serious video games. Comparing Francis Ford Coppola to “Call of War 17: Heroes of Killing Stuff” for XBox is unfair, especially when Journey or even Bioshock are sitting above it on the bestseller list.

The agency and control that computers have afforded us have undoubtedly changed our approach to all other media. Moreover, our awareness of this fact has in turn changed our relationship to the digital. However, that doesn’t mean that these new forms can’t produce permanent cultural artifacts, or that we will have no memory of our participatory experiences. My cartridge of Super Mario Bros is easily as permanent as my VHS copy of Clockwork Orange, and surely Shigeru Miyamoto gets as much credit for authorship as Kubrick does, even if the game is more participatory.

The folks at the Internet Archive recently added an obscure 1983 talk by Steven Jobs. Jobs was speaking to a group of designers, most of whom didn’t own personal computers. He mentions this new thing called electronic mail that he’s sure will change the way we communicate. It’s pretty remarkable how much he got right:

  • Jobs predicted we’d be spending more time with computers than cars in a few years.
  • He notes that it doesn’t cost extra to make the computer object attractive, and that the computers of the day “look like shit.” Jobs believes that computers should look nice, since they will soon be sitting in our work, education, and home environments.
  • He talks about email reshaping communication, and envisions “portable computers” that use radio waves to connect wirelessly to networks and will allow you to check your email while walking around.
  • He talks about networking and infrastructure, adding that we’re 5 years away from “solving” the problem of networking in business contexts and 10-15 years from networking being common in households.
  • He envisions a business model of software “sampling” before consumers buy. He also talks about the fact that software is digital, and therefore having physical distribution is unnecessary.
  • Mentions an MIT project that, in essence, is what we know as Google Maps street view.

The talk is filled with great quotes, but my favorite came during the Q&A session and seemed to capture the essence of the computing industry at the time:

“We’re solving the problem of putting some liberal arts into these machines.”

I recently read Galloway and Thacker’s chapter on “Nodes” from The Exploit: A Theory of Networks on the systems of power and control within network structures. Borrowing terms from graph theory, “nodes” correspond to what we would call lexia, “edges” connect the nodes, and networks can be described in terms of their “order” or how many nodes they contain, or their “size” which relates to their edges. Networks can also be described in terms of their connectivity (the interconnectedness of the nodes) and their topology (how centralized or decentralized the structure is based on which nodes are linked to which).

A huge portion of the essay is spent on the idea of “protocol” in both the familiar, computer science sense, but more importantly as a broader concept that encompasses that understanding—the protocol is the set of rules and standards that governs the network. The protocol exists in a tension between functioning as an emergent governing force, and one that can be externally imposed by, say, a system administrator or by the design of the network itself.

Galloway and Thacker have an interesting idea of control—influenced by Delueze—through modulation. They argue that in node structures, control is no longer dictated from a central figure (and even the protocol control structure is not an all-encompassing power), but rather “emerge through the complex relationships between autonomous, interconnected agents.(29)”

Within the hypertext literary community, there has been much debate over the idea of “authorship” within interactive work, the argument being that when you give the reader agency to maneuver within the story, she becomes a co-author of the work. This argument has met resistance from authors who insist that in building the framework of the piece, they are in fact, allowing the reader only the impression of agency, and thus maintain full authorial control. Viewing hypertext literature as a series of nodes , and the author’s embedded link structure as the piece’s protocol, it becomes easy to see how “control is not simply manipulation, but rather modulation” (33). The author may not be forcing the reader into a specific choice (manipulation), but she is directing the reader through a series of diegetic choices and constraints (modulation).

Submissions are open for this year’s New Media Writing Prize. The deadline for submissions is October 5, and a shortlist will be announced November 1.

In addition to the main prize and a student prize, this year will also award a People’s Choice prize, awarded through an online voting system.

Now is an excellent time to write.

I was recently lucky enough to see a talk by Paolo Pedercini of Molleindustria (creators of previously-reviewed Phone Story and Every Day the Same Dream) on his own fascinating approach to politics and narrative in games. Pedercini seeks to engage the “bored employee network”—the demographic that plays Farmville between morning meetings—but takes a more aggressive, deconstructivist approach to casual games than mainstream game companies. He believes that the artifacts and memes that shape our culture can and should be smarter intellectual endeavors than glorified Skinner boxes or funny cats.

This approach is echoed in all of his works. Games like Phone Story, McDonald’s Videogame ,or Oiligarchy recall casual games through their visual aesthetics and their mechanics. McDonald’s Videogame plays like any resource management game of its kind. But where games like Diner Dash and Farmville present shallow choices whose only consequence is the outcome of the game, Pedercini’s games introduces a difficult moral dynamic, forcing the player to make unethical decisions to get ahead. He notes that “the freemarket system doesn’t punish you for being unethical” and he does an excellent job of presenting these systems in game form.

Much of Pedercini’s work, in fact, focuses on modeling real-world systems through game systems that showcase the social or political problems with their real-world counterparts. He talks about game creation in terms of recognizing a narrative or process that is “gameable,” meaning it will lend itself easily to gameworld constraints. The power of these games comes from the player’s participation in the system, and the emotion such systems are able to conjure. For example, Every Day the Same Dream’s game system models the repetitive endeavor of living the same day over and over through a monotonous office job. The player becomes bored and seeks out small changes that make her appreciate any variation in activities.

Most impressive, for me, is how much meaning and emotion can be packed into modeling certain real-world systems. Orgasm Simulator, for example, features a first-person view from a woman while she’s having intercourse with a man. The goal of the game is to successfully fake an orgasm to make your oblivious sexual partner “feel more like a man.” The implications for power, agency, and control are multiple and interesting, despite the game’s mechanical and graphic simplicity.

A fantastic interview with Ken Michaels, COO of the Hachette Book Group reveals that there are, in fact, people in the book-publishing industry that understand the changes that new media is bringing to the book.

“With digital now converging with print and consumer behaviors changing, wanting immediate acces, portability, convenience, low prices. investments are changing […] and they’re changing radically. Publishers have to change with it because if they start getting displaced in how they present data, how they provide access to data—and it’s not just books, it’s data, it’s rich media data beyond the storytelling—[…] all of this will require investments and a different type of strategy.”

Sure, he’s mostly talking about books and doesn’t talk very much about the kinds of “rich media” he means, or ways that the media might enrich the story world, but it still suggests that the publishing industry is becoming aware that stories might extend beyond the page and across platforms.

Amazon released its new line of Kindle Fires recently, and a mob of pitchfork-wielding villagers are furious that the least costly model features ads on the unlock and home screens.

This move had been rumored for a while, so it really wasn’t a shock to me. In fact, if done properly, this could have been a really great thing: a way to reduce the price of tablets to make them more affordable for younger customers, students, or lower-income families (or school boards). This is a particularly important move if tablets are, in fact, the way the textbook market will eventually shift.

In practice, I’m not sure that was how things actually worked out. Apparently the convenience of not having ads on your device is only worth $15—not enough to make much difference for low-income families, but maybe enough for a significant difference if purchased in bulk by a school district or university department. At this point, the textbook market has a long way to go in improving digital availability before academic distribution is a legitimate argument for the ads.

And, perhaps, the ads aren’t such a big deal anyway and this is all just much ado about nothing., has launched a spiffy new video on the impact social media has had on the world, namely through communities of protestors. It’s a nice little video: well executed and researched. It will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.

Open-site has been around for a while. Originally they aimed to be an encyclopedic, peer-reviewed knowledge database. Since Wikipedia sort of beat them to that, they’ve shifted their focus and have effectively become a portal to open courseware and other online learning resources. Worth checking out.

(Thanks Lillian King!)

Last Friday, HTLit attended (e)Merge, part of the Zero1 biennial in San Jose. This turned out to be a fun welcome to the West Coast! The event spanned a couple of blocks and multiple venues. It wasn’t as big or well organized as Boston Cyber Arts (this is Silicon Valley, there’s no excuse for the event program’s mobile app to constantly freeze), but it was definitely fun, and from what I heard from the other attendees, it’s getting better and better with each event.

Manifest AR and Leonardo Magazine threw a nice party that was well attended. The caterers left with the wine right as things really got going at sunset, which was a shame, but these things happen. The party featured Datagrove, a lovely sculptural piece which combined trending topics on Twitter and text-to-speech technology to verbally tell users what was trending as they walked by. The interactivity was minimal, and the “quiet whispering” of “data streams from sources near and far” were distracting “Have you heard of [trending topic]?” fill-in-the-blank statements in a grating robot voice, but the beauty of the piece’s architecture and thoughtful lighting made up for it.

The Zero1 Garage featured some interesting pieces. ADA is a giant interactive floating ball that draws on its environment. If there’s a deep, profound meaning here, it escaped me, but it was a heck of a lot of fun. The Garage also featured Murmur Study, a beautiful waterfall of Twitter data on receipt paper; Moving Objects, a mesmerizing display of moving metal washers on wires; and the startling FREE TEXT: Open Source Reading Room, a large library with on-site printing to disseminate found texts on the virtues of open-source and the evils of copyright. I was lamenting for the future of author’s rights by the time I left.

On the street, Jacob Garbe’s Stillness, a great interactive program that transforms the user into a tree, stood out for its cleverness and fun factor. Garbe is a UCSC student working with interactive narrative and AR, which he demoed at last summer’s ELO event. He’s very talented, and definitely a name to watch. Other UCSC students Eve Warnock, Tina Mathews, and Colin McDonald delivered a fantastic abstract performance called Denizen that drew a very large crowd as the performers howled and (literally) whipped into the night.

My favorite piece of the night focused on the Pythagorean three body problem as a metaphor for human relation. Beautifully choreographed dancers performed a solution to the problem while wearing LED-lit suits that also projected their movement onto a screen behind them. The music and visuals were stunning, and I was even more impressed to learn that the performance space turned out to be much smaller than the 40x40 space in which they had rehearsed, meaning their fantastic turns and lifts and all the mathematically-derived trajectories of the performance had to be adjusted the day-of.

The Zero 1 Festival kicks off in Silicon Valley this week and runs through December. The event showcases digital art from tons of talented artists and includes several other events all around the Bay area.

Leah Price (author of How To Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain ) writes an excellent retrospective of the book's imminent demise, which dates well before the creation of the eReader or PC. In its history, everything from radio and television to newspapers, phonographs, and telephonic sermons has threatened to kill the book, just as the book was once believed to threaten the cathedral. A fascinating read.

Broadly speaking, we all believe that good software – software that does a necessary job efficiently and delightfully – will prosper.

A number of writers turn this on its head to conclude that failure to make lots of money must indicate that the software is thoughtless, careless, or inconsiderate. Since I make software and I’m not particularly wealthy at the moment (though I’m not complaining), I’m naturally inclined to disagree.

Josh Lehman argues that the prevalence of free applications poses a special challenge to designers, arguing that they must follow Starbucks in putting (the appearance of) craftsmanship on display:

One proven way to push this craftsmanship to the surface is to focus on solid app design. It’s the one thing that will visually highlight the effort you put into your app. At the code level it may be just as much effort to create your “Task Master 3000″ app with an ugly veneer as it would be to give it a nice paint job, but the paint job will be all the user sees.
One more minor point: If your app crashes, that’s like serving up your Starbucks in a dirty cup. Game over. You already suffer from a tough craftsmanship sell, so when your app crashes (even if it’s a fringe case and tough to solve) the user will assume you built the thing in 2 days and are trying to rip them off.

It might be true that people think this. Lehman, who boasts at the top of his weblog that he’s a Christ-follower, is trying to encourage people to think it while pretending it’s not him, it’s those other people.

Similarly, he equates elegant software design with a coat of paint. Software design is neither paint nor veneer. A better analogy might be finish carpentry and fine cabinetry, though my own experience of design suggests that painting or sculpture are closer yet. Paint is applied to a finished surface; design must be built into the application from the beginning.

Surface isn’t the only thing the user sees. Users see results. That’s what matters. Software isn’t a knick-knack on the mantlepiece; it’s a tool for doing things that matter.

As for the surface impression of craftsmanship, that’s a surface impression, conveyed in Lehman’s world of 99¢ apps to people who don’t really know what they’re looking at.


Continuing our summer theme of amusing bagatelles, Brian Croxall reviews Ascension for ProfHacker. Prof. Croxall, you may recall, burst on the scene with his memorable MLA paper Absent Presence, which explained why he was not attending the conference at which he was presenting it.

Croxall focuses on game mechanics.

What sets Ascension apart from other deck-building games–yes, it’s an entire genre–is that the cards that you can purchase from the center of the table are constantly changing. Since there are only two or three copies of a card in the deck of 100+ cards, if another player buys the card you want on their turn, you might not see it again during the game. The result is a game that is tactical rather than strategic and that has proven maddeningly addictive to me as I’ve played it more or less nonstop for the last three months. I keep trying to see if I can perfect a better strategy with whatever cards I get to choose from.

This makes sense, because the game mechanics for Ascension are, in fact, mildly interesting. He’s very generous about the parts of Ascension where the implementation is less good: the clumsy art, the misuse of animation, the inept AI, or the slow-footed writing.

Croxall concludes that

I can deal with the art, and I’ve got more than my money’s worth out of the app and the three expansions to the game that are available as in-app purchases.

When did professors of English decide it a good idea to write criticism in terms of value for money? The price of an app is so low that it’s swamped by the value a few minutes of your time, even if you’re an unemployable child. No one cares about the $0.99; we care about the time we’re going to spend.

In my opinion, this game would be improved significantly f it (a) omitted the artwork entirely, (b) eliminated all the spinning card animations, (c) tore out the entire pasted-on swords-and-sorcery pretext, and (d) replaced it with whatever dyad walks past the developer’s window in the next ten minutes. Substitute "Ron Paul supporters” for wizards and “Super-PAC donors” for swordsmen, and you might have something. Or “Red Sox players” and “Boston sports reporters.” “High school seniors” and “college admissions officials.” The thing writes itself.

There’s nothing wrong with swords and spells if that’s what you want to do, but it’s clear that in Ascension, as in many games, it’s an afterthought. That’s the real lesson of Angry Birds; if you want to dress up an abstract game mechanic, the eternal war of pigeons vs. pigs will do just fine.

The always-insightful media critic Susana Pajares Tosca joins the chorus of scorn heaped on the Hitman Absolution game trailer.

“Ok I come late to all discussions, but this is awfully horrible. I am most shocked though at the actual trailer and the comments to that trailer in youtube by incredibly damaging shitbrained chauvinist morons! this is where you think: why the hell do I touch videogames at all?”

What’s missing here, and in the Brendan Keogh condemnation to which Tosca links, is a sympathetic effort to understand what the trailer is trying to say, an effort to explain why it does what it does. Demonstrating the existence of “rape culture” is simply strutting one’s superior virtue.

Instead, we might ask what’s going on in this strange demonstration of a scene from a forthcoming game. Robert Polito’s essay on Pauline Kael, “Finger In The Fuse” (in the current issue of Harpers) is a nice reminder of what criticism can accomplish. Let’s take a shot.

We open with a gray sky, wind-blown dust, and a seedy motel. The motel is a class marker and a genre hint. James Bond never stayed in a dump like this. We’re downmarket, and we’re going to hell.

A thick, brutal, isolated hero dresses his wounds. More class markers: this fellow has walked down plenty of mean streets. He has scars. He hurts, but he has a job to do. He is preparing in isolation for an ordeal, so we know he must be the hero. He is calm and unhurried.

A group of assailants approach. They are costumed as nuns, or rather as a sexy travesty of nuns. They are numerous and they are well armed. Their slimness and elegant dress are class markers, too.

The nuns tear off their habits, revealing latex and leotards. They line up and prepare to fire rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons at our hero’s room. They plan, literally, to shoot him in the back.

Why are they nuns? And why do they undress before trying to assassinate the hero? This is a very strange way to behave. We could assume that the game designers did this to support rape culture and endorse the Republican ticket, and if that convinces you I’ve got a great tinfoil hat for you to try. Instead, let’s assume that the designers are trying to do something that seemed like a good idea at the time — let’s generously assume they are decent men and women — and try to figure out what’s really going on.

We’re in a Western. In fact, we’re in the scene where the Cowardly Opponent tries to shoot us in the back. The conventional markers of the genre — horses and hats — have been dispensed with, but we now have our genre bearings. (Until this point, we might have been in a spy thriller.)

We all have read about the male gaze. The shots that Keogh finds especially objectionable are not in fact establishing the sexual attractions of the assassins, but rather the cinematographic authority of the game creators. The shots argue that the creators understand film grammar and promise that the game will offer interesting camera work – something we’ve wanted for a long time and that has turned out to be hard to get right. This is inside baseball, but it takes about six seconds to make the argument. (The torn fishnets are also a class marker, of course, but like the camera work they mark a class that is not precisely the one that first comes to mind.)

The aesthetic problem of the Western is our sympathy with the enemy. The superhero power fantasy demands that we can overcome numerous enemies that are inhuman, and so deserve to be overcome. In the bad old days, the enemy were bands of native Americans who were waging a race war against us. When this became preposterous, the enemy were corrupt and wealthy Easterners, or the ever-useful Nazis. In science fiction, the enemy are alien bugs. The enemy is like us, but they are not us. They look strange, and act strangely, and do strange stuff. The bugs shed their carapaces before combat.

The whole point is that the “merciless sisters” are inhuman. Their makeup renders them faceless. Their dress distances them from us. Their behavior shows that them to be ruthlessly inhuman. This is a world of violence, but the violence must adhere to rules, and the first rule is, you always face your enemy.

The Western’s second aesthetic problem is that its intended (or expected) audience is composed of young men. The Hollywood Western famously tried to address this with a Love Interest. That helped make the films acceptable to dating couples, at least when the Last Picture Show was the conventional prelude to making out, but it was never entirely satisfying. Games need not be experienced by couples; we don’t require mawkish and sentimental interludes. This frees us to cast women as the enemy. (Ian Fleming figured this out, too, for the spy thriller: Bond meets women who are Good, Evil, and Useful, and sorting them out is a full-time job.)

To the isolated hero, everyone is alien. Especially women. The combination of ridiculous, parodic clothes, absurd parodic makeup, risible parodic weaponry, and cowardly tactics lets us contemplate combat without losing sleep over the people we’re killing. This is essential for the genre, as it’s essential for the warrior. When you start thinking about the machine-gunner’s girlfriend, his aged mother, his plans to open a nice little Konditorei once they let him go home, that’s when you get your men killed.

Power fantasies are not more palatable if all the victims are male.

Down these mean streets a man must go. You don’t have Philip Marlowe to dinner. He’ll bleed on the tablecloth. You won’t like his manners; he doesn’t much like them himself. James Bond kills hundreds of minions casually and without remorse, and he makes sure that every girlfriend who betrays him dies horribly. Shane, Spenser, Mattie Ross, the guy who shot Liberty Valance: these people are necessary, perhaps, but they’re dangerous and unpleasant and most of the time you really don’t want them around.

And, incidentally, we’ve got some really complicated game mechanics. The remaining 1:40 of this 2:34 trailer is entirely about promising game complexity and depth by showing how complicated combat can be. I expect there are lots of technical cues here for people who have played lots of these games, but they’re over my head.

There’s nothing about rape, or sex, or women here, not beyond the premise that the “merciless sisters” can stand as inhuman. I’ve written elsewhere that, for preadolescents, adult women fall into the uncanny valley, the nightmare of beings not-quite-like ourselves. Those kids are also, if you recall, quite interested in greasy, grimy gopher guts, mutilated monkey meat, and french-friend parakeet.

Like our hero, little boys and girls can sometimes be nasty people you wouldn’t really want to invite to dinner if you could avoid it. You might not like that, but that’s the world we know. And we can tut-tut all we want about the nuns, just like our parents tut-tutted about Mad Magazine and those gopher guts, and look how well that turned out.

— MB, writing for myself, because our editor is somewhere in California and will likely rebut this presently.

Minecraft has turned out to be a spectacularly success and a fascinating counter-argument to the UX scolds who insist that users are always right and that meeting user expectations is always the right thing to do.

Suppose you’re playing Minecraft and you want to want some light. Without light, you know, you might be eaten by a grue or something. You can’t see what you’re doing, and what fun is that?

So you need a torch. To make a torch, you arrange a wooden stick and a piece of coal on a “crafting table.” What could be more natural? Well, anything would, since no one ever made a torch from a lump of coal. And this esoteric formula isn’t explained in the manual, because there’s no manual. You figure it out for yourself, or you guess, or you look it up in the Minecraft wiki.

It goes on like this. How do you make a bed? Easy! You arrange three blocks of wool and three wooden planks on a “crafting table”, and you’re done. Isn’t that the obvious way to construct a bed? How else would you make a bed? Want to eat some fish? Better make a fishing rod! You do this with sticks (same as for torches) and string (which you get by hitting giant spiders.) Go figure.

So, we have an opaque user interface that relies entirely on hidden, esoteric knowledge. Check. We have clever but unspectacular graphics. Check. We have no plot. Check. We violate every rule in the book. And what do we get? Lots of fun, it turns out, and reportedly lots of sales with very limited marketing.

John Blow

In The Atlantic, Taylor Clark writes a thoughtful profile of John Blow, the creator of Braid. 

In late 2008, he was $40,000 in debt and living in a modest San Francisco apartment, having just spent more than three years meticulously refining his video game, Braid—an innovative time-warping platformer (think Super Mario Bros. meets Borges), whose $200,000 development Blow funded himself. Although Braid had been released, to lavish praise from the video-game press, on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade service that August, Blow didn’t see a cent from the game until one autumn day when he sat down at a café in the city’s Mission district. “I opened up my Web browser and Holy fuck, I’m rich now,” he recalled. “There were a lot of zeros in my bank account.”

An interesting Kickstarter: Michael Winegar’s Tome of Ideas for Writers and Roleplayers.

And congratulations to Mike Allen’s Clockwork Phoenix 4, an anthology project that has been revived – in a very tough year for anthologists – through its own Kickstarter campaign.


Curiosity landed on Mars last night. The relay station in Mars orbit caught this picture of the lander’s parachute, seconds before the landing. The lander also announced its arrival on the Martian surface on Twitter.

HTLit returns from conference season with this takeaway: there is a lot of work to be done out there.

A common theme that I heard at the conferences I attended and followed on Twitter last month (which covered many overlapping, if distinct, disciplines) was that there’s nowhere to publish and that nobody appreciates what we’re doing. People say they want to write criticism, to write papers, to write fiction and make art, to do science, but there’s no audience, there’s no outlet, no money, and we haven’t yet tapped into some huge pool of readers that would surely appreciate this work if only we could find them.

I think most of these are just excuses. We have, at our fingertips, an accessible medium capable of publishing with unprecedented ease. There’s no excuse for a lack of web-criticism. Tales of the deaths of publishers and art galleries have been greatly exaggerated.

And that mysterious audience? Despite the arguments that no one reads anymore, a ride on the subway suggests that more people are reading on their tablets and smart phones than was the case even 2 years ago. There will always be a market for stories and art. Perhaps eLit hasn’t tapped into our magical fanbase because either we’re restricting the definition of eLit too narrowly and not acknowledging the fanbase we already have, or because we aren’t making the work accessible enough; the debate over our audience is a discussion for another post.

As for publishing our research, it’s true that eLit doesn’t have an established journal, and perhaps it’s time to start one. This mostly comes down to an institutional problem of research metrics, but argument for research blogging notwithstanding, several other disciplines are sufficiently related that their journals welcome our work. And while we’re looking at those fields, let’s invite them into the discussion. ELO could certainly have benefitted from more computer scientists, librarians, web researchers, and publishers; and the Hypertext and Narrative workshop at Hypertext 2012 would have loved to hear from more artists and creators. These conferences once had the same audience; perhaps it’s time to reconsider over-specialization.

I urge the field to simply write. Create. Read, explore, critique. Do the work. If you’re not sure where to submit it, ask.

Black Box

Jennifer Egan (A Visit From The Goon Squad) contributes a short story, “Black Box”, to the inaugural science fiction issue of The New Yorker.

The story is designed to be read through Twitter, and is very, very good.

In getting ready for my upcoming talk on agency and narrative immersion at ELO 2012, I’ve been reviewing some of hypertext’s seminal texts and taking notes in Tinderbox. It’s a much slower reading process—which is good, even if I occasionally get impatient with the pace—but I have amazing notes to show for it at the end.

These aren’t just mind maps; they are searchable, mine-able, and links (within and among text sources) can be implicit or explicit. Logical fallacies are easy to spot, and counter-arguments are easy to produce. All notes from text sources include page numbers (and a handy agent reminds me to include them if I forget). Figures from the texts can be easily added as image adornments with notes close-by to explain them.

I don’t know how I got through undergrad without Tinderbox.