Archive: April, 2009

AI, narrative, and adaptations

[Research] (04.13.09, 11:22 pm)

I discovered recently that Marc Cavazza (with David Pizzi and Fred Charles) of the University of Teesside has been working on a Madame Bovary game. I feel silly for noticing this just now, as the papers were published in 2007. Nonetheless, it’s good to know sooner than later in any case. The research project is frightfully relevant to my work, as it is looking at a procedural adaptation of (part of) a story world. While the authors keep ahold of the conventions of AI planning, they acknowledge that it is necessary to revise the way that the AI decisions are made. They opt for a character based system, and one that is reliant on emotions. The authors reject a general schema of “basic emotions,” which have been criticized by Ortony, Clore, and Collins, and instead adopt a model that is given by Flaubert himself. The work on Madame Bovary is especially helped because the author himself has described his own model of the characters’ emotions.

This is something I would like to know more about, and it has a lot of potential to contribute to theory of game adaptations. There are a few things about it that seem very puzzling, namely the focus on planning and the use of Unreal Tournament (though, to be fair, The Teesside AI group has access to the internals of UT, so they are able to accomplish much more than I was ever able to at Georgia Tech), but the most important detail is their use of perspective. Within the project, the player takes on the role, not of Emma Bovary, but of Randolphe Boulanger, who seduces Emma and eventually leaves her alone amid her romantic hopes of elopement. Because my approach to models involves not just a system but also a perspective, it is important to note that a game from the perspective of Emma Bovary will convey an extremely different model than a game from any other perspective. The player, in the examples discussed in the papers describing the project, is able to engage with Emma, not as communication, but as influencing. The player can say things that communicate positive or negative emotions, and Emma recognizes these as either romantic and encouraging or disparaging and thwarting. This is deeper than many models of emotional interaction (on par with Facade’s “Let’s talk about Trip”, for example), but is still a little distant. The player can imagine Emma’s romantic visions, but is not really in a position to take a role in them. The player starts already with Emma infatuated with Randolphe, so none of the romantic indulgence is necessary. The project is still a technological demo, so this hardly seems desirable or necessary though. The interesting thing is that one might argue that the system of romantic disillusionment and Emma’s engagement with the outside world is still through her fantasies, so “real” interaction is never going to be possible, and in that sense the adaptation might be very solid. I am not sure what “real” interaction would be, though…

What confuses me the most, I think, is what the role of planning is within the system. Planning works with a character considering a number of potential actions and a future goal, and attempting to pick the best action to meet that goal. I am wondering what the goals are, and what constitutes a “best” action. If the goal is to achieve her elopement, or to escape her boredom, or to simply express her state of malaise, I think that this could work, but it seems awkward. The idea of elopement is definitely a prospect, but the other actions seem less planning oriented and more along the lines of situated responses. I would think that the system of actions is more about behavior within a context or situation, rather than about proactively achieving new situations. The essence of tragedy is having things happen to the actor, or having the expected consequence of one’s actions deviate from the actual consequences. Planning depends on having consequences work according to one’s expectations, if a system relies on high level authoring to create situations that require plans to fail then the system is working against the planning paradigm.

One of my problems with challenging AI planning, though, is that I don’t have a good system to replace it with. I am doing a lot of reading now, so we’ll see how this shapes up.

Genetic Image: Blueshift (creation)

[General] (04.10.09, 10:11 am)

This describes a little bit about how Blueshift is composed, within the GeneticImage software. I do not describe the process of mutations that created the final product, but rather how the individual pieces make up the whole.

Everything in GeneticImage is composed of functions. A function has a return type (color, number, 2d or 3d vector, or any number of intermediary types), and it may have some number of input types. This forms a tree, with the base of the tree having a color output, and it can branch out quite a bit. Eventually, branches will terminate in either constants or variables that are based on the x and y coordinates of a point. At every point in the image, the tree is evaluated, ultimately producing an image made of colors. Due to the complex nature of the functions, it can sometimes be difficult to understand how images are produced and how the internal functions control the ultimate output.

Here, I have taken the original graph of the functions that define Blueshift, and picked out some of the important branches and made renders of them. I used the “RandomVals$random_v2_col_spline” function to graph functions which return the 2d vector “LVect2d” type, and did something similar with the scalar “LDouble” type, so it was possible to visualize things that are not just colors.

base 01
Base01: Genfile, Graph

I chose to pick the base as the simple Analytic$gaussian_v2 of a V2 input. This takes a Gaussian (bell shaped curve) of a 2d vector, making the output into additional bell curves, but in 2d.

base 02
Base02: Genfile, Graph

The next step creates simple 2d Perlin noise, using the gaussian above as input. This uses the Noise1$noise_v2_v2 function, which takes a 2d vector and produces 2d noise out of it. Because the noise is applied to the squashed gaussian, which has a relatively rapid change in the middle and then much more gradual change the further from the center, the noise has a smooth and wavy feel.

base 03a
Base03a: Genfile, Graph

This is a quadtree result of a Fermat spiral. The Fermat spiral, as with all of the strange attractor functions, cannot be rendered in 2d using ordinary function evaluation. Instead, it must be evaluated before the computation of the image begins, and the function may simply access the data that was the result of the calculation. Here, data is stored using a quadtree. In this case, we view the quadtree as simply a function which takes a 2d point, projects that point into the space of the quadtree, and returns the depth of the tree reached by the point. If the 2d point has reached maximum depth, then that means that there is a point from the original curve in the quadtree cell. The function returns the depth of the tree that is reached, so it will return 0 if the point is outside the tree, and 1 if the maximum depth is reached.

base 03
Base03: Genfile, Graph

Now, instead of being evaluated at normal 2d coordinates, the quadtree function is actually evaluated at the result of Base02. This makes the smooth and gradual shading turn into clear curves. It is possible to see some of the orthogonal shapes in the blueish green shapes in the lower middle of the image. However, largely, the crisp grid-like structure from Base03a is entirely gone. Those grids are still present, but they have been warped and distorted beyond recognition.

It is useful to note the locations of some of the spots where the result is lighter- a yellow or blue color, because these regions wind up having some dramatic impacts on the final image.

base 04
Base04: Genfile, Graph

This now folds the result of evaluating the quadtree back into evaluation of normal vector coordinates. This takes normal 2d coordinates, but applies a squashing function to them, and the amount of the squash is given by the result of Base03. The squashing function is Analytic$Squash2_v2, and where the values of Base03 are high, brings the value of the 2d vector closer to the origin. It still changes slowly over the space of the image, thus contiguous regions have smooth gradients, but those regions still suddenly change at their borders.

base 05
Base05: Genfile, Graph

Here, the result of Base04 is applied to a noise gradient function. The specific function is Noise1Grad$ngrad_v2_d_1, which takes a 2d vector input and produces another 2d vector. The noise gradient functions returns a derivative of the noise based on perturbing the input. The gradient functions are good for creating smooth noise shapes that are different from regular noise. It is a little difficult to articulate how the noise gradient is different, but it includes a directionality that is absent in regular noise.

The effect of this yields some rapid changes streaking across the middle of the image, orthogonal to the lines produced by the original curves of Base02. Examining the image closely also reveals some interesting ridge-like curves that appear in the these lines, and these become recognizable features later.

base 06
Base06: Genfile, Graph

The noise gradient is then multiplied by another number, the value of which is the y component of the gaussian in Base01. Thus, the values produced by the gradient are significantly scaled down as the y coordinate of a pixel moves above or below the center line. Thus, around the horizontal center, the visual complexity is about the same, but it tapers off and becomes less busy around the upper and lower parts of the image.

base 07
Base07: Genfile, Graph

This is a totally different part of the underlying function graph. This shows a Noise1$Fractal_v2_colA_n function evaluated just on the 2d plane. This particular image uses a multifractal, which produces the rich and visually busy information. Multifractals tend to get lots of folds and warps. Here, the red, green, and blue values are rather dissociated, with green exhibiting the most folding, but the blue and red are just blotches.

base 08
Base08: Genfile, Graph

Finally, the actual image begins to take shape. Here, instead of seeing the multifractal applied to ordinary 2d space, it is applied to the result of Base06. The resulting image is still very much stark contrasts of red, green, and blue, but we begin to see some interesting layering and folding appear in each of the colors. The regions and features from Base06 become much more pronounced and visible. Instead of seeing the features as regions of gradual or rapid change, here they become actual regions of color.

base 09
Base09: Genfile, Graph

Now, the image begins to look more like the final product. This is a point at which I intervened in the process of creating the image. Having worked with image generation for so long, I have become very frustrated by the predominance of the primary red, green, and blue colors. There is nothing wrong with these colors, but very often they are aligned as channels to different channels of information, and this is a tedious use of the color spectrum. Here, I created a Transform$Transform_col which wound up mapping the green to blue, red to mauve, and blue to a yellow. The result is very dark, but does create areas of strong contrast between light and dark regions.

base 10
Base10: Genfile, Graph

Another branch of the function tree produces a simple 1 dimensional noise. This is applied to a warped 3 dimensional vector, creating a distribution that stretches across the image. I believe that the pink regions in this image have a higher value, while the green regions have a lower value.

Final: Genfile, Graph

The final version takes Base09 and applies a ColorOp$Blend_to_White function to it, taking the second argument, the blend amount, as the result of Base10. What this does is that it takes the original color and mixes in an amount of white equal to the blend amount. The values appear to be fairly low, as there is very little pure white, but this also manages to lighten the original image as well. The nice thing about this function is that in addition to lightening the colors, it also softens them. Base09 was much more balanced than Base08, but it was still very heavy on the primaries. There were fewer grays and soft tones. Here, large portions of the image have been softened so that the color is not as severe.

Genetic Image: BlueShift

[Genetic Image] (04.09.09, 11:09 am)

I’m rather pleased with this one. It has an interesting balance of color, shapes, texture, and it also has a good diversity of light and dark areas. A lot of times, working with GeneticImage, the images come out very homogeneous and uniform. This is pleasingly different in that it has managed to carve out some clear forms while at the same time having a lot of visual information that is pleasing to look into. I have also uploaded the image’s genfile, so if you are so inclined, you can fire up GeneticImage and render it or mess with it in general. I’ve made one really big render (15000 pixels square), and am considering plugging it into some visualizer like Modest Maps or the Google Maps API to make it browsable.

Also, for those of you so interested, I am going to put up a set of notes on how the image is composed, what functions go into it, how they work, and so on.

Genetic Image work upcoming

[Experiments,Genetic Image] (04.08.09, 11:40 am)

I’ve been persuaded to do some more work with Genetic Image. I am not sure what is going to result out of this, but it’s possible that there may be some nice new stuff on the way. I’ve created a few new large renders, and I’m thinking about making a step by step guide that shows how the program actually turns mathematical functions into pretty pictures.

I’ve also been wanting to do some more work on Painter, but it will be a while before anything happens with that. My next qualifying exam is on May 1st. Why is it that whenever some big huge update deadline approaches that I suddenly feel motivated to work on my independent projects?

Hal Foster: The Return of the Real

[Readings] (04.06.09, 6:08 pm)

The Return of the Real is about relatively recent changes in the contemporary avant-garde. My interest in this comes from the analogy between art practice and the practice of creating games. The practice of game making has many differences from art practice, but it is important to realize that game making is a wide and open field, and there are many more types of games than the mainstream. It is equally important to remember that the avant-garde, with all of its self-reinvention is a small subset of art practice as a whole. Digital media is a common location for avant-garde works, (especially in early hypertext), but games themselves tend to be less considered. This is not to say that there are not avant-garde games, but they are far and away less common.

The avant-garde is about the cutting edge in art. To speak exceedingly generally, this usually means pushing what it means for something to be art, or to practice art. The analogy to games, by that measure, seems rather straightforward. When applied to games, we can question what it means for something to be a game (or software), question the rules, the relationship between the player and the space of the game versus outside the game, and so on. A lot of early theory about games in culture (Huizinga, Caillois) is sociological and anthropological and a lot of the ideas described there could be tested and challenged by an experimental avant-garde games movement.

It is interesting then to compare this idea of avant-garde experimentation with Hal Foster’s claim that the avant-garde has done a full circle and has become about presence and reality. The two movements being compared are the “historical avant-garde” of the 1910s and 20s and the postwar “neo avant-garde” generally of the 1960s. Both movements described are unmistakably avant-garde, characterized by their motivation at tackling the same types of problems, their often similar formal qualities, their aesthetics of rupture, and their hermetic inaccessibility. However, the concepts of the neo avant-garde have become more focused on body and reality, while the historical avant-garde had focused on the broader concepts of empire and state, at a level that eclipsed the individual participant.

Some of the concepts Foster describes in his early discussion are: the three-dimensional and spatial nature of art, the role of the body and of trauma, and the relationship between the past and present and actions that are reverted and deferred. The role of the real is not a as a medium, but as a subject, where the real itself is a thing of trauma and distress, acting on the individual.  The process of defamiliarization, common within avant-garde, seeks to reveal the grotesque and horriffic within the everyday and commonplace. The artist’s role is as an ethnographer, living in reality, but also observing it and criticizing it through artwork.

It is in this sense, that art practice is a form of ethnography, that interesting connections begin to get made. It is arguable that any work (either commercial or individually produced, with or without the self-critical obsession of the avant-garde) is a product of the culture in which it was produced. The artifact owes its existence not only to the author, but to the social and cultural world wherin that author resides, and within which the artifact may be recieved and interpreted. This is a pervasive argument within cultural study, and is made explicit in Goldmann. It may also be handily argued that the same connection applies to games. Being procedurally oriented, and built on rules and systems, we can make the claim that anyone who produces games reflects within the systems of the game the systems and values of the creator’s culture. When the medium shifts from the environmental, sculptural, or audio-visual used by avant-garde into the procedural, the systems modeled by the game can then be added to the rhetoric of cultural criticism.

I do not know offhand what types of artistic claims could be made through procedural media that could not be expressed using other media, but a couple of interesting points may be made. The first is that the format of a game, in general, is very interesting as a cultural object. Games have their own history and their own culture and role within popular culture. There are customary ways in which players interact with games, and how games work as social objects, and this may be interestingly extended for the purposes of the avant-garde. Furthermore, Foster claims that because the new avant-garde is about a return to the real, but games are generally characterized by the imaginary and the escape from the real. Games have an ambiguous relationship between the real and the imaginary. On one hand, through graphical sophistication, mainstream games are on a determined march toward the photorealistic, but the content and concepts of games are usually extremely far removed from realism. What is painted in many games is a hyper-realistic image with a level of sub-human expressivity. Violent games, such as the Grand Theft Auto series enable the player to move through an intense visual wonderland with the Freudian id running free.

If games represent within their systems the conceptual systems of our culture, then artistic works that aim to subvert the Freudian destructive impulses might have some potential. Mostly I am not interested in art about games, but rather games as art, though, and this would lead to different subjects. Much of the avant-garde described by Foster accounts for the shock and trauma of reality, and while games are often a medium of escape, so too have been fine art and film, media which have been co-opted by the avant-garde. Games too may take the concepts of escape and subvert these with clashes with reality, revealing the alien nature which the everyday world may sometimes possess. Generally, Foster is interested in the support and preservation of the avant-garde, and this is to be done with a shift in theory. Likewise, for games to function as culturally critical artifacts, so to must theory be used to treat them critically.

There is a useful review of the book, as well.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorFoster, Hal
TitleThe Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century
Tagsmedia traditions, postmodernism, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Lucien Goldmann: Towards a Sociology of the Novel

[Readings] (04.04.09, 3:13 pm)

Goldmann’s work derives directly from Lukacs and Girard. The main contents and work of the book is in connecting Marxist cultural economics to the forms and values of the novel. The novel is a social product, and is thus shaped by social and cultural forces. Because the modern period is heavily influenced by capitalism, the values of capitalism are ingrained in modern works. Goldmann is specifically interested in how these values appear and are expressed within the novel, and this is done through analysis of character, individual values, morality, and other such concepts that appear in fiction.

The study consists of both general claims as well as specific ones. The heart of Goldmann’s study is in his analysis of the novels of Malreaux, which is unfortunate, because I am not remotely familiar with Malreaux. My interests will be focused on Goldmann’s general claims, but it should be noted that these claims are backed up with some degree of focused study.

There is a very good paragraph in the preface, which explains what his intentions are:

In so far as the tendency to coherence that constitutes the essence of the work is situated not only at the level of the individual creator,  but already at that of the group, the approach by which this group is seen as the true subject of creation may account for the whole of the writer and integrate him in its analysis, whereas the reverse does not appear to be the case. (p. ix; italics original)

Introduction to the Problems of a Sociology of the Novel

The point of this section is to illustrate a homology between structure in classical novel and the structure of exchange in market economics. To do this, Goldmann begins by explaining theories of how the novel is a social product, and is shaped by the values of its culture. He builds from Lukacs and Girard, in identifying the basic structures of the novel. The central feature of this is that the novel is a search. It is a search of a degraded hero for authentic values in a degraded world. The concept of degradation is important, and involves a degree of falseness. The hero’s search is itself degraded, meaning that the intentions are not genuine, but this does not mean that the authentic values are false. Goldmann’s concept of degredation is a bridge between Lukacs’s term “demoniacal” and Girard’s term “idolatrous.”

The authentic values being sought are implicit within the text, they are not explicitly specified, but they are intrinsic to the social system of which the novel is a product. The hero is problematic, in searching for these authentic values within the degraded world. However, both the hero and the world are degraded, which leads to a complexity. Goldmann explains this as a typology, which is borrowed from Lukacs: (p. 2)

  1. The abstract idealist novel: the hero is overly narrow in comparison to complexity of world (Don Quixote, Le Rouge et le Noir)
  2. The psychological novel: characterized by the inner lives of the characters, their consciousness is too broad to be satisfied by the limited conventions of world (Oblomov, L’Education sentimentale)
  3. Bildungsroman: concludes with the hero giving up the problematic search, and ends with self-imposed limitation, changing neither the world’s nor the hero’s values or natures (Wilhelm Meister, Der grune Heinrich)

In the novel, the relationship between the writer and the world is different from other literary forms, because the novel is both a biography and social chronicle. This relationship between the writer and the world is what Girard calls humor and Lukacs calls irony. This also resembles what Bakhtin describes as the novel’s inherent comic dimension. At this point, the influences of Lukacs and Girard diverge: Girard finds the humor problematic, while Lukacs is permissive of it.

The concern seems to be over what to make of the moral dimensions of the novel’s resolution. Lukacs goes so far as to say that the author’s ethics becomes an aesthetic problem of the work. This introduces the need for sociology: not only does the novel reflect the social values of its context, but it concerns the deeper problems of reification, how the content of fiction and the fictional reality bears on and is considered real outside of fiction. For this, a true sociological analysis is necessary. Goldman relates novelistic problems to those of value in production, in classic Marxist analysis:

“The novel form seems to me, in effect, to be the transposition on the literary plane of everyday life in the individualistic society created by market production. There is a rigorous homology between the literary form of the novel, as I have defined it with the help of Lukacs and Girard, and the everyday relation between man and commodities in general, and by extension between men and other men, in a market society.”

This involves the relationship between use values and exchange values. Goldmann relates these to the implicit values that are the “authentic values” in fictional worlds. This also relates to the idea of relationships between problematic individuals and degraded values.

Marxist literary sociology has the potential to offer a few ideas, summaraized here: (p. 9)

  1. The literary work is not merely the reflection of collective consciousness, but a constructed or possible consciousness.
  2. The relationship between collective ideology and creations is not in identity of content, but in a homology of structures.
  3. A world view cannot be created by a single individual, but must be created by a group. The individual can only transpose this view on the realm of the imaginary.
  4. Collective consciousness is not a reality, but is expressed implicitly in the behavior of individuals.

Thus, the study of the sociology of the novel is not a study of the collective conscious, but rather, an unconscious. This study reveals values and meanings that are internalized and ordinarily invisible. They emerge and are placed within artifacts (such as the novel) without express intentions, but are inevitable and automatic.

It is interesting at this point to take a step back and compare the sociology of the novel as described by Goldmann to a possible sociology of the video game that might be applied to modern day games. Games are an interesting target to apply this analysis, because they are already made of rules. Not all rules are explicitly coded (or part of the game), of course, many dimensions of sociological analysis may be found in static assets, or even file formats and platforms, that are not part of the game’s “rules” explicitly. I think it would be interesting to consider the expressions and conventions of games within this sphere of criticism. Indeed, the idea of the problematic search of the hero for authentic values in a degraded world seems to be intertwined with Campbell’s monomyth, which is itself the basis for many plots of mainstream games.

There is an interesting point of comparison as well, between the spheres of the idealistic hero, who is too simple for the complex world, and the psychological hero, who is too complex for the simple world, and the relationship between the player, the avatar, and the range of actions and expression. Very often, players get frustrated with the limited capacities for the responses or actions that they may take within game worlds.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorGoldmann, Lucien
TitleTowards a Sociology of the Novel
Tagssociology, narrative, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Odi et Amo: On Catullus and Adaptation

[Readings] (04.03.09, 5:26 pm)

The focus of this is to look at Catullus as a candidate for adaptation. This involves several steps. First is the consideration of what, exactly, is being adapted. Is it a poem, a subset, the entire ouevre, or is it the world of the poetry, the character of Catullus, or something else?

The second issue is closely related to the first. What is being extracted and used in the adaptation? What are the rules, systems, and values? This is the core substance of the answer to the first question.

The third and final issue is what shapes or forms should the resulting adapted artifact have? It should express and convey the substance, but adapting Catullus into any medium would necessarily require more than just that, it would require something more, a layering on the original. The question here is: what should be built around the substance, and how deep could or should that be?


It would be good to give a little bit of background about Catullus and the context in which he was writing. The dates of his life are not known exactly, but it is estimated that he lived between 84 and 54 BC. This was during the late phase of the Roman Empire, but Catullus’s death occurred (according to these dates) a good ten years before Caesar’s ascendance to dictatorship in Rome. Many of the notable figures that would later come to clash around the rise of the empire were political contemporaries, and some were even known to Catullus.

It is difficult to get a clear view of Catullus’s life, since there are only a few accounts of him from other sources, and his character put together from his poetry can hardly be considered accurate. It is known that he was a member of the lower aristocratic class, and was friends with several members of Rome’s political elite. He did enjoy some popularity and recognition during his day.

The important thing about this is how we should percieve his work in its context. His voice resembles that of a starving artist type, something like a risque beatnik or a romantic poet. He was a member of a microculture, a circle of contemporaries formed around poetic values of wit and sharpness, and probably had some following of admirers. It is easy and entertaining to speculate, according to his poetry, what Catullus’s actual attitudes and life was like. However, much of what he says is to be taken with a grain of salt. His poems were written not to be kept secret as his innermost feelings, but performed and used and shared. It has been suggested by Daniel Garrison to view Catullus’s poems as being enacted by a persona.

As a reader it is very tempting to view the imagined Catullus as being one and the same as his persona, but this clearly can not be the case, for instance, his claims of poverty. However, many of his poems are also crafted with such intense and vivid emotion that it is impossible to belive that the writer is not speaking directly. As a result, we are left with some mix, where it is inherently ambiguous what is real and what is feigned. It is this, combined with a “racy freshness” that makes him so popular even today.

One of the elements of his freshness comes from style. Catullus’s style is based around the virtues of wit, grace, and brevity. These have become the values and virtues of Catullus and the “neoterics”, his poetic followers. This style is aimed in opposition to the long and rambling poetry which makes up for quality with quantity. Catullus despised poets who did this, and was extremely influential on followers who adopted the sharp and succinct style.

1: What to adapt

In terms of what exactly is the subject of the adaptation, I suggest that a portrayal of the entire world and context of Catullus is necessary to adapt any of his work. His individual poems are short and clear, but they work because they are both elegant and connect to something within the urban world of Rome. His poems are interrelated, and one might go so far as to say that they are interdependent. The most prominent recurrent character is Catullus’s love interest Lesbia. In the poetry, we see that he falls in love with her, engages in some whirlwind of an affiar, and then there is some aftermath of a falling out. In addition to Lesbia, there are several friends and political contemporaries.

We could consider the entire ouevre of the poetry, but this would leave something lacking. There would be all of these references, but they would be unresolved. His poems also refer to cultural moments which would require some additional explanation in adaptation, so the body of the poems themselves are not sufficient for adaptation alone.

What is interesting about Catullus is how modern his perspective appears to be. Through his writing, through the eyes of his persona, the world of Ancient Rome seems immediate, fresh, and accessible. His emotions are clear, and reflect human feelings in their full spectrum. Within his work there is not a single model, a depiction of how things work, but there are captured moments and identifiable situations. These together form something, a perspective. If we think of a model as a particular way of looking at the world, then, context included, the model of Catullus could very well be the world of Ancient Rome through his eyes.

2: The underlying model

What then is the system implied by this perspective? It would make sense for the neoteric values of charm and wit to be included, but it is also worth considering the way in which the wit was used. I will not go so far as to say that wit becomes a currency, but it is something that clearly has a value, and being in posession of a lot of it can enable one to get away with some daring activities. Catullus openly mocked Caesar in one of his poems, but reportedly, after apologising, was invited to dinner by Ceasar the same day. The currency seems to be more of “reputation” rather than wit itself, but wit is used to earn reputation.

Similarly, reputation must be defended by publicly mocking one’s rivals or enemies. Two characters appear in Catullus’s poetry with some frequency, Aurelius and Furius, who seem to be companions or cohorts, but are also rivals. They are subject to both endearing and derisive takes within the poems. The idea of the persona is also an important dimension that must be factored into the model of Catullus’s world. We understand that world through his persona, but he still is a living, feeling agent behind it. The persona could thus be used instrumentally, as a tool for defending or concealing one’s emotions, or as a tool for exaggerating them, or alternately may slip away at times. The idea of interacting with a world through a persona is actually rather like the way a player interacts through an avatar in a game. The difference is of course that the actor and the persona are both in the world, whereas the player and the avatar are in different worlds. The confusion between false and genuine nonetheless is a powerful idea.

Probably the most defining characteristic of Catullus’s world is the idea of “otium” or “leisure time” (the opposite of buisness, or “neg-otium”). At this stage in history, leisure has become a more common phenomenon among the non-elite of the world, and there was quite a lot of it among Catullus’s social circle. The existence of leisure time means that individuals were free to socialize, have parties, and engage in interpersonal and political drama. This makes characters within the world largely free in their activity.

3: A possible solution

My approach to represnting a world such as this is through simulation. The world of Catullus is rich and vibrant, and seems to be a wothy candidate for being simulated. Presumably, the player could take the role of Catullus (probably not Catullus exactly, but someone in this sort of situation), and would have freedom to engage, percieve, and inhabit the luch world of Rome. It would then be possible to write poems that would earn reputation and noteriety.

The important dimension of this is that it should be possible to have more and more rich experiences. It is arguably impossible to communicate digitally the essence of Catullus’s world by only looking at his words. The words are expressive enough on their own, a game adaptation must thus look beyond words to communicate the same ideas and experiences that Catullus described. The best way to do this in a game, I believe, is not to try to tell the player what the experiences are, but to allow the player to experience them himself.

I do not know how to make into a mechanic the experience of falling in love or becoming infatuated with someone from a distance, but it seems to me that it is not necessary to make this integrated into the mechanics themselves. If a player has the option of behaving as though he were falling in love, or has the actions at his disposal to watch longingly an object of romantic interest, and then write about it, performing the poem aloud to a group of characters, I do not think the depth of the simulation itself needs to be worried about.

Reading Info:
TitleCollected Poetry
Tagsmedia traditions, fiction, settings, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Platforms and Poetics

[Research] (04.01.09, 10:51 am)

More loose and scatterbrained notes…

The platform informs expression.

Poetry is developed to exist within a system of constraints. These constraints are often metrical (so many lines and syllables per line), but more generally are constrained in terms of compactness. Poetry is designed to be as compact as possible. Elegant expression within a tightly constrained system is the ideal in poetry.

Platforms impose constraints, and can be worked within to guide artistic expression. A platform will constrain the form, structure, and means of growth that an artifact built on the platform may have. These constraints may include features that are required, or are inherently dominant in artifacts, they may be constraints in terms of complexity or abstraction.

I am deliberately vague here on what a platform is or can be. In a general sense a platform could be a medium or genre. The term as it is used with the most familiarity refers to video game systems (as well as engines). Thus, Unreal Tournament 2004 is a platform, and so is the Atari 2600. The “PC” is a platform, but an open ended one (also an ambiguous one, as computational affordances have changed dramatically from the earliest PC games to the present). However, more generally, a platform could be other media or genre of artistic representation, such as digital video, murals, or wooden blocks.

The constraints imposed by a platform are not bad. Freedom without constraint can be disorienting. Working within a platform with constraints enables the work to build off of existing material, distinguish itself from other works within the platform (by virtue of comparison to what it does similarly or differently). It enables aesthetic judgments of elegance within constraints.

The necessary requirement for expression is fitting the constraints of a platform to the artistic goals of the end product. If the two match well, then the final work is enriched. Both the platform and the product have coherent and compatible systems. However, it is very frequent that the two may not match, resulting in some kind of dissonance. Sometimes, this is what is intended, but often it weakens the final product and the meaning behind it.

In terms of games, a good example of platform coherence is Braid. The game itself is a commentary on the genre of “platformer” games, and it makes use of their conventions, but ultimately reveals some ideological messages behind them. An example of platform dissonance is Charbitat, a project I worked on, where our goal was to develop a game about procedurally generated space, but had difficulty shaking the conventions of static maps that were used in Unreal Tournament.

In this sense, games and poetry are similar, because they work within some field of constraints and strive (can strive, really) to achieve elegance within them. In both cases, there is a period where the platform must be chosen. Someone wanting to write a poem about insomnia must choose how to put words to page, whether it be a sonnet, haiku, concrete poem, or so on. Similarly, someone wanting to write a game about insomnia might choose among platformer, puzzle, adventure, first person shooter, Atari VCS, and so on.

There is a problem, though, and that is that many popular and conventional game genres are restrictive as platforms. Beyond imposing constraints, they impose ideologies as well. While a haiku has cultural conventions that give it ideological constraints (compression, naturalism), game platforms are slightly more complicated. It is not immediately clear what the ideology of the Atari VCS might be, but it definitely involves restrictions in what expression is allowed (symmetrical backgrounds, two sprites, two particles, and so on). The ideology of the Unreal Tournament platform is a little bit more clear. This is not to say that there cannot be elegant works built from these platforms, but rather that for many types of expression, these platforms will be dissonant.

It seems that to resolve this it is necessary to devise new platforms, rather than building from existing ones, but this endeavor is risky and problematic.

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