I have set up a handful of mailing lists for Plerd, the open-source blogging engine behind Fogknife. All are free and open to the public. (The lists all use tried-and-true Mailman, running on my personal server. So their web interfaces look straight out of 1996, but they get the job done.)
Plerd-announce: A low-traffic, newsletter-style list with posts by me alone, upon which I plan to make announcements or share proposals of interest to Plerd’s userbase.
Plerd-users: The main discussion channel for said userbase, focused on Plerd’s installation, configuration, and use as a blogging tool.
Plerd-dev: Discussion about the development and maintenance of the Plerd software itself.
I hope to use these lists as the main discussion and announcement channels for Plerd. I will continue to post major announcements here on Fogknife (especially when I can work a more general essay on technological philosophy out of it), and discussion about specific issues will of course continue to take place as appropriate in Plerd’s Github repository. But I will steer all other Plerd-related communication to these lists.
If you use Plerd or are just interested in following along with its news, I do invite you to follow one of the links above to subscribe to the list-or-lists of your choice. Some fairly major changes for Plerd are on the horizon — some by me, some based on work by others. I know that enough people besides myself use the software now that I simply cannot make significant changes in good faith without community involvement. (Or, at the very least, community forewarning.)
Some thoughts on the meta-topic of setting up my own dang mailing lists, rather than taking the far easier (and arguably more sensible) route of using an existing service:
Why mailing lists? Well, I initially tried an IRC channel, back when the IRC bug most recently bit me, but it didn’t stick. Idling in
#plerd on Freenode for a whole year did not result in a single message for me. And since I was almost always alone in the channel, it hardly felt worthwhile saying anything myself.
Meanwhile, I consider Slack and friends out of the question for new projects, especially projects that I intend to continue using and developing for years to come. I have no interest in migrating from one flavor-of-the-month chat system to another as public tastes change, and I tire so quickly at keeping up with constant user-experience surprises wrought by services over which I have neither control nor say. Furthermore, proprietary systems like these often have awful accessibility, and I don’t wish to make Plerd users with disabilities feel disinvited from discussion.
Email is ubiquitous, portable, unchanging, and immortal. Any person with the technical chops to run Plerd will also, by necessity, have familiarity with email. I have seen many shinier alternatives to email, when it comes to platforms for asynchronous technical communication. Some manage to pull me away for a time, but I always come back home to email. For projects under my own control, I very much doubt I’ll ever again try a medium other than email.
Why set up a list myself? In the past I would have used Google Groups, but I don’t trust Google to keep anything working, and anyway I didn’t wish to saddle these lists with Google-based domain names. I am aware that many folks use Mailchimp’s free tiers for these sorts of things instead, but my experience with the service has always left me with a bad taste; it is so focused on marketing and campaigns, rather than discussion lists.
Mailman is a bear to set up, especially on a system that doesn’t already have a mail server running. I have done it three times over the past few years, for different purposes, and though I take copious notes each time, I still have to improvise for a wide part of the hours-long installation-and-testing dance.
But at the end of it, I have a solid mailing-list system capable of hosting any number of mailing lists bearing my own domain name: no better sigil, for personal projects, and entirely in-line with my increasing adoption of IndieWeb philosophies. I consider this work at least as much an investment towards future personal-but-public work as something of more immediate benefit. Bruised and battered from another weekend in the Linux-driven DIY thresher, I regret nothing.
It has occurred to me only recently that I have, for years, used my local public library as a replacement for Netflix’s pre-millenium (but apparently still functional) DVD-rental-by-mail system, except one better. Using my contemporary notions of zero-friction idea capture, and in exchange for far less attention and money than I used to pay Netflix, I today see more weird and amazing movies than I ever have before, and on my own schedule — while supporting my community’s library as a happy side effect.
By “zero-friction idea capture”, I refer to the strategy I celebrated alongside my ten-year OmniFocus anniversary: when an idea worth further attention pops into my head, but I’m otherwise occupied with some other task, I pull my phone out of my pocket and put that idea somewhere safe and actionable before it floats away. If it represents a task to follow up on later, into my OmniFocus inbox it goes, for later processing. If a thought that I might like to expand into a blog post, then I tap a few words into my phone’s Notes app, within a sub-folder I’ve designated for such.
And if the notion takes the specific form of I ought to watch that movie from a while back — where “a while back” can be any time between the production year of the earliest film committed to modern media through around six months ago — then I tap an icon on my phone’s home screen that goes to my local public library system’s online catalog.
This website is ugly as sin, with a design predating any notion of mobile-capable display, let alone mobile-first. But since I know exactly what I want — get in, request an item, get out — then its dotage does not slow me down much. After my phone auto-fills in my library card number and PIN to log in, I pinch-zoom into the website’s search field to tap in the film title occupying my mind. In the surprisingly likely case that tiny Rhode Island’s library system does have a copy on disc somewhere within its myriad branches, I’ll tap “Request it” and select my neighborhood branch as its destination.
And then, in the best mind-like-water tradition of Getting Things Done and other capture-based productivity strategies, I let myself forget about the movie, with joy and relief. My work is done! In a handful of days, the library will send me an email to come fetch the movie, and I will think: Oh yeah! That movie! Hey, I wanted to see that! Good!! So I pick it up the next time I’m out for a coffee-walk, and then I’ve got a comfy two-week window to actually watch the thing. I usually do, and sometimes I’ll write about the results in this blog.
Most recently, after dreaming about the bizarre 1999 sleeper Existenz, I summoned a copy before leaving bed that morning. And a few days ago, I came across a passing reference to Klaus Kinski, leading me down a mental chain that concluded with “I should watch Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)”. I had forgotten all about it within minutes, and yet, like a miracle, a copy of the film sits on my coffee table right now, waiting for its turn in my PlayStation.
I will note that — as seems increasingly the case with older, non-blockbuster films — Netflix does not stream either of these movies. But, rather than use the library, I could have fired up the ol’ Pirate Bay to grab my own illicitly ripped copy through the anonymous blessing of BitTorrent. As a younger man, I would have proceeded to do so without pause. But today the method offers much less attraction to me. First, I have to go through the whole, squinting process of nosing around to find a well-seeded torrent for the movie, then firing up my torrent program and letting it hog my home’s broadband pipe for a while. And then I end up with an enormous file squatting on a chunk of my hard drive, though I have no desire to watch it right now. As time passes, watching it feels increasingly like a nagging obligation, and I’m just as likely to put it out of mind through careless neglect, letting it sit in the dark, helping nobody.
How much different than borrowing a light plastic DVD in a colorful case, and letting it bide its time in my living room for a few days! I am far more likely to accept, during some near-future evening, its friendly but quietly insistent invitation to watch it.
And, I admit it, I feel good about using my library like this, supporting the system by incrementing its circulation and inter-library-loan statistics — and thus, goes the theory, its argument for sustained funding — with every disc I borrow. I started this adventure with The Shining, dating from the first few months of this blog’s existence, and also the first year of my rediscovery — the first time in my adult life, really — of public library patronage.
This magic did require some prerequisite work, all one-time labors completed years ago. I had to obtain a library card, obviously, and then finagle an online PIN for it. Then I had to teach my phone to auto-fill my card and PIN on the catalog website. For some reason, iOS wishes to store my library card number among my credit card numbers, and my PIN among my passwords — but it works, so there we have it. I recall acquiring the PIN as the tallest of these obstacles, given the website’s outdated notions of user experience. But I felt enough of an inkling of its life-improving potential to push through the task, and I dare say that I had it right.
I recently played through Here They Lie, a short horror story produced by Sony’s in-house Santa Monica Studio that targeted the company’s then-new PlayStation VR device. I rather liked it, and in part because it reminded me of Layers of Fear, another pretty-good short game in the same genre from a couple of years ago. I never got around to writing about that one at the time*; with some freshly nudged perspective, I shall amend that now, with an aim to swing back to Here They Lie later.
Of the two games, Layers of Fear employs a stronger mechanical coherence to present a much more pure horror experience of the haunted-house variety. As far as momentary frights go, I’ll risk the statement that Layers has scared me more than any other video game before it. After a calm opening (Okay, you’re first-personing through a creaky old mansion, you know the drill) and a handful of dime-store jump-scares, the game debuts its core gimmick of quietly rearranging the set-dressing behind your back. I mean this literally: at many key points, the nature of the world directly behind the camera shifts, with no fanfare. The room might suddenly appear full of objects not there before, or the painting on the wall has doubled in size, or the door you came through has vanished utterly. Confused, you follow your instinct to re-establish your bearings by spinning back to face what you’d just been looking at a moment prior, exactly as the game knew you would, and then…
Before playing Layers I would have never guessed how profoundly this effect would work on me. Again and again, this conceptually simple trick of unexpectedly altering my simulated perception unsettled me thoroughly. I will never forget the single scariest moment in Layers of Fear, implemented entirely without a drop of gore or even a loud noise: just an exquisitely timed presentation of a certain prop, which performs a certain action and then vanishes before its appearance had even registered completely with my consciousness. I shouted so loudly I woke up my wife sleeping two rooms away.
After that, for reasons of both personal comfort and domestic tranquility, I had to adjust my attitude while advancing through Layers. I shifted from my default breezy couch-flop, through the leaning-forward focus I’ll adopt during a trickier game’s boss battles, and straight into an actively self-defensive posture. Instead of freely whirling the camera this way and that as I would in any other first-person game, I learned to turn around s-l-o-w-l-y, and paced my advancement through new the map to a crawl, all so as to limit the rate at which horrible things could make their acquaintance with me. Semi-consciously, I tightened my gut muscles, controlled my breathing, and all but growled over gritted teeth when opening another door, putting up a real-world psychosomatic energy-barrier against the literally unpredictable events that likely lurk across the threshold. I probably looked like hell, playing it, but I assure you that I loved every minute.
While it keeps its focus on a grand haunted-house experience over video-gamey challenges, Layers does feature some risk. You can “die” through a misstep, which in the game’s fiction I take to mean that your character faints from fright; he awakens peacefully a little later, in more or less the same spot, his grogginess temporarily quiescing the spooks of his mind. If I recall correctly, these always come as the consquence of a discrete action, or a failure to act despite ample opportunity; not once did I die due to failing a fight or a stealth sequence or the like, as nothing like these appear in this game.
Crucially, this sort of failure doesn’t result in a world-state reset: whatever horror “killed” you passes into memory, as surely as if you had successfully navigated past it, and any items you’d collected towards more gracefully resolving the scenario get quietly removed from your inventory and permanently discarded. Nothing stops you from loading an earlier save and trying a different approach, but accepting the game’s invitation to just trudge forward regardless feels more correct. I never regretted playing this way, on my one trip through the mansion, even though I ended far short of a gold-trophy, no-deaths win. At one point writing literally appeared on the wall telling me not to do something. I wasted no time in disobeying it, and the game shrugged and sent a horrible vision to come scream in my face until I blacked out. Friend, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Alas, the writing in Layers is… pretty bad. It has some kind of story presented in the usual scraps-of-diaries-and-news-clippings format, mixing in bits of voice-acted audio flashbacks, all setting up suggestion for the player-character’s predicament. For the most part, they sound bland at best, and terribly off-key at worst; while trying for a serious and circa-1900 tone, they instead have the voice of a snarky young redditor of 2015 improvising an “old-timey” story with little to no research. The game’s creators live in Poland, but even allowing for linguistic leeway, it leaves us with a strong impression of writing as an afterthought, executed with far more enthusiasm than skill. After a while I found the narration frankly painful to listen to, and just fast-forwarded through it all.
Despite the game’s hokey plotting, my writing this retrospective (as well as recently wandering through the interestingly contrastable Here They Lie) has whetted my appetite for revisiting Layers’ paint-spattered halls; I may very well give its DLC a go, or maybe just try to make it through the base game unscathed. In any event, I do generally recommend this title for those craving a high-quality spooky-mansion digital experience. Come for the stagecraft rather than the story, and use the dimmer-switch on your living-room wall as your difficulty slider.
* I see from my achievements’ time-stamps that I’d started and completed Layers of Fear on either side of the 2016 election, so I’ll forgive myself the distracted delay.
In, Nick Montfort describes a simple model for categorizing electronic literature: pre-web, web, and post-web. Nick asserts that the middle category has forever passed, and we find ourselves living permanently in the third, whether we like it or not. While the tools of publishing to arbitrary websites still exist, as does the software for reading them, the audience for digital writing has overwhelmingly moved onto corporate-controlled social-media platforms. And so, Montfort says, unless they have reason or motivation to create something intentionally retrograde, writers too have moved on from the open web as their default platform.
Now, I can resist the egotism necessary to think that Nick had me at all in mind when he wrote this (even though I drop by his office at MIT several times every year for the local interactive fiction meetup), but I found it nevertheless hard not to feel called out by this article, given the direction of my recent work. This compels me to write out the present post to my own blog in response, which will duly attempt to send a webmention — savior of the open web, our last best hope, et cetera — to Nick’s blog. And it almost certainly won’t work, because practically nobody supports webmention yet, so I’ll trudge back to Nick’s blog and post a comment that links back here. And then I’ll slink onto Twitter and post a link there, because nobody (except Nick himself, maybe) would see that comment otherwise.
And all that is why, while I thought about titling this post “Refuting Montfort’s ‘Post-web era’” instead of “Rejecting”, I didn’t; it would have felt a bit too much like denying reality. Sure, I could cry I refute it thus! while slapping down a hand-written hyperlink that works exactly as well as it would have a quarter-century ago. But that would not disprove Nick’s central thesis that, even if HTML still works as advertised, nobody (to a first order of approximation) cares.
And yet. Beneath its veneer of accepting reality, Nick’s article carries an undertone of deep dissatisfaction at how artists have all but abandoned independent, creator-owned platforms in favor of those run by profit-seeking social-media corporations. If share that sentiment, and even if I accept that this is the way of things today, I cannot accept that the dream and the promise of the early, pre-corporate web is forever lost and locked away from us, that the only way forward involves a one-way trudge down the dimming hallways of money-hungry platforms, surrendering permanent ownership and access to our own work in exchange for temporary convenience.
Sometimes my objections do feel out of touch and unreasonable; sometimes I wonder how my complaints must sound to others. In the particular case of processing my gut reaction to Nick’s article, though, synchronicity struck when Wil Wheaton published an article on his own blog titled “The world is a terrible place right now, and that’s largely because it is what we make it.” In it, Wheaton recounts his very recent abandonment of all social media, even Twitter alternatives like Mastodon, as hopelessly toxic (especially for public figures like himself). His pain and sorrow at this comes across clearly; he had allowed social media to become central to his life, and I can sympathize with this readily.
The title of Wheaton’s article struck me the most, though, because it evokes the central thesis of The Future, a short book by none other than Nick Montfort, published by MIT Press last winter. It’s good, and you should read it. In it, Nick reminds us that the future isn’t a house we merely move into: it’s one we all play a role in building. The book tells us that if we want to live in a better future, then each of us should decide on a personal path that will help make that future real — however modestly — and then strike out upon it.
I read The Future in January, and in February I first learned about IndieWeb, and in April I started releasing open-source software supporting it — and this, paired with my ongoing work with an IF nonprofit, has remained the focus of my labors outside of freelance work. This despite my not thinking that my efforts alone will transform the face of either interactive fiction or the open web, and nor I do think that either interactive fiction or the open web, by themselves, will turn the world away from its presently fraught course.
So, seen from orbit, the ultimate outcome of my work, if any, will be all but invisible. Subjectively, though? I feel a profound surety that digital art and the open web are two threads among many, many that can form a braid strong enough to keep hauling our cantankerous human mess into the future, despite all the badness and baggage we drag along with it. And I know that I happen to have the skills and experience to help preserve, maintain, and god willing maybe even improve them, at least at the scale of a single person’s efforts. I have to answer the call to this work. Really, that’s all I can do, for today.
This was also posted to IndieNews.
One morning several weeks ago, I awoke from a dream where I learned that the director of the 1999 film Existenz — which I had not seen, and whose principals’ identities I did not know — had, in secret, produced a follow-up film trilogy and released them all at once. The whole world loved them, and while my dreaming self hadn’t watched those either, just knowing that this had happened made me feel suffused with light.
I shared this story on Twitter, and enjoyed a rare sort of small and pure joy that used to be quite common on social media. My story received perhaps the most positive reaction an untrammeled dream-relation of mine ever has, with friends calling out the bits from the real picture that they liked the best, and one stranger informing me in all caps that David Cronenberg directed Existenz, inveighing me to march out and absorb that man’s whole ouvre with haste.
(“I did see A History of Violence,” I offered in reply. “I did not like that movie,” said my new mentor, whose user-icon was a screaming skull wearing a brimmed hat. “See a different movie immediately.” The high point of my week, this may have been. See, friends, I-statements are how it’s done.)
After all that, of course I felt guided by angels to experience the movie within my waking life. Obtaining a copy via my local public library, I found the film short, very weird, and quite delightful. Any one-sentence summary of the story you’ll find online — A video-game designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) becomes trapped in her own virtual reality when something something blah — will not do the film justice. Existenz takes a classically McLuhan statement about the mingling relationship that late twentieth-century humans had with mass media, expressing it with joyfully and horribly direct visual metaphors. Within minutes, the film uncoils McLuhan’s theories of media as extension of the bodily senses via extremely Cronenbergian practical effects, in the manner of the thickly blue-veined umbilical cords that dangle from the fleshy “game pods” that residents of the movie’s world tote around in vanity carrying cases.
Contrary to the advice of my new Twitter friend, I did not watch Videodrome first, and indeed still have not watched it. I therefore cannot speak to the common critical wisdom that Existenz serves as its natural followup, transferring the focus of its metaphor about bodies and media from television to video games. I can say that to a new viewer looking back from two decades on, I startle instead at its casual insight about video games’ future, both culturally and on the design level.
To hear my timeline tell it, the film’s most memorable prop is the gory “bone gun” that appears at key moments; in one scene, Jude Law’s character assembles it from the gristly leftovers of an extravagant meal*, using his teeth as its ammunition. He proceeds in a half-trance, watching his own hands with fascination, commenting that he’s just letting his in-game character lead the way. A game-studies friend commented that an adventure game made contemporaneously with the film would have turned this into a obtuse puzzle (probably unsolvable without the official, sold-separately hint book), forcing the player to manually figure out how to turn a dish of mutant squabs into a deadly weapon. A game made 20 years later, though, would more likely offer an experience much like the one from the film, perhaps reducing it to a well-prompted quick-time event: Press X repeatedly to devour the meat, turn the right stick in a circle to twist the neck off, slide the left stick up to snap the rib-cage into place…
More unsettling for the modern viewer, Existenz anticipates Gamergate by a full fifteen years. From almost the first scene, Leigh’s character is menaced by players of her own video game — all young men — who denounce her as a “demoness” and try to kill her. It takes no effort to imagine this movement of so-called “Realists” marinating angrily on social media, egging each other on with their own subreddit. There, surely, they convince each other of the righteousness of their cover story — some mumbling about “warping reality” via VR games — and work out ways to terrorize anyone who dares suggest that they just hate how a woman tweaked the bullet physics on level six, or whatever. All this probably read as absurd to audiences of 1999, at least as absurd as the idea in 2014 that a reactionary movement of socially estranged and gynophobic Call of Duty fans would help bring about a global halt to American progressive leadership.
Those looking for it can also find years-ahead commentary on Bethesda-game NPCs’ uncanniness, or on the rise of the battle-royale game genre. For all this likely-accidental prognostication, though, Existenz keeps itself centered on its core metaphor of the body as ultimate media interface. The PlayStation-sized game pods get subjected to every fear facing a human body: they can contract illnesses making them bleed and shrivel, and swarms of insects can sting and harry them. At one point, the protagonists take an ailing game pod to a data-recovery specialist, who dons a surgeon’s kit and proceeds to go at it with a scalpel and forceps.
But none of that would carry true body-horror without offering the threat of connection between these fallible game-organs and the characters’ own bodies. Thus the “bio-ports” that game-players get punched into their lower backs, resembling nothing so much as herniated anuses. With access as convenient as lifting up one’s shirt a bit, characters treat us to multiple scenes of carefully lubricating and fingering each others’ bio-ports prior to jamming in their game pods’ aching tendrils. All quite startling to watch, to the point of eliciting audience laughter. But with all the movie’s other explorations of meat-literal man-and-media interfacing, ignoring the sexual aspect of bodily contortions and collisions would have seemed a strange oversight. So the film instead chooses to embrace it, penetratingly.
One of the film’s most memorable moments, though, involves neither special effects nor explicit imagery. Early in the film, Law’s character prudishly balks at the suggestion that he have a bio-port installed, verbally expressing his disgust with the idea of inserting anything inside one’s body for any reason. Leigh’s character mockingly refutes him by wordlessly opening her mouth wide, grinning and curling her tongue over her chin. A flirtatious gesture, but much less erotic than nakedly orificial; Cronenberg lights and shoots this image so that Leigh’s eyes shine over a black and empty maw. Existenz is a movie about what goes into the head, and it continues to clamp itself within mine for far longer than its 90-minute runtime.
* This takes place in a Chinese restaurant, one of a couple of scenes with a tad too much Orientalism for my modern comfort. One can generously read it as intentionally satirical, but 20 years on its implementation feels awkward, and makes for the sole element of the film that landed wide.
A whole year has passed since my last self-indulgent post about Plerd, my very own open-source software tool that powers this blog. A casual glance makes it seem like little development has occurred since then; I had announced version 1.5 last August, after all, and 1.6 landed only earlier this month. That small numeric increase belies much bigger potential, however, so please do allow me to describe it further.
Essentially, Plerd 1.6 merges in all the webmention-related work that Fogknife has demonstrated since this past spring. These features’ lack of documented examples and thorough testing made me mark them all as experimental for the present, but they work nonetheless. A Plerd user who knows what to expect — a population which, as I write this, may admittedly consist of one living person — can have their blog automatically send, receive, and display webmentions, linking their posts into a web (if you will!) of other, related articles and responses found across the internet.
Webmention sending: Every time a post is created or updated, Plerd tries to send webmentions regarding the URLs that the post hyperlinks to. This involves, for each such URL, checking that remote location for metadata indicating the presence of a server that receives webmentions on that website’s behalf. If it finds a listener this way, Plerd will subsequently send a fully fledged webmention to the indicated destination. The webmention says, in essence, “I just created or updated a webpage that links to this other page of yours. If you download my page it might have some metadata that’ll help you format a link back to it, if you care to display one.”
Webmention receiving: Plerd, meanwhile, can run its own process that listens vigilantly for incoming webmentions. On receipt, it queues well-formed webmentions for processing by a separate program. That program — expected to run via
cron or a similar scheduled-automation utility — checks this queue regularly. When it finds new webmentions, it tests each for validity (does the source page actually refer to one of the Plerd blog’s pages?), and finally stores the valid ones in a special database that posts can reference when they build their own HTML.
Both of the above behaviors act in accordance with the W3C’s webmention specification, and have passed the public obstacle course for new implmenentations (an idea, I should add, that I love) found at webmention.rocks.
You can already find examples of displayed webmentions throughout Fogknife. This post about OmniFocus shows a variety of webmention “flavors” underneath the article’s text. Most are Twitter responses translated into webmentions via Bridgy, but a handful are original webmentions from other services, and a couple come from Fogknife itself — an entirely appropriate response when one post within the blog links to an earlier one, and an elegant path to building an organic “related posts” feature.
More subtly, you can find evidence of Plerd’s functional webmention-sending ability elsewhere on the web. That “this was also posted to IndieNews” link, at the bottom of this post? When this post first went live, my Plerd instance knew to send a webmention to IndieNews. That site, in turn, understood my claim (by way of Microformats2 metadata embedded within this post’s HTML) that this document contained information relevant to its interests, and could also infer some hints about how to best display the link and provide a little extra context. That’s cool.
All this represents months of effort on my part, and in some ways it seems utterly foolish; as of mid 2018, webmention remains an obscure technology supported by very few websites. But: I feel bullish on its future. A List Apart, a venerable and much-read web-design publication, recently published a great summary of webmention by Chris Aldrich. As public disillusionment with “silos” like Twitter and Facebook grows, I definitely feel an ever-more intense yearning — led by progressively minded technologists who know we can do better — to reclaim the potential of the early web. And I start to see more eyes besides my own turn towards webmention in particular. It is just one of the technologies in the basket of open web standards collectively known as IndieWeb, but I find it far and away the most exciting of the bunch in terms of immediate and obvious potential for healing the web. Nobody has to give up anything, or put their faith in yet another siloed service! Instead, we set up publishing homesteads on your own domains, and then — through webmention, and other IndieWeb tech — let them light up and be lit up by the rest of the web, silos and all, via syndication and intercommunication.
I can see Plerd playing an important a role in this future, and a role larger than merely myself. I can’t shake the feeling that right now represents a great time for hackers like me, obsessed with IndieWeb’s potential and impatient with its current shortcomings, to help create a galaxy of practical implementations. I want Plerd to not only become my own toolkit for all my personal online publishing, I also want to position it as an excellent option for any writer possessing a certain minimum of technical aptitude to run an IndieWeb-aware blog — so long as they can also put up with Plerd’s opinionated design philosophies. (And, if not, there’s always the WordPress plugin, or the growing world of more specific IndieWeb projects.)
Months, perhaps a year or more, will pass before Plerd can get to that point. My next steps echo my “called shots” for Plerd from over three years ago, neither of which I managed to accomplish at the time: loading Plerd into a public package manager, and then writing thorough, booklet-length documentation for its use. The latter will cover both the basic use that drove me to invent the thing in 2014, and the newer and fancier fetaures like webmention support. It will supplement, if not entirely replace, Plerd’s now absurdly long README file.
So long as my interest in IndieWeb’s promise holds, I think I can get Plerd to a very interesting place that’ll prove useful to writers other than myself (and the handful of cherished friends also using it at present). If you’d like to help, I invite you to download and mess around with the thing, and consider dropping me a line about how you’re getting on.
This was also posted to IndieNews.
Providence’s Free Play Bar Arcade, curled around a knot of nightclubs within a murky block behind the city’s Performing Arts Center, has created one of the finest implementations of a classic-games-focused video arcade — with or without an alcoholic component — that I’ve had the pleasure to visit in person.
Its name evokes its unusual business model: for a flat cover charge of ten dollars (or five dollars on nights preceding weekdays), you have the run of the place, with all the normally coin-operated machines set to free-play mode. Of course the arcade encourages you to supplement your visit through a visit to its full bar, but it doesn’t press the issue. Indeed, it will almost certainly take you quite a while to even see the bar, on your first entrance; the games greet you immediately, and there are so many games. I didn’t feel like I’d adequately explored the space until I had a chance to visit it twice, covering perhaps five hours.
I’ve come away from my visits deeply impressed not just in Free Play’s curatorial taste in selecting, acquiring, and maintaining high-quality arcade games from throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but in its use of the space, which I read as a repurposed nightclub. The video games, pinball tables, and skee-ball lanes arrange themselves into irregular avenues and neighborhoods across several open but unpredictably shaped rooms and alcoves. Surprisingly frequent ramps, stairs, and railings add an unexpected third dimension, making one’s passage among the games evoke a riotous electric garden-stroll through a mad scientist’s courtyard.
No arcade I’ve visited in the current century has so well realized my most ideal memories of how a video arcade from the medium’s golden era should look and feel. With its dim lighting and copious neon decoration, it really did give the impression of walking through my own memories — while offering many new discoveries, rather than merely trading in nostalgia. Allow me to list a few standout experiences from my two visits:
Encountering a four-player Warlords cabinet in pristine condition, and exploring both its four-player free-for-all and two-on-two modes with friends — neither of whom had seen it before, and both of whom understood and enjoyed it immediately.
Hearing my companions marvel at how bright the bullets of Asteroids, and finding myself unable to resist replying with paraphrased passages from Bogost and Montfort’s Racing the Beam regarding this very topic.
Stepping into an “environmental” Discs of Tron cabinet, one of my favorite and now all-but-forgotten arcade games of my youth, and probably getting further than the last time I played, even though that was surely more than 30 years ago.
Recording (from a polite distance) moments of a Dance Dance Revolution tournament in-progress throughout my first visit, complete with a striped-jersey referee and preternaturally skilled players waiting their turn with towels over their shoulders.
Sitting down for a Daytona USA race with two friends, with adjustable seats and force-feedback steering wheels as god intended, and feeling perhaps the most intense joy any video game has granted me this decade, albeit compressed into a few minutes.
Free Play’s relationship with its adult beverages also impressed me. Most barcades of my experience put the bar first, true to their word. For example, I’d most recently visited Ground Kontrol in Portland, Oregon, which places an enormous, square bar in the literal center of its coin-operated activities. Free Play’s bar, tucked to one side, doesn’t hide itself, but it definitely puts the games first. I could see visiting the arcade with no plans to drink at all, and having a great time — perhaps moreso on a weeknight, with a thinner crowd.
But I did enjoy a couple of beers on both of my visits — choosing from a perfectly fine and rotating tap selection — and I enjoyed the extra affordances that Free Play offered as interfaces between drink and game. For one thing, many of the stand-up cabinets have little shelves tucked beside or between them, obviating the need to play one-handed (or to deputize a friend to hold your drink).
More impressively, though, Free Play’s management has gone out of its way to collect games in the “cocktail” form-factor, with the cabinet shaped like a small table and the screen embedded under a thick Plexiglass layer, aimed straight up. (The Warlords cabinet was among these.) Players sit on either side with access to comfortably waist-level controls, but more to the point, the game’s shape invites them to set their drinks right over the screen. These cocktail units held a ubiquitous presence in the hotel lounges of my childhood, and always charmed me, all the more for their utter vanishment after the Golden Age. To see so many gathered into one place — and to set my own grown-up drink on good ol’ Dig-Dug, at last? That felt very special.
I suppose I should here admit that, after one or two drinks, Free Play’s interesting layout does start to feel a little fraught. More than once, with beer in both hand and head, I took a vertiginous step into empty space, my foot landing hard a few inches beneath expectations due to a sudden downward shift in floor-level. Free Play does festoon its corridors with caution signs near all its stairs and risers, but given the sensory overload endemic to a proper video arcade, they fade into the background with even stone-sober sight. (Happily, I spilled neither my drink nor my person, nor witnessed anyone else having an obvious mishap.)
My friends and I found a little bit of friction with Free Play’s prominent soundtrack, as well. Like most every other “retro-arcade” I’ve visited, it feels compelled to fill its own aural space with cranked-up 1980s pop. One friend said it made him feel a bit uncomfortably time-warped to a junior-high dance. While that particular effect will occur only to visitors of a certain age, it carries the more universal outcome of muffling the games’ own sound effects. In this way alone, Free Play seems to wander “off-period”, as my historical-reenactment friends might say. San Junipero fantasies to one side, I do not recall any actual arcade or game-room of the 80s supplying contemporary musical accompaniment, other than what might drift in the front entrance via the mall’s PA system, or what have you. But what a slight thing for me to complain about — and, honestly, I kind of like the music anyway.
If you find yourself in Providence some evening (other than a Tuesday night, which the arcade takes off), do consider a visit to Free Play. If you appreciate video game history as much as I do, I think you’ll come away impressed and happy, too.
I find myself often encountering a certain phrase in news articles about the climate that unerringly makes me feel a flash of bitterness. It usually reads something like “Scientists say it isn’t too late to avert the worst of climate change’s predicted effects, if the entire developed world acts literally right now.” I don’t know how much irony these stories expect me to apply as I read them. I do know that every headline has an understood lol, as if, and I can’t help but feel slightly trolled.
I also feel a bit like a patient who knows that the test results spell out something very bad, and yet the doctor for some reason won’t give it to me straight — launching into elaborate descriptions of experimental treatments, rather than telling me what I can realistically expect to happen next. I wish more news stories laid out for us the most-likely truth that they have so far contented to prevaricate around: short of a completely surprising miracle, absolutely nothing will prevent climate change from playing out in full, bringing global catastrophe with it. I want to see fewer words focused on ever-dimming hopes and more that turn a brave light instead on this aspect of the future that we and our descendants are all but inexorably bound towards.
While I may have no hope left for avoiding a heat-blighted future, I do reserve some for human civilization’s ability to survive it anyway. Unless the effects wrought by global warming happen with far more terrible suddenness than science seems to currently predict, then I feel hopeful that humanity will indeed change its carbon-outgassing habits — if only as a form a purely mechanical self-correcting behavior, rather than anything consciously preventative. Life will still become profoundly harder for all but the mega-wealthy, all in ways that will seem infuriatingly preventable in hindsight. But the behavioral adaptations forced upon us may end up enough to keep society knit together in a changed world.
Ten years ago I assumed that life would overall, on average continue to get only better for a typical earthling, year by year. I amend this today to thinking that it’ll get better in some ways but precipitously worse in others, at least for me and all my fellow denizens of the broadly middle wealth-band. We will have to do things we never would have assumed, for those in our economic strata: move inland, simplify our diets, give up recreational air travel. Maybe not have that second kid. (Or that first one.) I feel comfortable predicting that all these things will just become too expensive for anyone of non-extraordinary wealth to continue pursuing. And as populations measurable in millions cut back on carbon-expelling activities like gassing up the car or eating burgers regularly — and as the count of carbon-producing humans slows and maybe even reverses its growth — then I’d expect the rise in average global temperature to reach a maximum somewhere below a civilization-killing degree.
This destination will be, in many ways, a harder world. I have no illusions about this. I looked into my hot cup at the coffee shop today, and wondered about the chances that I’d need to kick my addiction someday for simple reasons of personal economics, once the stuff gets too expensive to drink so casually. I expect that coffee plants will likely, and within my lifetime, lose their commodity status over a lack of arable and uncontested land, as well as a lack of people willing to perform farm labor in increasingly dangerous conditions. And I expect this will not effect only coffee plants.
But I hope — and I don’t think naively — that the great big messy project of humanity will carry on, with both the will and the means to keep dragging its history into this uphill future. I predict that we’ll manage to keep relatively cheap internet access, god help us all, and so I continue working on my passions to help bring about a more equitable web, and to support and preserve digital art, because we’re still gonna need both. And, at least as importantly, I will take Roy Scranton’s advice to maintain my personal study of the humanities in the face of looming disaster, making of myself a better capillary for moving culture forward.
If I can keep pursuing this work with neither optimism nor irony, then I hope the news media can adopt a similar stance by helping us document and prepare for the future we’ve locked ourselves into, rather than the wishful and heartbreakingly normal futures no longer in our reach.
I concluded my thoughts on the amazing Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors by noting that I’d started its sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward, but had found it relatively uncompelling. A couple of friends subsequently encouraged me to push past its slow start, and it did grow on me, enough that I ate through the whole thing — all 40-odd hours of it. I leave the experience mostly interested in how a sequel can misunderstand what made its predecessor great, and the entertaining but entirely lopsided failure than can result.
I’ll catalogue the good parts first. As with Nine Hours, this game originally targeted the Nintendo DS, and received a modern-console edition last year within a collection titled The Nonary Games that adds interface improvements and fully voice-acted characters. Also like the previous game, one voice-actor’s performance really stood out for me: this time, Cindy Robinson’s portrayal of Zero III, the gleefully sadistic game-master who manifests as a holographic talking rabbit. Had I only read his lines as text on a DS, my mental voice for Zero would have sounded like a generic giggling maniac. This newer edition brings him to life through a woman who freely rips up and down an amazing and delightful comic range, and in key moments elbow-drops into lights-out terror. So good.
I also enjoyed the room-escape sequences, once I accepted their greater concern with math puzzles and password hunts than Nine Hours’ various challenges. One must also allow this newer Nonary Games edition of Last Reward to not always hide the game’s roots within the Nintendo DS: many activities remain clearly optimized for a touch-screen, and a handful end up outright painful with a console controller. (I hereby give you both permission and encouragement to just look up the solution to the tangram puzzle the moment you see the damn thing.)
I ended up falling into a pattern of enjoying Last Reward the way I might watch a mildly interesting TV series. While not immediately obvious, the game’s structure encourages this episodic approach: unlike Nine Hours’ small and tightly tangled flowchart, Last Reward presents you at the outset with an enormous and perfectly symmetrical story-tree. It branches three times and then thrice more, resulting in a mid-game of 9 clear-cut episodes, and I felt comfortable getting through one per play-session. Each of those has a “good” and “bad” ending to find, and when you mix in the prologue and endgame material, you end up spending dozens of hours with this game.
While I did stick with it, I didn’t find Last Reward’s story anywhere near as interesting as I did its structure, let alone the story of its predecessor. Both games’ plots are complete nonsense, but Nine Hours embraced it by couching its absurdities within a framework of real but wonderfully obscure mid-twentieth century pseudoscience, laying them out with truly enthusiastic detail and endearing itself completely with me. The story of Last Reward, on the other hand, revolves around blandly pedestrian time travel and “quantum mechanics” hogwash that, I expect, most any adult consumer of modern popular entertainment has seen many, many times.
Nothing illustrates this better than the game’s embarrassingly drawn-out teasing of Schrödinger’s Cat, treating the thought experiment as a delicious mystery that the player-character strives to learn more about, rather than as a long-established facet of modern popular culture. The game seems to lampshade this laughable disconnect by having another character express confused surprise at the protagonist’s ignorance — and then proceeds to launch into a lengthy slideshow on the topic anyway. A pale shade, this, of Santa and Lotus holding forth in Nine Hours about psychic crystals and morphogenetic fields.
The game also suffers a mismatch in the stakes its characters face versus those presented to the player. Exploring about one and a half of the flow-tree’s nine main branches makes clear that the player can safely and quickly revisit any choice-point, taking the previously untraveled path without erasing progress made downstream. This means that the crucial choices that the characters agonize over — what combination of people to bring through which doors, and how to vote in the Prisoner’s Dilemma matchups that define the game-within-the-game — make no difference to the player at all, deserving very little of their attention, even though each of the nine iterations is distinctly (perhaps even wastefully) voice-acted and painstakingly illustrated with circles and arrows on the back of each one as characters argue about possible outcomes.
And this carries, unfortunately, to story beats: certain turns of events do surprise and interest the first time they happen… but then they happen a second and a third time, I couldn’t escape a sinking feeling with the realization that six more iterations of each one awaited me.
A non-interactive movie about a person with supernatural deja-vu of this sort would start depicting it in short-hand as the audience catches on. Groundhog Day, for example, quite effectively expresses its protagonist’s subjective experience even though it limits its runtime to only two hours out of his own umpty-thousand. Last Reward, though, plays out each repetition in real time. Perhaps I would have felt less annoyed had I discovered sooner that I could enable a “Skip all” feature through the game’s options menu. Once I did — well into the final third of my mid-game slog — I fast-forwarded over the long plateaus between known-unique sections with no regrets.
In the end, Virtue’s Last Reward feels to me like its designers took the wrong lessons from what made Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors great. “Players loved the flowchart you could jump around in order to influence other branches? Great: let’s not only make it three times larger, but overtly center both gameplay and the storyline on jumping all over it!” And sure, that might have worked, but it seems implemented here at cost of a compelling story or memorable characters, to say nothing of Nine Hours’ loopily original way of presenting both.
This article was originally published, in modified form, at Opensource.com.
I am president and co-founder of the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation (IFTF), a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and improvement of the technologies enabling the much-storied digital artform we call interactive fiction. OpenSource.com approached us earlier this year to suggest our writing an article about IFTF, the technologies and services it supports, and how it all intersects with open source. I find this a novel angle to the decades-long story I’ve grown quite used to telling, as IF has a history rather older than — but nonetheless quite enmeshed with — the modern FOSS movement. I hope you’ll enjoy my sharing it now.
By interactive fiction, I include any video game or digital artwork whose primary interaction with its human audience involves pushing text back and forth, one way or another. The term originates from the time in the 1980s when parser-driven text adventure games — epitomized in the United States by Zork, Hitchhiker’s Guide, and the rest of Infocom’s canon — defined home-computer entertainment. Its mainstream-commercial viability had guttered by the 1990s, allowing online hobbyist communities to pick up the banner and carry on the tradition, releasing both games and game-creation tools into the world as they went.
After a good quarter-century of work, criticism, and play, the term “interactive fiction” now embraces a broad and sparkling variety of work, from puzzle-laden text adventures to sprawling and introspective hypertexts. Regular online competitions and festivals provide a great place to peruse and play new work: the English-language IF world enjoys annual events including Spring Thing and IFComp, the latter a centerpiece of modern IF since 1995 — which also makes it the longest-lived continually running game-showcase event of its kind, in any genre. IFComp’s crop of judged-and-ranked entries from 2017 shows off the amazing diversity in form, style, and subject matter that text-based games can boast today.
(I specify “English-language” above because, as a perhaps inevitable effect of its focus on writing, IF communities do tend to self-segregate by language. There exist also annual IF events in French and Italian, for example, and I hear tell of at least one Chinese IF festival gearing up soon. Happily, these borders are porous: during the four years I myself managed IFComp, it welcomed English-translated work from all these international communities.)
Largely due to its focus on text, IF also presents some of the most accessible platforms for both play and authorship. Most anyone who can read digitally presented text — including users of assistive technology, such as text-to-speech software — can play the majority of IF work. Likewise, IF creation is open to all writers with a willingness to learn and work with the tools and techniques involved.
This brings us to examine IF’s long relationship with open source, which has long helped enable the art form’s ongoing and highly adaptive availability in the decades since its commercial heyday. Allow me to present an overview of contemporary open-source IF creation tools, and then move on to consider the ancient and sometimes curious tradition of IF works that share their source code as well.
For creating traditional parser-driven IF — where the user types in commands to interact with the game’s world, such as GO NORTH or GET LAMP or PET THE CAT or ASK ZOE ABOUT QUANTUM MECHANICS — a number of development platforms exist, most of which are open-source. The early 1990s saw the emergence of several hacker-friendly parser-game development kits, and those still in use today include TADS, Alan, and Quest — all open, with the latter two bearing FOSS licenses.
But by far the most prominent of these is Inform, first released by Graham Nelson in 1993 and now maintained by a team Nelson continues to lead. Inform source is semi-open, in an unusual fashion: Inform 6, the previous major version of this system, makes its source available through the Artistic License. This has more immediate relevance than may be obvious, since the otherwise proprietary Inform 7 holds Inform 6 at its core, translating its remarkable natural-language syntax into its predecessor’s more C-like code before letting it compile the work down into machine code.
Inform games run on a virtual machine, a surviving relic of the Infocom era when that publisher targeted a VM so that it could write a single game that would subsequently run on Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari 800, and all the other flavors of home computer one might have back when people said things like “home computer”. There exist fewer popular operating systems today, but Inform’s virtual machines — either the relatively modern Glulx or the charmingly antique Z-machine, a reverse-engineered clone of Infocom’s historical VM — bring a similar benefit, letting Inform-created work run on any computer for which someone has created an Inform interpeter. Right now, popular cross-platform interpeters include desktop programs like Lectrote and Gargoyle, or browser-based ones like Quixe and Parchment — all of which are open-source.
If the pace of Inform’s development has slowed down in its maturity, it remains vital through an ever-active, many-handed, and transparent ecosystem — just like most any other popular open-source project. In Inform’s case, this includes the aforementioned interpreters, a collection of language extensions (usually written in a mix of Inform 6 and 7), and, of course, all the work created with it and subsequently shared with the world, sometimes with source included. I’ll return to that latter topic later in this article.
IF creation tools invented in the twenty-first century tend to explore player interactions outside of the traditional parser, generating hypertext-driven work that any modern web browser can load. Chief among these is Twine, originally developed by Chris Klimas in 2009, and under active development by many contributors today as a GNU-licensed open-source project. (In fact, Twine can trace its OSS lineage back to Tiddlywiki, the project from which Klimas initially derived it.)
Twine benefits from a standing IFTF program dedicated to its support, allowing the public to help fund its ongoing maintenance and development. IFTF also directly supports two long-time public services, IFComp and the IF Archive, both of which depend upon and contribute back into open software and technologies.
Measured by mass, the bulk of the Archive lies in games, of course: years and years of games, reflecting decades of evolving game-design trends and IF tool development. So, at last, the fun part: let’s talk about open-source text games!
Lots of IF work shares its source code, and the community’s quick-start solution for finding it is simple: search the IFDB for the tag “source available”. (The IFDB is yet another long-running IF community service, in this case run privately by TADS creator Mike Roberts.) Those unshy about a rather more bare-bones interface may also wish to browse the
/games/source directory of the IF Archive, which groups its content by development platform and written language, as well as a whole lot of work either too miscellaneous or too ancient to categorize floating at the top.
A little bit of random sampling of these code-sharing games will reveal an interesting dilemma: unlike the wider world of open-source software, the IF community lacks a generally agreed-upon way of licensing all the code that it generates. Unlike a software tool — including all the tools we use to build IF — an interactive fiction game is a work of art in the most literal sense, meaning that an open-source license intended for software would fit it no better than it would any other work of prose or poetry. But then again, an IF game is also a piece of software, and one that exhibits source-code patterns and techniques that its creator may quite legitimately wish to share with the world. What is an open-source-aware IF creator to do?
Some games address this by passing their code into the public domain, either through explicit license or — as in the case of the original, 42-year-old Adventure by Crowther and Woods — through community fiat. Some try to split the difference, rolling their own license that allows for free re-use of a game’s exposed business logic but forbids the creation of work derived specifically from its prose. This represents the tack I took when I opened up the source of my own game, The Warbler’s Nest. Lord knows how well that’d stand up in court, but I didn’t have any better ideas at the time.
Naturally, you can find work that refuses to overthink all this and just puts everything under a single common license anyway, and never mind the naysayers. A prominent example here is Emily Short’s epic Counterfeit Monkey, released in its entirety under a Creative Commons 4.0 license. CC frowns at its application to code, but one could make the argument that the strangely prose-like nature of Inform 7 source makes it at least a little more compatible with a CC license than a typical software project.
If you have read this far and find yourself eager to start exploring the world of interactive fiction, open-source and otherwise, allow me to collect a few next-stop links for you:
As mentioned in the article, IFDB and the IF Archive both present browsable interfaces to over forty years’ worth of collected interactive fiction work, much of it playable in one’s web browser, and some requiring additional interpreter programs (the acquisition and installation of which IFDB can assist with).
IFComp’s annual results pages provide another view into the best of this forever free and archive-available work.
The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation is a charitable non-profit organization that helps support Twine, IFComp, and the IF Archive, as well as efforts to improve accessibility of IF, explore IF’s use in education, and on and on. Do feel free to join its mailing list to receive IFTF’s monthly newsletter, or peruse its blog in the meantime. (Also, can we interest you in some attractively thematic merchandise?)
John Paul Wohlscheid wrote this article about open-source IF tools for itsfoss.com earlier this year, and I came across it while wrapping up my work on this opensource.com article. (Something in the air, hm?) It covers some platforms not mentioned here, so if you’re still hungry after my 2,000 words, go have a look.
Thanks to VM Brasseur for inviting me to write this article for Opensource.com and helping me to develop it, and to Jen Wike Huger for editing and facilitating its publication on that website.
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