In my interactive fiction The Warbler’s Nest, which I wrote in 2010, a pivotal scene sees the main character having their attention drawn to an outlier amongst a field of tall plants. They approach cautiously, as the wind blows through the field, carrying strange noises and a sense of quietly escalating dread. When they finally reach the unusual stalk, they discover a bizarre animal crouched there — one whose appearance and behavior sets the tone of the rest of the work.
Here is a scene from Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, a film from 2009 which I had never watched until only last night. (Be warned that this clip contains a jump-scare and realistic animal gore.)
The absolutely uncanny similarity between the scene in the movie and the one in my game struck me immediately; it felt a little bit like watching a film adaptation of my own work! But of course, I knew the whole time that the movie predates my game by a year, so I considered it a delightful coincidence.
With a day to roll it around in my head, though, I begin to settle on the likelihood that I had watched this scene from Antichrist online while the film was new, months before starting my work on Warbler. Back then, after I saw it, I immediately put it out of mind, just as we all do with the thousands of other multimedia bits and bobs we encounter on the web during any year. But my brain found it sticky enough to index, and so popped it into deep-storage, wiring up reference-handles to it in the utterly ineffable ways that brains do.
And to it came to pass that when designing Warbler a year later, it happened to share enough key abstractions with this unsettling image of Willem Dafoe in the forest that my brain duly retrieved it from cold storage — enough that I could more or less adapt it wholesale into my work, but not so much that I had any conscious awareness of the fact! It absolutely felt like completely original invention on my part. Watching this clip today, underneath my own one-paragraph summary of the Warbler scene, I really can’t believe that any more.
I don’t feel any kind of negativity about this discovery. In fact, I feel quietly thrilled — how often does one get to perform this sort of critical archaeology on one’s own body of work, a decade after the fact? It reveals not just something about my own process but, I believe, the creative process in general: we are one and all remix-machines. With both our physical bodies and our creative oeuvres, we are what we eat.
And I really have to get back into watching more movies.
Note: Antichrist is a provocative horror movie containing lots of disturbing content, including but not limited to explicit sex and brutal violence. I liked it, but would not necessarily recommend it.
Every so often I find myself confronting someone with a penchant for springing pop-quizzes upon the person they’re talking to, despite lacking any real social-context authority to do so. A typical interaction with one of these conversational quizmasters might go something like this:
BOB: Hello, Alice! (Who, for the purposes of this example, is my colleague and peer, and not my teacher or superior officer or something!) I need your help plugging this transcendental inducer into this frobnard.
ALICE: Really? Let’s see that… Huh, Okay. Do you know what the three rules of safe transcendental induction are?
ALICE: [Smiling archly] What are they?
BOB: [Suddenly caught flatfooted] Uhhh…?
(Admission: I assigned the speakers’ genders consciously here to avoid conflating the quizmaster with the mansplainer, a related but subtly discrete phenomenon.)
Alice, beyond being simply rude, has surprised Bob with a sudden intellectual task thrown into his hands. This completely blew away whatever mental frame he brought to this conversation. He’ll probably try to meet the challenge, just out of reflex, much as he’d automatically move to catch a ball that Alice unexpectedly lobbed at him.
The only two possible outcomes of at attempt to answer Alice’s latter question: either Bob stammers out a correct answer, making himself feel vaguely hazed and belittled by a peer; or he doesn’t, making himself feel called-out and foolish. Alice gets to feel superior, either way, and we can imagine that the unexpected opportunity to gleefully knock someone down a peg motivated her.
I therefore propose an alternate course of action to one facing this kind of uninvited quizzing: just sidestep it entirely by asking for the answer right away. Tamp down the impulse, expected by the quizmaster, to chase the bait, and keep your ego unbruised by tucking it away entirely.
So, in the case of the above drama, Bob would answer Alice’s challenge not with a deer-in-headlights stare as he desperately shifted mental gears in order to answer literally, but instead demurring to play the game at all. “Gosh, you know what, why don’t you tell me?” perhaps, with a self-effacing little shrug. Or, in the advanced case, if Bob suspects (or, indeed, knows from experience) that Alice is the sort of person to lead him into a trap for her amusement, he could simply have responded to her first question with a grinning “Nope!”
Taking this tack might involve an apparent profession of false ignorance, which may seem a little dishonest — not just to the quizmaster you face, but to yourself. However, I invite you to reconsider the question not according to its literal wording, but instead as couched in its true, unspoken framing: “What are the three laws of robotics?” becomes “Do you want to amuse me by reciting the answer to ‘What are the three laws of robotics’?” And to this, with a smile on your face, you can say: Why, no!
The effect remains the same: you rob the quizmaster of the satisfaction of watching you squirm, and they experience the lesser pleasure (from their point of view) of simply stating some fact at you. You, in the meantime, can enjoy the subtle relief of keeping your pride uninjured despite this ambush. (Getting want you initially wanted out of the conversation with this disagreeable person, and then gracefully ending it, remains an open problem, of course — but I have faith in the reader’s natural abilities here.)
This whole notion came to me by way of a recent Radiolab episode, when a guest asked long-time hosts Jad and Robert if they knew about a fairly basic scientific phenomenon. As a decade-plus listener of the show, I can guarantee that both hosts knew that topic quite well, and probably had based whole prior episodes around in the past — and yet, they both made professionally curious noises and begged the guest to explain the principle.
Now, they did that because it’s good radio, of course: let the guest do the talking! Just the same, I took notice of the deft sidestep, and it stuck with me. Some weeks later, thinking back on the last time an acquaintance pinned me with an unwanted quiz mid-conversation, the potential application of the same strategy struck me. Just a small thing, and I hope it helps someone — including, possibly, myself — the next time they’re put, with casual aggression, into an awkward spot.
This article was also posted to the “advice” section of Indieweb.xyz.
This year’s Layer 8 Conference in Providence came to my attention after my May post about my summer plans. As soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to clear a day for it. After more than twenty years as a professional software engineer, I feel quite ready to explore other paths, including specialization. Infosec has held a certain allure for me lately, and here was a one-day conference dedicated to the topic — more or less — a half-hour walk from my home.
I attended as an outsider to the community, and I learned so much. This article, then, mixes observed experiences particular to my day at the conference with more general knowledge I picked up and can’t resist describing for a larger audience.
My first discovery was that Layer 8 is itself about two particular topics within infosec:
Social engineering: tricking people to trust you, usually with the goal of accessing things or places otherwise locked away from you. I feel uneasy describing this, because when I put it that way it sounds akin to pick-up artistry or confidence scams — and probably for good reason! However, Layer 8’s speakers have made a legitimate career out of the practice, with corporations inviting them to try breaking into their secure facilities as a kind of penetration test. (“Physical pen test” being one term of art I heard a lot, in fact.)
Without exception, the stories I heard did not describe Hollywood-style crawling through air ducts, but instead just striding confidently down well-lit corridors, the intruder putting everyone at ease with a smile and a wink that they belong there — and listen, Jessica from the front desk sent me over here and said you could print out a visitor’s badge for me? Do you mind…? Oh, thank you, you’re a lifesaver. Where’s your server room? I’m supposed to meet Rahim there…
OSINT: open source intelligence, which seems kind of an awkward name since it has little to do with open-source software. Practicing OSINT means getting intel about some entity — be it person or corporation — by using both organized research tools and the myriad and utterly disorganized exposed surfaces and handles that protrude from every website and social-media presence, ready for grasping and pulling, like a thread, for anyone who knows what to look for.
Much of OSINT takes advantage of the fact that so much of the internet is built by teams working by the seat of their pants to ship features as fast as possible, delivering something that looks good on the surface, and to hell with the thumps in the closet and the lumps under the carpet — a topic of intimate and painful familiarity to me.
Besides “OSINT” itself, two new frequently used terms from Layer 8 that I’ve added to my own glossary:
Tailgating: a basic infiltration technique which, in its benign form, I have participated in countless times — and I would wager that you have as well. As the term implies, it simply and literally means following a someone with security clearance around, letting their trust envelop you and speed you on your own way like a cyclist riding in the draft of another.
The most typical tailgating action involves passing through a locked door for which one has no key by simply waiting for a key-possessor to approach, and then following them through. This strikes me as social engineering in a nutshell, really; in every such case I’ve encountered, the key-holder will hold the door open for a friendly-looking stranger who just happened to stroll around the corner at the same time. Nobody wants to be a jerk! (And even people who do like being jerks probably don’t want to put their day on hold just to challenge some stranger’s presence.) And that’s how it all starts.
Rubber Ducky: If your infiltration has proved successful enough to grant you physical access to an on-site computer, you can jam one of these specially prepared USB keys into it, and — in all likelihood — watch it crack open like a walnut under a series of automated attacks. The “ducky” identifies itself to the computer as a keyboard, you see, and it firehoses the poor machine with a script of every security exploit applicable to its OS and network environment, “typed in” at an inhuman speed.
I do not want to believe that this exists, because it does sound some something from a movie. But it’s a thing! With a brand name! You can buy one right now! And people use them all the time, apparently. I imagine it doesn’t come standard with a window that pops up to display
[HACKING...] with a progress bar, but I would totally believe that some folks have modified their duckies to have exactly that anyway.
Anyway, I attended some talks. Here are four that I enjoyed especially:
Connecting Information via User Account Recovery and Filling in the Blanks. Noel Tautges, a high-school student, provided a wondrous example on how one can get private contact information on any modern internet user through a clever, multiple-pronged OSINT approach. Say that you want to get your target’s private phone number:
After poking around and collecting valid usernames for your target on a variety of social media and other internet services, initiate a password-reset request on all of them. Collect all the “obscured” email and phone-number templates each provides for two-factor authentication (e.g. “We’ll send a text to ***-***-**89, OK?”), and then combine them to get as much of that number revealed as you can.
Use what you know about your target’s geographical location, plus the published rules about how phone numbers are distributed in that area, to narrow down the possible space of unknown numbers. With luck, this can turn an unbounded list of a million numbers down to a thousand or so.
Prepare an “address book” containing a thousand of so of your close personal friends, who all have oddly similar phone numbers. Upload that mother to a social network that you yourself have an account on, along with your target. Wait and see which ones turn into valid accounts — and then which one has your target’s avatar attached to it.
And now you have your target’s phone number, and you didn’t do anything other than use some APIs designed to do your target a favor.
Understanding the Web to Achieve Your OSINT Goals. A more novice-friendly and less ethically murky complement to Noel’s talk, this presentation by Micah Hoffman laid out an excellent overview of tools and techniques available to anyone curious about sniffing around the edges of a company’s online presence, looking underneath the veneer of rendered web pages to find all the other interesting less-public tidbits a typical public website leaves scattered around.
Micah, who founded the OSINTCurio.us project, didn’t describe any concept that I wasn’t already well-acquainted with as an autodidact web developer of 20 years: viewing page source, for example, or poking at JSON APIs. But I loved seeing them presented in the context of snoopy OSINT research tools instead of hammers to try swinging around when the damn web application stops working again.
View the page’s source code and look for commented-out code or links. Do they still work if you try manually visiting them? Try to bring up a website’s robots.txt file: can we visit those addresses by hand? Why doesn’t the website want web crawlers to index those pages? Any interesting inferences we can make from that? (In one amusing case, Micah showed one service’s live robots.txt that forbade the indexing of one particular user, whose page remained browsable to manual requests. Therein lay a tale!)
I can’t escape thinking that this talk, or some version of it, would be especially appropriate for kids! Children in particular should learn that the web is not only not magical, it’s not even television; they can look under the surface and see how it works, using tools they already own. They can explore the edges, look for seams, experiment, and — maybe — get inspired.
Everything Old is New Again. Presented by Snow, one of several infiltration experts present at Layer 8 with an affinity for both storytelling and going in public by a cinematic hackerly nom de guerre. Snow identifies herself on her Twitter profile as a “ConWoman”, and this talk drew on this identity, illustrating the direct lines of heritage between pre-digital confidence-scams and their modern descendants. We see the pigeon drop reborn as the Nigerian-perfected 419 attack today. Enterprising folks still practice one of the oldest con games in recorded history, pig in a poke, except with bogus Bitcoins rather than bricks sewn into a sack.
Snow acknowledged that an ever-popular target for trust-scams, then and now, is the elderly. The digital era has made some scams far more effective on their targets, especially older folks; one example is “the grandchild who wasn’t”, where a “long-lost relative” contacts a kindly oldster, seeming to know quite a lot about the family (there’s that OSINT again), and immediately leans on this happy new connection for a little financial help. Snow advises setting up, with one’s older relations, a technique that I wrote down as “Human 2FA”: have your honored elders agree to check in with you before forging new digital relationships with anyone who might come knocking.
Petitioners during the talk’s Q&A seemed more interested in Snow’s own experiences as professional trickster and infiltrator; I got the impression that she holds some celebrity status in the community, and she seemed happy to tell a few war stories. And this led quite neatly into the next talk I attended.
Transitive Trust. Tinker unspooled an amazing, energetic, and thoroughly entertaining monologue based on a “red-team” exploit he had related that same day in a long Twitter thread. Re-reading that thread now, I must admit, the story as a whole smells a bit fishy — especially given how Tinker overtly introduced himself to the room as a professional liar! However, I find every individual piece of the story quite believable, even if the whole thing doesn’t seem to hang together quite right, and it presented a clear and entirely credible take-home message about how trust is softest at the seams.
Tinker’s tale follows him as he makes his way from his target’s parking lot and, through a series of quantum trust-jumps, into its server room, rubber ducky at the ready. He begins with no infiltration tools other than a couple changes of clothes in his car. He wears the aspect of a construction manager to breeze past door-security, and then fishes around the hallways to gain the trust of a random office-dweller. Here he presents himself as a “sprinkler inspector” as a ruse to be shown around the building, openly taking pictures of its infrastructure (and its whiteboards, with everything written on them).
People want to follow the rules, and a successful social engineer will help their human obstacles in finding the shortest path to getting those rules followed — which, invariably, also allows the engineer to continue their work. In Tinker’s story, when a supervisor does confront him for snooping around in a secure area with no badge, he manipulates the situation to move his challenger from “You have no badge, and I’m going to eject you” to “You have no badge, so I’ll help you get a badge.” That puts everything in a state of rules-compliance that satisfies everyone, and is so much easier to accomplish for a building supervisor on a late Friday afternoon than forcing someone to leave the premises.
The talk’s title refers, specifically, to how an infiltrator’s earned trust sticks to them, and can snowball: If Alice trusts Bob (perhaps because she is his boss), and I earn Bob’s trust, then that makes it easier for me to have Alice trust me too — and now I can go everywhere Alice chooses to let me. In the end, the supervisor left Tinker with another authority able to print out badges, but neglected to say why he needed one. Tinker pounced on this oversight and identified himself as an IT contractor, here to “upgrade the servers”. And that was the end of that. As he summarized on Twitter, no single person that he interacted with failed at their job. Everyone diligently followed all the rules that applied to them. The failure lay in the false assumptions inherent in the handoff between each authority.
This talk ended with a flourish unlike anything I’d seen at a conference before. Instead of having a Q&A, Tinker invited Snow to approach the lectern and tell a story from her own career that he assured us was relevant. While she spoke, he faded to one corner of the room, pulled off his white shirt to reveal a black one, peeled off his wig of graying and sensibly mid-length hair that I had given no conscious thought about, and left the room without another word. Snow spoke calmly through all this, then led a round of applause when the door shut — and then finished her story. I myself caught only part of his transformation, as if a gorilla had strolled through a basketball game. I noticed what I did only when people around me started gasping. So… that happened.
A few scattered final notes about Layer 8 Conference in particular:
There were lots of women, among both speakers and audience. So long as we remain in an era where a technical (or technically adjacent) conference attracts a greater-than-dismal proportion of female attendees, I’ll continue making note of it when it happens. I’m not familiar enough with the security industry to know the gender balance of its own population, but seeing the relatively high ratio of women sitting all around me diring the morning welcome-address made me feel very good about attending Layer 8.
The “village” side-activites were varied and nice. Along with the ubiquitous hallway of swag-laden vendor tables, Layer 8 offered a number of “villages” in side rooms that ran day-long workshops and other activities, welcoming folks to drop in and out as desired. Mental Health Hackers had presence, offering a room with low lighting, peaceful music, and free massages. Those with still-restless fingers could visit a rolling lockpicking workshop run by TOOOL, who piled tables high with padlocks and supplied expert advice for a bit of recreational tumbler-popping.
Finally, one all-day event invited people to form ad-hoc teams and use OSINT strategies to find leads on actual Rhode Island missing-persons cases. According to the conference’s closing remarks, one team did verifiably find a very recent social-media post — containing a single emoji, but enough to read as an “I’m alive” ping — from one weeks-missing teenager.
Too much candy. Trivial but real: Multiple vendor-tables enticed vistors by offering candy, ranging from M&Ms to fancy chocolate bars with company-branded wrappers. Zero of them had anything that wasn’t candy and I would have been so thankful for a packet of peanuts or a granola bar or something with even a trace of protein content.
Will I attend Layer 8 next year? I honestly have no idea! I had a great time this year, and while I didn’t exactly emerge from the convention center with new life goals, I did get exposed to so much valuable new knowledge and perspective. My thanks to all its organizers and presenters for making it happen.
In a happy bit of open-web serendipity, news about two unrelated experiments involving RSS showed up Saturday in my RSS reader. (Of all places.) I found both interesting enough to bounce along to my own little audience, so do allow me to start with the more time-sensitive of them:
Giles Turnbull wants you to use RSS more. To that end, throughout June he runs an art project called Black and White RSS, where he posts one original monochrome photograph to a special RSS feed — and nowhere else. If you can suss out how to subscribe, you’ll wake up every morning (Eastern time) with another photograph shared with you solely on this obscure channel you took the trouble to hook into. It feels pretty nice.
The project’s page is of secondary but significant interest for listing one long-time blogger’s most up-to-date instructions, aimed at a newcomer, on how to subscribe to an RSS feed.
Meanwhile, Kicks Condor shared a video about Fraidycat, a work-in-progress RSS reader with a focus on providing and organizing links to new content, rather than taking the more typical strategy of scooping out the feed’s text content and presenting it in the RSS reader’s own clean and uniform style.
At least, I feel pretty sure that’s an accurate summary; the video adopts a rather oblique presentational style. But this reading aligns with Kicks’ essay celebrating the old web as a wild kaleidoscope — and how Google Reader, however beloved, drained all the color and style from it — so I feel pretty confident in my interpretation.
Fraidycat will also let you tweak the way that different feeds display themselves to you — letting you make links to new articles by less-frequent writers appear more prominently, for example. I’m definitely looking forward to Fraidycat’s public release. This looks fun to play with.
A related aside: Kicks Condor is also the creator and maintainer of indieweb.xyz, an interesting experiment in making something Reddit-like for the IndieWeb, driven entirely through Webmentions. I discovered it by way of Chris Aldrich’s instructions for participating in the IndieWeb Book Club, which I did indeed follow a couple of posts ago.
You may have noticed me participating more in the experiment by adding syndication links to indieweb.xyz at the bottom of recent Fogknife posts.I don’t know how long I’ll keep doing that, but for now I love seeing it work. It has helped remind me how much crackling potential I see in Webmentions as an open-web technology, and I feel impatient to start exploring it more.
This article was also posted to the “indieweb” section of Indieweb.xyz.
Ryan Veeder has created some of my favorite interactive fiction work throughout the 2010s, starting from his 2011 IFComp winner Taco Fiction and continuing on from there. I discovered his ongoing oeuvre via the quiet and wistful Wrenlaw and the hectic optimization challenge Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder. His work espouses a unique sort of friendly and welcoming humility rarely found in video games of any variety, whether the nominal subject of the game is a desperate thief, a high-seas pirate (who is also a talking rat), or an everyday person wandering around some interesting landmark of Iowa City. These games use the text-adventure medium to offer surprising levels of shifting depth in unexpected places, such as the part in Taco Fiction where you can put the story of small-town intrigue on hold to flirt with an ice-cream-shop clerk and sample every flavor of dessert on display — each of which has its own voluminous responses to being smelled, tasted, or purchased, and none of which drive the plot forward, and all of which makes the game somehow unforgettable.
I could go on, but will instead defer to a more detailed examination of Ryan’s body of work (as of 2016) by Emily Short. Given my clear admiration for them, though, I was surprised to see that I’d never mentioned any of these games in Fogknife before today. On further thought, it stands to reason: I began this blog in earnest at the end of 2014, the first of my four years helming IFComp, and thus the after the point where I stopped playing IF with any regularity. (Working in the sausage factory, and all that.)
But I do manage to get a text adventure onto my plate from time to time, just the same. Two years ago I played, enjoyed, and wrote about John Baker’s all-but-forgotten John’s Fire Witch. And last summer, I had the pleasure to play Ryan Veeder’s Curse of the Garden Isle within days of its release. In the year since, I realized I’ve mentioned the game again and again in different contexts to friends and colleagues as a wonderfully accessible and rewarding example of modern parser-based interactive fiction, a real stand-out work. And yet, I have seen essentially no other mention of it online, not even within dedicated IF discussion spaces. Let me try to help rectify this, examining why I find it a quiet exemplar of the form.
Garden Isle’s player-character works at a geological museum on Kauai, the titular Hawaiian island. In this only-slightly Brady Bunch-ified version of reality, a regular part of your character’s job involves receiving packages from around the world, all from tourists convinced that a native rock they brought home as a souvenir triggered an island curse resulting in all manner of personal misfortune. So each one sends their purloined stone back to the museum, with an attached letter of apology, and a request that you-the-recipient please put the little piece of the island back. On the day the game takes place, the museum has received a healthy pile of these guilt-ridden parcels. To complete the game, then, you’ve got to use each visitor’s handwritten tale of woe for clues about the origin location of each respective rock, and drop them all more or less back into place.
Like a lot of Veeder’s best work, this becomes a game about exploring a space through the eyes of a person very familiar with every aspect of it, and yet with a knack for describing it in a visitor-friendly way. You cruise around the shoreline highway that circles the perimeter of the little round island — the game’s online-play page links to a live Google Map as a usable gameplay aid — visiting all its towns, parks, and other signifiant seeing-sights as you lay all the stones back to bed. (In a subtly nice stroke of design, the game begins with your driving to work, exposing you to a few of these potential stone-destinations before you encounter the stack of packages, and jump-starting the idea of what you should do next.)
Befitting its setting, the game has a very aloha-compatible pace: unhurried, unhassled. Taking the time to admire all the scenery, whether forest, fort, or gravesite, and mixing in a little bit of island history whenever the player shows deeper interest by requesting a closer look. And always stopping to let the ubiquitous feral chickens of Kauai cross the road. (You will meet a lot of these chickens, and learn about how they all got there. Make sure to look at the chickens.) And Ryan, for his part, confirms one’s suspicions about the game’s inspiration by writing himself in as one of the hapless but penitent tourists whom the player-character helps absolve. This character takes it all in stride, putting around the island for as long as the player needs, on a mission with stakes both as clearly visible and as calmly muted as the ancient volcanoes that the highways weave around.
I’ve been thinking about accessibility in games a lot lately, and in interactive fiction in particular. An IFTF program that I’ve led for the last year and a half is about to release a report about the state of accessibility in IF, with recommendations about its improvement. Curse of the Garden Isle came to mind several times while I wrote the report over the past month — not just for the high quality and welcoming attitude of the game’s own content, but for a very minor but still noteworthy facet of its in-browser presentation: the static text that appears around the main gameplay pane, linking permanently to helpful resources (including that Google map), and in particular the “text parser tips” displayed in the lower left margin. It’s just a short bullet-list of the most common parser IF commands, readable in a few seconds. But that’s the thing: I can’t think of another modern parser game with a browser-play mode that bothers to offer a tiny cheat-sheet like this, even though many might link to longer-winded “how to play IF” guides.
As I write this, for example, my own The Warbler’s Nest (of 2010 vintage) does offer a prominent “Help and Hints” link, but the result tells you nothing about how to play parser IF. Two more clicks from that page will lead an especially determined newbie to this quick-reference card that Andrew Plotkin and Leah Albaugh designed the same year I released that game. The card remains a great little resource, but wow, what a marathon to get to that information-dense PDF when one could do like Ryan did and just paint a bite-sized list of get-started prompts right on the game’s cover.
I pair this observation with a personal experience from earlier this year, when I opened a short talk about IFTF at a local technology meet-up with a group-playthrough of the first half-hour or so of Admiral Jota’s novice-friendly Lost Pig. The gathered players — almost all newcomers to parser-based gameplay — struggled quite a bit through the first few scenes, having absolutely nothing to grasp at when out of ideas for what that bare-naked text prompt might want from them. “Is there a vocabulary list?” one audience-member asked, quite reasonably, and I found myself feeling a little bit ashamed at the only answer. This moment must have sealed my admiration for Garden Isle’s dead-simple solution to this very predicament: list some verbs, the most basic ones, and tuck that list down in the corner from the very start. Just enough to vault new players over the strange hump of that typey-typey interface and into the unique back-and-forth rhythm of the text adventure, encouraging further discovery (including further reading of those more involved help materials) if they find it welcoming.
I stand convinced that all text games, parser games especially, should prominently and permanently display basic controls like Curse of the Garden Isle does — and the upcoming accessibility report will say as much.
This article was also posted to the “games” section of Indieweb.xyz.
I read this book as part of the IndieWeb Book Club.
Many years ago, the student newspaper I worked at sent its staff photographers to a photojournalism conference. They came back spitting fire, displaying a mix of personal self-empowerment and suddenly withering contempt for the paper’s editorial staff, all of an intensity unique to young adults after their simultaneous discovery of and emancipation from a systemic injustice they had no idea they had labored under. Their declaration of independence made the photographers seem quite difficult to work with for the rest of my time at the paper. This came in part due to their youthfully aggressive stance, but also because we editors were used to treating them as tools — and unused to being told, when our desires conflicted with their judgment, to shove it. And that, of course, was the point.
And that is one point as well of Mike Monteiro’s Ruined by Design, a polemic screaming out from the author’s decades of work as the head of Mule Design in San Fransisco. This particular intersection of career and location has given him a unique ring-side seat to the shaping — he might say destruction — of modern culture by way of technology, and he looks out at all the designers laboring for their corporate masters to increase shareholder value by making the world worse. This short, angry book lays out the case for the calamitous societal pollution he sees his whole field as complicit with, and he rallies his fellow designers — defined, here, as just about anyone involved in the production of consumer technology, from Apple to Facebook to Volkswagen — to redefine their role and reorient their energy before things get any worse.
Monteiro insists that readers accept that design now plays a central role in shaping all human activity. The people that a designer works truly for, he writes, are not the companies who pay them — often growth-addicted and entirely self-serving, however well-intentioned they may have been at one time. (Uber began life as a clever way to connect drivers with some spare time to passengers needing a lift. Now it exists primarily to make Uber ever-larger, and crush anything or anyone in its way.) Instead, the book argues, a designer works for the people who will use the thing being designed. As such, a designer should work in the best interests of these people, and not for the corporations who stand to profit from it. If a designer’s employer asks them to use their skills to make something deceitful or harmful, that designer should refuse — exactly as a doctor should refuse a request to use their medical knowledge to harm someone.
Doctors, of course, take an oath to use their powers only for healing, and Monteiro makes the case that designers in today’s society need something like that too. They also need labor unions in order to better empower individual designers to make tough decisions that would otherwise put their livelihoods in danger. (Monteiro draws on his first-hand experience in San Fransisco to describe how VC-backed technology companies increasingly resemble company towns, providing everything to their employees — and thus making them stand to lose everything, should they ever refuse to carry out an unethical order.) The author goes so far as to suggest that designers should answer to a licensing board — an idea that, he admits, doesn’t have nearly as much current support within the field as the notion of a new labor collective. But Monteiro sees designers as weilding every bit as much power as airline pilots, or lawyers, or physicians. (Let alone motorists.) He feels it past time for that power’s responsible use to be checked by an independent agency.
I also appreciated Ruined by Design’s argument for diversity within design practices, and its naming a simple, one-action path to attain it: hire people from different backgrounds. More diverse backgrounds means more internal coverage of different life experiences brought into an organization, and this in turn means more horrible mistakes averted. He relates the story of how Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, one woman working among a sea of men, single-handedly refused to rubber-stamp the approval of thalidomide for use by pregnant women in the US — and thus prevented untold disaster. And as an anti-example, he looks across the street to Twitter today, which he perceives as launched and still operated primarily by white tech-bros who designed a system only around themselves. And thus, no clue about the harassment and abuse it invites, by design, to all users who didn’t resemble them.
I don’t think I’d before this read a description of the virtuous cycle that a proactive-hiring stance can bring to an office — especially once it gets over the hump of initial and perhaps awkward “diversity hires”, leading to a new reality of a suddenly wide-open field of candidates more willing to work there. Using gender as an example axis, Monteiro writes of his own company: “When women apply here, they see themselves reflected in who’s interviewing them, making this feel like a more welcoming place.” That strikes me as pleasantly bankable advice for any organization — whether the money-making enterprises this book has in mind, or the nonprofits that I tend to find around myself.
Ruined by Design has a sometimes strange and uncomfortable attitude towards its own narrative, feeling almost like it was written front-to-back, getting its thesis in-line as it went and not necessarily cleaning up after itself. I take this as intentional to some degree, but still felt distracted by a certain amount of flagellatory loathing towards his own generation of designers that the author engages in before the book really starts to state its case more convincingly. Reading with an open mind, I take the opening screeds that amount to we have ruined everything and should all just die and give the next batch a chance to do better as setting the table for the book’s subsequent arguments that today’s design leadership should put the work in to make room — just delivered in a state of initial shock and hopelessness before the book talks itself into a better mood.
Other oddities include the presence, in the center, of Monteiro’s contemporaneous essay “We build a broken internet, and now we need to burn it” — a very effective provocation when published by itself, but feeling rather at cross-purposes to this book’s core message of proactive improvement. I also read with some bemusement the author’s clear view that Facebook might still redeem itself by way of its designers, if they choose to exert their will from within the companhy — while Twitter, somehow, lay utterly beyond repair or even forgiveness. And yet, I did find compelling Monteiro’s argument that Twitter’s core business model has moved from its original intent of mass intercommunication to a company that makes money by prodding you to get into fights with chortling racists, thus disincentivizing the company from pushing them off the platorm. However jarring, I value this sort of blunt reminder why efforts like the IndieWeb remain important, and worth my own continuing time and attention in the years ahead.
I began yesterday with an idle visit to a certain news website where an opinion writer quipped a comparison between some current item and Garfield Minus Garfield. And because I hadn’t commenced my day’s work yet, this meant that I could bend the entirety of my mental attention towards an unresolved mystery that has bothered me ever since that particular bit of comics-remix tomfoolery rode its own shooting star, a few years back.
I summed it up in a tweet, thus:
I *swear* that “Garfield Minus Garfield” was *preceded* by a funnier variant (by another person?) that left Garfield in but erased his thought balloons. So it wasn’t a man screaming at nothing, it was a man screaming at his cat, staring silently. Objectively funnier; unfindable.— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) May 15, 2019
Delightfully, this within minutes had caught a double-digit amount of reactions from both friends and strangers, all of whom agreed with me that, yes, they all remembered something matching my description, and yes, it was funnier than Garfield Minus Garfield. As Leon Arnott so excellently summed it up, this dimly recalled work was basically the Threes to the other’s 2048: something amazing and original that became almost immediately eclipsed by an inferior clone, which then through some fluke managed to capture all the world’s love and attention — and leaving the fist thing’s tiny cadre of fans forever bitter at the injustice.
Expanding this a little: Garfield Minus Garfield turns the strip into nonsense, deriving its humor mainly by playing on life-long familiarity (for anyone born after 1970) with Garfield characters. Read with no cultural context, it merely depicts Garfield’s owner Jon as a gibbering lunatic, shouting at the walls of his empty home. Its untitled predecessor — let’s call it Garfield Can’t Talk — does better than this: it transforms Garfield’s greeting-card pabulum into the chronicle of a pathetic man who talks to his cat all day, and the cat responds only by staring back, or wandering off, or glancing wearily at the reader. Sometimes these staring silences stretch across multiple panels.
I would not make the case that Garfield Can’t Talk is a good comic strip; I wouldn’t want to read it daily, no more than I would its source material. But it did present the world with such a wonderful example of a purpose-built but elegant remix-filter: just cut this little bit out, and watch this comic strip about a snarky cat and his silly owner turn into that comic strip about an indifferent cat and his pathetic owner. When considered in this light, Garfield Minus Garfield feels like the creation of one who liked this a lot too, and thought that cutting out twice as much would make the result twice as funny, and thus missed the point entirely.
Anyway, I posted that tweet. And then a beautiful thing happened: so many of the people that it unexpectedly jolted on a Wednesday morning felt compelled to scour the web for evidence as to the forgotten project’s existence. Collectively, they did some excellent detective work, some of which you can see for yourself in the replies to my first tweet.
If I may summarize their findings: As best as anyone can tell, what I call Garfield Can’t Talk first appeared on the forums of Something Awful, a pre-Reddit cultural trash compactor responsible for a great deal of the infectious remix-catchphrasing of the early web. (Remember “All Your Base”?) It may have started to vector into the wider world by way of a now-defunct website called “Truth and Beauty Bombs”; this 2006 article by Eric Burns-White describes the phenomenon from a point of view contemporary with the game’s discovery, and points to an apparently lost-to-time thread elsewhere.
From these origins, other websites joined in on the fun, including this LiveJournal community (hollow with age, but with a few strips still clinging to its rusting skeleton), and these comics by Tailsteak. We can see how quickly folks started their own twists to the game, such as redrawing the strips from scratch in their own style, but otherwise remaining faithful to the originals. And Garfield Minus Garfield seems to have begun in that spirit: well, what if we erased even more, ha ha? And then, because nothing in life needs to make sense, that became the permutation that caught the world’s favor for a while.
Interestingly, the subtler humor of Garfield Can’t Talk looks like it gets independently rediscovered and re-implemented every so often in our fallen, post Garfield Minus Garfield world. See, for example, Realfield, which finds another in-between spot for the gag, replacing every appearance of Garfield with a more realistically drawn (and therefore always blank-faced) orange cat. See also Silent Garfield, which apparently re-posts a pared down Garfield strip as soon as the original appears on its own website, with a mechanical fervor that cares little for the humor value of the result.
So, that’s my report to the internet on this topic. I wasn’t imagining this older, funnier Garfield permutation, and neither were you. Some, indeed, keep its candle lit, more than a dozen years later, standing in the long shadow of Garfield Minus Garfield. This BoingBoing article re-discovered the joy of the original joke in 2014, describing it as something new. I see this as emblematic as anything that for long as Garfield continues, people will continue to rediscover and re-share this mutation of it.
I shall conclude by noting how my pal Joe misread me as casting shade on the more popular work. I do not mean to disparage Garfield Minus Garfield, or suggest that it does not deserve the attention and financial reward that it caught. I merely claim its utter inferiority to that which came before. Indeed, I can only find it on-brand for a late-aughts web project to have taken the sloppy beauty of a many-handed effort spread across multiple domains, and create fame and fortune for one artist through a slickly packaged effort that all but snuffed out any cultural awareness for its predecessor.
This article was also posted to the “comics” section of Indieweb.xyz.
Over the weekend of June 14 you can find me at MIT attending Narrascope, a new conference about narrative games. Narrascope is a production of IFTF, the digital arts nonprofit that I help run. Happily, the conference itself rests entirely in the hands of more capable and less distracted people than me, and I know it’s gonna be pretty great.
Said organizers have posted its schedule, and I shall cop to my inevitable presence on the “Meet the IFTF Board” panel on Sunday morning. But, goodness, don’t come to see me — come for one of the Friday-night workshops on building or teaching with interactive fiction, or Natalia Martinsson’s keynote address on Saturday morning followed by two days of amazing presentations and conversation about adventure games, interactive narrative, and all that good stuff.
Registration is open only through Friday, May 17, so hop to it if you’d like to join me there. It costs less than $100 for a standard ticket, and we offer a lower-cost option for folks who need it.
On May 30, find me at AS220’s main stage in downtown Providence (115 Empire Street) as part of Stranger Stories, a bimonthly evening of true stories read by local writers. The theme of this month’s event is “Made It”, and I will read this 2016 Fogknife post about a sandwich. (I made the sandwich, you see.)
Admission is free! Doors open at 6 PM, and the readings begin at 6:30. (AS220’s restaurant is still closed for renovations, but the new bar’s open!)
Post-Narrascope, I intend to spend as much of 2019’s latter half as I can pursuing my own projects. I haven’t let myself have something like that in a long while. I can afford it now — and if I don’t do it now, I risk some gnarly burnout. So, it’s time.
I recently had reason to re-read my retrospective of 2014, and it really spun my head around; by some measures, that was surely the single most productive year of my life. I did all that stuff all while starting two new business-client relationships, traveling to Maine every other weekend to wind down a family crisis from the previous year, and moving house that autumn to Rhode Island. It’s also the year I got married, on my 40th birthday. What a year!
If I haven’t quite had such an impressive one-year hit-list since then, it’s largely due to tending open projects rather than launching new ones — and many of those projects have their roots in 2014. These include Fogknife, which I have somehow managed to keep updating more-or-less weekly ever since, and IFComp, whose software I continue to maintain. And my work on IFComp begat IFTF, which led in turn to my chairing a game-accessibility program whose final report to the community I am now writing, with a Narrascope due-date.
I’ve been working very hard on all these — and just as hard on client work, with a year-long project looking to wrap up at last next month. After all that, I feel the call to travel more, write more, and spend more time “in the lab”. Expect more from me in the IndieWeb sphere, especially; earlier this year, and with some difficulty, I put all my jumpy and distracting project ideas regarding Plerd and IndieWeb to one side so I can finish everything I need to do before Narrascope.
So, I’m very much looking forward to Narrascope, and I’m really looking forward to after-Narrascope.
Didn’t know about this 1972 book — with John Berger’s name alone on the cover, but a Berger-led committee of five credited within — before discovering it quite by accident while killing time at a downtown bookshop. That stands to reason, I suppose, because I’d never seen the TV series upon which this book is based, and I hadn’t heard of that prior to Berger’s death two years ago. Seemed a good a prompt as any to finally dive in.
Ways of Seeing suggests, in four essays, methods and vocabularies for examining art in ways that reach beyond the content of the frame. Using oil paintings as a focal lens, Berger challenges readers to consider not just a work’s surface subject matter and composition, but the social context in which the work was created — including who painted it, and for whom, and why. Steeped today in Twitterish wokeness, this all seems par for the course now, but I get the impression that a half-century ago this book’s core theses came across as downright provocative. I found them to still pack a punch, today.
The first essay lays down this groundwork through the central example of a 17th century commissioned portrait of some upper-class Dutchmen, one by an elderly and impoverished painter who found himself utterly beholden to the subjects’ ongoing charity. Berger challenges scholarship, contemporary with the book, that study of this painting must focus only on its composition and color and lighting and so on, and not allow informed speculation about the artist’s attitude towards his benefactors to cloud one’s perception.
This essay did not explicitly evoke “death of the author” arguments from literary criticism, but brought it to mind for me nonetheless, and my own ever-changing relationship with it. The article further asks us to consider the meaning — the baggage, really — of an original, historically preserved work of art in an age where reproductions of it can appear anywhere with relatively little effort. Berger had television in mind when he wrote this, and he offers his own book as another example. Given the low visual fidelity of both TV and mass-market books in 1972, and the ultra-high-resolution reproductions of that same art that I can now literally summon into my hand whenever I wish, the article still feels very relevant.
The other three essays form a thematic trilogy regarding what I, a layperson to art criticism, might try to cleverly call the object of a work — given that the subject is the thing depicted. The articles ask to whom certain works of art are addressed, and what sorts of assumptions the work itself might make about the flesh-and-blood people gazing upon the oil-and-pigment people who, in turn, aim their own attention right back out.
The first of these addresses role of the nude as a genre of oil painting, and — startling to me, reading this nearly 50 years on — an introduction to the now-common idea of “the male gaze”, albeit prior to the coinage of that particular tidy label. The true subject of a nude, says this book, is the assumed man standing outside the painting, gazing for as long as he wants at the naked lady-or-ladies who are arranged specifically for his gazing-upon, and posed to allow for easier imaginative access. Berger draws a distinction between nudes and paintings which, though they also feature naked women as their subject, dresses them in some amount of agency or purpose other than self-objectifying presentation to the viewer — and therefore exclude themselves from this category.
This essay also contains the source of a quote I know I’d seen paraphrased many times before: a summary-indictment stating that the male gaze doesn’t merely wish to see an image of a lovely naked lady, but also wants to feel superior while doing so, so it presses a mirror into her hand and titles it Vanity.
After this comes a study of the social context that oil paintings existed in, and the practical purpose they served, during the handful of centuries that saw them as the dominant art-form in the western world. How paintings were “not so much a window as a safe”, displaying to the viewer a catalog of the commissioner’s possessions, either literally or allegorically. The vast bulk of work painted during this period served this boastful and utterly pedestrian purpose, Berger asserts, and the work that has survived and continues to have relevance today all represents subversion of the form, artists using the tools and techniques developed specifically for stroking the egos of rich patrons and turning them in wholly unconventional directions. I felt like I received a nice little art-history education from this chapter alone.
Finally, the book studies how advertisers of the 20th century brought the visual language of oil paintings into their own service. This use also subverted the ancient form, but for a grindingly capitalist purpose: where the commissioned work of the renaissance displayed the patrons’ wealth back to themselves, modern advertising instead displays to its viewer a visions of the wealthy, glamorous, and desirable person that they could become, in the future, if only they buy the thing depicted.
As an artifact in itself, the book reminds me in format of McLuhan and Fiore’s The Medium is the Massage. Both books are dense but compact paperbacks originally published by Penguin in the neighborhood of 1970, and both with an interest in the power of images and their modern dissemination. As such, both make heavy use of illustration.
But where Medium makes a masterful juxtapositional funhouse of itself, its photographs and other graphics filling entire pages, Seeing limits its visuals to little thumbnails that politely share the page with the text. Printed in monochrome, and not at a resolution higher than one might find in a newspaper of the early 1970s, the reproductions surprised me with their humility — especially when found in a book about art appreciation. I did take advantage of one side-effect of my reading this book in 2019, never hesitating to look up every intriguing gray smear on my phone. (Every reproduced work has full attribution in the book’s endnotes, allowing for exactly this treatment.)
I forgive the book this aspect, since it’s ultimately about its own text, but I can’t help but imagine a new edition that would use newer printing techniques, letting the book have the modern typesetting and larger, full-color reproductions it clearly wants. In its essays, the artwork serves as simple illustration for its text, not as intentional and precisely laid-out collage, as in Medium.
All of which is to say that I did love that text. This book remains a great little volume and I feel fortunate to have crossed paths with it.
This was also syndicated to the “books” section of Indieweb.xyz.
Heaven’s Vault struggles to contain itself. Packed so full of stuff, so much story it wants to tell, the game bulges at its seams while presenting the tale of an archaeologist’s quest to pinpoint her own place in the uncertain history of her surreal world. Sometimes those seams tear open, sending loose rivets of its own overtaxed structure pinging around your living room. Even at its best, the game resembles less a vault than a spilling cornucopia — and I feel I can hardly find fault with that. In spite of its self-unraveling nature, it has given me such a strange, ever-surprising, and thoroughly wonderful experience.
The game’s creative team at Inkle built Heaven’s Vault on their previous major effort — and major success — the beautiful and clever narrative sandbox called 80 Days. That game uses a wholly original, polished, and watertight UX to let the player build dozens of little travelogues. It invites you to repeat your globe-trotting adventure again and again, each iteration playable in its entirely within a single sitting, and always tantalizing with glimmers of roads not taken. Heaven’s Vault carries over many elements from 80 Days: the map that grows based on hard-earned in-game knowledge, the ever-shifting inventory of items useful as both situation-specific keys and generic trading goods, and the sense that moving forward down a certain path means leaving others behind.
To this, it adds its signature feature: a mini-game, reliably encountered several times at every location, where the player must decipher the faux-ideogrammatic language of an ancient civilization with a penchant for rampant graffiti. This fills the same thematic pace-setting role that battles or puzzle-rooms serve in countless other modern adventure games, and it feels great. The reward for chewing through these challenges mixes the satisfaction of collection (as your “dictionary” of known words grows slowly larger) with a sense of marching-forward narrative, no matter what happens. Aliya the archaeologist can bumble through scenes without correctly deciphering anything and cussing with frustration, or she can make insightful breakthroughs and carry these to deeper conclusions about her work and her world.
Either way, her story gets told, with every bit of Ancient script she runs across, translated or not, resulting in a new notch appearing on the timeline that she methodically updates during your travels with her. This timeline presents the single most 80 Days-esque part of the game’s original UI, a simple and beautiful interactive view (if a little tricky to manage with a PS4 controller) that not only organizes all the information Aliya collects, but also shows — without her having to say a word — how her mind works, the way she views the world and its contents, and the fractal way that she sees her own lifetime and experiences as just another fold inside an infinitely crinkly global history. It sits in its own nook in the world-line, alongside that of every other person, place, and thing she encounters. I knew I loved the game the moment this struck me.
And getting to this moment required me, the player, to overcome all the places where the game clearly chafes against its own real-world container. Instead of the completely abstract, map-centric travel and exploration of 80 Days which used a stack of still, stylized images to suggest the player’s changing location and the people found there, Heaven’s Vault uses a point-and-click-adventure-ish interface where the archaeologist and her robot sidekick can roam around 3D-rendered cities and fields, looking for people to talk to and artifacts to unearth. Unusually, the game renders both these characters and everyone else they meet as two-dimensional, very casually animated drawings — each frame of every person or animal very obviously and laboriously hand-painted — who literally drift through the world.
It makes for a striking effect, and I recognize some amount of it as intentional. The people leave no footprints (or robotic tread-marks) as they walk, and raise no dust. (Indeed, the game doesn’t even show Aliya’s feet, just fading her legs out at the ankles.) Against a very light ambient-sound backdrop, everyone glides around in complete silence, even when speaking or otherwise engaging in noisy activity. Aliya leaves ghostly after-images of herself as she moves, and people always feel free to just pass right through one another. I took much of this as playing right into the main character’s worldview, of all the people — herself included — acting as mere blips in a permanent history that stretches back farther than anyone knows. They all live in “The Nebula”, you see: a dreamy, sci-fantasy setting of tiny, disparate worlds floating through a luminous cloud of unknowable size, navigable by a network of sky-flowing space-rivers. The protagonist is a graduate student at a named university, but nobody knows how the university got there. It has statues and sculptures whose origins and meanings faculty argue over. It fits that the people of such a place would appear, to my earth-bound eye, to flit about like mist.
But these mixed-dimensional exploratory scenes manage to trip over themselves in less intentional ways. From time to time the camera will wander off behind a wall, or allow one speaker in a conversation to drift out of frame entirely — dragging their word-balloons with them. Quite frequently, characters will vanish entirely for a second while walking around, typically when the game needs to swap in an image of them facing a different direction. Once, early in my playthrough, the main character lay down to rest, and the sparkling effect that normally indicates that the player can control her got somehow stuck to her crotch for the length of a cutscene. And so on: many wobbly, scraping interface glitches like these keep coming, and they do seem out of character for an Inkle game, which I associate with more abstract but mirror-polished experiences. But I understood quickly that these came as the perhaps inevitable result of a tiny team with a small budget making something very, very large. Even when I came to this conclusion, and decided to forgive the game its foibles, I had no idea its true size.
I have completed a single playthrough of Heaven’s Vault, where I found myself surprised again and again at the depths of my excavation; this game feels way bigger on the inside. Or maybe I was just digging in circles, looping around the Nebula like any of the swirling Ancient glyphs I never tired of collecting? I had a magnificient and compelling time either way, and when I finally caught up with an ending, I almost immediately started a new game. (The “New Game Plus” mode, here, lets you carry over all your earned linguistic knowledge from your past playthroughs). I know from friends who have completed the game before me that it contains plenty more for me discover still, with entire alternate histories you cannot see except by replaying, choosing different paths and adopting different attitudes.
And this is where I found the other uncomfortable tension in the game’s scaffolding: because any beginning-to-end voyage through Aliya’s story takes so long, the work of several real-time hours, and because the game gives you only one, automatically updated saved-game slot, Heaven’s Vault precludes the sort of gimme-more accretive play that makes 80 Days so good. At least twice so far in my second playthrough, I have missed a chance to do something I wanted to: once because I failed to act quickly enough, and another time because I simply forgot my own plans temporarily. I own both these errors, but the lack of any ability to rewind stings. Playing through the game once has transformed the poor protagonist into an unwitting future historian, now more shy about trudging ahead into rather-less-unknown lands, while I the player feel quite reluctant to restart the story from the beginning just to see if I can nail a one-try-only timing challenge that occurs a fair distance in.
But what hubris I have, trying to control multiple histories! I can accept that this may run quite counter to the lessons that Aliya learned, while she and I spent hours together defining her story — and the story of my defining it — all knotted up and flowing in one direction only, the way history does, like a current in a cloud. Heaven’s Vault presents a thoroughly unique and memorable experience, and I hope that more people get the chance play it.
Disclosure: I purchased this game for myself. I played its PlayStation 4 edition, shortly after its initial release. It’s also available for PC via Steam.
This article was also posted to the “games” section of Indieweb.xyz.
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