Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Liner Notes: Intimate, Infinite (part 1)

These are some notes about my process / intent in making my game Intimate, Infinite. Spoiler warning is in effect for this game as well as the 1941 Borges short story that inspired it. This post assumes you've read the story already.

The first time I read the Garden of Forking Paths, it was in a freshman college seminar about literature and games. It was presented as a revolutionary text that predicted early 1990s hypertext literature and branching narratives... but by the time I read it in the late 2000s, the revolution was over, the internet was domesticated, and clicking on a link was one of the most mundane things ever.

Turns out, a lot of theorists agreed. As early or late as 1999, hypertext was declared dead -- long live "cybertext"! Nick Montfort distinguishes between the two types mainly as a matter of computation: a hypertext is a "finite automaton" capable of simple searches, while a cybertext is more like a recursive Turing machine that can compute anything computable. It's the difference between a calculator vs. a laptop. (This isn't to say hypertexts are bad; Twine has revived hypertext in a new age of Javascript and web design, making hypertext more relevant than ever. But it is relevant because of new authorship and new contexts, and not because it is a frontier of computing.)

In this sense, the Garden of Forking Paths functions a bit like a slide rule. For a lot of readers, it is mostly a narrative vehicle to deliver this idea of alternate branching realities, and that's generally what they remember about it. They like the story for how it read decades ago (written 1941, published in English in 1948) when the idea of alternate realities wasn't such a common primetime TV premise... likewise, slide rules were a great tool in their time, but today, no one uses them anymore.

The story's main setpiece is a long dialogue about the Garden, an obscure multi-volume novel that no one reads (the resemblance to early hypertext literature is uncanny) that doubles as a labyrinth of ideas, endlessly flowing into other ideas -- yeah, okay, like Wikipedia, like the internet, like alternate universe theories, like quantum physics?

It's practically a truism. I argue that to an average contemporary reader of today, this is a story where the big narrative setpiece reveal reads like, "what if the earth was round"?

What was once a somewhat novel philosophical thought experiment back in 1941 is now a considerably more mundane reality today in 2014. Many artificial intelligences function by mapping out as many alternate realities / futures as possible; Google Maps maps out many possible routes and futures and you don't spend hours marveling at it; quantum mechanics is not just something we observe and study and argue about, but it is now something we engineer with funding from DARPA so that the NSA can spy on everyone even more than it already does.

You could argue that this story helped imagine these now-more-ordinary things into being, okay, sure. Maybe Borges was one of the first to utilize this as a literary device. But what else now, so what?

So I don't really think of this game as an adaptation because I don't really care that much about the central premise or narrative payload.

My game starts with a Borges quote: "El original es infiel a la traducción" ("The original is unfaithful to the translation.") but in-game I (cheekily?) mistranslate it to hell. I've changed the names and places (and time setting), I've swapped out ideas and de-emphasized the lore behind the Garden... in many respects, this is more like a willful mistranslation, or maybe it's one of the alternate universes described in the story.

I'm more interested in other aspects of the story, like how it has a weird frame narrative concerned with historiography and sets certain expectations.

The text starts as this somewhat technical spy action thriller about fatalism and escape. There's some surprising subtlety here, like how Tsun taught English at a German school in a former German colony in China, thus making him an ideal candidate to coerce into spying for Germany. It's surprising because Borges stories (or his most famous ones, at least) are rarely about emotional plausibility or psychological realism, they usually exist in this mythical dimension where characters embody concepts rather than lived lives.

I tried to emulate this story's structure with a lot of historical priming and an action game oriented introduction / chase sequence. There's some real World War II news reel footage from archive.org (the availability of this footage was one reason why I chose to set this during World War II instead of World War I) and a documentary-like introduction emphasizing historical accounts. There's also a dead body, notions of spycraft, and a chase sequence. At this point, players unfamiliar with my work will probably start priming themselves for some Call of Duty-like face-shooting with pithy historical details. I even used a period gun, a Colt M1911, and implemented a fake flashing ammo counter that implies you will eventually find ammo.

The goal is to set an expectation and then forget about it like Borges -- halfway through the story, Borges drops all this spy stuff to ejaculate over nonlinear narratives and a text that's comprehensible only as a secret labyrinth. He forgets about all that spy stuff... only to pick it up again right at the end. It's supposed to be the concluding punchline, a spy story that turns out to be a philosophical musing but then it's actually a spy story again. Something something something Chekhov's gun.

This heavily informs my personal reading of the story -- there might be endless dimensions of existence, but as humans, we only experience one. Each time you read this story, it will always be the same story with the same ending, no matter what the ideas promise. The spy will always shoot the sinologist. I push this interpretation in my game: once you shoot my Alber, he's dead in the title screen / hub screen / chess section as well. Ultimately, human experience is linear and actions end and people die.

(I briefly toyed with the idea of never letting the player reset the game data, to make the ending murder more "permanent", but I feel that's already an explored space in games, so I didn't do that.)

NEXT >> PART 2: on protagonists / race / gardening / chess.