IF Demo Fair: Desiring Flights and other interactive poetry

Desiring Flights (Barry Moon and Chris Danowski) is a word-centric work, though with strong visual elements in two of its three levels; I might be inclined to call it interactive poetry, but I’m not sure that’s the best description given that the words were as often props as they were objects of contemplation in their own right. To the extent that this piece belongs to an existing genre or formal tradition, though, it’s not one I know especially well; so rather than attempt a more formal critique, I’ll just give some subjective impressions.

In the first of the levels, blocky grey words fall through a three dimensional space, while the player is free to choose camera angle and position. It’s impossible to read all the words, and there is a soundtrack of music with lyrics, which meant that I was tracking neither set of verbal input terribly well. Nonetheless, what happens here is evocative: the words at first stack, but their stacking is obviously unsustainable, and they soon topple into an untidy heap. In my playthrough, a few specific words flew free of the rest of the group and could be found off to the side on their own. I puzzled over one that had fallen on its face so that it was hard to read. It turned out to be “seeing.”

There’s something evocative about the destruction of any monumental thing, and a monumental tower of words suggests many things even before you try to read the words themselves.

The second level involves, again, movement through a three-dimensional space — this time one decorated (if that’s the right word) with long rows of two-dimensional images. In these photos, we can see many poses of a man with his dog, and there’s a curiously memorial aspect to this. It’s impossible ever to get far enough away from the photos to view them comfortably as a whole, because the layout of the space constrains us to watch them from close up. Moving down the corridor of these images as down a hallway, I felt encouraged to be nostalgic for this man’s life, as though I’d had some relation to it and as though it were now over.

If I ever moved off the narrow path between the images (and there was no visible floor to tell you you couldn’t do this), I fell slowly into darkness until the scene reset. Only as I was falling did the full pattern of the images become clear.

If I had to guess at a meaning for this passage, I’d come up with something about the brevity and loneliness of life, and the way you can never really come to grips with the reality of your existence while it’s going on, except that of course you’re never given a shot at any other kind of perspective, either. But I’ve no notion whether that was what the authors meant.

In the third level, I’m least sure whether the experience I had was the one the author intended. The screen is divided into stripes of red and green; the player is free to type anything in any of these lines and press return; and at the same time, the piece is rewriting the text in some of these lines. Red lines gradually fade to green, just before they are replaced. Sometimes I found that when I typed a line, the program added another line of its own devising that seemed to be (in some mechanical thesaurus-fashion) constructed from antonyms to the one I’d written. This process was somewhat frustrated by the fact that the program accepted a backspace as though it were a carriage return, so that I accidentally entered many lines that were mistyped or unfinished. The screen filled with half nonsense, and with lines that came purely from the program, to do with a birth. It was hard to see how to leave this section without quitting the program entirely.

This level was interesting to set beside Jason Dyer’s Renga in Four Parts and Matt Weiner’s The Table, both of which might also be identified as interactive poetry of a sort. (Renga certainly; whether The Table counts or not is a little more open-ended, but it certainly doesn’t have a traditional world model or a plot.) All three of these invite a wide range of input and offer little judgment on whether the typed entry was acceptable. Contrast Michael Bacon’s Arid and Pale, which, without being hypertext in form, nonetheless demands that the player type a word that appears somewhere in the output text.

Renga in Four Parts sacrifices some responsiveness in order always to be sure of offering a well-formed response, so the word you type doesn’t always affect its behavior. The Table more frequently uses player input, at some cost to the clarity of its output, but it still moves forward without comment when the player has typed something it doesn’t recognize. Desiring Flights‘ third level succeeds the furthest in obscuring whether the player’s typing has had any effect, because its output is so often surprising and it is only after a certain amount of iteration that the antonym relation (to some input) becomes clear. From a game design point of view, that degree of ambiguity about agency would be terrible, but Desiring Flights isn’t a game.

I came away unsure what the interaction was meant to contribute to the poetic process. Traditional IF tends often to encourage the player to form and test hypotheses about the world or the story: work out what you can do here, work out what is meaningful to do. If no input is “wrong,” however, the player’s choice is more of an expressive one, presumably. But even expressive choices can be guided. Blue Lacuna has expressive choices at several key points, where the player is invited to type in free form the answer to a question. But even if the game does nothing with what you type, the fact that a question has been asked shapes the experience of choosing an answer and gives it a meaning in the player’s head.

Some other interactive poems sort of ask a question, implicitly if not explicitly. To my mind, both The Table and Arid and Pale make the interaction still essentially readerly: you choose which images to hear more about, which is a reaction, an expression of interest and curiosity about what the author has put in front of you. Renga in Four Parts frames the player’s commands as lines added to its own poetic content, but there’s enough polish and intention to its output that one has something to respond to. If Desiring Flights was prompting me towards one of those types of interaction, or some other type, I didn’t understand the nudge.

So here’s what I’d say about Desiring Flights: I don’t always know how to read it, and it did not appear to be trying to teach me. Sometimes I was able to grasp an apparent significance. In the second level, that significance partly came from the interaction, from my forced proximity to the photographs and the death-like fall when I strayed from them. The first level was also evocative, though chiefly through its imagery. The third was most deeply responsive, but was also the most bewildering of all.

9 thoughts on “IF Demo Fair: Desiring Flights and other interactive poetry

  1. You’ve got links for Renga in Four Parts and The Table, but there is also a link to download Desiring Flights:

    http://new.barrymoon.net/home/games/desiring-flights

    Renga in Four Parts frames the player’s commands as lines added to its own poetic content, but there’s enough polish and intention to its output that one has something to respond to.

    Generativity has been well-explored in interactive poetry but not interactivity, so I wanted to write the content by hand and focus on the latter. My goal in the “final” version of Renga (version 2, anyway) is to add more verse-responses to specific input. It would help things along if I got more transcripts, so if anyone reading this who is willing to follow the link above and give it a try, I’d appreciate anything anyone can give me.

    • Thanks for the link! I didn’t actually realize that he’d made it available for general download, so that’s good to know (and means I can put the link in our SPAG article, as well).

  2. Arid and Pale was more of a test than an attempt at actual poetry. I just haven’t got around to attempting a meaningful work in it yet. Maybe someone will someday — me or otherwise.

    • I realize that (though possibly should have made it clearer in my article). On the other hand, especially since you were providing an extension to be reused, it’s proposing a particular form of interaction, which I wanted to compare with the other options out there.

      • Oh no, I have no problem with how you mentioned it. I just wanted to clarify that it’s more of a system than a work of poetry.

  3. Thanks for reminding me of “Arid and Pale”! That was definitely an influence on “The Table,” but I’d forgotten its name. Sorry, Valzi!

    And like “Arid and Pale,” it’s more of a demo than an attempt at a real story. To get something that worked better, I’d have to have come up with a better story — there’s a little bit of story in there, about someone writing at a table and reflecting on his memories, but it’s pretty obscured — and I think I’d probably have to address the prose problem. In this one I used a really blurty stream-of-consciousness approach to get around the problem of procedurally generating transitions, by doing away with transitions completely, but I think the individual fragments would have to be far better written than they were to justify the resulting kind of prose. It would probably work much better if I could come up with prose that read like prose, somehow. But it’d still be more readerly in the way you describe; the player won’t have too much control over the output, only what they’d like to hear more about, and as you say about Desiring Flights that wouldn’t work very well in a game.

    The first part of Desiring Flights reminded me a lot of concrete poetry and of some of the things you find in the Electronic Literature Collections (like “Ah” and “The Sweet Old Etcetera” from Vol. 2). In the third part, it seemed to me as though one story was spooling out independent of your input (but sometimes in the window you were typing in), and transformations of your input appeared completely independently in other lines. I think that it might end when the independent story ends, but I didn’t make it all the way there. The second one mostly reminded me of how awful I am at arrow key + mouselook 3d navigation.

    Thanks for the writeup and for all the work you put into the Demo Fair!

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