All posts by Justin G.

On Facade

Facade is by no means a technological marvel. The character models are the butt of many jokes (and memes, which will be the majority of the pictures in this post) and there’s the occasional graphical hiccup from time to time. And the voice acting….well, it was certainly serviceable. And playing the game on modern Windows 10? A nightmare. I miss my MacBook, but I doubt even playing it on there would’ve enhanced my experience any more than it already was.

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But we were just getting started!

Then again, it was released in 2005 and worked on mostly by two people, so fair’s fair. Today the game shares a legacy with its rough development; its unique method of story telling that forces the player to become directly involved in the interaction of the two main characters, Grace and Trip. Long before Telltale Games (rip) made the idea of player-based story choices as the primary focus in a video game commonplace, Facade took its own shot at it, and the result? Well, it might depend on who you ask.

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Coming to a major theater near you, never.

The E-Lit Collection says that Facadecomes closer than any digital literature work thus far to realizing a long-held dream, which is the creation of an interactive, animated fiction that can accept any type of language produced by the user and assimilate it into the outcome of the narrative”. While something like this may not be anything special today, at the time of release most of this was true. There were plenty of similar flash “negotiation” games at the time, but none of them really came close to having an open conflict like Facade had, there was typically a straightforward solution that may or may not have appeared obvious to you at the time. But Facade, with its text-based choice system, meant that you basically controlled how the game played out, even if you weren’t aware of just how much weight your responses could carry.

Since this game was allergic to Windows 10, I decided to watch a playthrough of the game, aptly titled “How To Actually Win Facade”. This may seem like cheating, but considering that the wrong responses could even lead to a murder on your hands (well, their hands, but you get the idea), I wanted to actually see the thought process behind what would be considered “winning” the game, if morally at least. So as the protagonist “Diana” (the names were user-generated from a selection), I watched for the next 17 minutes as Trip and Grace bickered about the small things; despite the constant attempts at complimenting each other, they just seemed destined to want to pick a bone with each other. I came here for a good time, not marriage counseling.

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And the melons. Lots of melons.

The dialogue, while a bit camp, accompanied with the (serial) killer music in the background, made for a very uncomfortable scenario the entire way through. Trip and Grace constantly want you to back them up, to focus their frustration on the other spouse. But slowly but surely, their cold demeanor began to crack once questions about each others’ feelings started to crack; they still loved each other, and any questions doubting that put them on the defense. This led to what was perhaps the climax of the game; an former affair on Trip’s side, and a slightly less shocking confession of former love from Grace in college. Even the player was getting irritated at this point, typing in “win already” and variants that would hopefully drive the conversation forward. But eventually, the two of them realized their lonely nature was driven by their skeletons hiding the closet. As they two of them bid Diana farewell (“I think you helped us.” “Totally :3”), I realized that this was an outcome that is still interesting even today; the player technically “won” the game by resolving the conflict….but only because they were trying their best to. What could have happened if the player had malicious intentions instead?

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Also available in Blu-Ray and 4K Ultra HD.

Facade is in many ways, a classical example of e-lit. Not only is a narrative told through the usage of technology, but the technology is also used in a way that enables the player to interact with the story more than any normal book would have allowed them to. What I had experienced was just one of many ways that the player could interact with the story given to them, with the choices they had presented. No two player experiences are necessarily the same, and that level of depth, combined with the unique storytelling approach, is perhaps why it is still a studied piece of e-lit today, even with all the technological advancements made since the game’s release.

Graphics aren’t everything in a game, and Facade certaintly proves that. While a lot of people today are confused by the literary impact it might’ve had (although it still has a healthy known existence thanks to memes), it has a style that hasn’t quite been matched even by modern storytelling adventure games today. It may be a little rough around the edges, but that’s just sometimes the nature of e-lit, and while the story might not be everyone’s cup of tea, even I felt like the average person would find themselves caring about the brief interaction during their time with Grace and Trip, and in that sense, it becomes an effective e-lit work to demonstrate the power that the genre can carry.

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They’ll figure it out.

On Brainstrips

Comic books are some of the earliest forms of reading that I can remember. I can’t say I read as much as I used to lately, let alone with comic books, but I’m glad to say that when viewing “Brainstrips”, the format remained familiar and easy going to me. Which is good, because BOY, reading the three “stories” in this piece of e-lit was a bit of a trip.

The first “story”, covering “Deep Philosophical Questions”, seemed a little tongue-in-cheek in nature to me…or maybe I’m just a little cynical from all the e-lit I’ve read. Either way, it used panels from pre-existing comics in its apparent quest to discover Life, The Universe, and Everything.

Get yourself a man who has the right answers.

The responses were….a bit vague to say the least. I wasn’t expecting to find out if God exists through a single-set comic strip, but the response I got of a bunch of people shooting at each other was….actually, that did seem a little more coherent, now that I think about it. Some of the other ones, including the strip on whether or not is color real, seemed a little more avantgarde in its delivery.

“How can color be real if our eyes aren’t real” 🤔

Others, like “How Do Know If We Are Human”, were a little unintentionally funny in nature. These panels were a bit more straightforward in their delivery, and I believe that added to the (un)intentional humor even more.

Nothing reminds you of your fragile existence like getting creamed by aliens.

“Do Trees Have Rights”? Unless “Trees” is less than subtle allegory for “women”, I have no idea if they do after reading this strip. I do now know that there’s a warehouse with 5,000 trophies lying somewhere in New Jersey though. You’d think someone like this would be easy to find.

400 toaster ovens? This guy barters.

After reading all of the “Philosophical Questions”, Brainstrips shifts to a darker, more bizarre take on covering “Science”. Specifically, “Science for Idiots”, in particular. I’m a particular idiot when it comes to most science, so this seemed right up my alley. But in reality, just about everyone would’ve felt dumb trying to go through the particularly blunt nature of the various subjects covered…which might’ve been the point to begin with.

Their nuclear fission panels for instance, covered “frequently asked questions” on a nuclear blast, which itself was okay. The issue….lied more in its execution. Whoever wrote this needs a few more lessons on people skills.

Feedback: Not enough humanity in the responses. Actually, I don’t think there was any at all.

And finally, a pop quiz that I didn’t ask for. It held back no punches with asking the hard questions, that’s for sure.

Science pop quiz AND you’re asking the hard questions already?

But way more surprising than the quiz, was the score I received. See for yourself.

That’s about what I was expecting, sadly.

Then the shift to the third “story” or math, got a little too real at times. Their pop quiz was heavy on the application and light on the practice, but the literary narrative behind it was fairly apparent. And antagonizing. Mostly antagonizing.

Uhh, can I use a calculator for this one?

The results screen at the end was interesting. I sucked and excelled all at the same time. Not too far away from the real deal too, at times. Having skills in “Higher Math” made me feel like I was doing something right, but I have no idea what was “Skills Operator” supposed to be. Either way, this “story” emulated the confusion and occasional senselessness of an actual proficiency test, which may have been the point all along. Ohh, I see where this might have gone now.

The results don’t make sense! Sounds like I got it right after all.

In the end, Brainstrips definitely lived up to its name if I had to admit; it kept things easy to read, but left several cryptic messages that made me doubt its purpose on more than one occasion. As a piece of electronic literature, I feel this is exactly the type of piece to get both new and experienced e-lit readers like myself thinking, which means that in a sense, it’s certainly living up to the ideas of this class; of e-lit presenting a different type of narrative, one without a concrete purpose or meaning; sometimes it’s just meant to be the way it is.

On ScareMail Generator (Analysis)

Justin George

ScareMail Generator: Analysis

In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve decided to cover the ScareMail Generator: A word generator that processes various words and phrases into an incoherent horror story that tends to be slightly more stupid than scary, likely to be shared by hundreds of clueless aunts and uncles as something genuinely frightening for the sheer horror that such words could be chained together in such a way. But the intent of the ScareMail Generator, is to address a horror that is not just limited to Halloween, but even all year-round.

In recent years, the NSA has taken to identifying certain “keywords” that are supposedly used to detect terrorist communication and behavior. Words like “plot”, “facility”, even “packages” have become no longer considered acceptable in normal written text, but taboo as the name “Voldemort” in the Harry Potter series.

While in theory this is a precautionary measure that can be said to be done for the greater good of protecting the free world in a post 9/11 society, the author describes it as closer to “a governmental surveillance machine run amok, algorithmically collecting and searching our digital communications”. In a present time where our constitutional rights (and more than often the rights themselves) are challenged daily, ScareMail Generator presents itself as a bot with a very important message behind its nonsensical English text: “words do not equal intent”.

 

 

The source text for all of the stories is Fahrenheit 451, a personal favorite and a cautionary tale about the degradation of society via modern conveniences and vanity, but also about censorship. This is likely to be intentional, as most other blocks of text could perhaps accomplish the same task; the selected text in this case is done either for a symbolic effect or for the purpose of having a format that resembles a narrative more than anything. The protagonist “Montag” or side character “Clarisse” show up from time to time in with my generated text, a reminder of the source material.

The author, Benjamin Grosser, has a history presenting at events related to countering projects like the NSA’s programs, indeed ScareMail itself had been first revealed at PRISM Breakup in 2013.  The fact that the source code and inner workings of ScareMail are freely available to the public further enforce the idea that just like the thing it is working to counter, ScareMail has nothing to hide.

The purpose behind ScareMail is part obstruction, part demonstration, and wholly to ensure that NSA programs like PRISM and XKeyscore don’t really have a clue when it comes to looking up “trigger” words. These programs work off of finding these blacklisted words through loads of read (typically without your permission) emails and building a record off of it. But if the programs are overloaded with junk examples of those words being used, like the types of narratives that ScareMail produces, the programs and their databases become inherently  worthless. Freedom of speech has been often contested in the name of preventing terrorism, but ScareMail doesn’t try to convince you that NSA surveillance is in the wrong here; just that their programs are poor implementations in the name of that security.

On Bots

I missed a week of my Digital Alchemy class one week earlier this year. Think I wasn’t feeling too well, maybe the bed was too comfy, maybe a combination of both. But either way, I figured that I was mostly caught up and therefore could just come back the next week and pick up on the Twitter discussions in the meantime.

Big mistake.

For the next several days, I kept getting mentioned on Twitter by members of the class. Aw man, they kept me in the know! But the Tweets quickly turned from interesting, to nonsensical. Uh, just why did they need to send me that article over Twitter? Why are they asking me about how I felt about the idea of social media selling our private information to advertising? Is this what typical Twitter conversation had become in the one week I wasn’t there?

Turns out it wasn’t so dramatic after all. The class that week was just experimenting with bots, was all.

Bots are one of those few things that bring us closer and closer to Skynet every day; artificial intelligence programs that are designed to think and act a certain way, or even worse, like us. Sometimes they’re just simple automated programs, designed to make retweeting or simultaneous social media posting easier.

Reading through the Bots section of the Electronic Literature Collection however, felt significantly less mechanical then I would’ve thought. Several of the bots were Twitter bots, which I mentioned before. But these weren’t necessarily just scheduling Tweets, these were a little more advanced than that. Instead, each bot had a particular task it was put up to, and some were a bit more coherent than others. “Pentameteon” for instance, Hailing from “Stratford-upon-Internet”, as if the Shakespeare profile picture wasn’t obvious enough, is an algorithm designed to find phrases in Tweets and other words that compose a rhyming scheme that modern Eminem would be proud of. The Tweets don’t necessarily make sense when they rhyme, but sometimes there are some memorable combinations to be had.

Rap bars of the year.

On the opposite end of the bot spectrum is “ROM TXT”, who’s sole goal according to its Twitter profile, is “Searching video game ROMs, looking for words and sometimes finding them. For beauty.” And while the premise sounds simple enough, the actual execution results in a fragmented, almost creepy line of words and letters that don’t necessarily have any meaning to them.

Cryptic warning, or unused game text from Ecco The Dolphin? Maybe both?

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about these Twitter bots is just how normalized they seem to be just by being on Twitter; they have followers and followings, retweets and likes. The visual interfaces never force us to struggle, only the content they have presented.

Overall, this isn’t my first run-in with bots, but it always becomes more and more fascinating to see just exactly what they can be capable of. While Skynet is hopefully still just a fantasy, these guys are getting smarter and smarter, and hopefully they’ll continue to be used for the good fights…..and not Skynet.

This bot is programmed for fighting the good fight.

On Bots

I missed a week of my Digital Alchemy class one week earlier this year. Think I wasn’t feeling too well, maybe the bed was too comfy, maybe a combination of both. But either way, I figured that I was mostly caught up and therefore could just come back the next week and pick up on the Twitter discussions in the meantime.

Big mistake.

For the next several days, I kept getting mentioned on Twitter by members of the class. Aw man, they kept me in the know! But the Tweets quickly turned from interesting, to nonsensical. Uh, just why did they need to send me that article over Twitter? Why are they asking me about how I felt about the idea of social media selling our private information to advertising? Is this what typical Twitter conversation had become in the one week I wasn’t there?

Turns out it wasn’t so dramatic after all. The class that week was just experimenting with bots, was all.

Bots are one of those few things that bring us closer and closer to Skynet every day; artificial intelligence programs that are designed to think and act a certain way, or even worse, like us. Sometimes they’re just simple automated programs, designed to make retweeting or simultaneous social media posting easier.

Reading through the Bots section of the Electronic Literature Collection however, felt significantly less mechanical then I would’ve thought. Several of the bots were Twitter bots, which I mentioned before. But these weren’t necessarily just scheduling Tweets, these were a little more advanced than that. Instead, each bot had a particular task it was put up to, and some were a bit more coherent than others. “Pentameteon” for instance, Hailing from “Stratford-upon-Internet”, as if the Shakespeare profile picture wasn’t obvious enough, is an algorithm designed to find phrases in Tweets and other words that compose a rhyming scheme that modern Eminem would be proud of. The Tweets don’t necessarily make sense when they rhyme, but sometimes there are some memorable combinations to be had.

Rap bars of the year.

On the opposite end of the bot spectrum is “ROM TXT”, who’s sole goal according to its Twitter profile, is “Searching video game ROMs, looking for words and sometimes finding them. For beauty.” And while the premise sounds simple enough, the actual execution results in a fragmented, almost creepy line of words and letters that don’t necessarily have any meaning to them.

Cryptic warning, or unused game text from Ecco The Dolphin? Maybe both?

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about these Twitter bots is just how normalized they seem to be just by being on Twitter; they have followers and followings, retweets and likes. The visual interfaces never force us to struggle, only the content they have presented.

Overall, this isn’t my first run-in with bots, but it always becomes more and more fascinating to see just exactly what they can be capable of. While Skynet is hopefully still just a fantasy, these guys are getting smarter and smarter, and hopefully they’ll continue to be used for the good fights…..and not Skynet.

This bot is programmed for fighting the good fight.

On Navigating Electronic Literature

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That line can apply to countless types of situations, but in this case I’m applying in a rather personal sense. I’m talking of course, about my absolutely triumphant return to studying electronic literature.

Back in 2014, I decided to take Intro To E-Lit (not much of an intro anymore I suppose) during an absolutely stacked semester. I took 15 credits instead of 12, the insanity. Despite this, there was a certain respite that the class had provided that I couldn’t really put my finger on at the time; I entered each week with a sense of excitement, not dread. I now know however, the main reason behind this feeling.

A lot has happened since my first venture into E-Lit back in 2014, in technology, in literature, and even in myself as a person. And the very concept of electronic literature, the storytelling, the narrative, and the visuals, has sat on an interesting, almost neutral plane the entire time, not quite taking advantage of the new enhancements that technology has offered, but rather placing an emphasis on design and style to compose most E-Lit works Focusing on the role of navigation in electronic literature can lead to valuable discussions not only about individual works but also about electronic literature in general and its relationship to traditional literary studies, says Jessica Pressman on Navigating Electronic Literature. And with a quote like that, I think a good part of E-Lit can be framed into a mode of discussion, one with examples that can be learned from.

Take Michael Joyce and Twelve Blue, the E-Lit reading this week. If I had read it in the previous class then I had forgot my experience with it, and this has allowed me to explore it again with fresh eyes. It’s a labyrinth of exposition and dialogue, monologues and introspection. It could mean a whole lot as much as it means nothing, and it seems to favor the latter.

Twelve blue isn’t anything. Think of lilacs when they’re gone, the story urges me to do when I decide to seek advice on reading it. There are passing links within the text on the right as well, but these, once followed, go away. Never has advice been so cryptic as it was informative.

The difficulty of identifying the “text” in electronic literature is made even more apparent in interactive works that engage the reader as a character navigating through the narrative, Pressman wrote in her article, and I think Twelve Blue is a quick example of just how true that can be. If there’s a story here that I’m supposed to absorb, it’s lost on me. But for what I can take at face value, the text that is presented in the non-linear format, it’s quite engaging, with the links to the new page being a key line in the text, or the borderline nonsensical text at the end of one of the “routes” that encourage you to check out another one.

Twelve Blue may not have been as coherent as I remembered it, but it did remind me of the importance in the navigation of E-Lit, not everything is going to be straightforward and if it is, it’s closer to a proper e-book.

It also reminded me of just what I hope to get out of yet another semester of studying E-Lit; to better understand the composition of it and in doing so, bring a new appreciation of the collaboration of my two favorite forms of media together. I felt slightly rushed when I took this class back in 2014, but now I feel as if I can take my time with this, even if it’s just a little more than before. Being back feels good.