• "The problem of writing is always the problem of who you were, always the problem of who to be next. It is a game of catch-up, of understanding that what you’re failing to write could only be written by who you used to be. Who you are now should be writing something else: what, you won’t know until you try."

Kim asked on Twitter:

“Is there a canon for digital narratives / interactive stories / hypertext literature yet? A list of accepted classics and forms?”

What followed was a lot of us going “we don’t know”. And I wasn’t exactly helpful, by pointing out that those three things are (in some ways) completely different.

But. Nobody got anywhere but not being helpful, and to do so, I’m going to express (a bit) of an opinion, and hopefully something a little absolute. I hate list posts, but let’s put something down for people to argue about.

So, specifically: if I had to draw up a Canon – a canon of the interactive-story-thingies (we all know what they are – “things that the reader/audience interpret differently by interacting” is my best explanation) what would I include?

The rough goals were: not necessarily the best, but important pillars; no bias to high- or low- brow; trying to cover all media appropriately; interpret the question as broadly as you would like; don’t take too long over it. Here’s where I am:

Things I wanted represented: pre-digital works; early, web-based hyperfiction; text-based IF, both classic and modern; things that are clearly videogames; an ARG (and the Beast still, in many ways, feels like the best); tabletop roleplaying; mechanical storytelling; a selection of Infocom writers (Moriarty, Meretzky).

I am not always picking things I like the most, nor things that are the “first” – so, for instance, Sleep No More probably is the most refined Punchdrunk work, and thus worth sharing here, but I’d swap it for one of their others easily.

What’s missing at the moment but shouldn’t be: the 1970s; more traditional hyperfiction (about which I don’t know enough); some big chronological gaps; boardgames/cardgames that touch on this (eg Once Upon A Time); anything pre-20th century; David Cage (I’m still not sure if I’d include him or not); no visual novels; no JRPGs (which are fascinating games, but there are few I’d include on this list); no Japanese adventure games (9/9/9 springs to mind, for instance).

There’s a bunch of thought that connects these; it’s not arbitrary, and like I said, not about favourites. Some things you might think to be obviously missing (especially: things from the world of videogames) are sometimes deliberate omissions (and sometimes accidental ones).

There’s definitely a particular thread I wanted to start stitching together, and these are the places I’d begin. Most items on this list are picked as representatives of categories; not as absolutes. This is definitely not the “n best interactive narratives list“.

Clearly a work in progress. But: if I had to teach this, or start writing some kind of giant thesis, I could do worse than begin here.

Week 11 / 12

06 January 2013

The period between Christmas and New Year is quiet, as expected, so these combined weeknotes are very brief. Still, a few things to note.

Boxing Day saw the broadcast of my Four Thought talk, The Coded World. It’s still available for download from the Four Thought site. There was a really positive reception to it, from what I’ve seen and heard, so I’m very grateful for that.

I returned to the office on the 2nd. Since then, I’ve filed a proposal for an interesting, short project; chased a few other projects and organised some meetings; and spent some time hacking on a short project of my own.

That project has mainly been an exercise in code and deployment, to keep my fingers fresh, and gave me a chance to explore Sidekiq – an asynchronous queue for Ruby built on top of Redis. There’s some loose ends to tidy, and I’ll mention it here when it’s a bit more robust. I’m also looking forward to reviewing its code with a friend – always easier to refactor with a fresh pair of eyes.

And, of course, I wrote my Yearnotes.

And that was Week 12. Week 14 holds some meetings, possibly a presentation, and more hacking. I’m also still looking for projects in early 2012, so get in touch if that sounds relevant.

Happy 2013.

Looking back on 2012

06 January 2013

2012, then. I thought, having seen James’ round-up of his (excellent) year, I should note down a few things about last year on a personal and professional level.

There was a good series of talks at a variety of events: the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Death, the Design of Understanding, LIFT, Brighton Mini Maker Faire, and dConstruct. And, importantly for me, they were all different, all new material (with one exception). I don’t like repeating myself if I can help it, if I only because I’ve usually changed my position on a topic!

Of these, I was especially proud of dConstruct: it’s always a great conference, and I’ve been going for years – so to be asked to talk, and ultimately becoming James Burke’s warmup man, was a real privilege. I’m also very proud of that talk: it condenses a lot of things I’ve been thinking about for most of my life into a thread, and shows Actual Work rather than just handwaving.

There was one more talk to end the year: a recorded talk for Radio 4’s Four Thought (mp3 here). I include this separately if only because its a different beast to a conference talk. A new subject area for me, but a heartfelt one – the changing shape of technology education. If dConstruct was a response to being the son of an amateur toymaker, then this was surely informed by being the child of teachers. Very proud to have been given is opportunity – and I’m also really proud of how the talk turned out. The response to it had been very flattering.

I did more than shoot my mouth off this year, though; there was work, too. For me, probably the biggest achievement at Hide&Seek was The Building Is… – our huge installation piece as part of the Gaîté Lyrique’s show Joue Le Jeu. Game design, software, electronics, hardware; all came together over at least six months of work. The team assembled – both internal and external contractors – was exceptional, and a joy to work with. I learned a lot about the nature of gallery installs, hardware builds, and game design for public space; furthered many technical skills; and, ultimately, got to watch people have fun with a thing we’d made. This project also led to living in Paris for a month in the summer. All told: really quite an experience.

In October, I left Hide&Seek to explore my own path – and became freelance. Since then, the most obvious “headline” project was my work for the Royal Shakespeare Company, making software and designing output formats to visualise motion on stage in print and wood. But there’s also been other work, too: rapid prototyping for a charity; interaction design for startup a and small firms; assisting Alex in workshops. And, towards the end of the year, entering (and being short-listed for) the Playable City award alongside PAN. Which, for less than three months of self-employment, feels like a reasonable start.

And then, of course, there were the personal projects, which varied in their daftness. Markov-chain deived descriptions of imaginary chocolates; books to collect my copious links in annual volumes; animated raindrops for Bus Tops; a ghost version of me, trapped a year in the past, on Foursquare; a hardware intervalometer for my SLR; various Kinect toys, including the Radio Roundabout visualiser. Glad I managed to both keep tinkering throughout the year, and also finish that tinkering.

Some travel: a trip to New York at the end of the year to visit friends, see the sights, and empty my head; a holiday in the Languedoc; the aforementioned Paris work; and Geneva for LIFT (including a trip to CERN). Good. There might be some more travel in 2013, I hope.

So what’s next for 2013? There’ll be some work with Caper in the spring, which I’ll be able to talk about by the summer. Some talks are slowly lining up. And, of course, I’m starting the meetings about client work and projects. There are a few on the horizon, encompassing design, web, and hardware work – but, as ever, I’m interested in new opportunities, so do get in touch.

In many ways, a roller coaster of a year, but one that ended more up than down, I think. Here’s to 2013.

(I nearly illustrated this post with the same picture James did. I’d forgotten that moment for a while, and seeing it again is a really, really happy moment. Myself, James, Ben, and Kars, looking out over Lake Geneva, one afternoon during a break at LIFT. Great to be surrounded by such great peers; a great view; great people to stare into the future with, shoulder to shoulder, and the right, Janus-like image for such a post. Pipped to it, though, eh.)

  • "In September and October I did a short pottery course at Brighton's Painting Pottery Cafe – six evenings, once a week." Rod has been potting, and this is a lovely piece of writing about materials, and how they feel in the hand. Also: I think Rod is probably better at this than I'd be.
  • "…nothing really gets older online; the only aging of things here comes from the erosive force of changing human sensibilities. The black of that North Face jacket looks just as black, but the point of wearing it has faded a little. Here there is only the appearance of getting older because everything else has gotten much newer. The pixels do not outwardly become worn. They are like grains of sand. If one is destroyed, it’s too small for us to know it’s been annihilated. And there is so much sand."
  • "I wonder if there’s a business to be gotten into where one shows movies the way everyone wants to see them: just the movies, from the very first second you start watching. It’s a naive thought; I understand that. But I can’t forget that when those lights went down, when that screen went up, and when that twangy riff kicked in, there were audible gasps and cheers in the audience, and someone behind me yelled out “whoa, awesome!” I want to believe that there’s a business to be gotten into that capitalizes on “whoa, awesome”."
  • Stewart Lee's dark, self-referential Christmas tale from this year, for the New Statesman.
  • "In other words, the more packages you send at once, the shittier job FedEx does of delivering each of them, with each package getting less and less of a delivery attempt. And the limit actually approaches zero, which means that if you somehow send me infinity packages through FedEx, they will not even knock on my door. They will take the infinity dollars and run. I did honestly not intend today to use math to prove precisely how bad FedEx is at delivering packages, but, um, here we are?" I love Ryan North.

Week 13

04 January 2013

A week of ups and downs. Brighstone, which seemed a likelihood last year, isn’t going to be beginning in January, which is a shame, and led to me looking for new ways to fill the calendar.

Fortunately, there were a succession of meetings this week about future work, with some things to consider. All very different types of work – one physical computing project for the arts, one about integrated, kiosk-like platforms, and one web-based content project. Nice to be exploring this diversity in my work, and I’m hoping some of these might go further.

On Monday, this year’s Year of Links arrived. Very satisfying that, bar the install dance of being on a new computer, the code just worked, and a week later, I had a paperback of the previous year on Pinboard. Really satisfying.

On Tuesday I went down to Stratford-Upon-Avon to present Spirits… to a selection of the team there. It was a straightforward presentation, but it was great to be able to wrap the project by showing them the final output, and the discussions we had around it were excellent – and went towards some interesting potential futures.

Finally, I had a few meetings with the Caper team about Detling, lining things up for our March kick-off – always useful to be lining up planets and ducks, prior to project kick-off.

(And: as Matt’s suggested, I’m going to start publishing these at the beginning of the next week. I wrote them in a spare moment at the weekend, but it’s much better reflecting on the week not on a Friday evening).