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Thanks but no thanks, December 13, 2020
So YWTMaFAYTaW – I feel like I need an acronym for the acronym, why don’t we just go with Thank a Werewolf – so Thank a Werewolf’s About text says that this is a “collaboration” with the GPT-2 text generation algorithm, which involved feeding the program bits of the author’s (static, I assume) fiction, then curating and arranging the output to form the game. I went into the experience deeply skeptical that I’d find anything interesting in it, and I have to confess that nothing in the game wound up changing my mind.
I can’t really talk about the story or the premise since this is all algorithm-driven gobbledygook – the blurb’s claim that it’s about “a lifelong romantic relationship” I think must be a joke about the relationship between the author and their work, rather than about anything depicted in the text. Format-wise, you get a couple paragraphs of prose then one or two hyperlinked lines at the end that lead to the next bit of the story; I assume there’s branching but given the lack of narrative coherence, much less cause-and-effect, I’m not sure what difference or impact this would have. Most passages have one or two footnotes, which expand when clicked: I think these might be the prompts used to generate the text, since they often used the same words as showed up in the main text, but were uniformly more coherent and interesting than what was above.
If there’s not a consistent narrative, there’s perhaps a somewhat more consistent tone, beyond of course the omnipresent surrealism – most of the generated text feels like it’s about younger people, late teenagers to twentysomethings, sad about stuff and unsure about what they’re doing (I mean, fair enough). And there were a few scattered bits that had some zing to them. This was probably my favorite:
"I began to write the descriptions of my wishes. Letters with descriptions of things I wanted to happen, wishes that were already in the cards. An ambulance for a sick child. A dog for its owner. A car so nice it needs a full-sized garage. My first kiss. Your first kiss with me."
But that’s almost immediately followed by:
"I was the best cheerleading man in high school, and you were the best kisser in college. But you never kissed me glumly, always raising your hand majestically, like a majestically colored bikini. You kissed me so high that my boots creased the carpet beneath you."
"This town doesn’t cook delicious, but it does let you eat whatever the fuck you want. Your ovaries are like television, only they are hooked on the news. You can’t even spell rhyme or reason correctly. The stagehands send out the correct notes. The comedian sets the tone; the crowd gets funnier. It’s all a matter of perspective."
For a tone poem, one or two high points might be enough, but this thing is also at least two or three times longer than it should be – once my brain twigged to the fact that it was just watching a slot machine, I found it really hard to push on.
I do get the appeal, if not fascination, this sort of thing can have for a writer: the prospect of looking at your work through a glass, darkly, so you can apprehend it in a new way. I wrote a (very bad) novel in my younger days, about high-school wrestlers who I must confess were far more foul-mouthed even than Tom Trundle, and when I finished the first draft I excitedly ran it through Word’s (I think now deprecated) autosummarize feature, only to see my 300-page novel turned into three paragraphs of this:
"Fuck. “What if Coach found out?” Jesus, Coach. The first match I wrestled? Fuck. Three matches. Fuck. Fuck. “Yeah.” “Right.” “Yeah, right.” “Oh, right.” “Right.” “Redford?” “Yeah, yeah. Fucking math. Shit.” “Fuck. Fuck. Fucking test. Very helpful, Redford.” Redford nods. “Right.” “Fuck.” “Ah,” sighs Redford. “If only.” Everybody likes Redford. Anais? Fuck. “Yeah.” “Uh, right.” Redford’s word."
I died laughing – this is actually my ghost writing this – and resolved to tone down the profanity somewhat. As a way to change perspective, or add a bit of surprising flavor to the hand-crafted sauce (this metaphor has gotten away from me), I can see the value of procedurally-generated text – and I’m sure in twenty or thirty years Skynet will have come for the writers the same way it’ll have come for everybody else – but in the meantime, the werewolf’s getting no thank-yous from me.