Stygian Dreams

by Giorgos Menelaou


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Number of Reviews: 5
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AI (partially) rewriting ancient myths. I'm worried it worked so well., September 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2023

This was in the Spring Thing back garden, but I think it would have been at home in the main festival! It's experimental, with AI-generated text, and it's much better than what I've previously seen of AI. There is more discussion of what I felt on and after playing than of the work itself. But I think that's because, if you're as lucky as I was, SD will remind you of things, so to speak. I also found it to be better fleshed out than The Fortuna, which appeared in ParserComp a few months later and also used AI.

This is going to get a bit political, but – well, in this case, I recall reading two very bad AI-generated poems praising Elon Musk and Donald Trump. They had minimal value for ironic humor, at least. But I was able to forget the words and not that, well, AI-generated art or stories can be mind-numbingly painful and little more than a checklist of details. (I couldn't tell if any text was strictly AI-generated, which is a good thing. I suspect the author had a go-through and punched it up.)

And there's another angle. Right-wing trolls' mantra is "Donald Trump is in your head, and you can't get him out of it." But we'd like to, because it would clear things up for what we want to do. (Never mind that certain people are certainly in Trump's head without trying to get there!) How do we get Trump, or anyone, out of our heads? And how can we be sure that if we do, we're not just cutting out legitimate opposing views, period?

SD is not specifically about this, but it helps address these questions. And it's a nice change of pace from works over the years where you have a long quest to enlightenment. Now, many are very worthy indeed. There are some where you decide your eternal fate, such as Michael Hilborn's The Life and Deaths of Dr. M. And there are some where you try to get someone out of your life. And there are others with a big, horrible realization at the end. Sometimes I'm not ready for that. But I can get a lot of mileage out of them, too. See AmandaW's What Heart Heard of, Ghost Guessed. And, of course, there is the whole "you have amnesia" subgenre. Pieces fit together, and actions you made or things you saw or thought that didn't make sense, do. Some stories work well, and some don't. And, in Spring Thing this year, we also have Repeat the Ending, which deals more directly with emotional issues and drowning in one's thoughts.

But this is the first I'm aware of where forgetting is a quest! At the end, after meeting some other spirits, you drink from Lethe. This is a gross oversimplification, and SD provides no outright solutions, but it's a short mythological story that brought up questions I had and gave me enough partial answers to old questions I had. It reminded me briefly of things I let weigh me down, of things I hadn't quite let go of, and of things I let go of enough that when they popped up, I was able to push them back off the front burner. There were even a few people I remembered who couldn't let go of things they should've, people who seemed very with-it and attuned to society's faults big and small, and the semi-tortured souls you got to talk to near the end reminded me of them, and I saw some of those real-life people were just babbling. So that was big for me. I tend to place very high value on "what does this entry do for me," and with SD, this worked. But it can't be too forcing!

And I'm glad, for instance, the souls in the underworld have no grand description. Dante's Inferno–well, I loved it, but I'm just not up to that sort of thing right now. And the souls are simply a former warrior, etc., and they will tell you about themselves, and they ramble on, but not too much. The contrast of "don't you know who I am" versus "I was nobody and didn't really even try" (which to me implied "I don't deserve to try until I square away X") struck me as very important indeed. Both parties deserved to forget who they were or what they did, at least partially–the one, to become better people, and the other, to reach their potential. Although the powerful types reminded me of people who told me I'd better remember or forget. Perhaps they told me I was forgettable, and I shouldn't forget why. (Spoiler: these people probably don't remember me and have probably done this to others, sadly.)

SD is not a huge game, and if it were, that might deflect from its central element. You have an ethereal guide. You meet people who can't forget bad and good things. You learn about yourself a bit, but then you see you get to forget, and you can forget at your own pace, and though there's no Lethe in the physical world, you can go on quests to help you forget things. Said quests are best achieved with more than "PUT THE PAST BEHIND YOU! TODAY IS A NEW DAY!" or "THINK POSITIVE OR YOU'RE SCREWED" books and mantras that tell you, the heck with any awful things you did, live in the now! I've long since seen their faults, even if they accidentally helped me in some ways. And I've searched for better, and things like SD generally help.

I could ramble on a bit about what SD helped me remember for quite a while. Those times I didn't realize I'd been a place before right away, and if I had, I'd have remembered some unfortunate idees fixes. Maybe it was something as simple as approaching a park from the west instead of the north, as I did ten years ago. SD reminded me, too, forgetfulness comes in layers–you realize you took longer between sessions when something awful hammered you. And it made me ask, what else did I put aside, or work to put aside? Perhaps it was a high school classroom where I did not enjoy myself. I took pictures of how different it looked and deleted them from my phone mistakenly. Then it occurred to me I didn't really want or need to keep the pictures. And I remembered how I had some memories in place trying to neutralize other bad memories, but the defensive memories weren't even that good.

We mortals don't have a magic bullet to forget things. At least, not without potentially proving our mortality. So we have to make do. We find something that lets us back-bench the worst of our thoughts, and if we don't forget them, we put them where they can be recalled instead of forcibly remembered. We can say, okay, I've accounted for enough, I can put that aside.

The cheap jokes just write themselves. They'd obviously be unfair, but somehow they helped with putting things in perspective. "I had something brilliant but I forgot it." "This game is about forgetting, and it's true to its colors by being forgettable." "I forget the most relevant detail, but in the spirit of the game I don't want to go back and read it and remember something long-term." None of these zingers are fair, emotionally or logically, but they were fun thought experiments and got me wondering what I felt I had to remember or wanted to. I felt okay quickly remembering and forgetting some bad things from my life, and I felt confident others would not stay. And i have to admit, I forget some parts of SD already! And I know sometimes certain writings can stir up personality-cult-like "oh, this is what life is about." But I believe SD stirred up things legitimately worth writing about for (looks at word count) 1000-2000 words.

So: forgetfulness is a complex thing. It's scary, because you know forgetting certain things would diminish yourself. But using it to lessen emotional baggage can be a way to grow. And SD reminded me of that. But perhaps it's better to riff on two lines from the Eagles' Hotel California, with its own dreamlike qualities:

* "Some dance to remember, some dance to forget" Playing SD, I realized things I wanted to remember and forget, and I picked and chose according to my own arbitrary standards.
* "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." In SD, though, you can check out from memories, AND you can leave them behind.

Or to mention a more technical, practical example. We all have our "Hello World" lessons for coding. And we learn stuff and forget it. I've felt guilty having to look up something that seems simple twice, or something I learned early that helped stuff click, as if that proves I don't have real mastery. But the truth is–I'm making a calculated decision to say, I believe I can put X aside to learn Y, which will have greater long-term impact. And holding onto the trivial knowledge for X gets in the way. It's different from, say, ditching friends who helped you when you hit rock bottom now you're successful.

I got a lot out of SD, enough that I planned to write a review before Spring Thing ended, and two days later I finally sat down once my thoughts settled. And it was almost scary to have someone pop up on another forum who hadn't posted for 13 years. I had forgotten them, but then I remembered (positive) stuff they said in a different context. Perhaps this is a crazy coincidence or, perhaps, I can say without getting too swell a head–if you ask questions and look for answers enough, and stumble across enough good works like SD, things are bound to happen together, and it feels like lightning struck, but really, it's just a form of the birthday paradox, where two neat things will be unexpectedly close, and you can learn a lot from that, and you don't have to worry why it happened.

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