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About the Story
A fool and his money will soon depart, but a fool and his thoughts will lose more than that!
56th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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Number of Reviews: 5
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Inevitably, a trend that emerged during my time in academia was digital humanities. Inevitable because of the pervasive nature of computing, inevitable because great technological change has become synonymous with the passage of time, inevitable because the idea of adding STEM to humanities might yet abate inevitable austerities, inevitable because surely this was a career path to tenure, yet for all that inevitability no one was really sure what exactly digital humanities was, besides inevitable. Lots of experiments were conducted, datasets created and grown and maintained, plenty of words were assigned values and plotted over time, cartloads of terminology were mined out, and yet nothing really seemed to come of it. One fellow postgrad student, our local Digital Humanities Guy, talked about how he was going through an author’s oeuvre, assigning every word a value, and certainly by the time he was done this would mean something. Indeed, as a more enlightened scientific path to literature, the thesis’ experiment apparatus meant that any insight would be an emergent result from reading the data, when it came. In the interim, he was a great chat at the pub. Sadly, I never did hear what resulted from reading the data, if it finally came, but I’m sure that if you talked to him now, he’d have lots of exciting ideas about GPT-3, what that might prove, when it’s ready.
That same combination of grand visions of redefining the possibility space of literary understanding and tiny experiments seemingly bemused by what they demonstrate pertains to this tech demo of stateful narration. Passer makes a very bold go of reimagining engagement contours, and why not, it can be quite exciting. What if interactivity was recast as an emotive call and response, using sentiment analysis to inflect the reader’s ability to empathize and inhabit each character in such a way that they build out the characters’ conflicts themselves, an internalizing prism by which to understand our complicities in the frameworks exhibited by the work, humanizing the characters through our fraught humanity. What if the modes of interactive fiction so far developed were backwards, forcing ideas of agency upon the work, rather than allowing the work to seep into us, gauge our each flinch and riposte, hear how the song sounds echoing from our hearts’ acoustics? What if the layer afforded by interactivity is a new dimension of literature’s spiritual planishing, a work that not only changes us but which can be changed by us? As Passer states, “When I reframed “interactive” in terms of a state change, I realized I could partition entities into stateful and stateless entities. A person is a stateful entity, right? The state of a human can change. A printed book is a stateless entity; nothing can change the state of a printed book without damaging it. With this framing, I saw an insight that a stateless entity (e.g., printed book) can change the state of a stateful entity (e.g., human reader), which I labeled as noematic interaction. This is why I feel uncomfortable labeling stateless writing as “static” writing; there is a state change occurring to a human reader from a printed book. A process that causes a state change doesn’t intuitively feel static.” Rather than a parser purveying a formalistic distance of verb driven agency, what if our input happened on the level of the writing itself, filling in words ourselves at critical junctures, a writing that leaps from the page into a dialogue? Where could that take us?
Not here, not yet. The Lottery Ticket doesn’t quite have the engine to match its drive. The Lottery Ticket, to the extent that it is by Dorian Passer and not by Anton Chekhov, is a frame story that mirrors the narrative conceit, but which lacks the emotive depth in Chekhov, and which seems mostly disconnected from it; the only meaningful dovetail is the stormy ending of Chekhov being opposed to a “happy I have my friends” summeriness in Passer. Indeed, the embedding of Chekhov seems somewhere between a cheap meta gimmick and a structural support for a story which might otherwise not stand on its own. The idea of adding something to or on top of Chekhov seems misconceived to me, and distracts from what the story might be better suited doing, which is animating the abstract ideas going into it, rendering alive the airy theorizing.
That split focus between, a) trying to improvise some layer where we are reading the characters reading Chekhov and isn’t this just how stateful narration can superimpose etc etc, and b) delivering a novel system of response that stages a standalone artistic effort, results in a tech demo that doesn’t really know what it’s demoing. The headline idea, a parser that asks for your emotive response, is underdelivered, with throwaway stakes and corridored responses: “I can tell that Jas is getting a bit down whenever we complain about that sauce. / For the past week, Fran has been protesting with these dramatic gagging noises, even though she still devours it. I still pretend like I’m happy to chow down on it. / I wonder if Jas is _____ to eat that sauce again herself?” None of this really entails our immersion: we barely know these characters to assign value to their feelings, the blank thought we are expected to fill is sufficiently superfluous and dry to invite nothing but the blankness, and the setup nudges us with a prebuilt answer that makes us wonder why we’re spending so much effort trying to be stateful. Like, a character talks about Toria’s feelings as she waits for a lottery ticket, to which we’re invited to reply: “Oh, you know, very ____ over here.” Yes, excited, nervous, any nearby word you want to add. It’s more data entry than interactivity. Trying to wrestle some nuance out of the system, I entered “serene”, trying to recast Toria as at peace with the outcome of the lottery, which won me the following engagement: “Who am I kidding? I’m very nervous. That’s why I’m digging into my fingers…” Which basically dismantles every conceit that has gone into this. Whatever a stateful narration could be, it isn’t this. I think this is just a captcha.
Again, a great chat at a pub, but we still await Passer’s vision for a stateful narration, however that might work, when it comes, if it coheres.
This is, I believe, the third 'stateful narration' game I've played, and the first I've figured out how to get a reaction on. Edit: It was in fact the second, I have lied.
These games have an engine where you type something in a box (the game requires it to be in its internal dictionary) and then it parsers that output.
In all the past games I pushed the boundaries of it, like typing 'fart' in every box, and the game didn't respond at all. Even this time, I used words like 'deciduous', 'petrochemical', and 'brobdingnagian', and it didn't respond at all.
So I decided to just give in and type clear words like 'happy' and 'sad'. The game seemed to understand those, as well as 'despondent'. Given a couple of similar projects I've seen recently, I suspect that what's underneath the hood is 'sentiment analysis', where there is a database of dictionary words with a score associated to them about how positive and negative they are. Or not; I could be completely wrong. But that's what it feels like.
Like the other games, this has a classic short story inserted uncut and unchanged with a framing story around it. I'm not sure why this is the pattern; the short story is interesting, but it doesn't affect my feelings about the new parts of the game. It's kind of like buying a car and entering it into a car-decaling competition and putting a realistic copy of the Mona Lisa on the hood and then adding your own work around it without altering the original in any way. I think I rather prefer remixes of originals more than juxtaposition; A Fifth of Beethoven is a great remix of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, for instance.
The framing story has some interesting elements, but I found it hard to find a narrative thread or two outside of mimicking the lottery element of the chekhov story. It's possible the main purpose of the sauce story is just to provide several opportunities for the stateful interaction that is mostly about reacting positively or negatively to something.
Fun fact: the image used in the cover art is from a picture of a baby lottery held in early 1900's Paris and featured in Popular Mechanics. Pretty wild!
For my rubric, I find this game both polished and descriptive, but the interactivity could use a little more pushback on words with neutral sentiment; my main emotional impact was from the Chekhov story rather than the surrounding material; and there's not a lot of replayability here.
The Chekhov story is framed as something someone is reading on her phone - this results in a whole lot of text, and multiple parallel storylines.
The decision-making points come in the form of free text, but not like a parser in the sense that you input commands (i.e. verbs) and seem to be largely determining mood. As far as I can tell, though, they don’t actually change the following text. Maybe the choices affect the reader more than the story…? Maybe the act of choosing is part of the game; the appearance of having an open choice changes the interaction.
The elements of this story were intriguing separately: the purple prose surrounding a meme site, a la Imgur; the lottery theme in a late capitalism-type setting. But together I didn’t know how they fit together (especially the juxtaposition of those two threads), and perhaps I missed something; I’m afraid it didn’t quite work for me.
An interesting mechanic, and I would be curious to see how it worked with different styles of story. I would have liked to see it used for more than aesthetics, and it would be even better if such an unusual mechanism tied in with the themes of the story.
This review may be more about what I believe Dorian Passer is trying to achieve in general, or tried to achieve, rather than the specific work, though I think in this case, a Chekov short story you might not be aware of works better than Cost of Living did for ParserComp 2022.
It feels like there should be a cottage industry for stateful narratives and their relatives, well beyond the Cliff's Notes my teachers warned me against in high school, and of course well above the synopses you can pull from websites that offer to write an essay for a fee. I always felt Cliff's notes got dragged down in symbolism, and anyway, the good teachers knew what was in the Cliff's Notes, so you could only really avoid bad grades that way. What did help (he said cynically) was knowing what the teachers liked, their unconscious biases. So I was always a bit suspicious of English class and the next great short story. I enjoyed nuance, sure, and figuring what could be. But it always felt that people who were working for that A were a step ahead of me. They knew what to say, and they knew how to say it without some pretty smart teachers detecting that they knew, or if the teachers knew, the students knew how to put in enough that you couldn't argue they didn't deserve the A. This doesn't discount that some people deserved an A, but there is some cynicism about studying a work and trying to interpret it that I still haven't shaken off.
And I don't mean "cottage industry" as a derogatory term or "this isn't high art." I'm well aware other people could turn that argument, or something more harsh, on my own stuff. It's that I think we need something that will require minimal effort for us to twiddle, to see changes based on a few things we try. The payoff will surely be better than, say, FreeCell where we've developed that strategy to win 90% of the time and sense it's useless to get to 95%, but darn if we don't keep doing it, because each card-shuffle feels different, you know.
TLT, or a replication of its idea, feels in the same vein as chess videos where, say, GothamChess or Agadmator, two Youtubers with over a million subscribers, go through a game or list of games. The basic presentation is formulated, and they even have catch phrases that have developed naturally, as a way to keep us involved. They analyze sidelines, some worthy and some boobytrapped. And it feels like there's room for more in that boat, which is good for knowledge and variety but bad for my free time. Agadmator is more likely to cover classic games, or lesser-known games from a grandmaster's simultaneous exhibition. GothamChess is far more current. Hikaru Nakamura, who needs less introduction, can discourse at length about his own game.
Why the heck can't we have those options with literature? Well, one problem is, literature doesn't have the equivalent of a programmable chess engine, and it's even harder to say "that phrase is good" or "that paragraph is bad." Understanding is more organic. Sometimes it's based on realizing that, say, that poem of Robert Frost's means the opposite of what it means from a cursory glance and seeing why it goes beyond "simple sincerity." And it's just more fun to look at a chessboard than a bunch of words or to say "hey, look what the engine is saying, this is something the presenter couldn't have fit in to a fifteen minute video. I'd like to do my own exploration." For me, it was tough to find that exploration. There were simple what-ifs to ask. Sure, I enjoyed a story with a surprise twist, or where it wasn't clear what the narrator meant, or what the character did after (either option seemed equally likely,) but even there I could picture Mister I-Know-How-To-Get-A's dropping his two cents in, over my shoulder. Even if I hadn't seen him for a while.
TLT inverts that for me, and that seems both due to the subject matter as well the author's general intent. Chekov's story is relatively simple. Someone thinks he's won the lottery. Suspicions pop up. Could and should he hide the news? Windfalls going bad have been done before and will be done again, but there's always a new perspective. Chekov really Gets It, and in a more visceral way than Cost of Living did. I mean, Cost of Living was prescient, but when it starts talking about debt and interest rates, it potentially loses some zing, even though the issues (keeping up with the Joneses, being in debt over items you didn't want to buy, and so forth) are very relevant. So I can see why I might not have heard of the author but I still enjoyed CoL as well as their other stuff, though I was glad to be exposed to the story. The main thrust, though, is this: change a few things that may seem fixed or obvious, and we can reinterpret or reimagine it in a more modern vein. What do certain words mean if we ascribe different intent? Sometimes, it's obvious, but with the right stories, it gives us insight into human nature, and maybe even times where we ourselves have been fooled or confused and don't want that to happen again.
Chekov's story is ancient but in parallel with something more modern-day. It's odd to remember that a much smaller amount of money was once paid out in lotteries, but certain things remain. The administrators get their cut, so the expected value of a lottery ticket is less than its purchase value. I know that even if the lottery ticket paid out more than you spent, after taxes, there's a concept called marginal utility. (In plain English, that second million is a lot less useful than the first.) People have no idea how to manage money and go into debt. It's sad. I read a book by a person who negotiated lump-sum settlements for lotteries paid out over 20 years (and yes, the lotto winnings don't mention this payout, and that $1 million 20 years from now has less value, because inflation.) The person eventually felt awful about their job, and I remember how they noted starving horses at the farm of one lotto winner. This is all relatively technical.
Modernizing TLT feels like it would be a trivial jump, and maybe it is, but it's one worth making. In Passer's remake, you get to choose a few adjectives. Is someone genuinely happy they might win the lotto? How willing are they to actually share? How much of friends' sharing via instant messaging is actually altruistic? Anything seems possible.
You can play through a few times, and if the game text doesn't change, the text still has a different flavor based on what you say. Well, to me. Your friends' accusations (eating the sauce you're cooking raw, thus depriving your friends of a bit of it, is contrasted well with how much of your lottery winnings you might share) are constant, and I didn't keep very rigorous notes, but acting with bravado or standoffishness does change things. And at the end you seem to want to buy one more lotto ticket, despite having UBI and so forth. Which brings up a lot of questions–the lotto is about more than just having more money, it's about dreams, and yet on the other hand, those dreams, once realized, are ruined. And there have to be better ways to bring people together than the lotto, but it's sort of taken over, because it's the easiest way to find something in common.
Now, a writing like TLT clearly seems to have limited range for any particular story it may cover. But on the other hand, it feels like it could be applied to many other writings I always wanted to read but never did, when I'm not quite ready to read passively. I like that it doesn't pretend to be an exciting, sweeping new modernization of a famous old tale. It simply reminds us that things are, in many ways, as they were, despite technology creeping up and the size of a lottery growing astronomical. Chekov's summer villa we'll never use becomes timeshares or a yacht we can't use often. There is only so much to say about this subject, and that's okay, because there have to be others, from stories by authors famous or not.
I really do wish I had something like this in my inbox every day, or even a couple times a week, to poke through, because it would be time far more well spent than clickbait. Maybe that "it does what it can, and that's good" seems faint praise compared to "well, this is soaring art," but it's good and needed and if more of us did this for favorite authors or stories the rest of the world didn't know about or should, the Internet would be closer to the repository of ideas or questions that people dreamed TV would be in the '50s. There's enough great stuff, of course. It can soar, if you know where to look (e.g. the Daily Show gives news and asks questions and reminds us that some people in power or the public spotlight, or constantly seeking that sort of thing are, in fact, those who least deserve it.) You don't need to write a thesis in a 300-level college class to have access to it, either. There's a snappy trade of ideas that leads you into a hall with a lot of doors. Perhaps a lot of those doors leave you disappointed to know you're not so original to have thought of X before, but then you realize others have given you a boost to where you can start with the real ideas.
I think we've reached that self-sustaining point for more concrete stuff. Math, chess, etc., are some examples. I'm saturated with videos there, along with Youtube channels on psychology and building social skills. But videos don't seem to work as well for written words as, well, this sort of thing does. And I recognize it might lose something in mass-production. But I remember being awed by a library as a kid and thinking "I never could read all this" but I would so love to make a dent, and works like this give me confidence I still can. (Of course, this may already be out there in some form. I'd be glad to be wrong. But we can always use more, in quantity, quality, and tone.)
Determining if a word is positive or negative from a blank input is a much more difficult task, computing-wise, than having the player select one of two options. However, as a player, I didn't feel that blank input was any more fun than choosing between two options (especially since the result, to my knowledge, is positive or negative). I think the technology behind the game is interesting, but it needs a better-designed game to show its possibilities. Maybe the engine's mastermind could collaborate with a writer... ?