The Lottery Ticket

by Anonymous

Episode 2 of A Study in Stateful Media with Narrational Agency

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IFComp 2022: The Lottery Ticket, October 30, 2022
by kaemi
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

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.