February 21, 2008

EP 5.4: The Tale-Spin Effect

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 6:12 am

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974) two characters named Kublai Khan and Marco Polo sit in a garden. Polo tells the Khan — sometimes in words, sometimes through symbols, sometimes through the relation of pieces on a chessboard — of cities he has visited within the vast empire. Here are a few. In the middle of Fedora is a metal building with a crystal globe in every room, each containing a model of the city as it might have been in a possible future, constructed at a different stage of its history. At every solstice and equinox, around the fires of the marketplace of Euphemia, there is trade not in goods but in memories. In Ersilia, the inhabitants stretch strings between all the houses — marking relationships of blood, of trade, authority, agency — until one can no longer pass, all but the strings are taken down, and Ersilia is built again elsewhere. Thekla is continually under construction, following the blueprint of the stars, while Andria already reflects the heavens precisely — in every street, building, job, and ceremony — but those who live there must carefully weigh each change to the city, given the changes it will produce in the heavens. Polo and the Khan each propose a model city, from which all others can be deduced. They look through atlas pages that contain not only all the cities of the Khan’s empire, but all those that will one day come to exist (Paris, Mexico City), and all imaginary lands (Utopia, New Atlantis).

It is not hard to picture Tale-Spin as an addition to this list of imaginary lands. It is the place made up of nothing but plans within plans within plans. The people have no emotions, except those that help select between possible plans. They have no memories, except of plans underway, plans that have failed, and the locations of things they may use in plans. And these locations — the very geographies of this imaginary place — come to exist only as needed by their plans.

Like one of Calvino’s cities, Tale-Spin is an alien place. And yet, each is alien because some element that we recognize of our own lives becomes the defining element, practically the only element, of the people and landscape. On some level we do trade in memories like the inhabitants of Euphemia, clot free passage with networks of connection like the inhabitants of Ersilia, and, like the inhabitants of Tale-Spin, make Chinese boxes of plans within plans that at times obsess us so that nothing else seems to exist.

However, to those who consider only the output of Tale-Spin fictions, all of this is truly invisible. Take, for example, George Bird trying to decide how to answer Arthur Bear’s request to tell him where to find honey. Meehan doesn’t provide us with the Mumble output from this fiction, but a story with a similar situation in it is reprinted in an appendix to Meehan’s dissertation. Here is the Mumble output of a series of considerations and speculations that, given Tale-Spin’s structures, is probably much like those in Arthur and George’s story:

Tom asked Wilma whether Wilma would tell Tom where there were some berries if Tom gave Wilma a worm. Wilma was inclined to lie to Tom. (232)

The empty space between those two sentences is undoubtedly one of the most interesting parts of this story, if only we could see it from the “interior” view of Tale-Spin’s operations. But Mumble stories never contain accounts of characters’ multi-level speculations, or elaborate considerations of potential plans. Instead, all this psychological action is, as above, elided. Looking only at the surface, the decision might as well have been made randomly.

Rather than Tale-Spin’s most interesting story structures, Mumble outputs plodding, detailed information from CD expressions that have little fictional energy, as with the beginning of this same story:

Once upon a time Betty Bear lived in a cave. There was a beehive in an apple tree. Maggie Bee lived in the beehive. There was some honey in Maggie’s beehive. Tom Smith was in a chair. There was a nest in a redwood tree. Wilma Bird lived in the nest. Tom knew that Wilma was in her nest. Tom knew that Maggie was in her beehive. Tom knew that Betty was in her cave. There were some cranberries near a bush. There was a worm near a patch of ground. Betty knew that the cranberries were near the bush.

And so on. Including painstaking reports of travel such as: “Tom walked from the chair across a living room down a hall via some stairs down a hall down a hall through a valley across a meadow to the ground by the redwood tree.” It’s no wonder that most humanists have seen Tale-Spin as only worthy of ridicule.

Further, unlike the open-ended textual interaction of Eliza/Doctor, the interaction allowed by Tale-Spin takes the form of highly restricted menu selection. As a result, no amount of play with the system will have the result of play with Eliza/Doctor: insight into the processes at work. Instead, it would be impossible, through play, to pierce the boring surface of a Tale-Spin story to see the more interesting fiction taking place through its processes.

We can look at it this way. The Eliza effect creates a surface illusion of system complexity — which play (if allowed) dispels. The Tale-Spin effect, on the other hand, creates a surface illusion of system simplicity — which the available options for play (if any) can’t alter. This situation is far from uncommon in digital media, perhaps particularly in the digital arts, where fascinating processes (drawing on inspirations ranging from John Cage to the cutting edge of computer science) are often encased in an opaque interface. In fact, this effect is at least as common as the Eliza effect, though I know of no term that describes it. Hence this coinage.

Of course, it would not be a trivial task to redesign Tale-Spin so that its most interesting fictional events were made apparent to its audiences. For example, it might require that the inferences made during planning be stored in memory and (a tricky requirement) a fictionally-interesting summary of them be produced by Mumble. But this does not make Tale-Spin different from digital media in general. One of the most challenging design tasks in creating digital media — the form of media enabled by computational processes — is to craft and situate interesting processes so that they produce a meaningful audience experience. I will return to this challenge in a later chapter, when discussing the work of Will Wright and what I call “the SimCity effect.”