(Minor spoilers for the game below!)
This piece was created in collaboration with Steffi Che and dra.ft for ELO 2021.
Steffi and I wanted to create something that combined her visual poetry and my websites. One source we were particularly inspired by was NetHack, a roguelike dungeon crawling game first released in 1987. It used ASCII graphics to represent classic concepts such as monsters and treasure. We loved the simplicity of the ASCII aesthetic and the potential for symbolism and play in the characters selected. Reviewer Justin Olivetti mentioned “an encyclopedia of objects, a larger vocabulary, a wealth of pop culture mentions, and a puzzler’s attitude”as part of the game’s ethos, and I was really excited to try to embody those aspects in our piece.
There are four main elements in the piece: a “fog of war” style dungeon map; a generated game log; collectible poem items; and the source code lobby.
First, the map is revealed only as much as you explore it. The player is represented by the “at” symbol (@) and can move around rooms and through hallways, each represented by simple ASCII characters.
Second, all your actions are recorded in the game log. Here, we wanted to evoke the style of second-person interactive fiction. In addition to sentences that describe actions that affect the gameplay, the game log also includes a log of every step you take, as represented by the arrow key pressed.
Third, scattered around the dungeon are collectible poem items. These are represented by specific symbols as listed in the legend. When the player encounters an item, they are prompted to interact with it, which triggers a small popup window containing the interactive poem experience. There are ten in total: “aster”, “brush”, “buffer”, “iliad”, “information”, “intermission”, “kernel”, “philtre”, and “rivers”. For each poem, Steffi wrote the text and conceptualised its unique interactive component. Some are animated; some require user interaction to reveal the text; some are based on the time of day.
After collecting all ten elements, a set of stairs is revealed on the dungeon map, leading the player to discover the final element – the lobby. Here, they encounter the source code of the piece. For this part, we were inspired by quines, which are programs that “take no input and produces a copy of its own source code its only output”.
The piece is aesthetically quite bare, especially with the amount of whitespace on the dungeon map and in some poem windows before user interaction. However, it emphasises discovery and problem-solving, rewarding the player with a rich experience as the map is discovered and poems are experienced.
I’m really happy with what we managed to achieve in this time and I’m so glad I was able to work with Steffi, whose work I really admire, and with the dra.ft team, who always creates such a welcoming and helpful environment.