Synthetic Dreams is a work of hypertext fiction, built with the open-source tool Twine, that explores the connection between the way we navigate data and the way we think. A second-person narrative, the player inhabits a character whose brain is part organic and part synthetic and therefore able to access “the network” directly from their mind. The network responds to requests for information first in logical ways and then in increasingly abstract ways if the user is not satisfied. The text from the network is separated from the main narration, and its mechanical appearance and emotionless tone contrasts with the sensory descriptions in the narration.
In the fully-realized game, there would be two distinct paths which diverged at the train station. The choice to board the train would take the player into the city, where they encounter more and more intrusive data, to the point that it becomes overwhelming. The choice to observe the person on the platform and miss the train would lead them away from city and its data core, instead leaving them to nature, their body, and their own thoughts, which can also be overwhelming. The theme of the game is how we navigate the world in the face of informational or sensory overload. In both these endings, the player would be confronted with the sublime—something great and terrifying, beautiful and yet beyond comprehension—either in nature (gazing out at the stars) or in digital space (having the network flood their mind with a near-infinite amount of data).
My influences include several text-based works: Emily Short's Bronze; Young Hae-Chang Heavy Industry's Dakota; Kate Pullinger's Jellybone; and Jennifer Egan's Black Box. Of these works, Bronze and Black Box were useful in writing the actual text of the story. Bronze provided examples of how to effectively describe a setting through text, while Black Box was a useful guide for working within Twine's fragmented node structure. The nodes in my work don't represent individual thoughts the way that the tweets in Black Box do, but it helped me to structure my writing so that each node (each screen viewed by the player) conveyed a satisfying amount of information.
Controlling the amount of text on the screen at a time also creates a rhythm within the story. Inspired by Dakota, I used hyperlinks and Leon Arnot's <<replace>> macro set to control the story's timing. Certain passages advance without the player clicking anything; these are times when the player character is determined to stop thinking about the current subject. At other times, there is a pause before text appears, when information from the network is loading. The yellow text represents information delivered by the network and appears one character at a time. The speed of the yellow text varies depending on the player character's location; the text appears more rapidly the closer the player character is to the city and its data core.
Inspired by Kate Pullinger's Jellybone, the static background images (used under licence from unsplash.com) in Synthetic Dreams are used to establish setting as the player character moves between different locations. A full version of the game would use sound effects to similar effect. The animated images, however, are dynamic elements that the player cannot control, and represent moments where the player character is overwhelmed by their thoughts or by data (though the two may sometimes be indistinguishable).
In “The Upright Script,” Amaranth Borsuk discusses the pervasiveness of data and notes how Microsoft's commercials for Bing suggest that “the data cloud…is too vast and overwhelming for most of us to navigate on our own.” I chose to visualize the data cloud as an animated word cloud using Jim Andrew's Aleph Null—the player cannot control the cloud or directly interact with it. When the player character makes a request of the network, the player clicks a hyperlink to access the information. Hyperlinks are the player's navigational tool.
The tools used to create Synthetic Dreams are in keeping with the spirit of the Digital Humanities Manifesto. I've used images with creative commons licenses, an open-source tool for creating hypertext works, as well as Leon Arnott's macros and Jim Andrew's Aleph Null to manipulate text. Though I may be the sole “author” of the work, it relies on these other digital resources. I am also hosting the game on my Neocities site, which allows anyone to access it, and Neocities itself is a free web hosting service allows anyone to create a site with 1GB of hosting space.
Borsuk, Amaranth. “The Upright Script: Words in Space and on the Page.” Journal of Electronic Publishing 14.2, 2011.
Egan, Jennifer. Black Box. The New Yorker. 2012.
Pullinger, Kate. Jellybone. Oolipo, 2017.
Short, Emily. Bronze. Release 12, Inform, 2006. http://inform7.com/learn/eg/bronze/index.html. Accessed 1 April. 2018.
Strickland, Stephanie. “Born Digital.” Poetry Foundation, 13 Feb. 2009. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69224/born-digital. Accessed 1 April 2018.
“The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0.” 29 May 2009. http://manifesto.humanities.ucla.edu/2009/05/29/the-digital-humanities-manifesto-20/. Accessed 4 April 2018.
Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries. “Dakota.” 2002. http://www.yhchang.com/DAKOTA.html Accessed 4 April 2018.