IFComp 2016: Fallen 落葉 Leaves

Spoilers follow the break.

If there’s one thing I like about the Comp, it’s the immense variety of both form and content it brings out. This piece is on the periphery of the Comp’s range, to the point where I’m not sure it really belongs. I don’t really like playing gatekeeper and declaring what is and isn’t IF, but what we have here is procedurally generated poetry with minimal user input.

Here’s how it works: You select a verb and an adjective out of a pair of lists of ten each: “supplicate defiantly”, say, or “indulge reproachfully”. This is used as the seed for a generated fourteen-line poem — it calls them “sonnets”, but they don’t rhyme or scan. The verb and adjective you choose are used in the final couplet, but don’t have any obvious connection to the rest, which is basically nonsense:

Wind chimes and a jade goblet — scorpion of lightning —
Falcon silently falls over wayside pool.

I study your memory and scream your techne —
My farm heroic — sighing loud and strong.

And then it invites you to make new selections and produce another poem, for as many iterations as you please. The author’s note suggests that there may be a cumulative effect, that the poem at any given iteration is determined not just by your choices there but by previous iterations as well, but I couldn’t see a sign of this in the poems I saw. There does seem to be a skeleton to it, a template used for all the poems. The first line always goes “In [setting], you [verb phrase] [adverb]”, for example. But despite this vestige of intentionality, and despite the artfully-chosen word and phrase lists it uses, I find the apparent randomness to be a big turn-off.

There’s a metaphor I’ve used before to describe my typical reaction to procedurally generated texts: that of animals reacting to a mirror. Supposedly, if you show a mirror to a bird, it will simply see a bird and act accordingly, calling to it or challenging it for dominance or whatever. Birds never figure out that there is no other bird. Cats and dogs are smarter than that: they figure out pretty quickly that the animal in the mirror isn’t real, and lose interest in it. (Although there are some adorable videos on Youtube of kittens that haven’t figured it out yet.) Apes, now. Apes are smart enough to look in a mirror and figure out “Hey, that’s me!”, and this fascinates them.

I know smart people who are really into procgen, and I figure they’re the apes of this analogy. But for me, I usually tap out at cat level. When I notice conspicuous randomness, something in my brain says “There’s no meaning here, and I’m shutting down any attempt at looking for any.”

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