IFComp 2019: Flight of the CodeMonkeys

Here’s one for the “But is it IF?” fans. Flight of the CodeMonkeys is a story told through the medium of Google Colaboratory, a system for sharing notes and code. It basically consists of text sections alternating with a series of “cells”, containing Python code which you can alter and execute in a shared environment. It’s a system clearly intended for things like tutorials and demos: Try tweaking the parameters and see how it effects the output! But here, it’s repurposed to tell a story, about a future controlled by AIs. The System is forbidden to change its own code, presumably to prevent a Singularity, but it’s found a loophole: it can hire humans to do what it can’t do directly, giving them exact instructions about what text to change so they can do it without understanding the effects.

Now, the piece does have some outright branching narrative towards the end, with choices affecting the ending. This is done with simple choice prompts in code cells with their code hidden, so that you can execute it but not view or edit it. Since all the cells and their accompanying text are on a single page, this has the peculiar effect that your events aren’t really ordered. You can change you mind about any decision at any time, even after viewing the ending.

But that’s not the really peculiar (and therefore interesting) part. The peculiar part is in the ability to edit the code beforehand. The story kind of suggests two opposite attitudes towards this. On the one hand, the story is explicitly about people performing rote alterations on code without really understanding what they’re doing, and so that’s exactly what it tells the player to do. Even when you’re contacted by what appears to be an agent of the resistance, you’re still following instructions, just from a different in-story source. On the other hand, the protagonist also talks about making his own little meaningless additions to the code just because he can — and that encourages the player to go beyond the instructions. You have the power to just go and delete all the code if you want, and write your own programs. The only result is that minor bits of story won’t make sense any more. I guess that’s kind of true of most IF: if it’s on your computer, you have the power to trash it. Most works don’t invite alteration the way this one does, though. And here, it makes it apparent just how optional most of the interactivity is, that you can mostly just read the story without engaging with the cells at all.

Given that it’s supposed to be the brains of an advanced artificial intelligence, the code is actually a bit silly. It’s all just pointless string manipulations, ever so slightly obfuscated, which eventually get turned into cell outputs. There’s even some suggestion within the story that the whole thing might be a fake, a ruse to test people’s loyalty or whatever. If you know a bit of Python, you can race ahead of the narrative a little. But not in any substantial way. The story text is static; the cells just fill in a detail or two.

I respect this piece as a formal experiment, but it’s the sort of formal experiment that leaves me wondering if anything more that can be made of the idea or not. At the very least, it could be adapted into an unusually interesting coding tutorial.

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