I had the day off Saturday so I told myself that I would spend all day working on my book. Instead I played Galatea and discovered that there were conversational threads I'd never found even though it's been five years now since I first played it. Then I made that little graphic over on the left there. Then I went to dinner. Then I started writing this. I've always found that the best way to get things done is to have something more important you need to do.

I stopped writing IF after finishing Narcolepsy figuring that if I had an IF project to work on I would never work on the book again. A while before that I pretty much stopped playing IF, because I don't much like it. Most IF, even today, requires you to fix toasters or find keys or otherwise figure stuff out, which I am rarely in the mood for. Even my favorite IF pieces, titles like Shade and For a Change, are generally more enjoyable to have played than to be playing.

But Galatea is different. It uses the conventional IF interface — you read a paragraph, you type in what you want to do, the program tells you what happens, you type in what you want to do next, and so forth. But nearly the entire story is a single conversation, and the verb you use the vast majority of the time is >ASK, with an occasional >TELL or >EXAMINE thrown in for variety. This may sound like it only takes advantage of a tiny fraction of what's possible in IF, and to an extent this is true. But in a lot of ways it's the most successful piece of interactive fiction yet written.

Good things about Galatea:

It's a palimpsest, which to me is the most satisfying type of IF to see done well. Here's what I mean. A lot of IF has just one storyline. You're given chapter one and then you have to figure out how to call up chapter two. Then you have to figure out how to trigger chapter three. Etc. (My Photopia is like this.) A more open-ended version of this model walks you through chapter one and then gives you a bunch of different tasks to work on, so you might see chapter two, three, four, five or six next depending on which task you finish first. (My Varicella is like this.) Even in this case, though, the pieces that make up the story are always the same. It's like playing Civilization using the historical map — you might discover the continents in different orders, but they're always in the same places waiting to be found.

Galatea isn't like this. The premise is that you're an art critic in a future world where the creation of humanoid constructs endowed with limited artificial intelligence has become a respected art form. You've been summoned to a gallery to take a look at and try to hold a conversation with Galatea, who appears to be a marble statue come to life. What is her actual nature? In most IF there would be one answer; in Galatea there are many possibilities. And how your conversation goes and what you discover about Galatea is determined by more than a simple branching path like in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. The author, who writes under the name "Emily Short," has devised a complicated engine tracking the flow of the conversation and its effect on Galatea's emotional state. When you make a conversational sally, the engine determines what will happen based on how your choice of topic relates to the existing conversational thread and how Galatea's feeling. The effect is worlds layered on top of worlds layered on top of mutually exclusive worlds, making Galatea incalculably more replayable than most IF. For once you're actually not always stepping into the same river. (Another excellent if less ambitious example of this type of thing is Aisle by Sam Barlow.)

All of this would be wasted effort if Galatea herself were boring. She's not. Whatever her ultimate nature turns out to be in a given playthrough, she is Not Like Us. Her skin sparkles with tiny quartz crystals. She speaks of how it felt to have her eyes drilled in and what it's like to travel in a crate. This is awesome. I love this stuff. Really exploring what it feels like to be not entirely human... it's part of why I still read comics. (Random association — back when Chris Claremont and Grant Morrison were both writing X-Men titles at the same time, there was a character on Claremont's team named Sage who was said to have a "computer brain." Claremont was very vague about what this actually meant and portrayed her as simply having enhanced recall and suchlike. When Morrison had Sage guest-star in his title, though, he took the "computer brain" business very literally. Sage was Not Like Us. It was great.)

Then there's the writing. The author of Galatea, like another IF luminary, Andrew Plotkin, writes in a manner that feels mathematically precise, which can sometimes feel a bit off-kilter as it conflicts with the reader's — well, okay, with my — sense of the cadences of the language. An example, as the player character speaks of childhood: "It's not always pleasant, being weaker and smaller, and having people treat you as though you're less." Lines like that one scrape against my sense of idiom. But the flip side of this is that many lines are perfect. (I don't want to be too spoily, so I'll sequester my examples here.) In interviews I've been asked to give potential IF authors out there advice, and one of my usual lines is, "The pieces of text you write are the player's reward for thinking of the command that calls them up. So make them rewarding." Galatea is a big success on this count.

Finally, I appreciate that this near-future world has its own pop culture. I am currently reading a book set in 2065 whose characters constantly refer to celebrities of the mid-20th century but never to anyone who's made it big in the past hundred years or so. Galatea, by contrast, supplies a varied cast of creators of animates. Thank you!

Bad things about Galatea:

Well, for one, the player character hasn't been fleshed out (so to speak) anywhere near as well as Galatea has. Traditionally, the player character in IF has been a cipher (so as not to alienate any given player), and this has been the tradition I have most tried to demolish in my own IF. In Galatea the player character is neither wholly malleable — he's been given a sex, a few opinions, a smidgen of personal history, and a deliberately grating voice, the voice of a jaded intellectual who isn't actually all that smart — nor fully realized. So the conversation sometimes feels as if it's taking place between one and a half people.

There is also a bit more challenge than I might like in that Galatea is fairly chilly at first and it's not all that easy to get her to warm up to you. Of course, this is how it goes with a lot of people as well. Some of it has to do with mood; sometimes I feel voluble, other times I'm pretty uncommunicative. There've been times I've been sent long interview questions and have sent back one-sentence replies — not to be nasty, but just because I'm not feeling very talkative. Some of it has to do with sex. I greatly prefer female company to male, and so when I am talking to someone of the XX persuasion my end of the conversation is often loaded with cues indicating that I think she is great, cues that are entirely missing when I'm just talking to some dude. I would have loved to have been able to type these into Galatea but I don't even know what they are. And I suspect that >ESTABLISH RAPPORT is insufficiently specific.

Some of it has to do with culture. I come from California, where you are expected to be friendly — not just polite, but actively friendly — to strangers you encounter, so when I moved to New York I found people intolerably rude. On the flip side, I've heard many people from other parts of the world complain about visiting California and having random people act like they were old buddies. Recently I read a short essay describing this sort of thing as "pathological extroversion," but I don't think that's quite right. I usually hear the difference between introversion and extroversion described this way: extroverts find that being around people energizes them, while introverts find being among groups of people draining and need lots of time by themselves to recharge. I am definitely in the latter category. But that's not the same as being standoffish or private. One on one, I have been known to, "after a short period of acquaintance," as the article says, share "the most intimate details and feelings"... heck, some I've posted here for Random Q. Internet to gander at. Why not?

Answer: "When it comes to things like intimacy and emotion I apply a simple economic relationship: scarcity equals value." Gah! I mean, yeah, on the one hand, I can see where this might come from — I've been lucky enough to have written some things that have been praised by people who pretty much hate everything, and complimentary words from such sources have a certain cachet that's lacking in good reviews from people who give everything good reviews. And I myself have wondered whether the fact that my musical tastes are extremely narrow means that I love the music I love more intensely than people who go crazy for anything that comes on the radio. But the responses I got to that article pretty much convinced me that, no, the people with two hundred "favorite bands" actually do love those bands just as much as I love my half-dozen.

When I was in college, there was an absolutely amazing pizza place in town called Zachary's. Calling it pizza is actually somewhat misleading, since the legendary stuffed pies at Zachary's have little to do with Neapolitan flatbread and nothing at all to do with the space-age polymers served up at Domino's. These are mind-blowing creations that, when I was actually enrolled, we saved for special occasions — birthdays, graduations. But here's the thing. After I graduated, I stuck around for an extra year, and I had a car and could eat anywhere I wanted, and it occurred to me... Zachary's is ten minutes away. For eight dollars I can get a stuffed pizza that will feed me magnificently for two days. Why shouldn't I go there all the time? When I mentioned to my friends that I'd started to go to Zachary's twice a week, they were horrified — doesn't that make it less special? one asked. Hell no! Delicious is delicious. I wouldn't want to eat there every day, but you'd better believe that if it weren't 3000 miles away I'd still be going twice a week. There was absolutely no extra value in only enjoying it rarely.

And the same goes for intimacy. "Compared to one moment of intimacy from an introvert, all the outpourings of an extrovert are the cheapest of junk." No. Some people who hide their thoughts and feelings have nothing worth hiding. Some who share themselves freely are giving everyone they encounter something to treasure. Does a once-in-a-lifetime word of approval from a cold parent mean more than a childhood full of affection from a loving one? That's the kind of thinking that leads to colossally fucked-up cultures.

You can be an introvert without being emotionally stingy. As noted, I'm one myself, but that doesn't mean that I want fewer friends, theorizing that the friendships I do make will thereby be more meaningful. I'm an introvert because I pair-bond rather than group-bond. I'm not the sort to fall into a circle of friends and go out and do things; I prefer to hang out with one person and talk, or just be. But I wouldn't mind having scads of such pair bonds.

It's really hard to reach that ending, though. You either have to get really lucky or peek at the source code.

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