Some approaches to making the pleasure of words into a game mechanic

When I first started sketching out the basic idea for Inscrutable Cities, I knew that it would (1.) have to have a loop that echoed the miniature chapters/vignettes) of Calvino's Invisible Cities in scope, and that (2.) the content of the game from the play scenes to the narrative voice of the instructions had to feel "Calvino-ish" while still being and producing something wholly original. Some of my motivations were just frustration as well. I also just want something that players, including myself, can use to create and enjoy (3.) the best parts of the inspiration without, like, three chapters in a row about spying on ladies in the bath (there's some kind of recurring water motif within the many various sexual harassments and assaults of the original text, I don't know why).

I started exploring ways to cherry pick from the most basic bricks of what gives Calvino's fiction its rich texture: the vocabulary. This is not to say that individual word choice is the only thing happening in his sentences (and it should be noted that I have only ever read him in translation!), but it's significant, especially for what makes each of the cities in Invisible Cities feel so different from each other with sometimes as little as a few paragraphs.

tweeted a few weeks ago about how I was going about this on a practical level:

The research stage for this game-- which is very much about the pleasure and texture of words themselves-- involved running my digital copy [of Invisible Cities] through a script to make a list of every single word that appears in the text, and then hand-culling and sorting them for imagery.

Since I was working from a PDF, Subaltern Games wrote me a small program in Python that could unpack the contents of the file type and then produce a list of the unique words. At a quick glance, it looks like there are existing apps that claim to do the same thing, though I haven't tried them. Apparently you can also write a macro to do this within Microsoft Word, too, though plain text gives you the most control over the results.

I wound up with a list of about 6,000 unique words, printed it out, and combed it by hand with colored markers for (A.) certain categories of words that (B.) felt really nice to look at and say. The categories were things like "materials" (gold, silver, zinc, vellum, tortoise shell, etc) and "structures" (dome, minaret, balustrade, drawbridge, canal, etc.), and these lists confirmed my hunch that on a fine-grain level there is simply a staggering diversity of environmental adjectives and nouns to work from. Calvino very rarely repeats combinations and almost never repeats the more unique or unusual words, giving one place gold domes and the next alabaster spiral staircases and the next an abundance of bergamot and steam pipes, or whatever.

I also performed a more selective pass for character and mood, because while I did want to keep a diversity of archetypes and emotional motivations for players to choose-- including unsavory ones-- I don't find, for example, "a lunatic teetering on a skyscraper" or "a blind black man shouting" or "obese women suffering from the humidity" to be particularly inviting, complex, or interesting roles to start from. There is room in the world for storytelling that uses narrow stereotypes to productive, subversive, or nuanced ends-- I personally write my share of "bad trans representation on purpose"-- but for this game, I felt strongly that that decision should be an elective and inventive one on the part of the player and not a fundamental piece of the experience imposed by the designer who, in curating a limited menu of options, is ultimately responsible for what implicit defaults and values are conveyed by those limits. See also: me being very annoyed that women don't do a whole lot but giggle nakedly in the bath in the source text, even though in there are existing games with extremely interesting ways to approach gawking at people's bodies in secluded wet places.

Anyway. The vocab-list-making approach turned out to be hugely productive for world-building Inscrutable Cities-- I drew directly from the source material in a way that resisted plagiarizing whole phrases and informed my original additions-- and it also gave me insight into what sort of "mechanics" wanted to echo and respond to. So now basically, any time you come across a list of variables, you can skim them for what you want, but if you do read them all in sequence they should-- not just individually but as a whole-- have something approaching rhythm or metre, and the juxtaposition  accounts for common preconceived relationships between words  (for example, when is it useful to list "salt and pepper" together, versus, when does that have the effect of making both of them kind of disappear because they are in an expected pair?).

This also means that play testing Inscrutable Cities will involve a lot of reading aloud and tapping out syllables like lyricist. I want it to feel enjoyable to just read, even if you aren't playing it, which is... a tall order and a risky thing to claim as a feature! But it's part of the design process now and I don't think I would be proud to release the game without accounting for it.

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