How Green Was My Valley

Several years ago I wrote a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer about something we decided to call digital literature. The idea my editor, Frank Wilson, had was that since a new kind of literature was emerging the paper should cover it, and he gave me the job. I reported on pieces of work that I considered to be nonlinear in a distinctly digital way—such as stories that you could click through into different layers, Wikipedia-like—or things that seemed to sit at the intersection of literature and … something else. 

Sometimes the something else was automation. I learned about the existence of MEXICA, an artificial intelligence-based computer system designed by a Mexican researcher named Rafael Pérez y Pérez that could construct short stories. On its own this was not a brand new idea, but Pérez’s system was unique because it tagged characters for their emotional connections to each other, which in turn drove the plot of the story. This made the stories—as simple as they were—into something more robust than strings of sentences, something a little more human. As he told me, models like his one are interesting, not because they are intended to replace human creators, but because they can teach us about the nature of that creation. It’s kind of like reverse engineering, if you will—in order to teach a machine how to set the creative process in motion, we first have to take it apart into its components. Once we’ve put it back together, we’ll have a better understanding of how it works. 

People were, and are, making some interesting literature using new technologies. As I researched them, I found that some of these stories seemed like games to me. When I wrote about Inanimate Alice, an animated, interactive story in installments that “readers” experience on a computer or tablet by making choices for the main character, watching videos, listening to music—and, yes, reading text—I talked with its creators a good deal about what makes something a novel (they consider Inanimate Alice to be an “interactive novel”) and what makes something a game. There are lots of answers to both of those questions, of course, but some of those answers overlap. For instance, book can be interactive, one simple example being a “choose your own adventure” novel that is both read and played like a game in the sense that the reader controls some of the story’s movements and outcomes. But just as interesting is the fact that most games have a narrative, and the pleasure we get out of playing them can be similar to the experience of reading a good book. I said something to this effect in my article about Alice because I understood that some games featured characters, unfolded like stories, or changed some of their features with the passage of time. But I’d never really played a video game, so for me it was just an idea. 

Now I would like to tell you about a game called Stardew Valley and my obsession with it, and how it has come to broaden my view of the ways in which a story can live inside your mind.

sdv

A few months ago, my husband—a person who always has at least one game on the go—gently nudged me to try playing a video game on the Nintendo Switch. He told me several times that he thought I’d like it, which isn’t something he says about any of his other games, which he plays on the Switch, on the computer, and on his phone. Eventually I agreed to let him show me how the controllers worked and how to play the game itself.

Stardew Valley is a farming simulation game, which couldn’t sound more boring. It’s not, though. Your character, who is “you” (which is almost always the case in video games, but is a fascinating concept in itself), begins the game slaving at a desk in a hive of cubicles, weary of your grey, empty life. You then receive a letter telling you that your grandfather has died and left you his farm, so you leave your corporate hell behind and travel to Stardew Valley, where your little homestead is nestled. You learn to plant crops there, take care of your animals, cook food, and forage in the woods for mushrooms and fruit. It makes sense that the character that is you has never worked on a farm before, because you, the player, have to learn how to do all these things, too. 

There’s a town nearby, and you’re supposed to meet the people who live there and get to know them. It’s a real cast of characters and most of them are kind of rude to you at first, since you’re new and they don’t trust you yet. Because they put you off in the beginning they seem fairly uninteresting—all surface and no depth—but as you get to know them you see how varied they are. They slowly reveal their stories, habits, feelings, and quirks to you, just like the characters in any other kind of story, or people in real life. 

Because the game is based on farming, the change of seasons is significant. Each new season looks different, you can grow different fruits and vegetables, and the music that plays is particular to the time of year. As you get better at all your tasks you gain access to superior tools—a shovel for digging up your crops, an axe for chopping down trees, a pickaxe for breaking rocks in a nearby mine—which makes you even more successful. There are practical incentives to becoming closer with the other characters, too. They might send you a cooking recipe in the mail, or gift you with some lumber that you can use to build a chicken coop or barn. You get to name your animals, and when you touch them a heart appears over their heads, indicating that they feel happy and cared for—unless they’re mad at you for neglecting them in some way. In that case, a scribbly little storm cloud appears in the thought balloon instead. The animals never die and you don’t slaughter them, thank goodness, but you can sell them off, and some of them will occasionally give birth to a baby.

Eventually you can get married in the game, and then your new spouse leaves their little house and comes to live with you in your little house, which by now probably has a wine cellar and some other fancy additions. As I got more into the befriending-other-characters aspect of the game, I found I had my eye on a woman instead of a man, and I decided to go with it because it’s a game and what the hell. Her name was Leah, and she lived alone in a cottage in the woods just south of my farm. I’d go down there to fish in the river beside her house—oh yeah, there’s fishing in the game too—and I admired the wreaths and other seasonal decorations she always had up, thinking maybe she was a witch and feeling drawn to her solitude. I talked to her often, brought her gifts, and eventually earned enough closeness with her that I was allowed to propose, with the gift of an amulet that I bought from a salty old sailor who skulks around the beach on rainy days. Yes, really.

Ridiculously, my heart—my real-life, actual heart—was pounding with nerves and excitement on the day I proposed to Leah. You’ll be happy to know that things went well, and she now lives with me in my farmhouse and makes her sculptures in the yard. (Not to brag but she’s cute and she’s an artist.) I hasten to point out that you don’t have to get married in Stardew Valley. You can also choose whether or not to have kids with your spouse. Just like in real life, this option did not interest me at all. Every time Leah asks if I want to adopt a baby, I select the cop-out answer, complete with chickenshit elipses: “Not now…”

Since playing a game like this was new to me, getting a response to my actions from the other characters felt like a lovely surprise. It was also a little unnerving, as if the game console I held in my hands somehow contained real people who had feelings and could talk to me, though I was perfectly aware they are computer programs and not real people. Somehow, the emotional response is the same. I’m reminded of the early days of the Internet, when my mind didn’t yet have a category for that kind of communication. It was freaky to send “instant messages” and talk to someone in real time, not on a phone but in front of a screen, with text you could read: a conversation that was visual, not audible. It puts me to mind of a scene from Sex in the City, when technophobe Carrie tries chatting online for the first time with a guy. When his answer pops up on her computer screen she feels exposed, and yells “Oh my God, he’s online. Can he see me?” and ducks her head down under her desk to hide. 

As I have learned, some games are considered linear, which means there’s only one way to move through them. Your character is guided along one direction, and you must complete one goal at a time before being allowed to pass through to the next portion. Stardew Valley, by contrast, is an “open-ended” game that is not linear. You can spend your time each day doing whatever you like, and there’s no way to win or lose, though there are lists of goals you can accomplish, which will lead you to a feeling of completion. You don’t have to do them if you don’t want to, though. And you could keep playing long after you’ve crossed them off your list. Unlike a book, you’re the one who decides when it ends. 

I guess it’s possible I’m trying too hard to relate this game to the structure and experience of reading a novel—and believe me, it isn’t the case that I think the novel should be held up as a standard by which all works of fiction should be judged. It’s not the 18th century! Still, I find it interesting to think about how stories can be shared and accessed, and the different ways they inhabit our imaginations. 

I like thinking, for instance, about a game that is a simulation of life as opposed to a novel that is meant to capture real life. Realist fiction is supposed to feel familiar and “real,” but not usually in a moment-to-moment, repetitive sort of way. In Stardew Valley you are living a life, not reading about it, and this means, for example, that you have to complete things in the course of a day before time runs out, and then you have to go to bed. (You’re supposed to go to sleep by midnight, but there’s some leeway with this. You’ll only pass out if you stay up until 2 am, and there are penalties for letting this happen. If you pass out on your own property, employees of Joja, the jokily evil corporation that looms over the town like a vengeful god, will bring you safely inside—but they’ll charge you a fee.)

The most obvious thing to say about all this is that playing the narrative of a game like Stardew Valley is more like being in a novel than it is like reading one. And I’m surprised by how engrossing I find this. I’ve been playing Stardew Valley for a few months now, and I still feel a part of that world. A good novel is over too soon—you’ll blow through it in a day or two or three if you’re really into it—though of course you can read it again. A really good novel gives you a new experience each time you re-engage with it, but even still, the words are always static on the page. In real terms, no two people can have the exact same experience of a game like Stardew Valley. That is to say, it’s dynamic. There is a finite and fixed set of things that can happen—just like in real life? Maybe. Must return to this question another time—but depending on what you prioritize and how you spend your time, you will encounter things at different points than someone else will, which affects how you feel, influences the decisions you make, and gives shape to your experience.

Anyway, I love this game. I love its cozy atmosphere and pretty music. I love the way it looks and sounds on rainy days, and the fact that magic and monsters are mixed in with the mundane features of everyday life. I even love the pacing of the game, which, as with a novel, might be one of the most important things for the creator to get right. There’s never so much going on at once that I get overwhelmed, confused, or frustrated, but time moves quickly enough that there’s a sense of urgency that keeps me engaged. (A “day” in Stardew Valley lasts for about 20 minutes, and you can see the time click by in ten minute increments on a clock on the screen.)

I think it’s worth noting that the game’s creator, Eric Barone, made this thing entirely by himself. He thought up the concept, then taught himself how to do everything he needed to make it. He spent years building this world—he even wrote all the music for it—and as a result, it is very robust, despite being intentionally simple and cute in many ways. As I have learned, most games that are as highly developed and successful as this one are created by companies that put lots of money and teams of people behind them. Besides the sheer impressiveness of Barone’s solo feat, I wonder if it also has something to do with how deep and compelling the game’s narrative is. One guy wrote it, just the way one person writes a novel. They have a deeply personal experience of making these things, so when you enter these stories we enter the fully-realized world of someone else’s imagination.

I recently read an interview with Barone in which he said that he began making Stardew Valley because his all-time favorite game, Harvest Moon, had changed in a way he didn’t like, but he still wanted to play it. In essence, then, he made the game he wanted to play, which reminds me of something else bookish, that famous remark by Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Sunday

I am not a very sociable person. I mean, I’m interested in people, I love to have good conversations, and I’ll dance in public pretty much anytime – I’m really not what you’d call shy. But somehow, the particular combination of skills you need for keeping up with social plans every night of the week, going to parties where you have to make noncommittal, chitty-chatty small talk with strangers for hours without accidentally saying something that makes one of them feel weird (oops), absorbing the huge amount of emotional information that goes pinging around a room full of people – whatever those skills are, I don’t have ’em. The effort exhausts me, and if I’ve had to “go out” too often in too short a period of time, it drains my life force and makes me pissy and mean, depressed and restless and resentful toward the poor other people involved, who are most likely just doing their best to get along and are probably suffering to varying degrees along with me. I mean, they might be suffering. I guess it’s possible some of them are actually enjoying the party. :-/

Anyway, after a couple weeks of too much of this kind of socializing, today was magnificently quiet. I finally got a decent night’s sleep last night, and I woke up feeling worn-out and battered in that gorgeous way, when you’re so rested your body almost aches from it. I went for a long, long walk through residential city neighborhoods, which is my favorite way to spend time with myself, and then I read some of an old issue of Parabola magazine that I found at a thrift store for 29 cents on my birthday last week (thrift store shopping being my favorite way to celebrate my birthday). Parabola is smart and gentle and nuanced, like a person you’d feel lucky to know. In this issue (Spring 2005), I found a poem by a Greek poet named C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) called “As Much As You Can.” I think it’s okay to post it here because it’s also available to read on this official website of the Cavafy Archive. The website has a few different translations of it (Cavafy mostly wrote in his native Greek), but here’s the one that was published in the magazine, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:

As Much As You Can

Even if you can’t shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.

Do not degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social relations and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.

Reading this poem, I felt a rush of comfort come over me. I saw and was seen. It was like getting an extra week of days like today, all the time I needed to heal and rest and become whole again.

Here's a picture I took on my birthday last week, on a walk in the woods before the thrift store.
Here’s a picture I took on my birthday, on a walk in the woods. These trees did not want to make conversation with me and I really appreciated it.

The truth has finally been spoken at last—that poetry is an essential industry. The story, as it comes to us—by hearsay evidence which we can not vouch for—runs thus: Mr. Conrad Aiken, being included in the recent military registration somewhere in Boston or near it, showed his undeniable fighting spirit by fighting for his art—he demanded fourth-class registration not on the usual easy terms (for he might have claimed exemption because of having a family to support) but on the ground that he was a poet and that poetry is an essential industry. The claim, being novel, was referred to Washington, and by some ultimate Solomon, there sitting in judgement, was sustained, being affirmed and decreed and locked and bolted under all the sacred seals of law.

—Harriet Monroe, Poetry magazine, 1918

Tell Me Everything

Hey again everybody. As I told you, I had surgery a week or so ago. Since then I’ve been too distracted by pain and the weird pain medication I’m on to concentrate on my own thoughts, so I’ve been reading like a demon to keep myself company, and I find it interesting to note that for some reason, the type of writing I have the biggest appetite for right now is short-form memoir. Short-form memoir by women, that is. Women who are writing about grief and love, illness and death, their bodies and their families and their drug of choice. The blood and guts of their lives.

And god almighty, is there a lot of that kind of writing out there. I’ve been reading poorly edited junk on xoJane, the guilty pleasure web magazine I feel the need to “check” at least once a day when I’m bored. (Current headlines include: “I Hooked Up with Someone’s Boyfriend, and I Don’t Feel Guilty.” At least someone doesn’t feel guilty!) I’ve been reading better essays on similar (and similarly gendered) subjects in Lenny, Lena Dunham’s frankly excellent feminist email newsletter. In today’s issue the actress Amanda Peet has a smart, touching piece about her fear of aging, and the admiration she feels for her less-vain sister, who’s a physician. Plinking around the internet with no real destination, I discovered an Australian journalist named Julia Baird who writes for the New York  Times‘ OpEd section, and I read a bunch of her stuff, including a recent piece about the cancerous tumors she had growing in her abdomen. I’m not usually much for medical details but I read all the ones she laid out in that essay, and it was pretty good. The writing, I mean, not the subject matter. That was pretty bad.

From there I found my way to a writer and Moth storyteller named Tara Clancy, who I hadn’t heard of before. She’s good too! I got a huge kick out of the essay she wrote about the neighborhood bar her dad took her to when she was a kid, and the oddball, loving community they found there. And just this minute I remembered about Samantha Irby, who is one of my new Internet favorites but who I have so far failed to write about on this blog. Not long ago I discovered hers, and found her to be one of the most refreshingly frank and funny writers I have ever read. I plowed through her book of essays, Meaty—it is hilarious and totally original—and am waiting (sort of) patiently for her to finish her second one, which according to Facebook she is writing this very moment. Keep at it, lady!

Let me be clear: I have always been more interested in women’s stories than in men’s, and I also favor autobiographical work to novels, though I do read a ton of fiction. Memoir is the kind of writing I do myself, in my essays, zines, and books. These stories give me life, as both a writer and a reader. In the week or so since I got sick I haven’t had the energy to read much long-form writing, but I have started one book: Eileen Myles’ Chelsea Girls, which she calls a novel but is understood to be based on her own life. It’s as wonderful as I expected it to be, and even more unusual.

But I’m surprised to find how much I’ve needed it now, this female company. Why do I find it so comforting, and so useful, to hear women talking truthfully about their own lives? Maybe I don’t have enough female closeness in my life (though honestly, I talk to my mother so much, and so exclusively, that a pair of walkie talkies would be as useful to me as my overpriced cell phone). Maybe it has to do with, ya know, SOCIETY, and the fact that women’s behavior is so circumscribed that we don’t often say how we feel in a day-to-day kind of way. Whatever causes it, I have the the most intense longing to hear people tell the truth, and it never goes away.

Memoir is tinged with a certain sense of inferiority, at least in the eyes of the kinds of writers who think they need an MFA in order to be writers—though there are plenty of folks who break through the stigma of it in order to be respected as serious artists, as Myles has. (But then, she’s a poet first.) Writing fiction “from life” is looked down on, too. I think this attitude is stupid, and I have developed a pet theory about it as well: I think it’s sexist. So-called domestic fiction, “personal” essays—hell, anything where the writer cops to having, like, FEELINGS—these are so often the areas of expertise of women writers, and that is the only reason they are considered less worthwhile, less intellectual, less important. Don’t tell me it’s because there are so many bad memoirs. There is so much bad EVERYTHING, and you don’t rule out whole categories of experience because you didn’t like that one thing you had that one time. I’m not gonna stop eating pizza entirely because they make it too greasy at the place around the corner. STRETCH YOURSELF, PEOPLE.

Lucky for me, I don’t give a flying fuck on a rolling doughnut—I got that from the comments section on xoJane!—about literary careerism and elitist nonsense. That’s why I know that good writing is all around us, waiting to be discovered—because I’ll read literally anything, just to see what I think. Some of the best things I’ve read have been in zines and on blogs that few others have read, and were written by people who will most likely never find a large audience for their work.

Anyway, when all’s said and done, reading other people’s personal discoveries—whether they arrive at them within a perfect poem, or in the shimmering moments of a beautiful, lyrical novel, or at the end of a painful essay, like a birth—this gives me more joy and wisdom, entertainment and company, than almost anything else. It feels fucking good to write the truth, too. It’s like Myles says in Chelsea Girls: “I always think it’s such a secret story, this one, I just need to tell this story for me or else I will burst.” (Me too.) “It’s lonely to be alive and never know the whole story. Everyone must walk with that thought. I would like to tell everything once, just my part, because this is my life, not yours.”

And it does, it feels like a secret, it is a secret until you tell it.