the company of clouds

I take a lot of photos. One of my recurring preoccupations is using code to make those photos move. I’m not interested in having them move in a realistic fashion though; if that were my goal I’d be better off working with video. Rather, I want them to move in ways that are only possible with digital images and code. I want them to move in subtle, ever-so-slightly unsettling ways, where things blur together both spatially and temporally.

Starting on 1/6/19, for 7 days I took photos of the sky at about 10:30pm each night. the company of clouds is built around those photos; run it on a Monday and you’ll see the pictures I took on the Monday; run it on a Tuesday and you’ll get the pictures I took on the Tuesday, etc.

The piece cycles through and blends its photos together so that they’re always in motion. That said, the sky during that week in June was largely overcast and uniform. This means that for most days (not all of them!), the motion generated by the code is rather subtle. You have to concentrate to see it. Which is itself a useful process, I think. Straining to perceive subtle details tends to recalibrate your perception in interesting ways.

Download the company of clouds

Controls: escape to quit

The Rules:

  • The file at this link will be deleted 1 month from now (07/09/19).

  • All downloads are zipfiles containing a Windows executable.

  • All source code and assets are included, licensed under the GPL (code) and CC-BYSA (assets).

  • As long as you abide by those licenses, you can do whatever you want with the download.

Further Reading

Speaking of images blending and bleeding into each other, the final shot of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia is one of my favourite things.

I was reminded of George Buckenham’s Rules for making games recently. There’s a lot of good advice here.

Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam is an incredible queer sci-fi love story, with a gorgeous colour palette and artwork. Also, the spaceships are fish. I read it in book form, but it looks like the whole thing’s also available as a webcomic here.

This adaptation of a Janet Paisley poem is great.

An interview with Donna Haraway where she talks a bit about the radical potential (and necessity) of play.

Clint Smith: When people say “we have made it through worse before”

I love Catherynne Valente’s reading of her poem The Melancholy of Mechagirl here.

“There is something beyond the mathematics of the world that I will always reach for and never touch.”

A tale of long-lived (golems? gargoyles?) in Germany in the run-up to WW2, by G.V. Anderson.

Well, here we are. September’s approaching fast. I am dreading September. From September through to November I’ll be lucky if I can catch a breath. Too much work for not enough money. These newsletters may be a bit shorter and more frazzled for the next few months. Anyway, take care. I’ll see you soon.

there are secrets

If you read last week’s letter you can maybe guess where the inspiration for this one came from (visually at least, if not aurally).

I’m starting to think this project should have been subtitled “how many things can I do with centred text, photos, and minimal interaction”. turn left was maybe an unintentional mission statement; I’m increasingly interested in moving any interaction out of the software and into the player/audience’s head.

Maybe it’s that software and videogames’ strictly delimited worlds and rules have started to feel too tightly-defined, too rigid. They don’t leave me enough space.

Software/code is still my primary medium though. I wonder where this train of thought is going to lead me.

Download there are secrets

Controls: escape to quit

The Rules:

  • The file at this link will be deleted 1 month from now (03/08/19).

  • All downloads are zipfiles containing a Windows executable.

  • All source code and assets are included, licensed under the GPL (code) and CC-BYSA (assets).

  • As long as you abide by those licenses, you can do whatever you want with the download.

Further Reading

If You Should Find Yourself in the Dark; a beautiful, aching piece on anxiety and motherhood.

Sloane Leong’s Prism Stalker is an astonishing thing; a vivid, alien take on colonialism and survival. With an equally astonishing soundtrack by Neotenomie.

I quoted an Ada Limón poem last month. Here’s another one.

Related to my thoughts on this month’s piece, this is a strong criticism of videogames’ focus on rigid, tightly-defined interactivity. An excerpt:

Video games are not more interactive or creative than previous medium; if anything, they are arguably less. Each video game involves a mastery of a series of digital gestures, controls, contextual clues, or modes of seeing and knowing. Playing a video game is largely about learning how to play by its systems and rules, how to get organized and efficient. And while the best games offer space for improvisation, reflection, storytelling, and of course fun, the relation between gamer and game is most commonly one of disciplining the gamer to a set of systematized interactions.”

A Bewitching Revolution: A game about waking and collectively remaking a city using tarot and Marx. Games are often power fantasies, but so rarely collective power fantasies. We have so few games about coming together, looking after each other, and fighting back against the systems that divide and immiserate us.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing since reading the medium article of her original EYEO keynote, and it lived up to my expectations. Filing it alongside Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark as a book which confronts the despair I suspect a lot of us now grapple with daily, and then offers a way forward.

...and I’ll finish with a short story by Brit E. B. Hvide about a ruined Earth which ends up in a similar place to Odell’s conclusions in How to Do Nothing.

I’ve found myself surrounded by sparrows this month. Every time I look out the window or go outside, there they are. I think it’s that time of year when the young have just left the nest and are suddenly free; brave and hungry, excited to explore the world.

Anyway: look after yourself. Get a good night’s sleep, and push back whenever you can against all the demands on your time and labour. This world asks too much of us. If you can spare the time, find a quiet spot outside, sit, and watch the birds for a while.


This is a ritual of rhythm.

Use it to reset, to recalibrate your relationship to time. Time does not flow in a consistent, constant stream. It speeds and slackens. It follows our attention, our perception. This ritual is an anchor. For the length of its duration time’s flow will be fixed to the pattern of the ritual.

Before beginning the ritual proper you must be quiet and still. Take some time to sit with the ritual’s pulse before continuing. Draw all your attention towards the pulse. Let your internal rhythms fall in sync with it.

This ritual, once started, cannot be easily stopped or paused. It will run through to conclusion of its own accord. So don’t start until you are ready. Take your time.

To start the ritual you must choose 4 letters. These letters will determine the 4 words from which the ritual is constructed. How you choose those 4 letters should be determined by your intention for the ritual. You may spell out a 4 letter word that has meaning for you; you may close your eyes and select 4 letters at random; you may create a 4 letter acronym describing the focus of your attention; etc.

The ritual will begin once you have entered the fourth letter.

Download 111 bpm

Controls: letters to choose your words

The Rules:

  • The file at this link will be deleted 1 month from now (06/07/19).

  • All downloads are zipfiles containing a Windows executable.

  • All source code and assets are included, licensed under the GPL (code) and CC-BYSA (assets).

  • As long as you abide by those licenses, you can do whatever you want with the download.

Further Reading

The framing for this one was partly inspired by Avery Alder’s incredible Variations on your Body, a collection of 4 pervasive games built around ritual (pdf, hard copy). An excerpt:

the feeling is getting clearer. You dream about flying either all of the time or never at all. You hate depending on your legs for movement. You don’t trust like you used to. You crave beauty like you’ll die without it. You’re ready to fly.

You’re a sparrow, brave and terrified.”

A wonderful audio piece by Hannah Nicklin about Lincolnshire, the environment, Brexit, and moving country.

Holly Herndon: Frontier (I want an interactive version of this, that I can play like an instrument)

Bomb Magazine has a fascinating article about José Maceda, a composer whose work I was (shamefully) completely unaware of. Ugnayan in particular is an incredible thing; every single radio station in Manila (37 in total) broadcasting a separate track from this one composition at the same time(!). And all with the backing of the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. I don’t really know how to unpack all of that.

I loved this piece by Emilie Reed on the ruderal; the way plants (culture, games) can spring up in inhospitable environments and gradually force open cracks, new spaces. Plus: it made me homesick for Glasgow (not hard to do at the moment, tbh).

Do Not Look Back, My Lion is a powerful, bitter rumination on relationships and parenting in a time of war.

I feel like I never hear people talking about Silver Mt Zion, but I’ve been listening to them again lately. The way they transitioned away from GY!BE’s doomed orchestral soundscapes into a kind of desperate, ragged choir is a thing to behold. This song has always had a powerful hold on me.

Even when silvery fish after fish
comes back belly up, and the country plummets
into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn’t there still
something singing? The truth is: I don’t know.”

Ada Limón; The Leash

I’ve found myself singing more lately.

For the longest time I hated my voice, but lately, not so much. Maybe I had to grow into it. Maybe I just hadn’t found the right songs.

For me, singing is something visceral and fierce. You’re using your lungs/chest/throat/mouth/tongue/lips to expel air and shape it into sound. There’s no other instrument so tightly connected to your body. It’s why singing out loud has a physical effect on you, why it can leave you light-headed and buzzing.

But you have to sing loud. You have to commit. The magic doesn’t work if you don’t commit to it.

See you next month.

turn left

Hi folks.

I think with videogames it's sometimes easy to forget that the game is not just what's happening on screen, or in the code. The game is also what's happening in the player's head, in their body, in the physical space they are inhabiting.

So I had this idea to create an inverted text adventure.

With traditional text adventures the game describes the scene – where you are, what you can see, what you can do – and the player issues instructions to move through and interact with the game world. In turn left that relationship is reversed. The game gives the player instructions, and the player's role is to describe what they see, what environment they are travelling through.

There's very little to the game in terms of what's on screen and what's in the code. It's really just a series of prompts. The bulk of the game happens in the player's head. The player has to do some imaginative work to get something out of the game; a different kind of work to what we're accustomed to expect from videogames (where work usually means grind).

Some interesting things fall out of this. Firstly, it turns out the audio does a lot of heavy lifting with this one (try playing it with your sound muted to hear the difference). I used the same background drone + foreground stingers setup I made for computers are made out of stories, with the addition of a handful of procedural sound effects played during the question sections. They're really just the aural equivalent of the photos the game occasionally displays, but those sound effects create a far more evocative sense of space than I was expecting.

What works less well is the heavy reliance on randomness. The game's text is all implemented as Tracery grammars, with each section (directions, questions) built around a single Tracery file. This means that, depending on the RNG, consecutive instructions can wind up being very similar (“meander a little; meander a while”), or contradictory (“go forward; walk back”). I can imagine that being used to interesting effect in a different context, but here it makes the game feel clunky and artificial, and when it happens it snaps you out of the game's (minimal) fiction.

I'm not sure if this is a problem inherent to Tracery (I've certainly seen some Cheap Bots Done Quick that suffer from similar issues), or if it's just my implementation that's lacking (very possible).

That said, I was surprised how well this one turned out. It's somehow evocative and strange, and feels different to anything I've made in the past.

Download turn left

Controls: any key to advance

The Rules:

  • The file at this link will be deleted 1 month from now (01/06/19).

  • All downloads are zipfiles containing a Windows executable (I no longer own a Mac, and ran out of patience with Linux years ago).

  • All source code and assets are included, licensed under the GPL (code) and CC-BYSA (assets).

  • As long as you abide by those licenses, you can do whatever you want with the download.

Further Reading

Some things that jumped out at me this month:

The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power is a startling piece of writing; I can't remember the last time I read sci-fi this furious and bitter.

This description of a physarum transport model is fascinating, and really clearly explained. I love these kinds of emergent systems based on simple rules.

This is a beautiful piece of writing about sound, and listening, and gradually losing your hearing.

A talk given entirely via a custom chat client. Starts off as a charmingly hesitant conversation, turns into music, ends up as a collaborative composition with the audience.

In the mid- to late-2000s Mark Fisher's k-punk blog was hugely important to me, as the centre of a constellation of blogs engaged in serious cultural/political criticism. This month I've been working my way through Repeater Books' K-Punk collection of his writing. A few selected blog posts:

Precarity and Paternalism

Is Pop Undead?

Memorex for the Kraken: The Fall's Pulp Modernism (part 2) (part 3)

Hey. It's rough out there. There's too much noise, too much news, too much pollution, too much work, too many takes, too many nazis, too many billionaires. And there's no time. No space to step back, catch your breath.

Take care of yourself. Carve out whatever small space you can and guard it carefully. I'll try and do the same.

See you next month.

computers are made out of stories

Hi folks.

Since this is the first [issue? letter? missive?] I should try and explain what you’ve signed up to.

I’ve been struggling for a while now trying to figure out what to do with the things I make. When I first started making things on the internet I would upload them to my website, post a link on whatever forum I was currently frequenting, and maybe email some games or software sites that I knew would be interested.

And that worked pretty well. Until the forums died out. And most of the small scale games sites died out. And the ones that were left were no longer interested in writing about the kind of things I wanted to make. I was still making and releasing things the way I’d always done, but now it felt like I was tossing them into the void to disappear forever, drowned out by the noise of the internet.

The thing is though, I don’t think I need the attention I used to get from forums or articles on games sites. The things I make, I make for myself. Because they’re interesting to me. And I have a steady job, and a degree of financial security that a lot of my peers (and certainly most younger artists) don’t have. I would far rather what limited attention is out there is directed towards people who do need it.

What messed me up is that despite recognising that I don’t need other people’s attention for my work to be worthwhile, I still found myself working within systems oriented towards attention, towards selling yourself and your work. These heavily commercialised systems that we’ve built the internet around. And by those systems’ standards my work is a failure.

I also realised that my process of releasing things on the internet is boring. I would take screenshots, record a short video, make cover and banner images, write some short description, upload all the files… It’s tedious busywork. And busywork that has never really justified the effort it requires.

I don’t want to be bored by the things I make. I want the entire process to be interesting.

So to get to the point: from now until I get bored or run out of steam, I’m going to send out this newsletter once a month, with a link to a new interactive essay, or game, or formal experiment of some kind. At the end of that month I will delete that link, and never post it on the internet again.

I don’t think this solves all the problems I’ve had with releasing things on the internet, but it’s interesting to me, and it’s got me excited to upload things again. That seems important.

computers are made out of stories

I was thinking about how we talk about computers, and how that shapes our interactions with them. I think we get hung up on the idea that computers are machines, and therefore subject only to cold logic. We talk about algorithms and calculations. We make-believe that algorithms are neutral, free of bias and the messy complications that govern the physical world.

I was wondering what would happen if we talked about computers in terms of stories instead of code. If that might force us to acknowledge the complex, flawed human beings responsible for building these machines, for feeding them with data and instructions.

So I made this. It’s kind of slight, and it came out a bit like one of those adverts that try and convince you some corporate brand is enlightened and possessed of some fundamental insight into the nature of human experience, when really they’re just trying to sell you some soap.

But, well. It’ll do as a starting point for this project. And I’ll delete it in a month anyway.

Download computers are made out of stories

Controls: letters to play notes; space/return to advance

The Rules:

  • The file at this link will be deleted 1 month from now (04/05/19).

  • All downloads are zipfiles containing a Windows executable (I no longer own a Mac, and ran out of patience with Linux years ago).

  • All source code and assets are included, licensed under the GPL (code) and CC-BYSA (assets).

  • As long as you abide by those licenses, you can do whatever you want with the download.

Further Reading

Part of the inspiration for this project was the newsletters I’m subscribed to myself, particularly Joanne McNeil’s All My Stars, and Warren EllisOrbital Operations. Both range across a wide variety of topics and media, and give me a connection to the wider world that I’ve not found elsewhere. I’ll try and follow their lead.

Okay. Time for us to step back into the world. And I know. It's a world full of teeth and thorns and bitter machines. A world that will do everything it can to shake you off. Don't let it. Dig your heels in, hold on tight. I'm here too, holding on as best I can.

I'll see you again in a month.

Take care till then.

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