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Neon Landscapes & Spell Pyramids: Visuals and Form in Interactive Fiction
2019-10-02 · by Sharang Biswas
“Like the hands of the correctional officer on my abdomen,” Sable Elyse Smyth’s Landscape III begins, “searching for metal—rather—groping for the sake of taking over—for possession.”  The poem continues for a total of eight lines, and evokes violence and sexuality, how the two can be intertwined, and how one’s experience with the carceral system leaves violent marks on one’s sexuality.
Except that this text isn’t meant to be seen as poem. Or at least, not just a poem.
I encountered the words as an installation dominating the walls of a gallery at the New Museum in New York. The letterforms are large and made of tubes of neon light. The edges of the text are fully justified, the words perfectly aligned at either end, creating what are sometimes called “rivers” or “wormholes” between words—ugly gaps that protrude from the text. The verse is underlined with a glowing azure light, again in neon. “[Neon] is a material that people feel sort of obligated to interact with,” the poet-artist Sable Elyse Smith says , and the scale of the glyphs, the garish, white light they give off, the gentle, only occasionally perceptible hum their physical material makes, these all ensure that the installation is at once seductive—and a little off-putting.
The piece’s rigid horizontal alignment, its glowing form, and its blue underscoring—like the sky, like the sea—are more prominent when you learn its title: Landscape III. We’re invited to look at the poem but also through it, as prisoners gazing longingly through the gaps in the prison-bars towards the clear blue sky.
Much of this would be invisible if the words were merely ink on paper.
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In stories, important words aren’t just written down. They’re inscribed, emblazoned, or illuminated. They’re carved into mountainsides such that only moonlight can reveal their presence or smeared in blood onto a corridor wall and framed by a petrified cat.
That a text gains power from more than just the words that comprise it has been an important concept for humans from the birth of written language. Sometimes, this idea is taken quite literally. In his 2nd-century medical treatise Liber Medicinalis, physician Quintus Serenus Sammonicus prescribes the magic words “Abracadabra” as a cure for malaria—but only if attached to the neck on an amulet and repeatedly written out in a very specific cone-shaped form :
Another spell in the British Library’s Collection, this time from 18th-century Ethiopia, has the power to transform you into a lion… or a python… or an eagle, all depending on where on your body you wear the same incantations .
Meaning is clearly more than written morphemes. As Ellen Lupton rhapsodizes in her book Thinking With Type, “Text can be viewed as a thing—a sound and sturdy object—or a fluid poured into the containers of a page or screen. Text can be solid or liquid, body or blood.”  In my first essay for this column, I wrote about how different texts are read differently; their context, form, visual substance, and material quality all influence how we read them. 
Beyond visual art or magical medicine, thinking about this sort of thing can offer writers of interactive fiction powerful tools with which to engage readers, to increase emotional affect, and to better reflect their worlds and themes.
A simple use of this can be seen in Abigail Corfman’s excellent game Open Sorcery . The game casts you as an elemental of Fire and…C++. Yes, you’re a programmable magical spirit of protection, complete with a control panel, backups, and system analytics. Sometimes you try to dream.
Corfman enhances the feel of your character and world using a number of visual cues. A monospace typeface set with white on black makes you feel like you’re programming in a text editor of some sort. Locations are referred to not by their full names but by codes: “Cherry Orchard Rest Home” is “ChORet”, while “Decker’s Apartment” is “DkApt”. When you scan an area for intruding spirits, a “Searching” message flashes on-screen like a progress meter. Finally, when you actively seek out a spirit, the most “magical” part of your work, your neat, horizontal script suddenly tilts diagonally, a restructuring of the ordered world that only the supernatural can account for. Beyond her exposition and plot, Corfman uses simple visual cues such as these to situate you in her world of magical technology, revealing character and setting through the form of the text.
Kicking it up a notch with typefaces, Astrid Dalmady in Cactus Blue Motel  employs two colors of neon light, the symmetrical, rounded glyphs of the Comfortaa font for headings, and a mouseover effect that diminishes the glow of neon text as you hover over it, to give her teen-road-trip-game added oomph. Similar to that in Sable Elyse Smyth Landscape III, Dalmady’s use of neon is at once inviting and uncanny, reflecting the game’s primary setting: the eponymous motel in the middle of the desert. But coupled with a dusky blue background, the neon elements also evoke nostalgia, a longing for a rapidly receding past, the aching yearning for a precious childhood moment to stay preserved in its own bubble of time, perhaps in the middle of the desert, untouched and unspoiled by time and “growing up”.
Finally, Nyamyam goes even further with theatrical tricks in their quirky visual novelesque Astrologaster . You play as “Doctor” Simon Forman in Shakespearean London, who uses astrology to cure his patients’ various medical (and sometimes domestic) complaints. What instantly attracted me to the game when I encountered it at PAX West, however, was the enthusiastic singing of a fully voiced madrigal at the beginning of each scene. Far from necessary to the plot or gameplay, the musical rendition brings a smile to my face at the start of every scene and reminds me of the theatrical, somewhat farcical nature of the Astologaster’s world. Additionally, while the game could easily have gone with traditional A, B, C choices on a menu, it instead places the choices on a star map, and illustrates for you which star constellations (and their subsequent astrological meanings) your choices draw from, deepening the characterization of Simon Forman as a… err… legitimate astrologer.
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“The play experience,” writes Mary Flanagan, “has, for thousands of years, been intertwined with aesthetics.”  This statement is as applicable to the ancient board games that Flanagan proceeds to describe as it is to a stylistically illustrated, fully voiced contemporary visual novel. If games, like other art forms, are to be considered conveyors of emotion, we must consider all of their components, not merely the mechanical. Think about old video games that were considered gems in their time but that modern audiences have difficulty fully appreciating due to the dated look of their graphics. Or consider the endless clones of “connect-three” games, whose representational tweaks, from jewels to candy to laid-off workers , can change the feel of the entire game. Similarly, if the “mechanics” of interactive fiction include the reading and writing of text, one must look beyond just the words and engage fully with artistry that encompasses any piece of IF. Our words may not form a landscape as literally as Sable Elyse Smith’s verses, but a blue underline may just accentuate our description of one.
- S. E. Smith, Artist, Landscape III. [Art]. New Museum, 2017.
- New Museum, “218 “Trigger Gender As a Tool and a Weapon” Audio Guide: Sable Elyse Smith,” New Museum, New York, 2017.
- British Library Board, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, The Official Companion to the British Library Exhibition at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2018.
- E. Lupton, Thinking With Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students, 2nd Revised and Expanded Edition, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010.
- S. Biswas, “Rituals, Cheating, and The Dream of Possibility,” Sub-Q, February 2019.
- A. Corfman, Open Sorcery, Open Sorcery Games, 2016.
- A. Dalmady, Cactus Blue Motel, 2016.
- Nyamyam, Astrologaster, Nyamyam, 2019.
- M. Flanagan, Critical Play, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013.
- Tiltfactor, Layoff, Tiltfactor, 2009.
Sharang Biswas is an award-winning game designer, an internationally exhibited artist, and a published writer based in New York. He has exhibited work at numerous museums, galleries, and art fairs including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and the Toronto Reference Library. He has designed curricula for the Museum of the Moving Image, created learning games for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and written about games, interactivity, and culture for publications including Kill Screen, Sub Q, ZAM and First-Person Scholar. His two food-based games, “Feast” and “Verdure”, have garnered numerous accolades, including an IndieCade Award and and IGDN Indie Groundbreaker Award. Sharang has lectured or taught courses on game design at various universities and cultural institutions including Dartmouth, Columbia Teacher’s College, New York University, The International Center of Photography, and the Museum of the Moving Image, as well as spoken at conferences such as Game Devs of Color, GaymerX, Living Games, IndieCade and Boston FIG Talks.
Sharang holds a bachelor’s in Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering from Dartmouth College and a master’s in Interactive Design from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He is the Experience Designer for The Medici Group, a consulting firm focusing on diversity and innovation.