Glass Pebble

NOTE: I delivered a performative talk based on this peice (called “Immanuel Kant’s Coding Dojo”) at GDC14 in San Franciso

This is a sketch of personal thoughts, written partly in response to Ste Currans talk “In the time it takes your heart to beat” at GameCamp13 in London (18/05/13) – Ste’s talk was a story, about the moments that matter in stories. A story about the significant events that punctuate our lives and how these moments might also exist in games. It looked at how we recognise and value these significant moments, how we remember them and how we might try to create them. His delivery was inspiring and the talk was genuinely moving, but after the end of the story I began to think about how this might relate to my own work. I have been doing several years of Phd research in an area that can often seem pretty obscure or arcane, perhaps I needed to think about what it was that led me to where I am and why I make the things I do.

Several years ago I was huddling behind a windbreak on a dorset beach, eating apple cake and sheltering scalding hot coffee (which already tasted foul since Id burnt my tongue). The beach was a yellow-grey mix of sand and pebble dotted with tidemark lines of seaweed and plastic. My two children were tumbling around at the wavebreaks looking for stones to skim. My son ran back to me with a glass pebble.

“Whats this Dad?”,
“Its a glass pebble”,
“Like a normal pebble?”,
“Well, kind of , but probably much younger.”

I tried to explain to him how pebbles are made, that pebbles might be thousands of years old. For a six year old this timeframe was pretty hard to process. But a glass pebble, well, it was different, its history was easier to understand. Maybe a coke bottle, tossed aside a few summers ago, sticky and shattered, its pieces smoothed over years of rolling in the foam. I could see he understood this, but imagining this transformation happening to all the pebbles on the beach was beyond him.

“How many pebbles do you think are on the beach mate?”
“A million”
(I smiled)
“A lot more than that”
“How many Dad?”
(I stopped smiling)

I didn’t know, of course I didn’t know. It would be one of those numbers with a funny raised index, I was pretty sure of that at least. At that point I realised that imagining the scale of transformation was beyond me too.

A pebble is the sum of its impacts, millions of collisions. Individually each clash is almost insignificant , but each impact guides a tiny fraction of the identity of the whole object. The clink of stone on stone is a note in the song of the pebble. Rather than one cataclysmic event, its a gentle layering of permutations. These permutations show in the pebbles themselves, there is no perfect pebble, just a vast family of shapes, colours and textures, all related but all unique. Some people like the smooth granite eggs, or the angled skimming slate, or the marbled quartz, or striped limestones. All pebbles are the same, and all pebbles are different. And almost all pebbles are beautiful in some way. Why?

I hold the glass pebble in my hand and select another one from the furrows in the shoreline. Trying to compare the two, trying to explain to my son that the two things are the same, just variants of the same timeless, persistent process. I say.

“Its happening right now”
“Everywhere, the sea is shuffling the pebbles, with each wave and each tide’
“I cant see anything”
“Maybe if you look close enough, but wait, listen… you can hear it”

Tiny pebbles rolling out of sight, half buried stones shuffling in their sandy tombs. Sure, some of it is the pop and play of air in the gaps, but some of it is the pebbles fighting, rattling against each other amongst the foam. And the sea, the sea is the engine. The sea itself is a machine of permutations, same, same but different. And within both, the sea and the pebble, we can feel the whole, the process behind the product. There is no end either, a pebble implies more pebbles, a family of forms, a system of pebbles.

Many people collect pebbles, I often find the washing machine rattling with them when I come back from a break by the sea. Dom Hans van der Laan collected pebbles. Van der Laan was a benedictine monk, one of the most original thinkers in 20th century architecture. He was obsessed with the idea that architectural form could not be purely subjective, but that there were underlying ratios and structure in the world that we subconciously mimic. Van der Laan had a special cloth bag which he would use to would store pebbles he selected while walking around the monastery and its surrounds. Later he would group his finds, searching for ratios and relationships that might emerge from the stone shapes. Crucially Van der Laan believed that the relationship between things mattered more than the things themselves. He devised number sequences and formula derived from his observations creating elegant structures and designs. But van der Laan was not a purist, pushing platonic ideal form, his work was more didactic, balancing the beauty of formula with the aesthetics of form and the practicalities of function.

It is easy to be enticed by grand narratives, to be moved by the sway of romance in dramatic gestures. These things are important, they punctuate experience with remarkable moments, peaks and troughs of memorable events. In Ste Curran’s peice a fictional alien caller, Epher, contacts him in the middle of the night. She explains her race all have the same limited number of heartbeats, and they measure their experiences out in relation to this fixed lifespan. Epher lives like a metronome, her arrow of time is relentless and cruel. Her culture drives her to annotate and rate indivudual events, her own life becoming a competition against itself. What will be the most important moments in your life? Have you already experienced them? What will you remember at the end? This is powerful stuff, but there are alternatives to moments. I will remember tea, hot baths, the sound of rain, the sea, pebbles. These things transcend moments, they become fabric that you can wrap yourself in, perhaps without even realising it. The TV dramatist Dennis Potter gave a famous interview close to his death in 1994 during which he talks about the blossom tree in the garden of his house.

“It’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying “Oh that’s nice blossom” … last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the differences between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter “

Potters observation is about something that was always there, and will likely flower again, many, many times. But perhaps, for a brief moment its own unique shape represents all blossoms, a window into the global set of innumerable, beautiful expressions of that form.

So how does this relate to my work, to what I do? Like most people who make stuff, I end up just making stuff for myself and hoping that other people like it (and not even that sometimes). I’ve never been good at story telling, even though I love being the listener. Perhaps I don’t like endings, maybe the inevitable arcs of narrative upset me, or am I just shirking the responsibility of being an author? When I made music for a living I spent considerable time writing generative material, automated software driven tracks that were thematically different every time they were performed. I didn’t like recording them, it felt traitorous to their intent, to their form. I co-ran a generative radio station ,where every program broadcast was an actual program running its code anew on the server each time. When I think of games I will remember, they are often the games that felt like they had their own life, and their worlds would exist without. Didn’t care for my presence and wouldn’t remember me afterwards. Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls, Minecraft, Stalker. All of these games made me feel like i wasn’t a hero but a wanderer. I was experiencing a place that had its own autonomy, its own eternal cycles and themes, like wandering on a beach listening to the slow erosion of the rock and the wetland scrubs slowly fighting back, rustling in the breeze.

So I make games, or things, about permutation, about procedural form. Stuff that can happen over and over and over, without any real end or beginning. Stuff that has something of its own life. With procedural form there is no perfect version, no final state, there is just the searchspace of possibilities. It might not be as dramatic as the grand narratives, but it can be as immersive and as engaging and I believe its important too, even if Im not sure exactly why. There is a peculiar aesthetic in it too, a sense of the whole process of construction, mixed with the delight at an individual incarnation. For me there is something sublime about it. So I make machines that make beaches and mountains and pebbles, and I train those machines to make pebbles people might like, pebbles that might have their own stories, digital pebbles that make us want to be curious and explore.

“This is a cool one Dad, look”
“Yeah it is”
“Shall we walk down there and look for some more”
“Yeah, lets do that”