Subcutanean and variations thereof
Sunday, May 24, 2020
Comments: 3 (latest July 17)
Tagged: reviews, books, horror, procgen, narrative, aaron reed, subcutanean
I have now finished reading two of Aaron Reed's Subcutanean. This is not a game; it is a novel generated from an algorithmic framework that allows every printed copy to be a different text. Thus it partakes of some aspects of game design (procedural generation, unique reader experience) but not others (no interactivity or player agency). This is interesting!
(I've read recensions 10881 and 10966, in case you're keeping track.)
Before I go winding off down corridors of theory, I should say that Subcutanean is an excellent short horror novel. Orion (or Ryan, or Ry) lives in an amorphous post-college group house, trying to figure out his crush-or-friendship with-or-on his housemate Niko. Then the two of them discover a hidden stairway leading down into the house's basement. The house shouldn't have a basement and "amorphous" shouldn't be this literal. Doors lead out into corridors, corridors lead to more doors, a sense of unreality begins to grow. And then the two start to catch glimpses of other explorers -- people who look like alternate versions of themselves.
The world of Downstairs starts creepy and gets creepier, and it reflects the uncertainty of Orion's headspace. The social world of queer-and-out is as hard to navigate as any psychogeographic underworld; Niko is the partner Orion doesn't know how to explore with. Then it all goes wrong -- wronger -- and I'll let you find out how it wraps up. Which may not, of course, be exactly how it wrapped up for me.
When I (or Aaron) says "a novel where no two copies are the same", you might imagine two structures. Either:
- A branching story with two or four or sixteen different outcomes. Like a classic CYOA book except that the choices have been pre-selected for you at random. Or:
- A traditional novel with a set storyline, but a lot of incidental details chosen at random. They turned left or right, they were startled by a screech or a burst of sparks, the carpet was beige or brown.
Subcutanean is neither of those. Or rather, it has bits of both: some details are randomized, and the story has a couple of significant variations of the climactic scene. (I saw two, anyhow.) But the overall shape of the story is under fairly firm control, and the details that vary aren't always the incidental ones.
The work is more interested in how the narrator can vary. Orion may be more laconic or more voluble; he may be an optimist or a pessimist; he may prefer slang or avoid it. He may be the sort of person who gets awkwardly drunk at parties or the sort who stays awkwardly sober. These choices are maintained throughout the text. Particular events may be inserted or omitted, or key details changed; but the system tracks these so that later scenes can reflect them back. Perhaps with an added sentence, perhaps with just a well-placed "again".
Aaron has documented this design and its hiccups in a development blog -- well worth a look either before or after you read the book. No spoilers.
The goal, obviously, is to create a text that reads as a coherent narrative, with all the large-and-small-scale push-and-flow that a traditional novel would provide. It doesn't always work perfectly; I ran into an obviously repeated anecdote in version 10966. But on the whole it's successful. (Aaron has done at least one round of bug fixes since then, so the problem I found may have been eradicated from future versions.)
I have to admit my bias here: I have a lifelong obsession with the Unbounded House of Many Doors. If you've played any amount of my work you realize this! Subcutanean is exactly what I want, except with an accelerating curve of wrongness and decay, which is not where I usually take it. Also, of course, the ramifying underground space calls back to a long history of much-loved games, from Wumpus and Adventure through to KR0 and the future.
As I said, the book shares some aspects of game design in a non-interactive context. Really, most narrative games have pieces that work like Subcutanean. A single NPC response is a non-interactive text -- a sentence or paragraph -- whose content varies depending on the prior history of your session. It's easy to focus on your immediate interactive choices: choose a dialogue option, get a response. But really, that response could be influenced by lots of factors, overt or invisible, random or contingent.
Subcutanean is that experience with the "invisible" and "random" knobs turned up and scaled to novel-length. You never make a choice; the text is printed and fixed. But then, in Heaven's Vault, not much of the narrative variation depends on choices you know you're making. And of course the book involves all the game-design problems of keeping a variable narrative experience within the intended bounds.
Subcutanean also produces that quintessentially game-ish response which I mentioned in my Heaven's Vault post. When you finish, you immediately want to start again and see how different it could have been. "I've seen the covers, now I can open the book." Happily (though also through necessity), the book is short enough to do this without feeling bogged down. Maybe I'll read a third copy pretty soon.
We are left with the question of whether Subcutanean is the only procgen novel that could be written. Sometimes an experimental narrative so perfectly marries form and content that it's hard to imagine what else could be done with the idea. The Monster at the End of This Book, for example. Or take Jason Shiga's Meanwhile. If you're going to iterate through variations of a narrative, learning more each time, you almost need time machines, memory loops, and the threat of total narrative collapse. (Outer Wilds is an interesting comparison here -- a very different story which is nonetheless drawn into many of the same tropes.)
So if you're going to write about variations of a narrator, do you need to set it in an infinite branching space with the growing threat of utter alienation? Surely not, but some of the choices do feel kind of inevitable.
Others were unexpected. Subcutanean plays with the idea of playing by its own rules. You want to believe that every version of the book is narrated by an Orion, one of the infinite number exploring the interconnected Downstairs. If I were writing such a story, that's absolutely what I'd do! But Aaron's book doesn't. Or maybe some subset of the texts do, but not the two I read: the rules of Downstairs aren't quite consistent between them. It's upsetting.
But then, it's horror. Your certainties are supposed to come unmoored.
It doesn't have to be horror. I hope more authors take on this sort of structure. Subcutanean doesn't have to be the only one. Narrative design is no longer an abstruse mysterious field; lots of writers have dabbled in both static and dynamic prose. I'd like to see the variation-novel become an established form. Get on it, folks.