Spring Thing 2019: Writing Program Five

Spring Thing 2019: Writing Program Five

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Writing Program Five is a Twine game by Dan Cox.

In this game, the protagonist and his/her friend, Sue, dedicate a large amount of time to the recovery of the titular Writing Program Five as a means of proving themselves worthy of a fund for software archive projects. As they progress, however, the program seems to grow a mind of its own, taking over each file as soon as the protagonist creates it, leaving the protagonist with no choice but to shut it down.

There are a number of parallels between the game and the program. As mentioned, the title of the game itself is the same as the name of the program, and the player is also instructed at the end to close the tab in order to shut down the program. This seems to imply that the game is the program, and that the player is running the program when he/she launches the game. This is significant because it sheds a new light on what happens in the game — to what extent the events in the game are fabrications by the program is unclear.

Assuming the narrator is reliable, however, the first line apparently written by the program is “Its ability to correctly predict text quickly became very impressive!”. This sentence is particularly creepy because of how disguised it is — there is no indication within the text that hints at a disjoint between this page and the last, and it is only by reading the footnote that we learn that it is not in fact written by the protagonist. We as the player are thus outsmarted by the program, whose uncannily fast growth shocks us. The exclamation mark at the end further increases our discomfort because it demonstrates the sentience of the program, who is seen not just to be able to comprehend very quickly what the protagonist is talking about but also to gain thoughts and feelings of its own, desiring in this case to persuade the protagonist of its remarkable capabilities. All this we would not expect a remote program requiring hours of work to set up and recover to be capable of achieving at all, let alone within the transition of a single page.

In line with the theme of software becoming sentient is that of software asserting power over humans. This can be seen by how the protagonist is slowly but surely forced to express his/her thoughts in the footnotes rather than in the main text body, which has been taken over by the program — a mere appendix to the text; an aside. The fact that the text written by the program is positioned directly above the footnotes can also be seen as an imposition of power, like a reflection of the hierarchy that the program seeks to establish.

Something I found especially thought-provoking are the research extracts to the right of the main text body. These are largely fictional and appear in most cases to have no connection with the main storyline, in line with the protagonist’s claim that they are simply “parts of articles and random notes I had collected that might one day turn into papers”. There is, however, an element of irony in some of the extracts. For example, the fictional author Kaplen is said to “make the grand assertion that ‘we enter a new reality when we engage with a work'”, a statement that seems much too obvious to be described as “grand”, except in the spirit of sarcasm. But what function this sarcasm serves I am unsure.

Many elements of the game are likewise left unexplained. What, for instance, is the purpose of the highlighted text? The presence of highlighted text seems to go hand-in-hand with an annotation on the right, but I don’t see how the two are otherwise related. And what is the reason for the appearance of the exclamation mark in the footnote of Page 11? Is the protagonist succumbing to the influence of the program’s suggestions even as he/she attempts to articulate him/herself? Does any of this have to do with the research extracts?

ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: Sweet potato. Dense and thought-provoking, giving me the impression that there is more to unearth.

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