16: Not knowing

Game designer Warren Spector once described his dream project: a roleplaying game that takes place within a single city block, packed with all the apartments and shops and weird and wonderful characters you'd expect.

Since then, other game designers have latched onto the "one city block" idea, imagining perfectly miniature worlds trimmed with the precision of a bonsai tree. As opposed to the wide, expansive landscapes that typically characterize RPGs, wouldn't it be nice to have one that resembles a diorama?

As far as I can tell, the city block idea is mostly about emphasizing the depth and richness one can achieve in a microworld, the Warhammer 40K of game design concepts. While it seems Warren was agnostic as to how complete it needs to be, it's hard to ignore the implications. Many iterations of the city block idea seem to resemble what I think of as the "locked room" genre. Escape rooms are one example of this, where everything you need to understand the game is contained within a finite space. To make sense of one's surroundings is to win the game itself. Meow Wolf, an immersive art exhibit near Santa Fe, New Mexico, is another example of a locked room game: you explore a house that seems to have no purpose, but eventually a story unfolds.

But locked room games only work by, essentially, distracting you. They have the immersive feel of an open world, but they aren't truly open, because the designers quickly introduce a plot to focus your explorations. It becomes less interesting to poke around empty drawers (unless you are like me, a completionist) once you know what you're looking for. The city block fantasy, by contrast, hints at the hope of completeness, even in an open-world context. Thus, the impossible dream.

I've thought about how I would make this game, but there's something about the city block's premise that I find fundamentally unsound. In a real city block, your world is filled with incomplete narratives and unlived lives, doors you can't open, people you can't ask questions of, clothes you can't tear off in the middle of the grocery store, even if you technically could. You might never learn why that woman was crying on the bus, why that man from the bar never texted you back, or why your neighbor seems to come home angry every day. And that's kind of the beauty of it. City blocks aren't closed ecosystems, but places where mysteries are forever unsolved, answers are never found, and everything you want to know always seems just tilted out of reach. Life goes on without knowing.

My version of this game, then, would look not like a diorama, but a Polaroid. It'd introduce questions, prompting endless reflections as to what’s going on outside of that frame, or inside the minds of the people who occupy it. No matter how intimately you familiarize yourself with every square inch of the game, these are the only clues you'll ever have to go on. Like the planchette on a Ouija board, the magnifying loupe moves across the board, spelling out one maddening letter at a time, before returning to its original position.

The flawed promise of microworlds, in my view, is that we think we'll know more if we could only focus our attention onto a smaller surface area. But if anything, I think the opposite occurs. Zooming in -- to people, ideas, places -- can make us even more aware of how little we know, leading us to grasp desperately for more, because the intimacy we have never feels like enough.

I have some friends with whom I talk exclusively about ideas, yet I know very little of their personal lives. With other friends, it's the reverse. It's tempting to say that certain friends just don't know me as well, but I think maybe it's just that all friendships can only ever take place on narrow bands of knowing. Even friends who've known me forever experience a different version of me than friends who've known me for a year. Of the things we do know about each other, we know them well, touching all the shapes and contours like a ritual until they feel smooth. What differs an acquaintance from a friend isn't how much they know about you, but how much you value one another. These friendships can still feel "complete" without stuffing more detail into them. (I especially feel this way about internet friends, although coworkers might be another classic example. The people who know the most about my day-to-day are often the people who know the least about how I got here.)

When I reflect upon the relationships I've had that felt most satisfying, I similarly realize that it was never about how much we revealed about ourselves, but how much we showed up for each other. The hardest ones were when what we had didn’t feel like enough, where we felt we needed to know more, do more, be more to each other, scooping up every last bit of ourselves and pouring it into a bag to hand over to another person. I find these relationships challenging, maybe for the same reason that "one city block" is considered an impossible game to make — because we can't ever completely model our inner selves and externalize them to another person. If the expectation is completeness, you'll inevitably hit disappointments as you find more holes, more flaws, more things that are missing. The search for completeness will become all-consuming. You'll keep looking for every last missing piece, gathering them greedily up into the sack, instead of seeing what you have in front of you.

Perhaps this is the Before Sunrise game design fantasy: capturing those fleeting, intimate moments in time that can stretch into infinity. Rather than lamenting what's lost, it's when you realize you can't know everything — that the narrative of your circumstances will remain forever inscrutable — that you've won the game.

P.S. I moved this newsletter party over to Substack, in case you can't tell, mostly because I know I'd have to move off TinyLetter sometime, and Substack seems to be the most writer-friendly brand out there. Anyways, when I imported my old posts, they looked kinda sad sitting meekly in the Substack archive, because they all had this "Things that happened in X" subject line. So now they’re all getting proper subject lines. (Side note: The rebel in me has thoughts on the unintended effects of WYSIWYG editors on our brain spaces...maybe for another time.)


Posts I’ve written this month.

  • “Writing Hypertext” (interview with Kicks Condor): I’m still on a bit of a blogging hiatus while I wrap up book writing (sorry!), but I realized I forgot to share this conversation I recently had with a new internet friend. We talked about blogs, newsletters, and personal websites in the context of public-private spaces. I found it fun and refreshing because well first off, Kicks has a pretty sick website! (Ya gotta check it out.) And secondly, because it was nice to do an interview that’s not about open source ;)


Notes from this past month have been updated. A few highlights:

  • (from a group convo) “Wedding cake” (scientists who want to make things perfect) vs. “cookie” process (engineers who can take those ideas and make millions of them)

  • Science vs. tinkering (discovery through philosophy/theory vs. practice). Problem with tinkering is you can have a collection of practices that work out overall, but they inevitably include some practices that are completely ineffective, and you don’t know which is which

  • Is the scientific method the lean startup methodology of science? (somewhat trolling here, but: both sorta propose that science, or startups, can be distilled down to A-B-C, and also that you can generate innovation through empirical methods. Both are also flawed/incomplete for this reason, IMO. They sanitize the mysticism/tinkering/practice from the process)

  • Request for product: a publisher who just consolidates popular writers’ blog posts into books

  • The LinkedIn problem is a lot like the Patreon problem, now that I think about it. LinkedIn loses out over Twitter or Instagram bc it’s not the place where ppl actually talk to each other, i.e. show what they can do. Without a good social layer, it’s just a glorified resume website. Similarly, Patreon loses out over native platforms (Sponsors, App Store, Spotify, whatever) on funding bc it’s not the place where ppl actually talk to each other. Without distribution layer, it’s just a glorified payments processor


Useful articles I’ve read this past month.

  • “Why We Can’t Figure Out Why Infrastructure Is So Expensive” (Josh Barro): A few months ago, I tried to learn how we measure the value of physical infrastructure and discovered it’s deliciously difficult, maybe impossible, for the reason given here: the value of infrastructure is highly contextualized. For whatever reason, I get a weird thrill out problems that inherently defy measurement. I kind of love-hate this idea that infrastructure has been around for forever, we obviously need it, yet we still can’t appraise its value. Sort of like a six year-old dancing in bare feet around a group of scientists.

  • “When Alchemy Works” (Anton Howes): We think of alchemy as a fool’s endeavor today, but it turns out there are a handful of examples of alchemy actually “working”. A tale about the dissonance between understanding from observation and understanding from theory. Also, apparently a bunch of governments banned the transmutation of gold, fearing its repercussions, because they took it so seriously. Who knew?

  • “Who Would I Be Without Instagram?” (Tavi Gevinson): A thoughtful reflection from a woman who grew up child star-famous on Instagram. This isn’t your typical “woe is me” influencer take; rather, it caught my eye because it’s written in the tone of someone who is thoughtfully chewing their bite of salad over lunch before answering your question. In addition to giving a firsthand account of the breaking up of traditional media, and the interplay of platforms and creators who build their brands on them, I particularly liked Tavi’s description of splitting into public, semi-private, and fully private selves. I think short-term we tend to see this as problematic, but long-term, we’ll all learn to manage, and perhaps even relish, the ability to create and manage multiple versions of ourselves. (“Point the atomizer ray-gun at me next!”, we’ll scream.)

  • “Randomizing His Life” (Max Hawkins): Someone recently told me about this guy who rolled the dice on his life for a few years in order to break out of his default world and experience new things. That meant living in randomized cities, taking randomized Uber rides, eating a randomized diet, and adding randomized events to his calendar. Bonus: he made a bunch of these tools available for other people to use.

  • “Minimal Maintenance” (Shannon Mattern): A piece highlighting the costs of maintenance, and how it can be a limiting reagent to growth. I have an almost allergic twitchy reaction to the concept of “degrowth” as a good or even necessary thing, but something in here made me think about what open source developers often do in practice, on a per-project basis. The whole system grows, but each open source project becomes more disposable, more throwaway, to reduce the costs of maintenance. So one way I can understand Shannon’s argument is to think about pruning away the marginal costs of maintenance in order to allow the whole system to grow; in this sense I don’t think it’s really “degrowth” we’re observing at all, but perhaps just a transition to modularity to meet the scale of demand.


Relevant books that I’ve read this month.

  • The Hidden Dimension (Edward T. Hall): I thought this book was going to be about the influence of social behavior on building design. It is, but there’s a lot more biology in here than I expected. The “hidden dimension” refers to the unconscious physical distance we each like to keep around ourselves -- explored through the expression of all five senses -- and how it plays into the design of our living and working spaces. Normally I love this kind of crossover, but I found myself getting impatient for some reason here, especially since I assume a lot of the science is outdated (it was published in 1966).

  • Recursion (Blake Crouch): I was just looking for something fun to read, but this ended up reminding me of the tyranny of ideas post I wrote. Among other things, this story is about whether it’s possible to undo technology once it’s invented. It’s a slow (yet entertaining) burn, but the deeper you go, the more it builds on itself, until you suddenly find yourself being like, “I don’t know how you got me here, Author, but good on you”.