Games That Make You Read: Gone Home

Gone Home is last on my list of Games That Make You Read. Even though I’m discussing it last, it’s my favourite of all the games I’ve mentioned recently. Fullbright Company, the people who made it, call it a story exploration game. There are other games that are story-driven and also require exploration as part of the game, but Gone Home is unique in that your exploration is what makes the game. It’s how you uncover the story. It’s all you need to do. There are no goals for you to achieve or puzzles you have to solve or bad guys that you need to kill.

You are Kaitlin Greenbriar. You’re in your early 20s and have returned home to the US after travelling in Europe for a year. While you were away your parents and younger sister moved to a new house. The night you arrive back is very stormy. But there is nobody to welcome you, the door is locked and no one is home. Your sister has pinned a note to the door asking you to not worry and to not look for her.

When you get inside you discover that this house your family has moved into is a faded mansion. But there is much more going on than you can see at first or even second glance. Your job now is to explore this strange house and figure out what has happened to your parents and sister. Almost every room has something to tell you and you discover that a lot can happen in a year. You may have been having adventures in London, Paris, Rome and Barcelona but everyone in your family has experienced some sort of upheaval. Especially your sister Sam. And the story waiting for you in this house is mostly hers.

The game is set in 1995. Fullbright Company say they chose this particular year because the story unfolds through the use of notes and letters and answering machine messages. If they’d set it any later, the communication between the characters in the game would have been via emails and text messages. And there is a charm in this analogue communication that is scattered all through the house. And a memory that, oh yes, I used to do that too.

The timing also allows them to use the riot grrrl bands Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile as an essential part of the soundtrack. The riot grrrl movement in the early 1990s was a re-energising of the feminist movement. It was created by and for girls and young women and had a strong practical focus. It encouraged girls to be in bands and write zines and learn self defence. It was about taking back control of our lives and the way our lives are represented within the media.

In fact though, by 1995 riot grrrl was pretty much over. It had been co-opted by the mainstream media. But it lives on in the music that was made and the zines that were written and the practical effects it had on young women’s lives. It lives on too in the spirit of this game and in Sam’s awakening, which is at the centre of the story.

I loved playing this game. I loved that the story was first, last and everything. But also I loved its strong girl focus, its cleverness and its sensibility – Kaitlin has to read private notes and letters in order to find out what’s going on, but she knows when she’s intruded too far into someone else’s privacy and stops reading.

But on a personal level, the game felt bittersweet too. I was a similar age to Kaitlin in 1995. I have no younger sister but I did have riot grrrl. I remember the possibilities that were open to me then, before I had to make decisions and choose certain paths that then closed off others. I have very few regrets about my choices. But I do feel the loss of that young girl that I used to be. She is gone forever but listening to riot grrrl music reminds me of who she was. And so in the middle of this game, I found my ghostly self. A character completely separate to Kaitlin and Sam. It was the music and interactive story working together that did it. Something you can’t get from the printed page.

Can we have more games like this please, games that make you realise that the definition of what a game is is not a static thing, that as a woman your story can be front and centre and real, that a game can reflect your life, that good writing is the best thing of all.

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Games That Make You Read: Christine Love’s visual novels

Visual novels fall into my category of Games That Make You Read. They’re interactive stories, originating from Japan. I’ve been introduced to the genre via the work of Christine Love and have read three of her visual novels – Digital: A Love Story, Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus.

Digital: A Love Story is set in the world of 1988 bulletin boards. You are a young hacker exploring what this world has to offer. Almost immediately, you meet *Emilia. You don’t realise it, but she is an AI. She tells you she’s running away from home and then she disappears. It turns out her disappearance is connected to a virus that is killing AIs. This story premise is strong, but it’s not built out in any meaningful way.

The majority of the game happens via emails and messages, including ones that your character writes. But a particular limit of the game is that you don’t write these messages and you never see what your character has written. You work out what you’ve said by the replies that you receive. This approach did not make me feel connected to the game. Obviously, to let the user have the ability to type anything they wanted would be very complicated. There would have to be very sophisticated natural language processing running in the background. But a compromise would be to let the user see what their character has written. I didn’t have that ability and I discovered I wasn’t prepared to put the work into figuring it out on a detailed level. Instead, I moved through the game very fast. I focused very little on the story or the writing and was only interested in the information I needed to destroy the virus.

What I did like though was the use of the bulletin boards. I liked logging onto them and reading the mails that gave me clues as to how to log onto other boards. The clues were such things as long-distance telephone codes, password generators and knowledge about how to guess passwords. Love uses these kinds of game mechanics very well.

Analogue: A Hate Story is set aboard a spaceship called the Mugunghwa. The entire population of the ship died hundreds of years before the story and you are a researcher, reading the ship’s logs to find out what happened. There are two AIs on the ship *Hyun-ae and *Mute and they give you access to the files. The two AIs do not get on. And part of what you need to uncover is why *Mute is so angry with *Hyun-ae.

As you read, you discover that this was a society that overtly repressed women. But through *Hyun-ae’s character you also discover that it wasn’t always like that. Something happened that caused this change, though you never find out what that was.

As with Digital: A Love Story, I loved the strong central premise behind the story. But I had some big problems with the writing. The characters are supposed to be Korean and from a couple of thousand years in the future. But they talk like American teenagers from the late 20th Century. This is particularly true of the two AIs and it was a barrier to me ever fully suspending disbelief in the story.

I also found *Hyun-ae to be very annoying. She interrupted my reading to tell me minor things and she used a lot of words to say what she wanted. I found myself asking “What?!” every time she tried to get my attention. And she says the word “sorry” in almost every sentence. This lends her an air of being passive and submissive. But when you read the logs she’s involved in, you see that she was once very mouthy. Perhaps there are reasons for the change in her character. But there is no character development even hinted at within the story.

She also fell in love with my character almost straight away. This was also true of *Emilia in Digital. I didn’t understand why this happened either time. Neither of the AIs had a chance to even get to know my character before they were professing love. Again, this is down to poor character development.

What I liked most about this game, as with Digital, were the game mechanics. The game gives you access to a command line and at one stage in the story you have to use it to save the ship. I also liked, a lot, that different endings are unlocked based on what you do or don’t say to the AIs. I want to underline that. The way you choose to interact with the AIs determines your path through the game. That’s a piece of interactive brilliance that sets this work apart. Whatever problems I may have with the narrative or the writing or the character development, it’s the thinking behind this game that points a way to the future.

Hate Plus is a continuation of Analogue: A Hate Story. It starts where Analogue finished, you’re on your way back to Earth with whichever of the two AIs you decided to take with you (or the circumstances of the game decided you’d end up with). If you found the hidden ending, you may even have both AIs with you.

In the world of the game it takes three days to reach Earth. And it also takes three real-time days to play the game because with the dwindling power supply on your ship there is only so much you can get done before you have to finish for the day and let the power restore. At this point the game enforces your time away by requiring you to wait 12 hours before you can play again.

You spend these three days reading files that your AI has found for you. These are files that go back to an earlier era of the ship and explain the unanswered question in Analogue – what happened to this once open society that made it become so repressive towards women?

The problems I had with Analogue are still there in Hate Plus. These Korean AIs of the far future talk as if they’re teenagers from the late 20th Century. And once you get reading the transcripts in the files, you discover the government officials also had a tendency to lapse into that kind of speak.

What I liked about Analogue, the command line interface, is gone. There is nothing constructive you can do in the world of this game except read the files and click on the relevant answer on the dialogue wheel you’re presented with when the AI wants to talk to you.

But there is something constructive you can do in your world. If *Hyun-ae is your AI, on day three she asks you to bake a cake. And she wants you to bake that cake. If you say you’re going to do it, she expects you to do it and will call you out if she thinks you’re lying to her about whether you’re making it or not. I found it very charming that the game required me to bake a cake. I had the choice of her recipe or mine and I chose hers – in fact she told me it was her mother’s recipe. I slightly adapted it to cut down the amount of sugar and butter it specified and I discovered that I needed to cook the cake for much longer than it said, but it turned out to be one of the nicest cakes I’ve ever made. I’ve since made it a second time.

hate plus cake

I’m not sure if it was as a result of her giving me the nicest cake recipe in the world, but I didn’t find *Hyun-ae to be so annoying in this game. I think she was more to the point and less apologetic. I could also see that she was quite sweet, underneath the annoyingness. *Mute is a harsher character, but paradoxically more immediately likeable. Her views are objectionable but her directness can be a blessing after *Hyun-ae.

I also played the option of having both AIs on the ship with me. I liked the interaction between them, it provided a distraction from having so many files to read and so little else to do.

Analogue and Hate Plus are interesting but flawed works. I love the central idea and I haven’t mentioned the aesthetic, but they both look great. And as I’ve said, the gameplay in Analogue has moments of brilliance. But I don’t like the writing. Christine Love can write, but it doesn’t appear to me that she has engaged in a complex way with her characters’ voices or their overall development. Also, I can’t help but notice that from *Hyun-ae in Analogue to Oh Eun-a in Hate Plus, women are the cause of major problems in the society in a way that panders to traditional viewpoints. I won’t spoil *Hyun-ae’s story but I will say that Oh Eun-a is almost like Eve, only she hides the apple instead of offering it. It’s not that I think that women can’t be evildoers, but I’m wondering why Love has chosen such stock villains for her female characters.

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Games That Make You Read: Twine and Black Crown

and the robot horse you rode in onGames That Make You Read is an inelegant term, but it’s the one I use in my head when I think about the types of games I’ve been playing recently. These games are all quite different from each other and include the story exploration game Gone Home, the visual novels of Christine Love, games made using the Twine engine and those made on the StoryNexus platform. Inanimate Alice fits into this category as well. There are very few overt similarities between these types of games beyond that they blend playing a video game with reading. And I see the game aspect as dominant, which is why I don’t call them Digital Writings That Make You Play Games (also, this is a bit of a mouthful).

There is such variation in the games and tools to make games that I’ve mentioned above, that I’m not going to cover them all in one post. Today, I’m focusing on the Twine engine in general and on Black Crown, a specific game on the StoryNexus platform.

Twine is a deceptively simple engine that allows you to make an interactive story. You can download it from here. The story you create might be something that is quite straightforward and linear or it might be more complex in a choose-your-own-adventure way or, by introducing variables, it may be an actual game.

Twine has been around several years but didn’t take off until last year. There are now many story games that have been created using it. You can find best-of lists scattered around the web, but I thought I would put together a list of my own.

howling dogs by Porpentine has been hailed for its brilliance in story and writing, but as good as it is, I think her All I want is for all of my friends to become insanely powerful is even better. Play both and decide for yourself.

my father’s long, long legs by Michael Lutz is more a story than a game but it is a fantastic story – well-written and compelling and executed in a way that causes delight and fear. It also shows off a little more the visual and aural possibilities of the Twine engine.

Anna Anthropy’s And the Robot Horse You Rode in On is a choose-your-own-adventure story designed in the way such stories should be. The choices offered aren’t static. They can change depending on other choices you make. It’s another well-written story game but it’s worth noting before you begin that it’s also violent and sweary and sexual.

Anna Anthropy has spoken about how important Twine is as a free tool that allows people who aren’t represented either within the games industry or in the games that the industry makes, to make games of their own and have their voices heard. She has also made a very useful tutorial. I’ve become excited by Twine’s possibilities and have started to create my own game. It’s that kind of tool, if you’re so inclined, it makes you want to get involved. And it’s not daunting.

The final game in my list is Conversations With My Mother by Merritt Kopas. It is charming in its seeming simplicity but it’s also quite deeply heartbreaking.

The StoryNexus platform is something that is completely different again. Fallen London is the famous game on the platform, but I’m focusing on Black Crown because it is an experiment by Random House in interactive storytelling.

I haven’t tried to create anything using StoryNexus so I’m unsure how the platform works if you’re a game designer. But whichever game you play on it, there are some basic characteristics that are in common. You start each game with a number of free actions. Each time you make a choice, you lose one of those actions. After a certain period of time, the actions refresh. If you don’t want to wait, you can buy Nex, which is the currency of the platform, and then spend it to unlock more actions. The way this works in Black Crown is that you are given 20 actions, and gain a new one every 20 minutes (to a maximum of 20).

The game is written by Rob Sherman. You are a new clerk in the Widsith Institute. You sit at your document-laden desk and notice strange things happening to your body. The game has large blocks of text to read, followed by a series of story branches, of which you must choose one. A reasonably large number of these branches are locked, and you can only unlock them by buying Nex.

I don’t like Black Crown. I find the writing ponderous and my passage through the game unintuitive. I also find my options limited but this may be because I don’t like the game enough to buy Nex, so my progress isn’t facilitated. As a result, I play it very rarely. But I do keep checking in on it and the reason I maintain this interest is because of Random House’s involvement. It’s a big deal that they’ve launched this project and as much as I don’t like it, I hope they will continue to experiment in this space.

Black Crown has been available since May and was due to have all its content released by September, though I haven’t seen anything from Random House confirming that it is now officially completed.

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Reading in the future: Jason Nelson and game, game, game and again game

game, game, game and again game by jason nelson

I am discovering just how fertile a period the mid 2000s were for experiments in digital literature. As I said in my previous post, a couple of weeks ago I was at Story+, a digital media writing conference at the Brisbane Writers Festival, and there I discovered Jason Nelson. Nelson is a digital poet, a title that may sound pretentious but isn’t. Once you see his work you understand.

In 2005 he made this is how you will die, a slot machine game, where the pictures have been replaced by 15 five-line stories telling you the before, during and after of your death. It’s simple but clever and also includes audio and videos, which are both recurrent elements in his work.

But he made his most well-known game, called game, game, game and again game in 2007. It’s a platform game in which you are a hand-drawn little spidery scribble interacting in a landscape that is also hand-drawn. You have a red centre when you’re still and a flashing red and yellow centre when you move. Being a platform game, you need to jump as much as possible to get through the levels. There are 13 of them and they’re all named. You start at the fundamentalist and work through the faithful, the real estate agent, the buddhist, the tourist, the capitalist…. with drawings and text to match. Whenever you see the blue scribble, you must avoid it or you will hear the sing-song voice of the artist entreating you to “come on and meet your maker”. But dying has no consequence, you get put back into the game almost where you were, ready to interact again.

Most of the levels also have “click here” buttons to load “video proof”. These videos are snippets of long-ago super 8 home movies. Sound is layered on the videos, just as text and images are layered on the screen. And each level has a soundtrack that is often discordant.

The last level sends you back to an earlier one unless you’re very careful.

To my mind, this game is first and foremost a piece of art. But to many gamers, that will not be an ideal recommendation. A lot of people who play games are looking for sophisticated and challenging gameplay as their first priority, they would run away from the idea of playing art. And the gameplay in game, game, game and again game is very straightforward though I think there is a brilliance in the text and images that are revealed.

But even though I describe it as art, I also think of it as a game and as a piece of interactive literature. It is all these things to me. I loved it. I was inspired and delighted by it. The hand-drawn aspects, rough, almost like a child’s drawings, appeal to my love of lo-fi, but then there’s the incongruity of these images appearing in something electronic like a game. I had to play the game a second and third time so that I slowed down enough to read the text. And I didn’t get bored of it.

The only thing I didn’t like was the “big winnings” video on the very final page. That video is unlike the others in that it is not one of the old super 8 films but instead has Nelson himself talking to us. It’s about life with potatoes and milk and orange juice and capsules. I’ve played a number of Jason Nelson’s games at this stage and I’ve seen enough to realise that his videos don’t appeal to me. But his interactive work does.

In 2008 he made a sequel to game, game, game and again game called i made this. you play this. we are enemies. This time he uses webpages as backgrounds on which to layer his text and drawings. Again, I love the aesthetic though the game is not as satisfying as the earlier one.

His most recent work is called nothing you have done deserves such praise and was commissioned this year by New Radio and Arts Inc. He has numerous games and they should be played and read and explored. You can find them at his website.

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Reading in the future: Story+

What sorts of stories are we going to tell in the future? And as the digital world allows storytelling to become more interactive, how will we tell those stories? These are the questions I’ve been thinking and writing about recently, and they were also the topic of last week’s Story+ conference at the Brisbane Writers Festival.

The event was put together by Kate Eltham, Director of the Brisbane Writers Festival, and until last year, CEO of the Queensland Writers Centre. While at QWC she founded if:book Australia, a centre dedicated to asking what is narrative media at the intersection of design, data and technology. Story+ is a natural extension of what if:book Australia does and the best bits of the event were when we confronted that central question head on.

The day began with a keynote from UK writer, artist and technologist James Bridle. He talked about technology trying to speak the world back to us and in doing so letting us know what it is to be human. He told us about the New York Times haiku bot that identifies the haikus NYT writers have unknowingly written within their stories. It’s a bot that reveals our poetry to us.

In a pre-recorded video, US publisher Richard Nash asked can a novel be an algorithm and can narrative be a process by which we process data. Christy Dena, holder of Australia’s first digital writing residency (at QUT’s The Cube), spoke of writing monologues for robots and Jason Nelson, poet and artist, showed us how poetry can also be a video game.

Simon Groth, manager of if:book Australia, talked us through last year’s 24-hour book experiment, Willow Pattern, and how QUT students are now looking at the data behind the book (the snapshots that were recorded of every revision to and autosave of the chapters) to see what creative expression they can derive from it.

And UK author and games writer, Naomi Alderman, appearing via a pre-recorded video, talked about how digital media is the best place to represent choice. The Sliding Doors scenario, where we come to a fork in the road and one choice or circumstance leads us in one direction and the other leads us to another doesn’t just have to be passively watched, digital media allows us to create those different experiences.

Hopefully Story+ will be back at next year’s Brisbane Writers Festival. Conversations such as these are happening all over the world now and interactivity across different media is not just a theory.

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Reading in the future: Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths

Three years before We Tell Stories, Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph created the first episode of Inanimate Alice. Designed to be a reading-on-the-screen experience for children, it goes much further than presenting flat text on a screen and is instead an interactive storybook. Alice is eight years old and lives in China with her parents. Her father is often away searching for oil and she spends a lot of time with her mother and her hand-held device.

The beautiful graphics, haunting music and sometimes crackly sound combine with the story to create a real sense of tension. It’s a blend of a book and a video game. I can’t imagine how forward-looking it would have seemed in 2005, not even including the fact that Alice’s device predates the iPhone, but it’s still fresh and astounding in 2013. The premise also reminds me a little of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.

Episodes two and three were produced in 2006. In episode two Alice is now ten years old and living in Saudi Arabia, but the action takes place in Italy, where she is on holiday with her parents. By episode three, they have moved to Russia. Episode three is, for me, the pinnacle of the episodes so far. It’s where the video game aspect comes to the fore most logically and beautifully. To say more would be to spoil it.

In episode four, Alice is fourteen and she and her parents are now living in a town in the middle of England. This is the latest episode and was produced in 2008. It is my least favourite of the episodes. The game quality is even more to the forefront, but it feels a laboured add-on. The feeling of freshness is gone.

Originally, 10 episodes were planned and apparently episode five is in production.

Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph also collaborated on Flight Paths, which they call a networked novel. They began working on it in 2007 on their blog and encouraged contributions from others. The central idea was based around the stories of a number of young men who have stowed away onto flights going to Heathrow and then fallen from the undercarriage into a prosperous part of West London as the plane prepares to land.

In 2009, from the contributions they’d received, they created five story fragments. A sixth followed in 2012. The presentation of these stories is very similar to Inanimate Alice, but minus the interactivity. These stories are purely about reading on the screen and as such they delight me much less. I find that without the interactivity, I don’t want to read from the screen. And I’m not sure where to place myself in relation to the story. With Inanimate Alice, I’m secure in the knowledge that the stories are aimed at younger readers. But the story within Flight Paths and then the manner of its presentation are at odds. Reading on the screen certainly seems aimed at younger readers. But the subject matter is not. The latter two stories have an element of magical realism, which I enjoy very much but I don’t think that this is the right expression for them.

One of the supporters of Flight Paths is if:book. The Australian branch, if:book Australia, has been involved in a number of digital projects and I will return to them in a future post.

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How will we read in the future?

wetellstories

In 2008, Penguin Books published a digital fiction website called We Tell Stories. At that time I was working for a Penguin subsidiary and had already observed that Penguin was quite concerned with positioning itself at the forefront of the new digital world. The changes that were coming were going to reshape reading and writing and it seemed to me that Penguin didn’t just want to react to whatever happened, they wanted to be part of creating it. I could see that this push was coming from the most senior levels at the company and that impressed me. It also impressed upon me that this was important and that those of us who loved books would have to adapt. I don’t necessarily want to frame this adaptation as purely survive or die. It was also very exciting.

By late 2009 I had moved from London to Sydney and about the time the iPad came out I formed the conclusion that books, films and video games were going to meet somewhere in the middle. The lines between them would blur and interactive storytelling would be the result. I wasn’t sure when this was going to happen, but I knew that it would and I wasn’t interested in working in publishing again until we had found that interactivity.

So I picked up an idea for a novel I had and started work on it (old-school, paper, no interactivity), began writing for a company that makes virtual agents (new-school, digital, loads of interactivity) and waited to see what the world would bring me.

It turns out that there was lots going on in the world, but not much of it came to find me. I had to go and find it. And in the going out and finding I discovered how much there is to tell.

We Tell Stories is my starting point. It hasn’t held up very well and some of the stories definitely work better than others. But it’s useful to look at first (even if it’s not the earliest of the digital writing experiments), because it did have some interesting ideas at its base. And some of those ideas have found their way (consciously or otherwise) into more modern creations.

To get my biggest criticism of the project out of the way first: I find a number of the stories thin and unsatisfying. There were six of them, told over six weeks, and each based on a Penguin classic. Today, only five of those stories are accessible.

Slice by Toby Litt is a reworking of The Haunted Doll’s House by M.R. James. It tells the story, via their respective blogs, of a teenage girl (Slice) and her parents. After moving from Florida to London, they discovered a supernatural disturbance in their house. As well as reading the characters’ blogs, it was also possible to follow them on Twitter, which was a relatively new platform at the time.

Fairy Tales by Kevin Brooks is a choose-your-own-adventure story about a girl who must either get riches to save her parents or marry a vile prince. Inspired by the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson.

Your Place and Mine by Nicci French draws on Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola. It details two people’s thoughts before and after their first date and completes the story by linking the reader to a news web page. It was originally told in real time, in five hour-long instalments.

Hard Times by Matt Mason and Nicholas Felton is similar to a powerpoint presentation, filled with the slogany graphics that were popular at the time. It’s about how digital culture is changing our world. Linked (by title only) to the Charles Dickens novel.

The (Former) General In His Labyrinth by Moshin Hamad is inspired by Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. This story is a gem. It’s very well told but the navigation through the story reminds me of special effects from the 1980s. It’s a great idea, but the execution is unsophisticated.

The final story, which was also the first to be published, is The 21 Steps. Unfortunately, it no longer loads today. But it told its story via Google maps and was based on The 39 Steps.

As I’ve said, some of these ideas were precursors to projects that are around today. I’ll come back to them in future posts.

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the first monday of the rest of my life

Through this autumn and winter that are now retreating I started writing the novel that I’ve been thinking about for the last three years. It’s not the physics of time novel but it’s about time and it’s also about home and I think it’s about trying to hang onto both things when everything keeps changing around you. Whether that’s a good thing to do or not, I don’t know.

It wasn’t such a bad winter this year. Our flat turned out to have damp but not be that cold, however much of a contradiction that may be. And it didn’t rain so much, not compared to last year anyway. And now it’s spring and it’s not that I’m starting again. I never stopped.

 

 

 

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happy new year

It’s 2011. We’re in the future. But it feels just like yesterday did.

If the date is 1/1/11, does that mean we go back to the beginning?

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it wasn’t raining in new york ten years ago. i wonder if it is now.

Dropping butterscotch schnapps on the doorstep. Is this the last of my ten-year memories? We didn’t want ten years to go by so fast. They’ve gone by faster than we wanted them to.

It seems that soon it will be time to start counting in lots of twenty years. But my memory won’t be so good. Everything will become abstract. It’s already starting. My impressionist memories. Flickering modernism as I tell myself back my own stories.

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