I’m reminded of the closing words of one of the classic film noir films: “He reached too high,” upon reading this I7 vision-cum-Brave-New-World statement:
It’s probably fair to say that we are more likely to accept suggestions if they follow the grain of Inform. There are well-established conventions used by all well-established conventional programming languages, but we don’t necessarily follow them. We’re not very interested in traditional computer-science syntax, and more interested in thinking about how natural language – and books, and newspapers – communicate.
I say the following as someone who has been interested in AI for a while, someone fascinated by linguistics, as an author, poet, programmer, and a thinker: the above is hubris. Computer languages exist because the first interaction en route to writing or game-creating, is between the creator and the computer, i.e., between a human being who uses language naturally and an unthinking, unfeeling, amalgam of silicon and steel. Until you can do a good job at modeling language itself, this initial conversation must necessarily be an compromised language, which means that it must be a language that the computer is better skilled at understanding. The short and witty moniker of such languages are “computer languages”.
What have the fields of translation and cultural studies in large taught us? That when languages butt up against one another, new languages develop, usually for the purposes of trade; these are called creoles, or even pidgins. Computer languages are man-machine pidgins that allow different creatures (man and machine) to converse intelligently. To treat the machine as though it were a human, in telling it complete and complex sentences could be attempted — but Inform 7 is not the tool. Such tools require neural networks, worldview information (either large databases or access to large databases), excellent parsers, and so forth. They must be dedicated to the task, and even then, they do not so well. Inform 7, which has its goal of being a tool to create interactive fiction, simply falls short, and painfully short in this task.
What happens when you attempt to interact with Inform 7? You at first treat it as a computer language, which does not work. It does not support the linguistic shortcuts, or the conventional pidgin notations of other languages; then you attempt to treat it as it says it should be treated — as a human. Yet, when you do that, you find that it has some severe limitations. There are many, but here are a few illustrative examples:
- Tabs make or break what the compiler understands. This is incredibly out of place for the realm of natural language, especially given that tabs are supposed to be a convenience for programmers, not a requirement; in terms of a natural language equivalent, they are pauses, and all human speakers can gracefully elide the pauses and yet understand the sentence.
- You cannot have more than two objects in a grammar line. You cannot say if A and B and C. In natural language, this restriction would redact many novels (especially those of Romantics) into confetti, to say nothing of what it would do to speech.
- You cannot use a verb with more than one object. You cannot say if reading a book or a newspaper. This too would decimate speaking and writing.
- You have no synonyms and the order of phrases is usually fixed. The beauty of natural language lies in its expressive power, which is a result of its synonyms and its flexibility in structure. It does no-one any good to whisper promises of natural language and then refuse to understand the speaker when he places an adverb last instead of first.
The concept that you, the programmer/author are speaking your game/work into existence (quite like God) quickly hits the brick wall of a limited implementation. The result is not a familiar programming language, where once you have learned the core concepts, you can apply them to other languages; nor is the result some peaceable conversation where you are writing to someone else, who understands what is being said, occasionally asking for clarification. The result is something like an argument with a child in Spanish, when you do not know Spanish.
Sadly, that sort of experience burned out an entire generation of AI researchers. All those who praised ELIZA or SHRDLU to the skies, who went gaga over Dragon Naturally Speaking, or fell prey to whatever glorious thing some robed and titled intellectual promised would revolutionize the world, are still locked out from the basics of the field: passing the Turing test. Inform7 falls into the same collection of yesteryear’s overhyped promises and failed revolutionary campaigns.
All it produces in the end is an odd, perhaps petulant, little language that is neither one thing nor the other. It pretends to understand you, but really mollycoddles you. It hides its woeful lack of power underneath a pleasing exterior. It forces you to use an amputated English, like that a traveler overseas, flipping frantically through a pocket translation dictionary. Worse, by failing to heed the lessons learned in previous man-machine communications (i.e. other programming languages), Inform7 fails in ways that others have already failed; as a result, its hubris leads straightaway to its mockery.
Inform7 does not deliver upon its grandiloquent vision, and it could never have hoped to. Indeed, thinking that it comes anywhere close insults both of its parents: programming language and natural language. For those who want to learn to program, Inform7 is not a helpful language, for few of its constructs can the new learner add to his or her mental toolkit. And for writers, having your own native tongue circumscribed in unexpected and irrational ways is so artificial as to incite rebellion, not complaisance. Writing embodies freedom and Inform7 embodies a bizarre kind of straitjacket where you are always discovering new ways in which your words do not work.
And in the movie, the man who reached for the stars in the circus, did so by scamming others, playing a dangerous game of deceit and threats; in the end, the only job left to him was circus geek, who ate live chickens in exchange for liquor and a pittance. He had pushed against the universe and found out that his method was doomed from inception; he burned the candle at both ends, and found that it tapered away rapidly, leaving a greater darkness than before it was lit.
He, like Inform7, had reached too high.
I was back at the IF Planet thinking that I should add my blog back to the list. After scouring through a few blogs of my fellows, it became clear to me that Sturm Und Drang IF is a poor companion for the others. It sticks out like a bleeding thumb; it is the blood-red flower in a monochrome garden. It is one of the last voices of the lonely individual IF developer, amid the sick tide of masturbatory intellectualism and indie game developer snobbery.
Both of the aforementioned trends scream “look at me, look at me” as the blog authors attempt to make miniature deities out of themselves. The self-congratulatory aspect is what I find especially odious. It’s amazing to me, really, the need for people to brag about what they’re doing or their honors, as though anyone would be impressed by them. What you say to the people who write this or that means absolutely nothing to me, and will have absolutely no impact on my life, or my games, because it’s all small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. And no, honestly, I don’t give two stale turds about what board you sit on, what initials you have after your name, or any of the high regalia of an empty and dead society that you adorn yourself with. Those things are bones and ash!
Words outlast our lives and yet, instead of seeking something meaningful to say with them, here we all are, chasing after pointless honors. Two steps from death, we still fret about makeup.
(Note: After sleeping on it, I decided to take out the links to blogs that demonstrated these trends. There’s just no point in stating what everyone already knows or can find out by simply looking as I did. It’s much more helpful to take issues with attitudes and let people figure out if the shoe fits them.)