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Making Intimate, Infinite — A ‘Willful Mistranslation’ Of A Borges Short Story

12.18.14 Michael Rougeau

ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Robert Yang about Intimate, Infinite, a three-pronged exploration of the infinite and the inevitable.

Robert Yang has been a fan of Argentine short story writer Jorge Luis Borges for a long time. When he set out to create Intimate, Infinite for a month-long game development “pageant” at a community called makega.me, he determined to adapt a Borges short story called “The Garden of Forking Paths.” The 1941 story concerns repetition and infinity and branching paths, and the game jam’s theme was “series,” or “making a set of works that sort of relate to each other,” as Yang describes it. In other words, it was a perfect match.

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“[Borges] wrote a lot about repetition and recursion, so a lot of his writing seems prescient for a technological age,” Yang told ANIMAL. “I chose ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ because it’s one of his few short stories to have a fairly developed character.”

The story is about Dr. Yu Tsun, a Chinese professor living in England and spying for Germany during World War I. It starts out like a thrilling, if dryly written, spy story, but quickly diverges into a lengthy explanation of the title character’s ancestral belief that all human lives divert into infinite simultaneous realities. That was a pretty radical idea at the time, although as Yang points out, it’s a rather routine thought experiment these days. “It’s one of his most famous short stories, and many readers ejaculate over how it seems prescient for describing the structure of the internet or wikipedia or whatever, but that technological aspect is so mundane now,” Yang said.

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Yang was also inspired by the film Irma Vep (left) and architect Luis Barragán

His adaptation, then, is more of an interpretation. It’s “an artistically-motivated willful mistranslation, one that has its own opinions of the original while seeking to obliterate it,” Yang said. “Which is a pretty Borges-y idea.”

Intimate, Infinite is composed of three acts: a chase scene that isn’t a chase scene, a chess game with no rules, and a hedge maze where you grow the walls by dragging your cursor around. These harken back to the short story to varying degrees and can be replayed infinitely, usually changing slightly when you retry them.

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Chess is mentioned briefly in the short story, when the protagonist is asked, “In a riddle whose answer is chess, what is the only prohibited word?” The answer, of course, is “chess,” which makes the riddle a paradox, but that’s somewhat beside the point. The simulated chess game in Intimate, Infinite—inspired by Yoko Ono’s interactive piece “Play it by Trust”—lets you move pieces around at will, and it ends when you finish your wine by clicking on a glass until its purply contents drain away. But the placement of the chess pieces on the board affects small changes in the hedge maze, and getting a key in the maze unlocks a door in the chase scene, which leads to the game’s actual ending.

Like the fictional book described in “The Garden of Forking Paths,” these three segments contain infinite variations, particularly with each player’s individual influence and choices taken into account. But like the short story itself, the game also has a definitive ending, which says that although there may be infinite possible paths, this one ends here, at this time, and in this way. “It’s nice to think that we exist across all these dimensions / quantum mechanics, but the truth is human experience is always linear,” Yang said. “That’s why the story ends the way it does. Philosophy is fun, but you still have to go home at the end of the day.”

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Yang developed Intimate, Infinite over the course of two or three months, creating or conjuring almost every element himself. But throughout that time “I didn’t really know what I wanted,” he said. “I’m still not really sure if it what’s I wanted, but I consider it ‘complete’ and can’t think of anything I’d substantially change or add to it…I like that it feels self-contained to me, cohesive in a certain way—again, that’s pretty rare for games, which are notorious for ‘feature creep’ and never-ending production cycles. Every finished game, by anyone, about anything, is a miracle.”

Yang may have chosen to adapt “The Garden” because of its unusually fleshed-out (for Borges, at least) protagonist, but the story also lends itself particularly well to an interactive medium like video games. “I read the story repeatedly to try to isolate elements that suggested interactions, and I wanted each of them to be interactive in a different mode,” Yang said. “So one is a linear adventure, one is a puzzle, and one is structureless and ends whenever you decide it’s over.”

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A glitch that occurred during development

The text that appears on twitchy-faced loading screens, ranging from direct quotes of the short story to Yang’s own musings, adds to the sense that there are infinite possibilities, and despite his cynicism about that concept, Yang has ruminated on this as it may relate to his own life. What would have happened if he’d gotten a job at famed developer Valve when he interviewed there years ago? Would his life have taken a similar course regardless? Probably, Yang asserts.

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“There might be an infinite number of senses of the word ‘infinite,’ but infinity can also be bounded, like there are an infinite number of values between 0 and 1,” he said. “So while there may be an infinite number of alternate futures constantly branching off your life (what if you did this, or that) there are just as many infinite futures constantly converging back toward their root, their center—don’t forget, every possible future has a mass—and when you count far enough, all our lives coalesce into stars.”

Intimate, Infinite can be downloaded for whatever you choose to pay for it—in this reality, at least—at Radiator Yang.

(Photo: Intimate, Infinite)