Thursday, October 7, 2010

Five Questions for a Computer Programmer: Chris Cornell

If you've been paying attention on our Facebook group, there's been some buzz about the game Haiku Hero.  (If you haven't tried it out yet, do!  The interview will make a lot more sense if you know what we're talking about.)

Well, we had some questions for the programmer, Chris Cornell, and he was kind enough to answer them.  Let's see what he has to say...

1. You're a programmer who has an interest in poetry?  How'd that happen?

Well, in my case, it's Neil Stephenson's fault.  If you aren't familiar with him, he writes nerdy but generally good science fiction novels.  He had an entertaining book, Cryptonomicon, which featured one character who would mentally compose little on-the-spot haikus as a way of passing the time.

After reading that book, I thought "hey, that sounds like a fun idea" and started doing it myself:  making up haikus when I was waiting for buses, stuck in traffic, or in boring meetings.  They didn't have to be good, (and frequently weren't) but they were fun.

From there it was a fairly straight jump to "this is fun.  More people should do this."  And then "it might be fun to encourage people to do so by making a game about it..."

2. We've seen countless 2D-scrollers, shooters, and games where you shoot a turtle out of a cannon... but a haiku-based game is something new.  What inspired you to create it?

Well, if you want the full sordid details behind my thought process, I wrote a lot of the motivation down in my dev journal, here.

If you want the short version though, it is basically...  Rockband is a neat game because if you are playing the drums or singing, you are actually practicing a real life skill.  You are getting better at something just by playing the game, and when you stop playing, you are still good at it.  I wanted to see if I could make a game that would also make you better at something in real life.  Even if it was something trivial like "making haikus on the spot about arbitrary topics."

And really, I figure if I do something that makes there be more poetry in the world in general, then I'm probably doing something right.

3. How does the game judge how "good" your haiku is?

Heh.  I get asked this a lot, really.  Which is funny, since the game doesn't actually do much judging.  The rule is just that it says "That was a good haiku" any time you have the correct number of syllables.  As long as you can make three lines of 5-7-5, you get a "good" haiku.

This actually brings up an interesting point about how the game is written, and some of the choices I made when writing it.  I spent a while thinking of ways I could objectively "rate" a haiku with a computer program.  Or heck, even without one.  What metric do you use?  Number of long, polysyllabic words?  Fewest grammar errors?  Best seasonal references?

In the end, I decided that any rating system I used would basically be me saying "here is the best kind of haiku - you should write these!"  Since people tend to want to optimize their scores in games, I was worried that this would artificially force people to write particular types of haikus, or feel annoyed when their haikus didn't earn as many points as they felt it should.

For this reason, I decided that the only thing I'd reward was quantity.  Number of haikus written in a time limit, etc.  (And even there you can see I waffled a bit, since I allow a mode with no time limit.)  I don't want to be in the business of trying to judge something as subjective as a poem.  No matter how much time I spend in it, some day, it will give a low score to a good poem, and encourage the author to do things differently.  I don't want that!  So nuts to trying to score them, I say.

Somehow though, people took my generic message "It was a good haiku" to mean that there was a hidden rating system in place, and I keep getting asked how it works.  I take this as at least some confirmation that people care about their score, and continue to be glad that I don't give them one. :)

4. One of the features of the game increases difficulty by adding restrictions to your poem.  A few of our readers have commented that this opened up unexpected avenues for their art as well as making the game tougher.  How do you think rules like this can lead to better poetry?

I definitely think it leads to interesting poetry.  This isn't unique to haikus though.  Many artists have said things along the same lines:  Adding restrictions forces you to be creative, and tends to lead you in interesting directions.  I've seen this first hand, when watching people play the game (myself included!) and come up with haikus completely unlike things they normally come up with, just because they had to fit in the word "eggplant" in there somewhere.

The thing though is that restrictions make for interesting results.  If you ask someone to compose a haiku on the spot on a subject of their choice, they will usually either dither about what subject to use, or pick one about something that they already have some ideas about.  If you ask them to make one about some random topic though, you immediately cut out the dithering, and weed out most of the pre-thought-out ideas they have.  They basically have no choice but to do something creative, and you tend to get results that reflect that.

So yeah.  Readers, I agree with you!  It does make it more challenging, (which is why I let you select how many rules you want, if you want something easier) but you tend to get interesting things out of it.  They're not always GOOD things, but I think they have a higher percentage of good things than just thinking up haikus about topics of your own choosing.  Really, in a lot of ways, Haiku Hero isn't even so much a game, as a creative writing exercise dressed up with a timer and some nice music.

5. A sestina is another rule-based form of poetry, requiring the writer to use the same six end-words in different line patterns in six different stanzas.  Any plans for a Sestina Hero?  Or maybe just a Sonnet Hero?

I've definitely considered some other poetry forms.  Obviously anything short and well-defined is better for quick "pick up and play" gameplay.  But anything that is structured enough that a computer can tell if you are doing it "right" is fair game.  I doubt "Epic Ballad Hero" would do well as a casual game, but some other forms might work.  The ones you list are possible. But the (non-haiku) form I've given the most thought to is actually limericks, since they short, stand alone nicely, and are fast and fun to write.  (In fact, the whole rhyme detection I use was basically put in so I could test out the rhyme detection code, so that everything would be all lined up and ready if I decided to make Limerick Hero....)

So I dunno about Sonnet Hero, but it's not outside the realm of possibility that some other poetic forms might show up sooner or later...

CHRIS CORNELL is the founder and president for life of Paper Dino Software.  Author of games such as Boss Rush and Post Apocalyptic Unicorn Uprising, he hails from a background of flash and console development.  Not to be confused with any other Chris Cornells you may have heard of, who are merely pale imitations.

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