Discussion No. 10 — The Gostak, Counterfeit Monkey & Library of Babel with Ian Snyder

JAKE: So this is Text Club 10, and our games this month were Carl Muckenhoupt‘s “The Gostak” — not sure how to pronounce that, but I guess it’s a made up word so we don’t have to decide — also Emily Short‘s “Counterfeit Monkey“, and Jonathan Basile‘s “The Library of Babel.” This is a cool set of games that were selected by our discussion guest for this month, Ian Snyder.

These were three games you were interested in or had encountered before & they’d kind of stuck with you, right?

IAN: Yeah, I’d played part of The Gostak before. The Library of Babel is … I guess I haven’t played it all the way through, so to speak, it’d be impossible to do so. Counterfeit Monkey was new for me. This set of three all felt sort of … of a similar material.

JAKE: Yeah absolutely. All about the limits of written language, or systematized language. And also about a kind of materiality of language. Pretty philosophical trio.

So The Library of Babel is by Jonathan Basile, it’s from 2015 I think? I didn’t see a date on the piece itself.

IAN: Fairly recent.

JAKE: And the original story, the Borges story that it’s based on is from the 1940s I think. It’s pretty old & based on an idea that’s even older, that since we have such a narrow set of symbols we use to represent our knowledge it would only take so many books really to systematize all possible knowledge.

I found it interesting, looking back on the story, how much time he spent on all the human affordances of this weird impossible library. He describes how the air circulates and stuff like that.

IAN: One of the things I’d forgotten from the short story is how much care Borges takes describing the library as a library, something that takes time to walk through, to see all of. The are little human communities, each with their own subculture, living all across this space. For me, these constitute one of the major differences between the story and Basile’s reflection of the story. All of that kind of gets flattened out when it becomes a website.

JAKE: Totally, in the story there are these rival interpretations — rival religions. They have their own folklore about … for example this messiah figure who they imagine is this person who’s read the “index book” which lists the names of all the other books. They’re sort of desperately scrambling for that knowledge because their situation is pretty hopeless.

There was also this part in the story about these books that exonerate people — I think he described them as “apologias”. There’s one for each person and it lists everything you’ve done and why you did it. And it sort of justifies everything you’ve done. So people really want to find these books that exonerate them of all their decisions. It’s heavy. Jonathan’s piece is comparatively pretty playful. It also has the image component with the noisy random pixel canvases.

IAN: Yeah, the image Library of Babel immediately reads to me as just noise. I give up on the image searching so much quicker than I give up on browsing through these little snippets of random letters. I guess it’s easier to pluck out meaning from random letters than it is to pluck out meaning from all these pixels stacked on top of each other, even if they are philosophically or conceptually “the same thing.”

JAKE: Why do you think that is? Do we just trust text more to be meaningful?

IAN: Maybe there’s more latent meaning in a single letter than in a single pixel.

I think the website does a lot of work to make the text approachable. For example there’s the “Anglishize” option, which highlights english words or combinations of words, so you can sort of move through and pick out what actually does have literal meaning & what is not recognizable as text.

JAKE: Right, and you can work backwards too. When you sent me a link to the piece, you wrote up your thoughts about it and used their “search function” to find the book and page that had that text in it, and sent me that text. You can say “give me that specific book and I’ll see what the context is.”

IAN: Yeah, in the end, I don’t know how I feel about that search function. A lot of what Borges’ story is about, for me, is this Gambler’s Fallacy feeling of approaching incomprehensible, vast libraries of random noise. The idea that by carefully picking through it, if I just give it enough time, enough will, I’ll eventually find the meaning. After years of work, years of churn through random syllables, I’ll find that one word spaced out in the middle of so much nonsense. But the website’s search function makes it so immediate. It’s right there. You don’t have to page through the nonsense at all.

JAKE: Yeah it’s like a weird text editor. When I use the search engine, it’s like I put that there — I want the book where, I don’t know, God put that text there. It doesn’t have the same divine charge.

IAN: I think it also brings into question the “trueness” of the website. I’ll say that I don’t think the website is untrue, or that it is a lie, I think it’s doing it’s best approximation, where possible, of the library described in the story. But when I search for something on the website, I put in a phrase and it brings up four things: it brings up that phrase surrounded by random noise, it brings up that phrase isolated on a completely blank page, it brings up that phrase on a page with a bunch of random english words and it brings up a book with that phrase as its title. The result with random english words is, to me, the most telling and odd of the bunch.

When you click that result, it will take you to the page in the book containing the phrase surrounded by english words, but if you leaf forward or backward through the pages of the book, you’ll encounter a sharp, sudden transition between the nonsense of the rest of the book and this single page filled with english words. This page makes sense, at least in that these words have definitions, but after that page is done it snaps immediately back into nonsense. I guess it’s just as improbable as finding that exact phrase in any number of random books, but surrounding itself with other english words foregrounds an arbitrariness and artificiality in a way that finding the same phrase in a bunch of random noise does not.

JAKE: Right, and it is in a perverse way just as likely. Like in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, when they’re flipping a coin and it’s just repeatedly “heads” — is this evidence that it isn’t random, or evidence that it is random. It’s not behaving in any way we can make sense of.

IAN: It’s easy to project a human sense of order onto a coin flip that comes up “heads” twenty times in a row, but it ultimately doesn’t have anything to do with the previous coin flip or the next coin flip. The sense I get from those pages of english words is… if someone gave you a list of coin flips and you saw a run of twenty heads in a row, you might feel — maybe someone edited this one, you know, maybe they’re fudging the numbers just a tiny bit? Surely this didn’t really happen.

Did you read the forums?

JAKE: Oh no, I didn’t read them. Did you?

IAN: Yeah, I did — not comprehensively. It’s funny comparing an actual community of people that has risen up around the website to the communities of people suggested in the short story. I encountered one poster, in particular, who suggested a horoscopy of searching for one’s own name and reading the surrounding words on its page. Not dissimilar from certain subjects of the original story at all!

On the other hand, there’s a thread collecting “interesting pages,” and for the most part it consists of people who have written some funny or crass joke that they want to make people really work to get at. So they list the hex number of the book, the number of the cell, which shelf it’s on, which bookcase, volume, page, and after you enter in all of those things you’ll find a page that’s nothing but a blank space and the word “fuck you.”

JAKE: Sure, that make sense because the whole thing is all this labor and sort of pilgrimage, this theater of labor and pilgrimage of basically random text generation. So that’s totally the native joke of the site, doing a bunch of work to access nonsense.

So I hadn’t played The Gostak before — you said you’d played part of it?

IAN: I had played little bit and hit a wall from which I couldn’t progress, and had given up originally. But I kept going and finished it this time.

JAKE: Did you? I wasn’t able to finish it, but I did spend a lot of time with it. I think I got pretty far.

IAN: It took me a couple days, actually, of intermittent play. How did you find it, as a first playthrough?

JAKE: It was great, totally baffling. I was really impressed and happy to discover that the vocabulary didn’t have a really clean mapping onto english. My first guess was that it was going to be a puzzle about word substitution and I’d keep a little key in my notes and gradually figure out what everything meant. But there are a lot of concepts that don’t translate.

IAN: Right, I’m really pleased that it’s not a direct cipher to english.

JAKE: Yeah. I found a sort-of “dictionary” online by David Welbourn, did you find that? It’s a fan-made dictionary from around the time the game came out. He has this dictionary page and then also a translation of the instructions which I found really useful.

IAN: I did as well. For the longest time, I didn’t find his translation of the help instructions, and I didn’t translate them myself either. For the majority of my time playing this game I didn’t know the word for “help” and I just had to plunge in on my own; I didn’t know there were hints, so this dictionary served as my hints getting through The Gostak. Kind of interesting where his definitions map or don’t map to my own. Mine were generally much more vague, I felt content to gesture at the general idea of a word or what it connected to, rather than describe it directly. I think he describes “gitches” as birds.

JAKE: Yeah! Are there hints that they’re birds? I think I saw that too, and thought “are they birds?”

IAN: Yeah, all we know is what they “do,” which is they “leil” things (Welbourn translates this as eat, which is a definition that holds for me too) and they “gomb” and they “degomb” (enter and exit) the “brangy”. So, they enter something, they exit something and they eat something.

JAKE: Sounds like birds to me.

IAN: Yeah it could be true of birds, and it could also be true of, say, fishes, or people who are going in and out of a fairground.

JAKE: Yeah totally. I guess once a model like that pops into your head — “I wonder if it’s a bird” — you start testing the model against all the behaviors you observe, and if it’s true for enough of them then it’s a good building block for your understanding. Which is kind of the idea of this nonsense sentence “The Gostak distims the doshes,” which is the seed of this game. As I was looking for a dictionary — or hopefully like a walkthrough or something to get me unstuck — I found that this sentence has a history for about a hundred years before this game, as a nonsense sentence that was used to demonstrate how we can derive meaning from syntax alone, even if we don’t understand vocabulary.

IAN: It also pops up in a short story, apparently, which I haven’t read — a story about someone who pops into an alternate universe where the only difference is that there is a political slogan which is “the gostak distims the doshes” which works everyone up into a fervor, and this character can’t get anyone to tell them what a gostak is or what distimming the doshes is. That base sentence can’t be divided into meaningful definitions beyond stuff that’s self-referential.

JAKE: Right, the sentence is an indivisible block. There are some other truths that are contingent rephrasings of the original sentence. “The Gostak distims the doshes”, so we know that “the doshes are what is distimmed by the Gostak.”

I spent a lot of time in Gostak fumbling around, and then I’d go back and doatch with the guy … what was his name?

IAN: I want to say he was a Droke.

JAKE: Yeah, doatchin’ with the Droke. I tried to doatch with just about everyone else I ran into. They might have been birds or fish or something, they wouldn’t doatch with me.

IAN: Yeah nobody doatched back.

JAKE: I got rid of three or four of the glauds.

IAN: Do you remember which ones you got rid of?

JAKE: The droke gave me pretty clear instructions about verbs I could use to make a few of them disappear. There was one I could “rask” which I think meant I picked it up and kept it?

IAN: That’s my impression as well. There’s an inventory you can look at, and you’ll see that in it is the “raskable glaud.”

JAKE: So then what happens after you get past the glauds?

IAN: After you get past the glauds, you go into the … is it the “doshery?” I actually wrote down the ending, it’s something I want to talk about specifically. I don’t remember what the place is called, but you go into the place that has all the doshes. And you see the gheliper. The gheliper comes up a couple times as the entity who has created all of these glauds and made your life a … well, made your life a text adventure. I think she’s “vorling” all of the doshes. You attempt to do what the gostak is there to do, to distim the doshes. Because she is vorling them, you can’t, and you have to solve one final puzzle which involves lelloing something, turning something on and off, then doing that backwards, putting something in something, I gather, then using an object — basically doing a lot of process to an object to change her state from vorling the doshes into vorling something else. Only then can you distim the doshes.

Once you do so, the game outputs the following:

The gheliper rebs the distimmed doshes, and is dunmile. “My doshes! All my martle doshes!” She tunks you, and vorls the hoff lutt. “You! Everything was so rorm, so tunsel, until you pelled from the bewl, discrenning my glauds, glaking the tophthage, distimming my… distimming my…”

She beckles. “You… you gostak!” It is the snavest thing she could doatch. She could zank you now…

But with the doshes distimmed, her misdeave is skent, and instead, she just flomes stottily and frikes fosken.

You pell at hoff. It’s mosky in the delcot – even the gitches are mosky. But the gheliper’s friking could be rebbed from the dorl, and maybe even the bewl. The drokes must have rebbed it. Soon they will regomb, and all will be rorm here again.

Of course, the gheliper could always regomb. The gamda, even, could regomb. But for now, the doshes are distimmed. And that’s enough for a gostak.

IAN: Does any of that make sense?

JAKE: Yeah, fragments of it. There was a moment where she doatched, I know what that is.

IAN: She did doatch, that’s true. A lot of it is words that you would have encountered in the course of play, but a good portion of it is new words that you haven’t encountered yet. The word “tunsel”, for example, is new.

IAN: I guess the thing about this ending that is most interesting to me is that it feels … the gheliper is sort of the main antagonist in this game, and she’s created the obstacles you have to overcome. When you’ve overcome the obstacles, she has this moment where she can’t believe what you’ve done. She seems angry, or sad, it’s hard to tell exactly because very little of the language of this game is given to emotional states. She gestures at you — well, maybe not, she “beckles” and I don’t know what that is — and she says “you gostak!” It’s the snavest thing she could doatch, apparently. It’s interesting to me that at the end of this game that’s all about learning the words for things in this alien world, the final moment is a failure of language. She doesn’t have any words for you other than “gostak.”

You might kind of want, at the end of this game, the mystery to be resolved, and to understand what the gostak is and what you’re doing and how everything maps to in english, but there’s no word for you except for “gostak.” And I, at least, felt the first time I read it … it felt like a cheap “ah, look, you were the bad guy the whole time” ending. But on reflection I don’t think that’s the case. It feels like there’s kind of a pathos there, with the gheliper. The way that she reacts, in disbelief or powerlessly, to what you’ve done. It’s just a bit sad. It’s even-handed in the way a nature documentary would be even-handed. A scene of a predator devouring a prey — as a human you want to read into that situation in favor of the prey, there’s sadness there, but a good nature documentary will just present it as is. That’s the feeling I get with this ending, and I think that has a lot to do with the distancing language that the game has had you learn.

JAKE: You can’t bring your preconceptions about gitches or ghelipers, or ideas about who’s the hero. I never watched a movie with a cartoon gheliper in it that gave me some moral judgment about ghelipers, the way that I have with foxes. You have this level of distance from the world in this game.

IAN: There is distance, but, at the same time, the language has some surprising confluence with English.

I want to talk a bit about my head-canon etymology for these fictitious words that I developed while playing the game.

JAKE: Great!

IAN: The gostak distims, and we can pick up from playing that dis- is a prefix we may prepend to a verb in order to invert it. We could close something, for example, and later dis-close it in order to open it. So, the gostak’s primary action is a kind of negation, they are dis-timming. It is apparent through play, meanwhile, that tim is actually just a synonym, and apparently the less popular variant, of tophth.

JAKE: The plover.net dictionary suggests they both mean something like “darkness,” maybe.

IAN: Now, for the most part, Gostakian words are easy enough to pronounce in English. They more or less follow the conventional rules of construction, even if they swing a little guttural at times. Tophth is not such a case, however; it’s very rare in english to have a “th” following a consonant especially another soft-sounding consonant such as “ph” (f). If you think about the way your mouth has to move to make those two sounds, it makes sense why we rarely see this. At least, for me, I pronounce “ph” by pressing my upper teeth against my lower lip and blowing, while I pronounce “th” by pressing my tongue against the same teeth and, again, blowing. In order to pronounce both consecutively, I must seamlessly move my lower lip off of my teeth and replace it with my tongue, all without breaking the “flow” of the word or accidentally blowing air through my open mouth and making an “h” sound.

I feel this divide between “tophth” and “tim” is similar in English to the divide between words with French roots and words with Anglo-Saxon roots — consider, for a point of comparison, “swine” and “pig”. It’s also worth noting the presence of the unvoiced h in “gheliper”. Obviously, I can’t make any substantive claims about these words roots — after all, this is a conlang, it’s even more artificial than living languages — but I do think we can say that this linguistic divide reflects a linguistic divide with which we english-speakers have a lived familiarity, and that our subconscious knowledge of english roots influences how we read this work. It draws just one more dividing line between gheliper and gostak.

JAKE: In Counterfeit Monkey, there was a similar kind of distancing going on with the language. We’re in this foreign place, and the way they use language in this foreign place is very different from the way that we the player use and relate to language. By being forced to be super conscious about language all the time, that was making me feel a bit like a foreigner in this place.

IAN: Yeah, the language is interesting in Counterfeit Monkey because it’s all very functional. It all must either be able to be modified or unable to be modified. Language in the game serves one of two functions. I think you can hear that a bit, as a reader, at least subconsciously. But I do think another common point between the gostak & counterfeit monkey is that in both I was building up an inventory of words that I’d learned like an inventory of objects. In the gostak that was more inside my own mind — I have all of the words that I know, more-or-less. But in Counterfeit Monkey that’s literally in the game — I possess these words in an in-game inventory.

JAKE: Yeah, I did a lot of wandering and I was looking at every description trying to memorize “OK there’s a farmer here, there’s some sand here,” trying to keep all these words in my head in case I need anything that’s one letter off from one of these things. It was kind of a weird throwback to pixel-hunting in old point-and-click adventure games.

There’s also a map in Counterfeit Monkey, which is sort of unusual for a text adventure. You have a visual indication of where you are and where all the exits are. It was a really nice affordance and easy to use, but I couldn’t look at it because I had to be so attentive to the room descriptions, I couldn’t afford to get distracted by it.

IAN: Right. It’s good that Counterfeit Monkey isn’t real-time, I’d be unable to play it. I really appreciated the map. One of the things I always get distracted by in text adventures is all of this “North/South/East/West” business. That’s not how I navigate in real life, and I think very few people navigate by cardinal directions.

JAKE: Right, most of the time. Well, Chicago is all a grid … but I didn’t use a compass.

IAN: You wouldn’t tell people “you have to go west three times.”

JAKE: I would! “Go three blocks west.”

IAN: That’s fair!

JAKE: No, I know what you mean. I’ve seen a few text adventures play with this. Like in “Winter Storm Draco” — it’s got this funny puzzle where you try to navigate using the cardinal directions, and it says “you don’t have a compass.” Then you have to build a compass before you’re allowed to navigate that way.

IAN: I liked that Counterfeit Monkey took the whole “imagining where you are in world-space” out of the equation with the presence of the map. It allows you to focus exclusively on the text and be more capable of picking out those objects that you might need to modify later.

JAKE: Great point. Did you get a chance to look at the source code at all? “The Inform source code for Counterfeit Monkey.

IAN: I poked around a bit — I don’t know how to write or read Inform so it was a bit confusing to read through.

JAKE: Yeah, same here. That language is so strange to me, it’s always a fun oddity to try to read. It’s a weird hybrid of english and logic. But it’s also so well commented, this code, that I found it an interesting companion to playing the game. It wasn’t too helpful in solving puzzles.

IAN: It did often suggest other possibilities to me, sort of parallel things to what I had done in the past. I could recognize “oh, I guess I could have done that as well to get to this point.” But not helpful solving a puzzle you’re stuck on.

JAKE: Right. It’s actually very systematic! I was trying to solve the puzzle in the bar, the contest where you have to make an item that meets certain criteria that other patrons shout out at you — like an improv game or something — and I was looking for a solution for that in the code. And I discovered that it was really a system — if they ask for something liquid, the code checks the “liquid” property on your item, it was like “Scribblenauts” or something. I was surprised.

IAN: That’s probably the most pleasurable part of this game. It promises that this whole thing will be systematized — and so many games make similar promises, I guess the classic is “see that mountain over there? you can go there!” but you actually can’t or you can but there’s nothing there or it’s just a billboarded sprite. But in Counterfeit Monkey it really feels as though you can modify every single thing in the world through this letter-remover. It’s just incredible that a person was able to achieve that with a game. It really is massive!

JAKE: Yeah, such an impressive and substantial piece of interactive fiction. Very cool to have gotten to spend so much time with it.

Thanks, Ian, for your time and the great chat!


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