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Twitter bot turns text adventures inventories into a sea of creativity
07.03.14

Twitter bot turns text adventures inventories into a sea of creativity

Do me a favor. Tweet the word "inventory" or just the letter "I," if you're daring, to the Twitter account @youarecarrying and see what happens. I'll wait.

What do you get? Here's what I got:

One can only wonder what I'll do with an antique sextant and a torque. (I know, so decadent.) But that's kind of the point. @YouAreCarrying is a "Dadaist cut-up" and the first bot ever created by Andrew Vestal, a Seattle-based project manager. He loved old Infocom games like Zork and Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy so much that he's collected the 1,396 in-game items from Infocom's 40+ game library into a single place and they're all waiting for distribution. You only need to ask.

Vestal joins the growing ranks of charitable botmakers who are breathing new automated life into our Internet lives. Unlike the bots that roam the darkness of the internet to pitch male enhancement products or upload every Google image onto a Zazzle t-shirt in hopes of sale, these bots are expressions, arguments, and amusements. There's Adam Parrish, whose @everyword account spat all 107,000 words in the English dictionary for more than seven years, and Darius Kazemi, the "John Cage of botmaking" who built one that orders him random things on Amazon.

In many ways, text adventure games and Twitter are a perfect match. Both are text-based forms of interaction, albeit ones more than two decades apart. Moreover, both are fueled by their own unique and arcane languages. Colossal Cave Adventure has the quintessential “get lamp”; Twitter has its own conventions like “d” and adding a period before an @ to broadcast an individual response to the world. “In many ways, Twitter does simulate the experience of talking to a [text adventure game] parser,” Vestal says. “It’s a small interactive loop.”

Initially, Vestal wanted to actually port games like Zork to Twitter in their entirety, but the 140-character limit and Twitter’s own throttling policies prevented duplicate tweets. “You couldn’t tap ‘go west’ two times in a row, which is kind of the point,” he says. So he opted for something more binary, but ultimately just as meaningful.

Rather than drawing you into its own world, @youarecarrying gives you a story universe all to itself. In old adventure games, items were the only thing that you had to navigate your universe. Everything that you collected (even the Jack Valenti bathmat from Hollywood Hijinx) had some designed use, and helped set the stage for us to think of inventories as purely utilitarian functions. Games, due to the lack of graphics at that time, were limited to what you had and how you could deploy it. What you have is what you do.

But “as computers get better at thinking like us and shaping our behavior,” Leon Neyfakh wrote, "they can also be rewired to spring us free.” @YouAreCarrying is proof of that maxim and replaces usefulness with creativity. Just as the Surrealists deployed the “Exquisite Corpse” to spark their imaginations, Vestal sees a similar purpose. “It helps kickstart people's imagination,” Vestal says. “How do I get to this point where I have an aspirin, a subatomic drive and the Elven sword of antiquity?”

There is no answer, but the indiscernibility is part of @YouAreCarrying’s mission. It’s a prompt to ponder and encourages one to solicit others for feedback. “People want to share what they’re carrying,” Vestal says. “It’s like opening up a present on Christmas day.” And what a strange and glorious Christmas that must be.