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Gel conference, May 2003, New York City

Something from Nothing: the Alchemy of Experience

Friday, March 14, 2003
by Mark Hurst

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Great creativity can come from great constraint. I've often found that interactive technologies, born under some heavy limitation, create a better experience than those applications enjoying much richer resources. That some innovators work better under pressure is interesting, but it's more than that.

What most amazes me is that such small amounts of raw material can be transformed into rich results. Call it "the alchemy of experience" - the creation of a unique, engaging experience out of almost nothing.

Much like the medieval alchemists who tried to create gold out of lead, some experience designers have ways of creating something from nothing.

Consider two examples from 1980s computer games:

1. Early console games created whole worlds, with multiple characters, sounds, actions, and levels, in just a few kilobytes. The blocky graphics were forced by the limitations in memory, but the game play was superior; much better than today's top-end games, in some cases.

2. Text-based computer games, like the old Infocom text adventures and Nethack, are great examples as well. Zork, listed below, creates an entire world in just 134 kilobytes. That's smaller than a single picture from your digital camera.

More recently the Web has brought about two fine examples of "experience alchemy" (both of which, incidentally, will have speakers at the Gel conference):

1. the5k contest ran annually a couple of times recently. The contest gave awards to the best experiences created in under five kilobytes. (That's less than half the size of a typical Good Experience newsletter.) Animations, interactive art exhibits, e-commerce prototypes, even a 3d game - all fit into five kilobytes.

Find last year's winners here.

the5k's founder, Stewart Butterfield, will be speaking at the Gel conference on May 2. His ideas behind the contest, and philosophies about small numbers of bits, are themselves a rich experience that I knew I wanted at the conference.

2. explodingdog: Cartoonist Sam Brown takes random phrases e-mailed to him from complete strangers, and draws those phrases. There's no memory constraint here, as in the5k, but there's still some strange alchemy: Sam takes otherwise meaningless or context-free phrases and turns them into drawings that suddenly make sense. The drawings, populated by simple stick figures and line drawings, are strangely affecting. You'll know it when you see it. (He'll also speak at the Gel conference.)

not as small as you think

are you broken?

wrong turn

explodingdog home

Writing about enormous constraints brings me back to the drive I took through the desert last year.

About a year ago I stopped in at Death Valley National Park, in southeast California. The park contains the lowest elevation in the western hemisphere, a salt flat called Badwater. When I got there, I parked the car and walked over a mile into the middle of the salt flat, the ground nothing but white salt, bleached by countless hours in the daily furnace of sunlight, accentuated only by small ridges of salt, as though the ground were the icing on top of a wedding cake.

I sat down on the salt and meditated on my surroundings. I was probably the only living creature within a mile. No people, no birds, no insects. What can survive in such a place? Yet somehow it was there that I achieved some unique clarity. This totally quiet, motionless part of the world - this nothing - was itself a tangible, real experience that I've reflected on many times since.

This was in great contrast to Las Vegas, which I visited soon after. Badwater is upfront in its emptiness, yet the visitor experiences something real. Las Vegas, on the other hand, pretends that something *is* there, which belies the fact that there's nothing there at all... not even the austere beauty of an empty salt flat.


History of alchemy

The old Atari 2600 games live on, played on various freeware emulators

Intellivision has a CD out called Intellivision Lives.

Zork, perhaps the most famous text adventure, is a free download.

Nethack home page (this great game deserves its own essay, which I'll get to some other time):

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