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
Much like the medieval alchemists who tried to create gold out of
lead, some experience designers have ways of creating something
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?
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
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
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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