IF Comp 2015: Growbotics

growboticsGrowbotics is a digital toy about creating things. It’s one of those games (like, say, Doodle God) which has a combine-elements crafting-system as the central mechanic. You start with some atomic Essences, combine them to form secondary ones, and then combine primary and secondary essences in three-way matches to produce a final result. There’s a thin fictional veneer over this – you’re operating some kind of machine in some sort of workspace, the details of which can vary considerably. But this is an aesthetic gloss: you’re aiming to explore making things for its own sake, not because of any fictional motivation or purpose.

Growbotics is made considerably more awkward because the majority of combinations don’t produce anything, so randomly plugging things in can start to feel unrewarding fairly quickly. This feels as though the author didn’t anticipate what a huge job it’d be to make products for so many possible combinations. The usual solution to that is to reduce the breadth of your inputs – and that sort of happens, but it doesn’t make all that huge a difference. The three-part combination has some restricted grammar, but that isn’t enforced by the UI. There’s a point at which you can reduce the twenty or so primary essences to a more manageable four, but this still leaves a lot of the world empty.


Aww, I wanted a pair of nice headphones and I got *this*?

The difference between this and the sort of tinkering you do in, e.g., Counterfeit Monkey is that when it does work, there’s no reasonable way to predict the results. You’re playing a slot machine, really: once you’ve got a product, you can usually trace the author’s train of thought connecting the essences to the final result, sort of. But there’s no way to predict that line of association ahead of time – and the combination could just as easily have produced a dozen different things. Combining Touch with itself produces Pain – but it could just as easily have produced intimacy, or stimulus, or proprioception, or texture.

When you get to the final results, they’re sort of weird – sometimes they’re abstract concepts, sometimes physical artefacts like headphones or sequinned shirts. Again, there doesn’t appear to be any system underlying this other than the author’s free association; it’s interesting to see what unexpected thing will come out, but there’s no way to influence it.

This is inherently a difficult thing to consider as interactive fiction, because it’s… not really very interested in core elements of fiction like, say, narrative or character. It does have a progression between beginning and end, and moments of exploring the system that are presented in narrative ways (at first the range of primary essences can be intimidatingly large, but you can reset the machine to reduce it to a more manageable, closely-related number). And its opening and conclusion position it as a story about the satisfaction of the creative process. But… hm. This didn’t really work for me, because there wasn’t any inventiveness involved on my part. It feels odd to be congratulated for creativity when what you’ve really done is to plug in some random combinations of things to see if the author had come up with anything for that.

There are other games that deliver this kind of play in a more structured manner. In Scribblenauts, your ‘creation’ is really just searching a database of concepts to see if the authors implemented that: but you have to imagine a final result. You have to think of a final result before you get it, and the stuff that you make does things in the outside world. Growbotics is much closer to Doodle God, where combination really only exists for the sake of more combinations, and isn’t always hugely predictable – but Doodle God has a much stronger sense of progression, with a familiar arc from basic elements, to life, to the march of human civilisation. There are lots of little sub-goals. Things are arranged in themed sets which you unlock and then try to complete; you can guess about what sorts of things a set might be likely to contain, and then try to figure out what combination might produce that kind of thing. Growbotics has a little bit of structure – the three stages of primary essence, secondary essence, and final product; the distinction between binary and trinary combination – but it’s not enough to hang any guesses on, or to create any direction.

The other difference between this and Doodle God is about its atoms. Doodle God begins from the classical four elements: its world is constructed from matter. In Growbiotics the order of things begins from experiential qualities. This produces a very different kind of aesthetic – and one which is a lot more abstract and indefinite. The three-part combination takes inputs that sound like the ramblings of a California spiritualist or management / self-help guru, all ‘liquid mind energy’ and ‘belief identity connection’.

Before I started playing Growbotics I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was meant to straightforwardly deliver what was promised, or a pastiche of the kind of tech startup that makes audacious and vague promises about its disruptive vision in identikit websites. Afterwards… I’m still not entirely sure. I don’t think so, but the framing – not just in terms of a machine, but of a company that produces this machine and makes promises about it – still feels weird. I guess what I’m getting at is that there were lots of small things about the experience – the experience-first ontology, the self-boosting-corporate framing – that gave the whole thing an aroma of snake-oil.

I don’t really know what I’m scoring this one. As far as personal experience goes, it was interesting, but not really fun or satisfying. I’m not sure how well it succeeds on its own terms because I’m still a bit confused about what those terms are. To take it most straightforwardly, though, as a fun little crafting-mechanic toy, it falls short because it creates too vast a number of combination possibilities, and then implements a result for too few of them.

And taken on its most straightforward thematic level – as a representation of creative process – it’s still not very satisfying. Here’s its account of creativity: the creator selects a set of influences, without any particular goal in mind; either a miracle occurs or it doesn’t; if it did, you immediately have a cool and surprising new thing. Or, as an arc of play: small initial successes – lots of fruitless frustration – breakthrough! – reject or accept – end.

Compare to how a more orthodox game – say, Aquaria – presents, for instance, a combine-the-ingredients cooking mechanic. Few such games are all that interested in the process of cooking: they handwave it, treat it as a black-box function. Whatever goes on inside isn’t really what that cooking is about – the game doesn’t exactly suggest that it’s all the same, or deny that in the real world this is a much more complicated thing – it’s just that the game isn’t really very interested in what precisely happens in the kitchen. Rather, this mechanic presents the meaning and aesthetic of cooking as all about its context – the provenance of rare or exotic ingredients, the use, value and novelty of the final product.

But in Growbotics there is no context: your creations don’t consume other resources, or serve further purposes, or signify anything about their worlds. This is not a work where it makes sense to say ‘yeah, there’s a creative process that happens here, but we’re going to skip over that because it’s complicated and that’s not really what crafting is for in this game.’

So, I don’t know if I’m overreading here, but perhaps the point you’re meant to reach in Growbotics is a rejection of the implicit promise of the machine. (But that’s a bigger topic than I can really get into here, because ‘creativity machines’ could potentially describe such a broad range of stuff.)

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5 Responses to IF Comp 2015: Growbotics

  1. sojournerstrange says:

    Okay, that’s the weird thing though — my first playthrough I did NOT have experiential qualities as my four basic essences. I had, um… let me remember… space, energy, liquid, solid. So not quite “four classic elements of matter”, but still kind of 3/4 on the “matter” thing if you count energy as a form of matter or however the physics of that goes, I dunno. Then on the second try it was the touch and so forth that you also got. I have no idea what caused this difference, though?

    • Did you pick different things in the initial setup – like a library vs. a secret lab, for example? I also got two different sets of things in different playthroughs and attributed it to my earlier choices – but maybe it was just random.

      • sojournerstrange says:

        I did pick different things — the first time was some kind of necromancery bone machine in an ice cream truck, and the second time was some kind of electronic thing in a virtual world. (I also did other different things, such as exasperating the initial setup-picker by saying no to everything until it gave me a manually customizable thing, or reading/not reading the manual at first.)

      • I never ran a really controlled experiment, where I changed only one thing between playthroughs, so it’s really just speculation on my part that that had an effect. I only ever got two different sets of four choices.

  2. You really hit how I felt about this game, too. Not being able to predict what I would get made this not a creative experience for me.

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