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In a dazzling duet Will Wright and Brian Eno gave an intense clinic on the joys and techniques of “generative” creation.
Back in the 1970s both speakers got hooked by cellular automata such as Conway’s “Game of Life,” where just a few simple rules could unleash profoundly unpredictable and infinitely varied dynamic patterns. Cellular automata were the secret ingredient of Wright’s genre-busting computer game “SimCity” in 1989. Eno was additionally inspired by Steve Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain,” in which two identical 1.8 second tape loops beat against each other out of phase for a riveting 20 minutes. That idea led to Eno’s “Music for Airports” (1978), and the genre he named “ambient music” was born.
Wright observed that science is all about compressing reality to minimal rule sets, but generative creation goes the opposite direction. You look for a combination of the fewest rules that can generate a whole complex world that will always surprise you, yet within a framework that stays recognizable. “It’s not engineering and design,” he said, “so much as it is gardening. You plant seeds. Richard Dawkins says that a willow seed has only about 800K of data in it.”
Eno noted that ambient music, unlike “narrative” music with a beginning, middle, and end, presents a steady state. “It’s more like watching a river.” Wright said he often uses Eno’s music to work to because it gets him in a productive trancelike state. Eno remarked that it’s important to keep reducing what the music attempts, and one way he does that is compose everything at double the speed it will be released. Slowing it down reduces its busyness. Wright: “How about an album of the fast versions?” Eno: “‘Amphetamine Ambient.’”
“These generative forms depend very much on the user actively making connections,” Eno said. “In my art installations I always have sound and light elements that are completely unsynchronized, and people always assume that they are tightly synchronized. The synchronization occurs in them. ”
With Eno noodling some live background music, Will Wright gave a demo of his game-in-progress, “Spore.” It compresses 3.5 billion years of evolution into a few hours or days of game play, where the levels are Cell, Creature, Tribe, City, Civilization, Space.” The game has potent editing tools, so that 30 mouse clicks can build a unique beautiful creature that would take weeks of normal computer generation, complete with breathing, eye blinks, and shrieks. The computer generates a related set of other creatures to meet— some to eat, some to avoid. Socialization begins, mating, then babies (using a “neonatal algorithm”), and on to tribes and cities with amazing buildings and vehicles the user designs. “You encounter civilizations built by other players, but the players don’t have to be there for the civilizations to be alive and responsive.”
Wright launched his civilization into space, having first abducted some creatures to plant on other planets for terraforming projects. The computer presented him an infinite variety of planets, some already occupied. Wright: “Oops. I seem to have inadvertently started an interplanetary war here.” Eno: “Like America.”
Building models, said Wright, is what we do in computer games, and it’s what we do in life. First it’s models of how the world works, then it’s models of how other humans work. A significant new element in computer games is the profound command, “Restart.” You get to explore other paths to take in the same situation. Eno: “That’s what we do with everything I call culture, everything not really necessary, from how we wear our hair to how we decorate a cupcake. We try something, surrender to it, and are encouraged to imagine what else might be tried.”
It’s interesting that just one verb is used both for music and for games: “play.”
PS. For Eno’s website for making your own version of his album with David Byrne, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, ” go to: http://bushofghosts.wmg.com/home.php. For a glimpse of his new show, “77 Million Paintings by Brian Eno,” soon to be fully online, see: http://markal.org/77_Million_Slideshow/. For a full Wikipedia article on Wright’s “Spore,” with lively links, check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spore_(game)-- by Stewart Brand