a conversation with idlemurmurs • Eurogamer.net
“I think it’s a very rare thing to make a game or anything, really, to release it to the world and be able to come back to it not as a writer but maybe as a reader. “
Demi Schänzel is a researcher and game designer from Aotearoa, New Zealand, who advocates “compassionate design practices and digital kindness”. They are the creators of Library of Babble, one of the most extraordinary digital spaces I have ever explored.
In the library, visitors can read other people’s messages and leave their own – and they navigate a changing landscape in the sparkling colors of Miami cocktails. It was a real pleasure to chat with Demi over the past year and learn how the library came together.
Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you came to do things like Library of Babble?
Half Schänzel: So I feel like, compared to a lot of my peers in the field, I got into game design quite late. You know, early to mid-twenties. And before that, I was also always terrified of the prospect of programming. I knew I could never be a game designer, at least on this side of things I guess, because I knew I had no hopes in math and couldn’t program.
But I took a course as an undergraduate, which was kind of an introductory one, and I found it quite light and understandable. It really opened me up to that possibility. And then I spent a few years bouncing around in different companies as a UI designer, and I mostly did web design for a bunch of web companies and commerce sites.
And then a few years ago, I found myself in a position where I was sort of between jobs. And this offer came to the university for a scholarship for a postgraduate degree in English and new media. So basically the study of internet linguistics and software and how much language emerges online and how it evolves. And I accepted the offer. And that’s when I introduced them to the idea of Babble’s library.
Have you ever said that it was inspired by your first memories on the Internet?
Half Schänzel: Yeah. I mean, I came to the internet quite late. I am quite young, I am 27 years old. So my earliest memories are really like internet memories from the early 2000s. But I still have this very clear memory of jumping on the internet for the first time and just the untold promise of this idea of being able to go anywhere and discover anything, and to have everything available and free of charge.
You know, just go through websites and search for things, not maybe Google at this point, but Ask Jeeves or something similar. Just to see what’s out there, I think. And I’ve always really liked that idea. The kind of impenetrable mystery: that no matter what you find or discover, there’s always something else.
It seems that with Library of Babble you have found such an ideal way to represent this landscape in such a way that everyone who sees it seems to understand it innately or emotionally – they understand what the landscape means. Was it quite a challenge to put it all together?
Half Schänzel: I think where it is now is very different from where it started. But I’ve always been very drawn to the idea of cartography in a way. We present geography in two dimensions. And you have this really nice height line. So you have these kind of defined spaces on a map. Wouldn’t it be a really nice idea if you could get that depth and dimension? So that part of the design came together very quickly. Conceptually, at least – the technical aspects a bit longer perhaps. But I still really like the idea of traversing geography not based on landmarks, but just the sort of granular rise and fall of the landscape itself, I guess.
Did it take a long time to make sense of it? I’m always struck by the beauty of moving around Library of Babble. It’s one of the most enjoyable games to interact with. That particular floating scrolling feeling must have taken a long time?
Half Schänzel: Oh, it took a long time, I think it was something I was always tinkering with, you know. And overall, throughout the development process, it was more about making things slower and slower and slower. And just seeing how much I could really understand things, you know, in terms of how you move around the landscape and how the interface goes in and out. Seeing how far I could push, how gradually and slowly I can play the game while doing this experience without becoming bored or frustrated.
There’s a powerful sense of place in the game. Is there a moment in the design where you realize – oh, it turned into a real place?
Half Schänzel: You know, it’s funny. It happened less during the act of doing it, I think. When you’re involved in making something, no matter what it is, sometimes it’s hard to see exactly what you’re doing, isn’t it? Because you’re so involved in the process, you know. So for a really long time all I saw was all the things that couldn’t get into the game, or all the things that didn’t work or didn’t quite work the way I wanted, mostly last year and a half.
Every time I go back, though, I get that feeling. Now that the memories of creation have faded now. And now I’ve just kept this kind of space that now feels whole and complete, that it’s no longer made up of things that I can put in there, rather just…
Do you have the chance to see what you have actually done?
Half Schänzel: Yes really. Right before the interview, I actually started it, you know, for the first time in about six months. And it’s a really touching feeling. Enough time has passed now where it is: oh, I can see how others perceive this now. It’s not completely internal anymore. And it was really special.
Because that’s what I was going to ask you: what is your relationship with her now, and with the community she created? How do you feel when you come back? I think you answered that to be honest.
Half Schänzel: This is something that I really struggled to put into words. I think it’s a very rare thing to make a game or anything, really, to release it out into the world and be able to come back to it not as a writer but maybe as a reader.
And I think a lot of that is now there. Much of what the game is now is made up of what other people put into it. For me, I almost feel like the real thing I contributed to was the little space in the game itself and that’s the smallest part of what it is, you know. So it’s a really moving special feeling.
Do people still add things to it?
Half Schänzel: Yeah, a few posts here and there every week and it slows down a lot. But it’s good.
What kind of place do you think it is for people to write there?
Half Schänzel: Yeah, I’m not too sure. I mean, I will say that when I released it, I really had no idea what to expect. I think the language on the internet and the way we write on the internet, the way we converse, there’s kind of a fixed cadence now. So I was really worried at the time that it was just trolls and very evasive messages? I really imagined it initially as a space to tell stories. And that’s kind of what I expected is that people kind of write these stories – imaginary fables and such.
And now what I’ve found is an incredibly intimate and tender space. For example, I don’t think I’ve seen such writing on the internet before. And that’s a really special feeling. I think. It looks like a very vulnerable space.
So finally, what do you do now? Do you think next?
Half Schänzel: A little. You know, I still really love the notion of space and conversation. Every time I go back to that year, and try to somehow revisit what the core Library of Babble experience is, I don’t know how to change it, or what to do without creating something something profoundly different.
I think it really works most beautifully at its most abstract. And as soon as I kind of try to recreate experiences that are a bit more landscape and geography driven and as such, that also kind of falls apart. It kind of gets a bit too embodied in its own narrative and doesn’t really allow for that same level of self-expression.
But I’m working on a little thing – I guess you could sort of imagine it as a chat room, just a very, very small space, a seaside cafe accessed by a train. And you have the ability to meet about four or five aliens and just exist in space and talk with them.
And that’s something I’m experiencing right now. I love the kind of thing of being able to meet other people in settings outside of ourselves, you know, kind of allowing moments of intimacy and vulnerability. Just because it’s anonymous, there’s no way to identify anyone else, and there’s no way for them to identify you. I think that sometimes allows us to have conversations that we can leave in the wild, knowing that there won’t be any long-term repercussions.