Retrospective: Galatea (2000)

No critic has ever admitted that Galatea is the primary problem, and Galatea only secondary. Galatea the game is a wonderfully complex cuckoo clock whose cuckoo never comes out at the right moment. Galatea the character is a stolid, humourless woman whose conversation gives new meaning to the phrase “stone brain.” The reason why critics have overlooked the character and focused on the game is partly because decision trees are much easier to discuss and analyze than literary dialogue and partly because Galatea is such a bland and harmless creature she will never rise to the level of insulting your aesthetic sensibility. She may – if you make the mistake of taking her seriously – insult your intelligence, but then people are by now pretty much used to having their intelligence insulted by IF.

Galatea is based on the Pygmalion myth. Pygmalion was a sculptor of such brilliance, one of his sculptures literally came to life. To base a work of IF on this particular concept is an ambitious endeavor, to say the least. Some might call it presumptuous. The woman who calls herself “Emily Short” is emulating an artist capable of infusing dead matter with life, hoping to achieve with decision tree and dialogue what he accomplished with chisel and mallet. Now, those of you who know me, know that I rarely make fun of people’s names. Since “Emily” has in the past made fun of my ethnic and religious background (I’m a Jew) as well as speculated on my sexual mores, I feel entitled to a pun. Short falls short of her ambition. She falls short because the woman who gave us the following exchange

“Buy a map.”

has no dramatic sense whatsoever. Galatea fails not because its decision tree is flawed or because its algorithms are broken, but because Galatea has nothing worthwhile to say. She is bland, evasive and brusque, and the sentiments that issue from her mouth are full of platitudes puffed up with stilted diction to appear universal and profound. Short’s Galatea is to the mind what silicon is to a bimbo. Your head will feel positively inflated with grandiloquent banalities.

We are the cognitive ceilings of our creations. We can never create a character more intelligent, or more witty, or more eloquent than ourselves. This trivial fact has never been more sadly exemplified than by the infamous “food ending” of Galatea. If you ask her about food in the exact right sequence, she will step down from her pedestal (presumably giving up her immortality) and start munching at the buffe. Here we can see the reason for Galatea’s aesthetic failure as well as the source of Galatea’s pig-like intelligence: the limits of a character’s cognizance will always reflect the limits of its creator’s imagination.

Galatea is not intended as a monolithic character. Rather she is a mirror whose reflected image is distorted by the player’s interactions and expectations. That flippant response to the player’s request for information about Greece may not be the soul of drama, yet it does serve notice that he is doing something wrong.

Even if Galatea is at times bland, evasive and brusque, you must admit that those are traits that ordinary people display. She is in that respect more human than the typical IF character before or since.

Erm… I’m sorry for butting in, I didn’t really mean to reply to this, and it’ll be a bit off-topic, but…

…are you serious? You control the net activities of your family - your wife? (a daughter I could understand). Am I the only person to whom that feels just plain wrong?

You are not. The phrase “This is the only Internet forum I allow my wife …” is an alarming and nauseating one, even from Pudlo.

Maybe your observation is valid, Jacek, but you’re not offering anything that can really be addressed in a meaningful sense. I would note your pointlessly inflammatory tone and insolent flourishes, but they’re incidental. The main problem is this: you neither define a problem nor offer a useful alternative.

For instance, had this paragraph been cut in its entirety, your post would have been the stronger for it. True, you make authoritative statements, but for them to be more than random noise you need to support them. Yet you provide no analysis, no mechanisms, no conclusions, and certainly no insight as far as IF goes.

Yet others might not. This is a strikingly banal attempt at covering up an insult, and it fails due to the inadequate nature of its camouflage. It tries to look as if it wants to say something beyond “Emily Short thinks she’s hot shit and I think her work is boring,” but that is really the thrust of the argument, such as it is.

That’s quite the bold statement. On the face of it, I can’t see its validity. While any game should be able to rest on its own merits, I fail to see why that quote could not constitute an artistic choice or a calculated effect. According to you, that one sentence establishes not that the work is flawed… but that its author is, and irrevocably so. Coupled with your frank admission of pursuing a vendetta (which should not interest anyone on this forum, but is nonetheless illuminating), your purpose here is pretty damn obvious.

The rest of your post is odd. Jacek – and I’m being perfectly honest here – why do you insist on attacking qualities in others that are far more pronounced in yourself?

Nonsense. Fictional characters can easily be more intelligent, witty, and eloquent than the author. For starters, the author can take full advantage of luxuries such as extended consideration, deliberate research, and refinement of the copy to achieve dialogue and decision-making that the author could never achieve (or at least, could never achieve with the speed, grace, or facility granted the fictional character).

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Are you sure? Because I’m pretty sure Conan Doyle could have have chosen to solve murders and thefts, but being sort of sociopathic, neglected those fine mental talents to merely write about someone super intelligent. Jerk.

Probably so. The decision to make a character more or less capable than one’s self remains a choice, even for sociopaths :slight_smile:

That’s over and done with. What we really should fear is people like Iain M. Banks, who in his novels depicts (convincingly) sentient AIs with supernormal IQ and planet-cracking weaponry.

Banks is a Scotsman. We must assume he’s already armed, possibly with nuclear weapons.

A useful alternative being what exactly? Asking “Emily” for the source code and rewriting the entire game? My point is that Galatea deserves to be approached as a literary work for the simple reason that it has literary ambition. And when approached in this way, the game exhibits modest literary merit, to put it mildly.

I suppose I could present the jury with exhibit A followed by exhibit B and C, only this could easily get tiresome. What I’m going to do instead is offer you a set of keywords you can feed Galatea yourself. Art. Love. Life. Death. Sex. Do any of Galatea’s responses strike you as interesting? Did you enjoy the prose? The jerky, stilted diction? The absolute humourlessness?

Do you ever read literary magazines? Dale Peck, Norman Mailer, Ezra Pound, David Foster Wallace. Do these names mean anything to you? I’m beginning to suspect that this is not so much a case of oversensitivity, but rather cultural escapism. And by that I don’t mean escapism from the brutal centres of literary power, but more like escapism from reality. Just to give you a taste of what literary criticism normally looks like in the real world, here’s Laura Miller’s review of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Diary.

Also, check out what David Foster Wallace wrote about John Updike’s The End of Time and Dale Peck’s review of Rick Moody’s The Black Veil.

Oh, and I strongly advise you against reading any review or essay by Norman Mailer or Ezra Pound. If you think I’m insulting, these guys will blow your fuse.

The quality of your work reflects on you as an author, just as the quality of your behaviour reflects on you as a human being.

I suppose I should have elaborated more on that example. The problem with this particular response is that it occurs invariably whenever the game recognises a geographical reference. As you have pointed out, Galatea adapts to the PC’s behaviour changing her mood as the conversation progresses. But no matter how chummy you get with her, she’ll always give you that flippant response to any geographical query. This is just one of many inelastic aspects of her malleability, which is why the mimesis wears thin from the very beginning and you begin to treat her more like a scriptoid than a character.

It’s true that fiction often concerns itself with bland and boring people, but the artistic rendition of these people is never supposed to be bland and boring. A good writer is supposed to be able to write interestingly about uninteresting people.

What’s so strange about wanting to protect the people you love from the excess and vulgarity of modern mass culture?

If you’re daughter’s young enough, then yeah, I understand wanting to protect her from some things. But an adult? Doesn’t she have a mind of her own? Can’t she see for herself what’s excess and vulgarity? Isn’t she intelligent or emotionally stable enough to take a look at, say, Madoxx’s blogs about suicide and realize at once it’s not actually a plea to actually commit it?

But the thing that bugs me most about it is that you’re controlling, filtering, what she sees. She’s another human being. She has the power of choice. Unless she chooses to, in which case I respectfully withdraw from this conversation and keep my opinions to myself, she is not subordinate to your own choices, your own views of what’s “excess” and “vulgarity” and even “mass culture”. It scares me that in this day and age anyone could even think of doing that.

Actually, I just tried them on, and I thank you for it. It made me really interested in the game. I had only briefly toyed with it, but those responses fleshed out the character in such a way that I’m now compelled to see more. Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s crap, you know. Maybe choosing what your family gets to watch and experience makes you believe you’re the purveyor of all knowledge, and what you like is law. Well, tough luck. I loved Galatea’s responses to those keywords. And since you like dropping names, and since I just know that you’re going to start talking about my lack of culture, here’s a couple of books I’ve recently read and loved and cherish: Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, Dicken’s The Christmas Books, The Pickwick Papers, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Turn of the Screw, a Sherlock Holmes complete collection and the entire works of Samuel Beckett and Edgar Allan Poe.

I swear, name-dropping like this makes me sick. Makes me feel I’m descending to your level. But I’ll be damned if I’ll let you insult the intelligence and sensibilities of everyone who doesn’t agree with you on the basis of a pretence of a higher cultural ground.

Nope. I’d be even more put off if it weren’t obvious from the entire post that “Jacek” is just trying to jump belatedly onto last week’s internet misogyny bandwagon, though.

People, please. This is Pudlo. Making up provocative stuff and watching the flames grow is his shtick. There’s nothing to be won with arguments because these are not his actual opinions. They are carefully crafted just to provoke a response.

The more you respond, the more he keeps playing the game. If you ignore him, he goes away. We had such a nice forum here, please don’t turn it into a copy of R*IF by letting the trolls win.

what a lamer…

we also know you don’t have a wife, Mr. Pharaoh…

Ah, thanks for pointing it out. It did seem forced, now that you mention it.

I’m grateful for the sentiment, but it’s not necessary. I guess, given the awkwardness of it all, I can’t see a way to take real offence. Still, Juhana rightly points out the principle of Don’t Feed the Troll. I see no point in acknowledging Pudlo’s existence, which is why I’m simply going to forget him.

Ah well. Time for a sandwich, methinks.

That was worth a chuckle, at least. And asking her about love twice yields a comment about her “pathetic database” which I think is fair to interpret as an authorial intrusion. In the narrator’s voice it is a cynical remark; from Short herself it might be construed as a wistful apology. I find that contrast interesting.

It suggests that she is all too aware of the problems you have highlighted, especially in light of a title that cannot fail to suggest hubris to an educated reader. It invites the player to consider whether this constrained and clumsy character might yet deserve to be taken seriously, within the work and in the larger community. Should Galatea the character be condemned because she fails to rise to the ideal of the Pygmalion myth, or can some measure of merit be found amid her flaws?

The story as a whole felt deeply conflicted to me. What artist hasn’t felt the desire to create something beautiful, known the despair of falling short? There are no easy solutions or platitudes buried within the work. It offers a space for a like-minded player to interact with the joy and grief of the creative process. That may be all, but it is no mean feat.

I do have to hand it to you, though. Finding fault with a writer and criticizing her story about an art critic who criticizes a sculpture and finds fault with her creator could easily descend into recursive irony, and yet your arguments have been sharp and straightforward. But in this case I think Emily has beaten you to it. If anything you are giving her more credit than she appears to claim.

Spot on :slight_smile:

There are certainly plenty of saving clauses in Galatea. One of the more amusing ones is Galatea announcing that she has the brain of a child. That’s an odd thing to say, especially if you happen to have the brain of a child. What is even odder is that she says this with the syntax and vocabulary of an educated adult. Apparently, psychological mimesis was never something the author considered. But if this is not a mimetic work, what is it? It is explicitly based on a myth that takes mimesis to the Sublime, showing us a work of art that not only reflects nature but becomes nature. “Emily Short” either failed to understand the myth, or hoped that the yokels who play her games would fail to understand it. If the latter is the case, her players have not disappointed her expectations.

You made my wife laugh and I thank you for that. How odd, by the way, that you should equate excess and vulgarity with suicide. There is nothing inherently vulgar about suicide. Under the right circumstances, self-destruction can be noble and courageous.

You obviously don’t mind living in a world pervaded by feminine virtues, where sensitivity is more important than truth, security more precious than courage and where the freedom to destroy your soul is deemed more attractive than the honesty and discipline to cultivate it. This very thread is an apt example of feminine virtues at work. My critique of Galatea was deemed inappropriate not because my conclusions were untrue, but because they were unsensitive of the author’s feelings.

Unlike a certain president who had sex with everyone except his wife, I’m a wifefucker. I fuck my wife and no one but my wife and I’m proud of that. It is a strange world that accepts a philandering president but questions a husband’s devotion to his wife.

You can bring a man to the Sistine Chapel, but you can’t force him to discern beauty. If you honestly believe that “Emily Short” is the equal of Melville and Beckett, there is nothing I can do for you.

You’ve just defined “conversation.” Oh, and I’m curious, how do you know my actual opinions? Do you see them in a crystal ball, or is it just plain old telepathy?

Oscar Wilde reborn!

I’m amused by how many of you find me intimidating.

are they laughing now too, mormon? Are you maintaining your virtual wives and kids under drugs?

what a lamer…

I see. One could look at a more successful retelling of the myth - say, Shelley’s Frankenstein - and conclude that it shows us the same thing, except nature has become debased and cruel. Or Powers’ Galatea 2.2, where the bleakness of nature must be hidden behind artifice and obsession to be endured.

I agree that it is difficult to situate Short’s Galatea within that tradition and come away with a sense that she has contributed anything of enduring literary merit. Nature is not sparsely implemented and inconsistent by turns, as her Galatea is. What would that even mean?

However, the myth presupposes that the creator succeeds. Short has very deliberately and explicitly rejected that premise. Whatever her purpose, it is not to retell or subvert the original myth. Arguably her statement is that works of IF cannot truly reflect nature but should try nevertheless. This is not the stuff of timeless poetry or Shakespearean drama but it is relevant, ambitious, and personal in its own right. That is worthwhile and it may be all any artist can achieve nowadays.