Jonathan Safran Foer – and you can tell by the name that what he does next is ever so arty and hip – took his favourite short story and cut holes into it. By cutting out words from the pages he carved out the new story of Tree of Codes from the old The Street of Crocodiles.
Tree of Codes is the sort of academic exercise, a combination of pedantic and obsessive, that immediately appeals to me. I love anything that plays with the form as well as the content: jokes about jokes, stories within stories, that sort of thing. My creativity is born out of imposed limitations, a subtractive synthesis, that fills the blank page first with conditions which must be met in order to lead me down a creative path previously hidden in all the white. Out of these rules comes something new, sometimes, occasionally, at least when I can be bothered to do so.
Restricted by the original prose, the vocabulary and order, how much do you need to take away from something known before it becomes something other?
ROM CHECK FAIL is a warbled mix tape of arcade classics. It’s a random game generator where the character, enemies and levels are sourced from enough iconic franchises to unite the major video game corporations in a single lawsuit. Every few seconds the slot machine’s arm is yanked and the spinning cylinders lock into some new glitched combination: playing as Link against space invaders in the Mushroom Kingdom; ZZ9i2083fff; playing as Pac-Man against goombas atop a racing highway; ZZ3966ddZZffff; playing as Defender’s jet against Gauntlet’s ghouls in Alleyway.
In its own way, ROM CHECK FAIL exposes the powerful consequences of simple decisions: perspective and the flow of gravity; orientation and range of effect; all juxtaposed to chip-tune jazz. Within its own stilted ecosystem a hierarchy emerges with Link’s freedom of movement prevailing over the lowly ship from Space Invaders. With the exception of the blocks from Alleyway, all predators are pretty deadly though none induce the same blood-chilling horror of the bouncing red balls or the spectral lines which I frequently mistake for the old Windows 95 screensaver.
Ultimately it’s the reaction test of your nostalgia and finger-muscle memory to respond to the constant shifts in rules and threats that elevates ROM CHECK FAIL from academic arbitrariness or quick-mod-just-because. Like Tree of Codes, or any found objects work I suppose, it successfully tells a new story though you might need to fill in some of the holes for yourself.
I wonder if I wrote into the gaps of Tree of Codes whether I’d be able to create something close to The Street of Crocodiles? Obviously I won’t because I’m not that deranged. The developer of ROM CHECK FAIL, Farbs (of farbs.org and @FarbsMcFarbs) has released the source code for others to expand freely on his concept. Though obviously I won’t because I’m not that deranged and I can’t code.