Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Alchemy: can an app make art?

I've talked a bit about the dream of making a real-world version of Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game.  The goal of this game is essentially to make art out of art... and out of science, and just about anything else.

In order to juxtapose and transform ideas of all kinds, one needs a common language.  Hesse was vague about the symbols and glyphs he imagined the Game Players using (i.e., definitely not literal beads!), but he knew the game's "language" had to be able to describe just about anything:
"A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts. Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game's symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature. Experts and Masters of the Game freely wove the initial theme into unlimited combinations."

Some modern-day Game designers have tried to punt on this issue in a clever way.  In our internetworked age, don't we already have a universal language?  Consider computerized 1's and 0's:  they can be combined to form ASCII characters, or full-color bitmapped JPGs, or nice-sounding MP3's.  Any existing work of art or scientific theorem can be reproduced with just the right combination of on's and off's.

That may be the practical answer, but it doesn't seem like the most elegant one.  I guess I'm still hearing the same inner voices that compelled Leibniz and Wilkins back in the 1600s.  Couldn't there be a universal way of more directly symbolizing all the disparate ideas that the human mind can dream up?

The reason I'm writing this post is that I've come across something kind of new (but also kind of ancient) that has me thinking more about this issue.  Insight has come from an Android app!

Someone named Andrey "Zed" Zaikin created Alchemy, a game in which
"You have only four basic elements: Fire, Water, Earth and Air. Combine them and their products to get more than 300 new elements. You can create a Life, Beer, Vampires, Skyscrapers and much more."
(Note: this post is not an advertisement.  Although I've searched for many details about this game, I haven't yet downloaded or played it.  I can't vouch for the product itself.)

It's such a simple concept, but it's a fantastic example of building an ontology of ideas out of just 4 fundamental concepts.  At the risk of "spoilers," let me just give a few examples of the successive build-up of complexity that it allows:

lava = earth + fire
stone = lava + air
sand = stone + air
beach = sand + water

Of course, you can eventually get to Gold -- as well as Yoda, Batman, and the Kama Sutra -- but I won't say how.

However, I'm not quite sure where to go from here.  (I guess I say that a lot in these kinds of posts!)  I'd pay good money for a dictionary of thousands of concepts, each constructed in the above way.  Especially if those concepts included the basics of music theory, narrative tension, postulates of pure math, foundations of modern science, and so on!  Am I up for writing such a thing myself?  Probably not...

...barring any future thunderbolts of polyfugual enlightenment, of course!  :-)


  1. This app sounds interesting... And dangerously addictive!

    1. I installed it after writing this post. I've "made" 84 out of the 390 possible things so far. :-)

    2. Obviously, I had to try it, too! I'm at 33/390.

    3. It's cute. I'm finding myself kind of played out already, though. The most progress I made was by inadvertently stumbling my way along, then soon forgetting how I made something. Everything you make once is available thereafter, so there's no real incentive to remember.

    4. I feel the same. I feel like a genius when I find a winning combination but... then what?