Words with Strangers: Playing ‘Hefty Seamstress’

"I'm no genius": Hefty Seamstress

George Buckenham is a talented videogame developer based in London. I first met him at a party, and then I met him a second time at a brunch I was not even meant to attend (I encouraged everyone at the table to pretend I wasn’t there). I had been drinking a lot of mimosas, too—did you know they’re called “Buck’s Fizz” over in England?—and finally I gave Mr. Buckenham half my breakfast because I had become too woozy and boozy to finish eating it. This is probably the worst way to introduce yourself, to ask the stranger next to you to please finish your food for you; still, George accepted my gift of a half-eaten breakfast burrito with gusto, and I felt an immediate camaraderie.

Buckenham, together with a designer named Jonathan Whiting, made a game called Hefty Seamstress way back in February, and I’ve only just learned about it. Hefty Seamstress is the product of a “game jam,” where people convene (over a single weekend, say) to make games as quickly as they can. In this case Buckenham and Whiting made a type of word game: some unholy cross between an exquisite corpse and a hypertext experiment, and with the word salad verve of flarf. (“Flarf?” George asked me. “Flarf,” I repeated, without explaining.)

After I’d spent a few minutes with Hefty Seamstress I excitedly told George about Acrophobia. The word game was already popular in IRC channels when a full multiplayer version arrived in 1997 (“when you were about 10,” I wryly warned George).

In Acrophobia, players are given a series of letters—which is to say, a randomly-generated acronym—and players submit possible “backronym” phrases. Each round is timed and scored. I have attempted, with some success, to play this game at a table with friends using pen and paper, a timer, Scrabble tiles, and beer, lots of beer. (The effect was not too different from Ghost or Apples to Apples.)

At its outset, Hefty Seamstress uses much the same idea as Acrophobia. This time, though, the game begins with a nonsense sentence, “You ogre! Unhand that hefty seamstress!” If you click on “ogre,” you’ll see that somebody has already supplied a new phrase: “or go roughhouse elsewhere.” Clicking on the word “go” takes you to a directive, “get off.” Clicking on “off” takes you to the lament “oh fizzy frenchmen.”

If you click for any length of time, of course, you’ll soon arrive at a wall. Instead of being given a sentence made of hyperlinks, you’ll reach a blank field, primed for your stroke of genius. What’s a good backronym for the word “mountain”? you wonder, drumming your fingers lightly against your laptop’s keys.

Meanwhile, weirder games—games bound by their players’ own unspoken rules—eventually emerge. For instance, in one part of Seamstress‘s branching “tree,” somebody has cruelly loaded the game with the absolute longest words he could devise, simply to challenge (or torture!) fellow players.

Elsewhere in the tree, clicking on the word “recipes” takes you to the following catalogue: “risotto, enchiladas, chili, ice-cream, pancakes, eclairs, soup.” If you choose the first term, “risotto,” you uncover this phrase: “Rice in stock, oregano, thyme; tomatoes optional.” (If you click on “enchiladas” instead, you’ll find one of my own contributions, “Employ nacho, cheddar, habanero. Impetrate lard, and deep-fry. Audaciously serve.”)

It was inexplicably important for me, as a player, to supply this rudimentary, not-altogether-accurate enchilada recipe; to add it, though, I realized I first needed to recall the “route” to the word “enchiladas.” The route, which I have since memorized, is:

ogre > roughhouse > underling > licorice > regimes > recipes > enchiladas

This is the most interesting thing about Hefty Seamstress: words are not only paths, but destinations. If every sentence were a level in a dungeon game, every word would be a single room. (Small surprise, then, that co-designer Jonathan Whiting's favorite game is Nethack.)

George also programmed a Twitter bot that tweets Hefty Seamstress's submissions, but it's limited to broadcasting only one submission a day. George marveled at the strangeness of this, to have an automated Twitter account that already---even at this early juncture---has four years' material to spit out. "And the early test submissions are all mine," George sighs, "so in four years it's going to finally get interesting."

Hefty Seamstress.

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