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The back story on Glitch's back stories

It took Tiny Speck--which announced what it was working on Tuesday--many months to decide what the official back story for its new game was. But before the final version, it considered many options.

Glitch, from Tiny Speck, takes place inside the imaginations of 11 ancient giants. But it took the company months to settle on the back story behind the game.
Tiny Speck

On Tuesday, as reported first by CNET, Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield's start-up Tiny Speck announced its new online social game, Glitch.

As described on, "It's called Glitch because in the far-distant and totally-perfect future, the world starts becoming less and less probable, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and there occurs what comes to be called the 'glitch'--a grave danger of disemprobablization. This results in a time-traveling effort at saving the future, going back into the minds of eleven great giants walking sacred paths on a barren asteroid who sing and think and hum the world into existence."

That back story, of course, is concise and very much to the point. But during the 11 months since Butterfield, along with fellow Flickr veterans Cal Henderson, Serguei Mourachov and Eric Costello started Tiny Speck, it took a great deal of work to focus on such a clear narrative.

And to be sure, since it is only now going into private alpha, Glitch still has months of testing before it is launched publicly. That means that the back story could change even more.

Since last May, CNET's Daniel Terdiman was behind-the-scenes with Tiny Speck, and one of the fruits of that reporting is a look at many of the original back stories the company considered, as well as the iterations of the final version they went through along the way.

Presented here, for the first time, is some of that work.

The first stab
Early on in the creation of what came to be known as Glitch, Butterfield took a first stab at articulating his vision for the back story. And then later, Tiny Speck hired a professional writer to streamline it. Butterfield provided both texts to CNET. They went like this:

In the far distant past, or the far distant future--it hardly matters which, because the Great Curve of Time sends things 'round to us either way--there lived a group of Giants: dull, oafish, petty and slow Giants.

These Giants lived for a very long time, perhaps forever. None of them were really sure, since none of them had yet died. They certainly lived for a very long time though, at least billions of years.

And they lived in the same place, with the same other Giants, with nothing to do but eat plums and chew the gently hallucinogenic Yellow Crumb Flower. Their minds having been so long around each other, and so long addled in just the same Yellow Crumb Flowery-way, fuse together and together dream a Great Hallucination.

Over a few billion years one's imagination has a chance to fully mature, even if one is a small-brained Giant. It grows powerful, rich and fecund. And these Giants had some fertile imaginations indeed.

At the intersections of the Giants' minds, whole new lives spring forth, in miniature. Those born in these places go on to inhabit and develop in the Giants' shared dream space, freely moving from one Giant's brain to another. They grow and multiply, becoming as quick and clever as the Giants are sluggish and foolish.

Living their lives In the Minds of Giants, our heroes jump from landscapes of memory and fear to panoramas of hope and fancy. They evolve and adapt, learning as they go. Gradually their collective action throughout the mental multiverse comes to effect the actions of the Giants themselves.

And so a strange causal loop develops, where what the Giants do has an effect on our wee protagonists, while they in turn effect the choices of the Giants. //// Can't finish! Somehow need to add in that the Giants are also petty and always causing problems for one another and also need a name for 'our heroes' and say that you can play them. May need to change voice to do that. Help!

Using Butterfield's work as a basis, the writer applied a bit of polish:

Once upon a time, 11 giants got together to create everything past, present and future. Yellow crumb flowers, piggies, seahorses, punchlines, wistfulness, dust storms, green tinges at sunset, you--or rather, they--named it and it was so.

But one day the giants, in their creative fervor, reached into the shadowy recesses of their minds and accidentally created something so dark, so unbearably awful that it robbed them of the collective spring in their step.

This shadowy, nameless thing (for to name this blackness is to make it manifest) left the giants in a deep funk. They stopped bathing. They let their whiskers grow. They shuffled about in slippers and bathrobes. They turned their backs on one another and sunk into a collective hebetude. Not only did they stop creating things, they began to forget those things they had already created. And every time a thing slipped from a giant's mind, that thing ceased to exist. Suns eclipsed. Planets disintegrated. Bands broke up. The universe began to shrink, and a gloom crept across it.

Only one sunny, happy place remained--the giants' collective dream-space. A race of beings colonised this happy place and dubbed it Halcyon. And to the degree the giants wallowed in apathy, so these beings--known as Sparklings--became lively and vital. Sparklings see the universe not as a place of inevitable nothingness but as a place of boundless wonder and abundance. Butterflies flit between yellow crumb flowers. Celestial bodies rise and set. Piggies forage.

Sparklings love and venerate the giants, who created everything. Sparklings roam the minds of giants in search of ways to cheer up their beloved creators. Each Sparkling pitches his or her boundless optimism against the giants' gloom. They nibble piggies, massage butterflies and contemplate rocks. In short, they celebrate all that's fabulous. And by doing so, they increase their own fabulous sparklingness.

There's more. The Sparklings realized that collectively, they could actually influence the giants' actions. Admittedly not by much, since giants are, well, gigantic whereas a Sparkling is just a tiny dream figment. Still, by working together Sparklings can make a giant move, and with each lumbering step, the giants move closer to rediscovering what they've forgotten.

The incurably optimistic Sparkings have one fervent hope: that one day, the giants will have remembered enough for the universe to be once again filled with light. Oh, happy day.

Of course, clean, well-defined language like that doesn't happen by accident. During the many months of Tiny Speck's stealthy development of Glitch, the back story required a fair bit of seasoning, not least because there were several significant inspirations.

One genesis of the project, Butterfield recalled, was a paper cut-outs motif: an 11-year-old Japanese girl loved drawing in different styles. But she was never satisfied with her work and would crumple up her compositions and toss them out the window. There, said Butterfield, they would "get sucked up into this wind and each one comes to life (like) tiny specks on motes of dust."

At that point, Tiny Speck wanted to call the game Paper Moon, but another game company grabbed that name, complete the cut-out motif.

A second inspiration was the 18th century automaton craze, with things like a mechanical digesting duck, and of course, the mechanical turk. In Tiny Speck's imagination, a man in the French part of Belgium begins making creatures in his basement, and eventually has to "dig out his basement further to accommodate even more elaborate machinery, gears and springs and cogs, and he works on it for decades and decades," Butterfield said, "and finally he gets the last bit finished, and he dies, and so the world keeps on evolving. And no one knows about it. He never told anyone about it...[But] the creatures achieved consciousness, and that's the game world. That's why when you walk around in [Glitch] the pigs are mechanical and the houses are from the 18th century."

One inspiration for the game was the automaton craze of the 18th century. This 'duck of vaucanson' was a clue that Tiny Speck left those who were trying to figuring out what it was working prior to announcing Glitch on Tuesday. Wikipedia

But Butterfield said that focusing strictly on such an aesthetic was too limiting for the game's visual design, so it was scrapped as the major back story.

Another idea was One Billion DaydDreams, based on the concept that at any time, about 4 billion people are awake. "We made up the fact that about a quarter of the people are daydreaming at any one time, and there's a whole universe that stands in relation to those daydreams the way our universe stands in relation to nine dimensional strings and neurons and gluons," Butterfield said. "That was developed to explain the universe. And the game world [took] place in these daydreams."

That was popular with the Tiny Speck team, but one day someone pointed out that the opening titles of the hit PlayStation 3 game, Little Big Planet had almost the exact same idea. So that, too, was discarded.

"But we liked...the idea of being inside different minds...because you could have all these conceptual game items, like figments and emotions and anxieties as bad guys you have to take care of."

And so it was.