Keeping Dreamseeds: The Death of the Antin
by Felix Loftus
“Let tiredness and darkness engulf you. Learn how to move through the dreams of London seeds and find a path for your settlement.”
Keeping Dreamseeds is an interactive speculative fiction. It is intended to be played on a custom e-reader and to be read at the pace of a book. It is about:
1. building multispecies relationships from grounded care for one’s environment
2. seedkeeping as a fundamental societal process of renewal and sustainability
3. darkness, tiredness and dreams as a metaphor and method for cocreating multispecies understanding
There is still work to be done to finish the game, because of problems implementing the interactive narrative from Ink into openFrameworks.
The story is set in the deep future in I-Remnunt, a small settlement, or bhailet, in the ruins of a deserted London. I-Remnunt was established when a group of people from a countryside web-city made a spiritual vow to help heal the soil of London and migrated there. The game is set around two centuries after the establishment of I-Remnunt.
This story was borne out of two central theoretical threads. The first is a tension between the ecological, and often spiritual, practices of seedkeeping and land stewardship, and Western techno-capitalist visions of ‘future food’ which are devoid of ecological ideas of sustainability and often dismiss the cultural value of food beyond consumption. The second was a desire to creatively explore how a decolonial relational epistemology could be applied to building inter, and multi, species relationships. This epistemology embraces shadows, slowness and dreams as a metaphor for understanding, and making meaning with, others, and stands in tension with a Western scientific model of clinical illumination [Glissant, Lorde].
The central arc of the story is the death of the antin. The antin has been one of the key crops for I-Remnunt since the settlement’s establishment. At the time of the game there is a shift in the soil acidity which will stop the antin from being able to grow in the soil of I-Remnunt. This has the potential to end the sustainability of I-Remnunt, finishing the spiritual project of healing and potentially radically altering I-Remnunt’s inhabitants way of life.
The method that is chosen to respond to this problem is a dreamseed ceremony, in which, the settlement tries to communicate to the seed spirits and ask them to help establish a path for I-Remnunt after the antin. You, the main character D’lo, are tasked with leading the ceremony because of your intense love of the antin. You are a chef and a grower, but most of all, you are a dreamer.
The game is intended to be played on an experimental e-reader, and read like a novel. In the physical version of the game, play with a set of game tokens that can be recognised via a camera connected to the e-reader and a computer vision script. Players find tokens, or ‘dreamseeds’, by reading specific sections of the story. They can then use these tokens in the central ‘ceremony’ section to access different conversations with the seed spirits, and ultimately to establish futures for I-Remnunt beyond the antin. Since I wanted this game to be played on an experimental e-reader, I have developed it on openFrameworks. My hand-in for this project is a digital port of the game. In this post-mortem I will detail how my overall intention for creating interactive fiction for custom e-readers changed how I developed this game. (it isn’t easy, and still probably needs some work!)
This postmortem will follow my process in a fairly linear fashion, starting with the research that is the foundation of the narrative. My overall process followed this structure:
1. Pre-Spark Research
2. Spark of Idea and development of spark
3. Post-spark ideation and research
4. Individual and Collaborative world-building
5. Post collaboration research and content collation (images and text)
6. Central Plot Development
7. Narrative structure development in Inky and writing
8. Full working narrative system on Inky: Diary, Ceremony and Recipe Book Sections
9. Implementation of Graphic Design and Ink script using openFrameworks
Research and Grounding Theory 1: Seed keeping and ‘future food’
“The genetic erosion that has happened over the last several decades — from a time when there was a multitude of different varieties of all different types of crops that fed and nourished people, now down to just a handful of varieties that make up the food that ends up on our plates — that’s troubling to me, because it means that our food system is less resilient. I feel like the key to resilience in our food system is dependent upon the diversity that’s inherent in the seeds that are the foundation of that food system.”
Rowen White, Reseeding the Food System
As Robin Wall Kimmerer states in Braiding Sweetgrass, through the words of Gary Nabhan, in times of environmental and cultural erosion, restoration must come with re-story-ation if it hopes to truly heal. In the context of seed keeping, which is a vital ecological process that has seen a significant period of decay, we not only need to save seeds and continue to grow seeds to promote biodiversity, we also need to tell stories about seed savers and seeds, and the importance of their work.
This is the project I set myself for this piece.
I see this project as sitting in tension with dominant techno-capitalist vision of the future of food. The script changes a bit here and there but I think a succinct approximation of the current version of this vision is put in a creative piece by ‘Food Futurist’ Chloé Rutzerveld: “A Radical New Food System for the Post-Anthropocene City”. In this future, we eat “nourishing powders” that are 3D printed following a recipe generated by an AI computer that comes with ‘expansion packs’.
Similar ideas populate a multitude of sci-fi’s and appear to be materialising today in companies like Huel and recently Solar Foods, who promise “liberating protein production” by making proteins from sunlight and carbon dioxide. This is a field being artistically mapped out and intervened upon by ecological film maker Gerard Ortin Castevelli, for example in his recent film: Future Foods. This vision is part of a neoliberal techno-capitalist imaginary of the future in which solutions to environmental problems are found in commodification and technology, rather than in any political or spiritual upheavals.
I wanted to tell a story about future food that projects the work and philosophy of seed keepers, particularly Indigineous American and African-American, into the future. So, the story is focused on food culture and even has a recipe section. As people play they unlock more information about foods from this society. In this project I wanted to construct a narrative that responded to these questions:
How would a future society that revered the practice of seed keeping be arranged? What role would technology play in this society? How might narratives about seed keeping reflect back on the reader's ecological perspectives?
It’s worth noting that the seed keeping that I refer to in this game is active. So have in mind growers who save seeds each year and give back seeds to other growers such that the plants can continue living. To understand this type of seed keeping better, check out the work of:
London Freedom Seed Bank (https://www.londonfreedomseedbank.org/)
Rowen White ‘Reseeding the Food System’ and ‘Sierra Seeds’ (https://emergencemagazine.org/interview/reseeding-the-food-system/ and https://sierraseeds.org/blog/)
Christian Broks Keeve ‘Fugitive Seeds’ (https://edgeeffects.net/fugitive-seeds/)
Initial Spark: The Dreams of London Seeds
I wanted to tell a story about seed keeping and I wanted this to intersect with my digital photographic and physical computing practices. My initial spark was to tell stories about actual seeds using computer vision and interactive narratives. As I found out through this process, this was over-scoped and not suited to a short project on interactive narratives. So, I changed this idea after the first round of world-building and put my idea about using physical seeds in the game on hold.
However, having done this project I am now in a great position to complete this original plan and am in discussions with The London Freedom Seedbank to do this work. I see the final outcome of this project as a stepping stone towards a project with London Freedom Seedbank, and it’s a stepping stone I’m really happy with!
It’s worth noting that since I had in mind a physical installation using a Raspberry Pi powered e-reader/camera, this affected how I developed the game. Instead of using Unity I used openFrameworks so that this game works on my e-reader/camera hybrid.
And note, ink, which I developed the narrative in, has NOT been integrated with openFrameworks yet. As I’ll lay out later, this was troubling.
Research and Grounding Theory 2: Shadows, Slowness and Dreaming as Epistemological metaphor
Once I had my spark I set out a reading list to inform my work. Seeds were to be characters in my narrative and so I had to carefully consider how I represented them. I chose to have my narrative be informed by decolonial ecological theory [Neimanis, 2015, Livingston and Puar, 2009], Indigineous American philosophy [Kimmerer, 2013] and decolonial and Black feminist philosophy [Glissant 1990, McKittrick 2006, Gumbs 2018]. You can see the influence of this work throughout my game but I’d particularly recommend looking out for mention of the ‘old gods’, and ‘chaos’ for the decolonial and Black feminist philosophy (e.g. in the ‘Harvest Saturnalia’ and the ‘The Long Winters End’ section). The Indigineous American philosophy influenced the ‘Lessons from Leaves’ fable and the grounding process in ‘Dreamer’s Depths’. The decolonial ecological theory can be seen particularly in the myths of the end of the instability (e.g. see ‘Antin Croquettas’).
A central idea that informed the structure of the society in the game and the narrative development is a decolonial relational epistemology. In this, knowledge is collaboratively made in relation with others rather than taken into the individual like in Western epistemology (See Glissant’s term ‘donner-avec in contrast to the term ‘comprendre’). When it comes to understanding others, this epistemology follows the metaphor of shadows, slowness and dreams, away from the colonial metaphor of illumination, or enlightenment. This metaphor follows Glissant’s claim of everyone’s ‘right to opacity’. Following this, and also to imagine alternatives from a capitalist progress sense of time, I decided to construct a fantasy society that is structured around slowness, tiredness and sleeping, and does environmental healing through dreaming and listening.
To be clear, the society of I-Remnunt is anarcho-communist. And this project is actively engaged in imagining a non-Capitalist, anarcho-communist society in the future as a way for engendering a non-Capitalist society now. This was informed by the political formation of the Internationalist Commune of Rojava. (See https://makerojavagreenagain.org/)
In addition to this, I also read into the history of religious plants, folk stories about plants, and herbal medicine and fused these stories, histories and processes into the game:
Medicinal Plants Ethnobotany by David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield
Plants of the Gods by Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hoffman and Christian Rätsch
Fionn and the Fianna — Candlelit Tales (This let to the characters of the Fionne, nomadic protectors of towns)
World-building 1: Initial Design Sheet
I chose to set this story in a fantastical deep future since this gave me the creative freedom to imagine a radically different society with different ways of relating to the land, based on decolonial theory and Indigenous American philosophy. This was heavily influenced by Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ work M Archive: After the End of the World, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Parable of Talents (Earthseed from this series is referenced as the old religion that brought an end to the instability).
My worldbuilding responded to a few key questions:
1. What is the role of my device in this society and why is it central to this story?
2. How did this society form? What are its creation myths, legends and religions?
3. Who lives in the town of I-Remnunt and why do they live there?
4. What is the environment of London like in this deep future?
5. What is the central plot of this game? What are the underlying plots?
To answer these questions I started writing and sketching in my notebook and on ‘notes’ on my phone whenever I had an idea about the world. I also collated a series of images of objects that I could imagine being in the world of I-Remnunt. In this phase, I sketched out the main arc, the underlying arc, the timeline of the world, the myths and religions of this world, and the societal structure.
I then revised these notes and images into a detailed game document. This was a very useful phase because it required me to unify my notes into a whole and led to the development of the aesthetic of the game.
Then, I sent this out to three friends, one an architect, one an anarchist writer, and one a decolonial and feminist writer. I then had conversations with them about this world and asked for their opinions on the societal structure.
These conversations were vital for when I wrote the actual story. They helped created the architectural structuring of I-Remnunt (particularly the central hall which is centered around a block of town houses that have been ‘hacked’ into communal buildings). These conversations also helped develop the character of Nef and brought up the idea that the buildings in London have been mined for their precious metals and other materials. Once this document was in place, I had a solid idea of the game's narrative and could begin to structure out the necessary sections of the story.
In the main arc, one of the main crops of I-Remnunt, the antin, is put at threat of extinction by a change in soil acidity. The people of I-Remnunt call a dreamseed ceremony to communicate with the antin seeds and to find a path for the settlement. The main character is tasked with leading this ceremony by using a spirit dream device, because of her love of the antin.
I decided that one of the main sections of the plot would be the ceremony and that the proceedings of this ceremony would inform the outcomes of the ceremony.
So, the story is structured into three main sections: The ceremony, D’lo’s diary, and an I-Remnunt recipe book. Using a diary and a recipe book structure allowed me to do varied environmental storytelling to help in my overall goal of building a fantasy society based on the theory outlined above.
I first drafted this structure in Ink and then tested it with three users by exporting the Ink file for web. I asked for notes on the story tone and asked users their opinion and imagination of the world based on these stories. Based on their responses, I then changed the stories so that they matched my intended world.
This is a screen recording of some of my Ink file: https://youtu.be/c3ZvhdtpG_o
The ceremony sections are what is happening at the time of the game in I-Remnunt. So, this section is written in the present tense. In the ceremony section, D’lo is communicating to the seed spirits through a dream world. D’lo can access different parts of this dream world with a set of dreamseed tokens, and can respond to the seeds’ questions with these tokens. For this version of the game, I have implemented three tokens, with the intention to extend this to six.
This section loops but with a linear progression of entrances. I wanted the initial loop to be quite disorientating, but to raise enough interesting questions in the reader that they would want to explore the world. When the player finds tokens in the game this unlocks different outcomes of the ceremony. If they have less than three tokens they can only access the first entrance. If they have more, then they can access a different entrance.
This is the main way the reader finds out about the world; exploring D’lo’s diary. The player can decide their own path through D’lo’s history. If readers answer prompts in specific ways then they’ll unlock recipes and different outcomes of the ceremony. So this section is a non-linear branching narrative, which also gives the reader a montage of D’lo’s life through small diary snippets. This helps to build the character of D’lo in a non-didactic way.
Each one of these stories is based on a different section of the word-building and reveals different aspects of the environment, societal structure, myths, customs, food etc. Reading sections in different orders could give the reader completely different ideas of the piskits, and D’lo. For example, the piskits are displayed as evil in the ‘Lessons from Leaves’ fable, but Mantines, one of D’lo’s friends, loves the piskits and they seem to be wonderful creatures through her eyes.
In this section, players learn about the world through the food that is eaten. I love this form of environmental story-telling as there is so much one can learn about a culture through food. I made the decision to make the recipe quantities huge (40ish portions) to help convey that this is a communal society without nuclear families.
What Went Badly:
Oh god, the coding.
I over scoped this game significantly because of one error: I assumed that integrating Ink with openFrameworks would be easy. I was totally wrong. My technique was to try to use inkccp, a C++ port of Ink, since openFrameworks is written in C++. I think this is the correct process, and I will get this working eventually but my native C++ skills are limited and this got the better of me. I tried to achieve this by messaging the writers of inkcpp and a friend who is an expert in C++ but unfortunately, neither of their help could get around my low C++ ability.
So, after spending countless hours trying to get this working, I had to move to a plan B. I experimented with the idea of using a web port of my game from Inky and then using OSC to send all the text to my openFrameworks script. This brought up a whole world of problems and was ultimately unfeasible to run both of these programs on the raspberry pi at the same time.
So, I went with my backup plan: reverse-engineering the Ink logic in openFrameworks. This was extremely time-consuming and totally threw off my progress for the rest of the game. So, the ceremony section is unfinished and needs one more round of writing to get the whole effect of the cyclical narrative.
Below is a small screen recording of my openFrameworks file. It looks terrible and I’m sure any real coders would laugh at me for how it works… but it does kind of work…
The irony of this error was that I was writing a game about a society structured around sleep and dreams, and I was incredibly pressed for time. Brilliant.
https://youtu.be/WMeWJmtzEYo (This is a quick screen recording of my openFrameworks file)
I definitely could have helped myself by planning fewer diary entries but I believe it when all of them are read in combination that the story really sings. As Glissant would say, the meaning comes from the relations between the stories, so as the story builds in detail this opens up more opportunities for self-reflection from the reader.
What Went Well:
I really love this story. I want to come back to it and write more. I’ve already planned the next chapter of it, in which D’lo joins the Fionne because of her spirit dreaming in the ceremony. So, D’lo travels around England in the deep future spirit dreaming to protect different settlements. This would require me to further develop the idea of ‘web-cities’ in the countryside that are connected to their food systems and have food and land sovereignty for all. I want to develop this project with an architect, a 3D designer and a decolonial ecologist.
The main reason I’ve enjoyed writing this so much is how closely I’ve worked with the theory that underlies my work; Black feminist philosophy (in particular collective universalism grounded in love), decolonial relational epistemology, and Indigenous American ecological wisdom. The more I work with these theories and practices the more I love them, and the more I want to live in a society based on their wisdom. I think this love comes through in my text and hopefully, this process of imagining alternative future societies based on these theories can help to will them into being.
I think someone would exit the game reflecting on the individualism of contemporary society. Especially after the fable in “Lessons from Leaves” which I’m quite proud of. I hope that people might also exit the game reflecting on their relationship to their environment, and possibly even thinking that the land speaks, and that the land remembers.
I’m really happy with how I’ve weaved in existing folk stories and legends. Specifically, the Irish Fianna as the Fionne, and the English piskies and the piskits. (See https://candlelittales.ie/events/fionn-and-the-fianna/ and https://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/vixiana_the_witch_of_vixen_tor.htm) I have also threaded in hints into the story that what led to the end of the ‘instability’ on earth was Black feminist philosophy. One part of the story you can see this at the end of ‘Harvest Saturnalia’ where Mantines asks to braid the peon balm seeds into D’lo’s hair “For the old gods”. See https://edgeeffects.net/fugitive-seeds/ for more information about this practice and its relation to Black fugitivity.
I also loved the process of exploring a world through its food. I’d love to experiment with just this method, perhaps with a shorter interactive fiction about a cook book.
I am also now confident that I could get an interactive e-reader working for interactive fiction games. And because this is on openFrameworks I could use cameras and physical computing sensors. This is super exciting and I can’t wait to continue this work. I plan to develop this project with The London Freedom Seedbank and am in discussions with the currently about this.
These were the songs and albums that helped me imagine the world of I-Remnunt:
Priscilla Ermel — Origens Da Luz (I listened to this on repeat for about 5 hours on one of my main writing days!)
Kukud’ Emampondweni — Found at sea (This album is the sound of the dreamseed ceremony)
‘Mangoanana — Field recording from Lesotho calling (sadly artist is unknown)
Sun Ra — Sleeping Beauty, Space is the Place (The sleeping beauty album is the mood of I-Remnunt in spring. Sleepy and dreamy. Space is the Place inspired the opening ceremony text — inner space is the place here though)
Lucy over Lancashire — Paul Rooney
Rajma Swaminathan — Peregination (feat. Anjna Swaminathan)
Matana Roberts — Invocation
Laraaji — All Pervading
Laraaji - Celestial Vibration | Soul Jazz Records
This is the stunning debut album from Laraaji. 'Celestial Vibrations' was originally released in 1978 under the name…
Butler, O. E  Parable of the Sower,  Parable of Talents
Gumbs, A. P.  M Archive: After the End of the World
Glissant, É.  Poetics of Relation
Internationalist Commune of Rojava, Make Rojava Green Again
Jemisin, N.K. The Broken Earth Triology
Livingstron, J. and J. K. Puar.  Interspecies
Neimanis, A.  No Representation without Colonisation? (Or, Nature Represents Itself)
Wall Kimmerer, R.  Braiding Sweetgrass
White, R. Reseeding the Food System. https://emergencemagazine.org/interview/reseeding-the-food-system/
Zemánková, A.  Signals from Roots to Leaves: A Post Botanical Assembly