Mid-November Link Assortment

Events

November 23 is the next Baltimore/DC meetup.

Dec 7 is the next SF Bay IF Meetup.

The Oxford/London IF Meetup does not get together during the festive season, so we’ll not be together again until 2020.

Crowdfunding

Aaron Reed’s horror novel Subcutanean, where each copy is unique, is now available for backing on IndieGoGo.  This is a cool procedural text project, and Aaron has also created a number of making-of posts that explain what he’s doing and why.

Competitions

IF Comp has just ended, and the winners should be announced shortly. (In fact, if you click that link, they may already have been announced — though they have not been at the time of this writing.) Meanwhile, there’s a huge spreadsheet tracking the various reviews written for the Comp, if you’re feeling like you’d read about some of the games.

Ectocomp, the Halloween-themed IF jam, received 22 entries this year. Voting is open through the end of the month, if you’d like to participate and rate the games.

ProcJam, the jam for making things that make things, is also recently over, having brought together 134 entries.

If the thought of all these competitions makes you want to write and share some IF, SubQJam is open now through December 16 for submissions of short interactive fiction, and winners will be featured in SubQ Magazine next year.

If you’d rather compete with something a bit more long-form, or just need more time to put it together, Spring Thing 2020 is accepting intents from authors now, and through March of next year.

Finally, Green Stories is a competition for stories about building a sustainable future. The competition includes an interactive fiction division, which has been described to me thus:

The Interactive Fiction competition is looking for entries from both individuals and creative teams, consisting of a complete story or demo of a longer piece, no longer than 30 minutes worth of gameplay in total. It may be the whole piece, the opening section, or a subsequent chapter or scene.

Winners will receive cash prizes and editorial feedback. Entries are due February 3, 2020.

Mailbag: IF and game writers

As you studied IF for a long time, would you think IF writers are videogame professional writers, or those are 2 separated groups of people ? And would you be able to estimate the number of IF writers ? 

[I’ve edited out a number of side points, but the longer letter also made clear that the writer is interesting in building a tool and/or platform, and is curious about the possible market for this tool and the ways people might use it. — Ed.]

Headcount is a very hard question to answer, because there is no longer one single “IF Community” — I mean, really there never was, but lately there has been much more of a diaspora. The Twine space or the Choice of Games space don’t always overlap and aren’t even always that visible to people working with the parser interactive fiction tradition (and vice versa); and then you’ve got huge, huge numbers of people who are doing interactive story of some kind but only within an app like Episode.

As for the skills you might find among IF writers, that’s again a spectrum. If you went back to 1998 and looked at who was writing IF then, you’d have found a community that was somewhat-to-very technically skilled, since writing code was necessary for almost all the projects that called themselves IF; but also pretty much entirely amateur, since almost no one had ever done any IF writing for pay. 

Now by contrast you would find that there are

  • gig-economy creators who have created technically simple projects and sold them on platforms (like Episodes or Kindle ebooks) that are designed for low barriers to entry; or who have built up some following on Patreon
  • technical inventors and academics who have built very complex and ambitious projects but never worked in the game industry at all; 
  • successful authors in linear media like Cassandra Khaw and Max Gladstone who have made a crossover to working with interactivity;
  • grant-funded interactive media artists who are often experimenting with form or subject matter features that wouldn’t necessarily work as for-market projects
  • well-known professional game writers and/or designers like Liz England, Meghna Jayanth, Jon Ingold, Brendan Hennessy, or Leigh Alexander; these may have background experience with interactive fiction or might still create some text-focused projects at times

So some of those people might be drawn to a new platform. Others, though, already have plenty of venues to publish, or on the other hand are engaged in IF precisely because it gives them a space where they can experiment, build weird science projects, or create personally meaningful art.

Then the question becomes: what could a new platform offer that would appeal to the largest possible subset of the above?

  • the ability easily to deliver experiences that people currently want to build but for some reason cannot — but then you have to figure out what there’s the most thirst to do — I haven’t done this in a few years so the answers are no doubt very out of date, but in the past I’ve run some informal interviews and surveys to find out what people found most vexingly absent from current platforms. Those surveys come from 2014, so there’s definitely room for new research here
  • an audience
  • money — but money typically follows from the audience, and if you had a space were new works got thousands or tens of thousands of readers, you’d definitely find at least some IF authors bringing their work there even if no cash were exchanged.

The Unknown (1999) and Polyphonic Hypertext

The Unknown is a multi-author hypertext about the three creators going on a book tour.

A screen of The Unknown, explaining as a dialogue between the authors what the project of The Unknown will be.

The Unknown (1999) begins with a page in which its authors are arguing with each other about how to write their new project.

Next, the authors offer a tutorial for interaction, by stating that they don’t want the kind of reader who would require such a tutorial.

Then we discover that the content of this book is a series of vignettes from an imaginary drug-fueled tour in which they’re terrorizing bookstores around the country by reading from their work, The Unknown. A lot of the specific incidents involve getting drunk, or taking drugs, or having a bit of a Hunter S. Thompson ramble; making sure, also, to instruct the reader that this is what they are up to:

A variant of this work, sort of, is now available in print form, as a bound book, thus bringing to life the thing they claimed to have been hawking all over the country. This fact is also documented inside The Unknown, because the documentary about The Unknown is incorporated into The Unknown as part of its substance.

A clickable map of all the places the protagonists speak on their book tour.

This particular piece is available to play, free, online, and you can link into any page of it, which is a convenience.

It’s also a bit friendlier to play than many of its contemporaries. Aside from the links between lexia, the authors offer several indices to the work: a map, a list of the bookstores around the country at which (fictionally) they presented The Unknown, a list of people who are mentioned somewhere in the work. Then there are also six colored “lines,” thematic organizations of material, which bear names like “Parts of Their Story” and “Metafictional Bullshit”.

Perhaps this makes me precisely the sort of reader too amateur for their work, but I was grateful for the structural help.

So in fact, for me, The Unknown does succeed — albeit perhaps in the most self-conscious way imaginable — at being more accessible than many other literary hypertexts of the 1990s. I feel like I understand where this hypertext comes from and what it was trying to do, and I have several available strategies for reading it and theorizing about it. At the same time, it remains very very very inside baseball.

Continue reading “The Unknown (1999) and Polyphonic Hypertext”

End of October Link Assortment

Events

IF Comp is live now! You can visit the site to play and judge the games. The competition is also still accepting prize donations, in the form of cash or interesting objects, until the end of the judging period. Judging closes on November 15.

Also currently running, Ectocomp features games with a spooky or Halloween theme.

AdventureX runs November 2 and 3 at the British Library — I think it’s already sold out, however, so if you’re attending, you probably already know that.

The London IF Meetup does not do an activity separately in November in order to avoid competing with AdventureX for people’s time. We also don’t do a December meetup at all because people are usually slammed with other activities, so regular London IF Meetups will resume in January of 2020.

Also November 2 is the next SF Bay IF Meetup, which will feature more playing of IF Comp games.

November 7-8 is Code Mesh 2019 in London.  The conference focuses on promoting useful non-mainstream technologies to the software industry.

Wordplay in Toronto runs November 9-10 this year, showcasing games focused on words, text, and language.

November 12 is the next meeting of the People’s Republic of IF in Boston/Cambridge.

November 13 there is a Twine workshop at the University of Manchester Library.

November 15, Dan Hett is running, also at the University of Manchester Library, a workshop session on writing compelling interactive fiction in general.

November 23 is the next Baltimore/DC meetup.

OldGamesItalia is running a game jam for Italian-language games; that’s already in progress, with created games due December 15.

Crowdfunding

Aaron Reed’s horror novel Subcutanean, where each copy is unique, is now available for backing on IndieGoGo.

Upcoming Competitions

Green Stories is a competition for stories about building a sustainable future. The competition includes an interactive fiction division, which has been described to me thus:

The Interactive Fiction competition is looking for entries from both individuals and creative teams, consisting of a complete story or demo of a longer piece, no longer than 30 minutes worth of gameplay in total. It may be the whole piece, the opening section, or a subsequent chapter or scene.

Winners will receive cash prizes and editorial feedback. Entries are due February 3, 2020.

Mid-October Link Assortment

Events

IF Comp is live now! You can visit the site to play and judge the games. The competition is also still accepting prize donations, in the form of cash or interesting objects, until the end of the judging period.

Ectocomp will be running again this year, with submissions opening October 27, if you’d like to contribute a piece of spooky interactive fiction.

AdventureX runs November 2 and 3 at the British Library — I think it’s already sold out, however, so if you’re attending, you probably already know that.

November 7-8 is Code Mesh 2019 in London.  The conference focuses on promoting useful non-mainstream technologies to the software industry.

Wordplay in Toronto runs November 9-10 this year, showcasing games focused on words, text, and language.

OldGamesItalia is running a game jam for Italian-language games; that’s already in progress, with created games due December 15.

Continue reading “Mid-October Link Assortment”

Mailbag: IF for Reinforcement Learning

Hi Emily

I’m a PhD student working with Prof. Mark Riedl at Georgia Tech and Microsoft Research Redmond. I am currently working on making AI agents (specifically using reinforcement learning) that play interactive fiction games (text-adventure games in the vein of Zork) in a non-game specific, generalizable way.

I was advised by Prof. Janet Murray that you would be the right person to help answer a question I had regarding these games, given your expertise in interactive fiction. If you have a list of such games (e.g. those given here https://github.com/microsoft/jericho#supported-games), is it possible to identify a subset of maybe ~10-15 of them that reasonably cover a majority of all interactive fiction games in terms of game structure, i.e. linearity of progression/score accumulation from the perspective of a learning agent? If it is possible, what would this set look like? Any insight at all would be great.

Nice to hear from you — I’ve been keeping an eye on this space as people have been publishing about it recently.

I’m not sure there’s a perfect answer to this, since IF is hugely varied in how it handles world model, score, pacing, etc. Also, your list here skews very much towards early interactive fiction, which means it doesn’t cover some of the formal experiments that came along later.

I also don’t remember how score works in all the games in this list — some of them I’ve not played, or played a long time ago.

However, with that in mind, here are a couple of categories that represent some fairly standard game structures:

Short or medium game in which score is given out rarely — Lost Pig (max 7)

Short or medium game in which score is given more frequently — Meteor etc. (max 30), Balances (max 51)

Long game in which score is distributed fairly frequently throughout — Adventure, Zork; possibly Enchanter and Sorcerer also; Anchorhead, as I recall

And from your list, I recall these being ones that might pose an interesting challenge:

Curses — it’s long, it’s complicated, it does have a scoring system which it doles out gradually, and it also does a trick (if I’m remembering right) where it actually at one point deducts score from the player again. 

Wishbringer — this one’s interesting because there’s a scoring system that reacts to how many times you’ve used the magic stone in the game — so the more you use wishes, the easier the game becomes, but the lower your final score.

Hunter, in Darkness — doesn’t keep score. There’s also a procedurally generated maze in this, which I would expect to make it very challenging indeed.

Thinking about games not on your list, here are some other formal extremes that might be interesting to try to reason about; all of these can be found on https://ifdb.tads.org/ and in most cases they’re available for download.

ASCII and the Argonauts — an intentionally short and simple game that gives a bunch of +1 rewards for doing basic tasks; the relatively small verb set might make it easier than some of the other games.

Aisle — a game that takes one move to play, and for which many different verbs are available; there’s also no score. It’s hard to imagine how one would use reinforcement learning on this, but it represents one extreme that might be valuable for purposes of thought experiment.

Adventurer’s Consumer Guide — as I recall this one gives out a pretty steady stream of +1 point rewards, rather than only a few or only rarer rewards, so it might be a nice counterpoint to some of the others.

Savoir-Faire — a game of mine, and I suggest it just because I happen to know it well enough to know how the rewards work; there are frequent opportunities for scoring and some rewards are bigger than others.

Bronze — a game that I wrote that keeps track of how many rooms you’ve explored and triggers certain narrative events when you’ve found more of the space, so you could use the explored-rooms count as a secondary signal to score and probably get some useful reinforcement out of that aspect as well.

Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder — gives you a score based on how much loot you managed to rescue off a sinking ship before it goes under. Genuinely an interesting optimization problem; human players have competed to try to come up with the highest-score possible traversal.

Journey to Alpha Centauri in Real Time — as the name would suggest, this takes place over a certain amount of elapsing real time and therefore it’s not possible to finish, because it’s representing a very long journey in space.

Rematch — a game in which the challenge is to figure out a single very long command that will solve the game in a single move, and in which there is a cyclical pattern to the initial world set-up. (I think this one is not a z-machine game, so it might not work with Jericho.)

Zero Sum Game — starts with a score and counts down to zero (but this may be less interesting than the others since you could just reverse the sign of the signal and wind up with something equally valid).

Hadean Lands — fiendishly hard puzzle game, in which instead of score you’re gaining access to lots of objects which could arguably be used as a proxy for progress. Also features areas where the player has to do similar things in slightly different ways.