Curating Simulated Storyworlds (James Ryan) – Ch 4-5

This is the second of several posts about James Ryan’s dissertation, Curating Simulated Storyworlds. The previous post looked at chapters 1-3, which set out the concept of the dissertation and documented the pleasures of emergent narrative.

Here I read Chapter 4, concerned with the pain of emergent narrative, including critiques from other scholars and projects in emergent narrative that have failed; and Chapter 5, in which he presents his argument for curationist emergent narrative.

The major issues Ryan identifies with simulations are:

Boringness. Some simulations are simulating events that aren’t that engaging, and therefore they will never have the range to compel readers. (Something I was wondering about while reading chapters 1-3.)

Granularity extremes. The system is operating on either too large or too small a scale. As an example, Ryan showcases the system that controls how drinks may be taken in the Saga II story generation system, with an arguably excessive focus on moving objects from hand to hand.

  • As a side note: this is a granularity of state that most text adventure games wouldn’t bother with. There are some exceptions, though a few of the most granular works I know of were also never finished: for many years NK Guy worked on a game code-named Hamsterworld, which attended to player clothes and body parts (and many other systems) with great precision; of Gunther Schmidl’s And the Waves Choke the Wind, only a first few scenes were ever released. TADS 3’s library supports more in this range than any other text adventure world model I’m aware of, and handles some of the related challenges around making small actions implicit when they aren’t individually very interesting, so that at its best, the granularity of the world model becomes invisible except when there is something down in those details that really does interfere in the player’s intended action, at which point the consequence is reported. Return to Ditch Day remains one of the best examples of this kind of work, and Eric Eve’s work is also exemplary here.

Lack of modularity. The idea here is that elements of the simulation must be small and reusable; otherwise, it isn’t possible to recombine them in interesting ways. To illustrate this issue, Ryan looks at Sheldon Klein’s murder mystery generator, an example I haven’t seen written up particularly often (though perhaps I’ve been looking in the wrong places).

Lack of abstraction. Here, Ryan argues for the value of simulators that can cast different characters in different spaces and situations, rather than retelling (possibly different) stories about the same set of characters and events, since if we have a large number of stories about different characters, the appeal of the vast and the appeal of the ephemeral are preserved. (These are key features of the aesthetic of emergent narrative, as Ryan lays these out in earlier chapters.)

I am not sure what I think about this one. I will grant that the repetition of the same characters can give a kind of sameyness to story generators — though some systems, from Fallen London to Rafael Pérez y Pérez‘ Mexica, refer to characters by title or function in order to avoid the concrete effect of granting them a name.

Modeling gaps. This refers to places where it seems the simulation ought to cover some possibility or set of actions, based on what else is modeled, but for some reason certain elements are omitted.

Causality issues. Here Ryan describes how simulation causality can be too diffuse to make for good storytelling, especially in systems that rely on utility scoring where many different aspects of world state could all be considered to partially explain a particular outcome. (He gives a detailed example based on trying to interpret consequence in Prom Week, which is especially valuable here.) Though I’ve encountered this phenomenon, I haven’t seen the problem labeled or analyzed in depth before.

The solution Ryan proposes — contingent unlocking, where some events explicitly are made possibly by a finite set of prior conditions, and causal bookkeeping, where the system somewhere records how a particular outcome has been made available — will apparently come back in later chapters when he talks about his own work.

It’s a method we also used to some degree in Versu, where characters could record a string that represented why they’d adopted a particular attitude towards the player; and for that matter I use it lightly in my Choice of Games work in progress, which is not a simulation of the kind Ryan is talking about at all, but I still find it useful for the sake of later callbacks to be able to recall, say, the worst thing one character has ever done to another.

*

After these, Ryan next identifies pains of curation, and this is where the gloves come off.

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Curating Simulated Storyworlds (James Ryan) – Ch 1-3

James Ryan recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz, and he was kind enough to make available his dissertation, Curating Simulated Storyworlds, for anyone to read. Of academic work coming out recently, this is one of the more interesting to the interactive fiction crowd, and I’ve already recommended it to quite a few people. I’m going to be writing about it in a few posts, since it’s long enough that I wasn’t able to read it in a single sitting.

As with other posts about academic work, I’m aiming partly to make interesting academic work on interactive narrative visible and accessible to hobbyists and people from the game industry; but I also use the opportunity to record my own thoughts and reactions to the material, and these are often based especially on the history of interactive fiction. So while Ryan’s dissertation is not primarily about text adventures, I will sometimes draw connections from his ideas to work from the text adventure community.

The basic idea: Ryan is interested in the kinds of emergent stories that can be built by Dwarf Fortress-like simulations — large, complex worlds that generate many many events over many simulated years of interaction, often with striking and memorable chains of causality. But from a narrative perspective, experiencing these worlds is not always satisfying. Sometimes they generate fascinating emergent plots. Sometimes they just seem unfocused or dull. Hence: curation. We need either a human being or a second AI system capable of extracting the good stories from the simulator and presenting those to the reader:

To understand the successes, we might ask this essential question: what is the pleasure of emergent narrative? I contend that the form works more like nonfiction than fiction—emergent stories actually happen—and this produces a peculiar aesthetics that undergirds the appeal of its successful works. What then is the pain of emergent narrative? There is a ubiquitous tendency to misconstrue the raw transpiring of a simulation (or a trace of that unfolding) as being a narrative artifact, but such material will almost always lack story structure. (xii)

This is an area that a few others have touched on; Jacob Garbe’s Dwarf Grandpa project is essentially about curating a simulated storyworld.

In essence, Ryan’s assertion at the beginning of the dissertation appears to be that the difference between good and bad emergent narrative generators is simply whether anyone is sufficiently interested to bother curating the output: so Dwarf Fortress and the Sims are good emergent narrative generators because people retell their constructs, while some academic projects are not because no one is moved to retell those. To me this did seem to miss some points about what makes generators effective, including

  • whether they use a number of systems that interlock in interesting ways (this is a somewhat handwavy description, but Tarn Adams describes the point much more effectively)
  • whether the systems account for the possibility of stakes and motivations, or whether they mostly model less interesting things
  • whether the components of the systems are polysemous or symbolically rich, thus capable of supporting additional interpretive constructions beyond what the author might have intended
  • what range of outcomes and story shapes can be achieved; the expressive range of the generator

…though it may be that Ryan will come back to those or similar points later in the dissertation.

Ryan’s approach includes an explicit, extensive discussion of the aesthetics of emergent narrative. Why are we even bothering with this, and what experiences are we attempting to achieve? What does emergent narrative make possible, and what are the problems with it?

I was very glad to see this, because I think this kind of discussion is of critical interest for people who approach these systems from an artistic perspective, and they’re often entirely omitted or at best not very thoroughly considered in academic writing on procedural narrative systems.

The dissertation is sizable, so I’m going to be talking about it in a multiple chunks here.

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Mid-May Link Assortment

Events

logo.pngThe Nebula ConferenceMay 16-19 in Woodland Hills, CA, features multiple talks on interactive fiction by Mary Duffy (Choice of Games) and Stephen Granade (long-time IF Comp organizer and author of many games) among others; there will be a panel on consent in interactive stories.

The deadline to register for Narrascope is fast approaching. May 17 is the date listed on the site, so if you are planning to attend and haven’t yet signed up, now is the time. (More about the actual event below.)

May 18, the Baltimore / DC Area Meetup will discuss The Empty Chamber from Spring Thing.

E4GrZW8x.jpgMay 22, the London IF Meetup hears from Chris Gardiner about the narrative design of Sunless Skies.

The 2nd International Summer School on AI and Games will be held in New York City, May 27-31.  The event is organized by Georgios N. Yannakakis and Julian Togelius, who wrote the Artificial Intelligence and Games book.  More info can be found at the site.

June 1 will be the next San Francisco Bay Area IF Meetup.

June 8 and 9, the London IF Meetup has talks (the 8th) and a workshop (the 9th) on interactive fiction designed for audio devices. We’re welcoming some out of town guest speakers for this one, one of our most ambitious events yet.

June 9 is the deadline to exhibit a game or to speak at AdventureX, which is taking place November 2-3 at the British Library.

June 11 is the deadline for submitting Game Industry talk proposals to the IEEE Conference on Games (CoG).  The conference itself will be August 20-23 in London.

June 10-12 in London is the CogX Festival of AI and Emerging Technology, where I will be speaking about the work we’re doing at Spirit.

logo-512.pngNarrascope is set for June 14-16 in Boston, MA.  This is a new games conference that will support interactive narrative, adventure games, and interactive fiction by bringing together writers, developers, and players. Both Graham Nelson and I will be there and will speak; I’ll be on a panel about Bandersnatch, and Graham will be updating people on the current status of Inform. More information can be found on NarraScope’s home site.

ICCC 2019 takes place on June 17-21 in Charlotte, NC.  The event is in its tenth year and is organized by the Association for Computational Creativity.

July 2-5 will be the ACM IVA Conference, taking place in Paris.  IVA 2019’s special topic is “Social Learning with Interactive Agents”.

Announcements

unnamed.pngAdventureX will be back at the British Library November 2-3, for International Games Week. The event is currently seeking participants in the form of speakers or game submissions. It is free to exhibit a game as part of the event, and the deadline is June 9.

If you want to know more, AdventureX has posted talks from last year’s event to their YouTube Channel. You can get an idea for the format and content with this talk on dialogue by Jon Ingold (Heaven’s Vault).

Articles & Links

Here’s one on the experience of teaching Twine to young students.

Gamebook News posted a roundup for the the month of May, including profiles of a number of recently released gamebooks, as well as a few online games.

Mailbag: Multimedia in Spanish Text Parser IF

Hi Emily,

I thought you might be able to shed some light on this question:

Text parser IF tends to rely heavily on the text for narrative, and uses little by way of multimedia.  Until you get to Spanish parser IF… here, multimedia is much more common. Spanish-language games often incorporate video, pictures, or sound effects.  Is there a reason behind this (possibly due to Spanish-language games using different engines better suited to multimedia?).  Or is there another reason?  Can Inform and similar platforms support these elements as well?

[Ed note: at the request of the asker, the original question has been re-written from a longer, less anonymous format.]

Several points here. One: for a lot of English-speaking IF fans, the defining IF of the commercial age came from Infocom in the early to mid 1980s, and almost all of their work was without illustration. There were a handful of late exceptions, but they were generally not considered Infocom’s best work.

arthur-the-quest-for-excalibur_3.png

Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur (Infocom / Bob Bates, 1989)

In Spain, by contrast, the golden age of commercial IF came just a few years later, on different hardware. Adventuras AD was publishing illustrated interactive fiction and setting expectations somewhat differently for hobbyist fans to follow. So most likely there was a certain amount of founder effect at work, in terms of what interactive fiction fans wanted to build.

Perhaps as a result of this, or perhaps coincidentally, Spanish language IF games have been written with an overlapping set of tools to Inform. Superglus for instance is a tool that compiles to the Glulx virtual machine, but uses a different, non-Inform parser.

And, in fact, the French and Italian IF communities have also traditionally done more with multimedia parser games than the Anglophone community — I’ve put a few links about this below as well.

Can Inform and similar platforms support these elements as well?

Yes, they can, though historically it was quite a bit of effort to get them set up. That’s less true now.

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Metamorphic Texts (Talk)

These are some slides and text based on the talk I gave at the British Library’s Off the Page: Chapter Two event on April 13. I was invited to speak about works of mine that make use of classical sources. It’s relatively rare that I get to give a talk actually about classics (even in the context of games) and I jumped at it.

Slide2Slide3.jpeg

What I’m talking about today connects those two points, because I’m going to be discussing three games I wrote that drew on classical poetry, history, and mythology. (I didn’t pitch it this way in the room, but this is partly a talk on classical reception, the field that looks at how work from the ancient world is recast by later authors, artists, playwrights and propagandists.)

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Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design (Scott Rogers)

levelupcover.jpgLevel Up! is a book about game design and mechanics for would-be practitioners rather than academics. It’s by no means the only such book out there, but it enjoys pretty excellent reviews and has been recommended to me by a couple of designers I respect.

This won’t be quite a standard review, though, because I’m coming to the book with a particular question in mind. Namely: most of the game writing and narrative design books I’ve reviewed on this website have been somewhat or (in some cases) completely lacking in any discussion of how game mechanics interact with story.

So I’m curious: do I find more about the mechanics aspect of narrative design if I start with a book that’s explicitly into the mechanics? And even if Level Up! doesn’t talk about story-related mechanics as such, can I find general principles of mechanics design that also apply in the story space? For my friends who ask about learning more about the story-mechanics interface, can I point them at this book?

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