Conversation as Gameplay (Talk)

[Yesterday I gave a talk at the Oxford/London IF Meetup. The session was about conversation as gameplay, and also featured Flo Minuzzi of Tea-Powered Games, speaking about their released game Dialogue and their upcoming Elemental Flow. There’s a nice livetweeted thread version of my talk available on Twitter thanks to Florence Smith Nicholls, but I promised also to make a blog post about what I said.

Because the talk was written for an audience that included students, game designers from other parts of the industry, and newcomers to interactive fiction, I included some history of my own work that may be redundant for readers of this blog; there’s also some overlap with a talk I gave in Warsaw last September. However, the material towards the end of this talk is largely new.]

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The Problem Statement

I want more games to be about human interaction, about the nuances of how people deal with one another, about the kinds of topics that appear in dramatic movies. That’s partly because I’d like to play more games about conversation and social interaction. I’m not as interested in action as a topic, and to be honest I often fall asleep during superhero movies these days.

Meanwhile, as an artist, part of the reason I write games is to explore and interrogate things I don’t yet fully understand. Building procedural systems and seeing how they perform is a great way to explore whether our mental models are correct. How people understand each other (or don’t), how they connect and why, are topics of enduring fascination for me.

So I want more conversation-rich games. For that to work as I’d like, the conversation needs to be rewarding as gameplay — not just bolted on around gameplay, as it so often is.

When it comes to my own work, I have a few more ambitions and requirements as well:

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First, I want it to allow the player to act with intentionality: to lay plans and carry them out. That means that we need some systematic mechanics that the player can learn and manipulate.

For the purposes of this talk, I’m not spending much time on things that are pure branching dialogue trees without ongoing state or clear mechanics. I’ve sometimes written work in that space, and if you’re interested in how to get the most out of a relatively state-light dialogue presentation, I recommend having a look at Jon Ingold’s AdventureX talk about writing sparkling interactive dialogue. But that’s not what we’re looking at today.

[I’ve written more about world model and systematic mechanics for conversation elsewhere.]

Second, I want the resulting mechanic to have good pacing and dramatic qualities — so a mechanic that systematizes conversation but makes it feel very slow, stilted, metaphorical, or hard to manipulate is not what I’m looking for. Some of these can be cool to play, but I myself tend to be looking to write something that has a bit more fluidity.

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Mid-January Link Assortment

January 16 will be the next Boston IF meetup.

logo-512.pngNarraScope is still accepting submissions for speakers, and the January 18 deadline is upon us.  This is a new games conference that will support interactive narrative, adventure games, and interactive fiction by bringing together writers, developers, and players.  They are interested in a wide range of games and platforms; more information can be found on NarraScope’s home site.

They are currently looking for a) panels and individual talks that explore the field in-depth, and would last about 50 minutes with a 5-10 minute Q&A, and b) Lightning Talks that contain 5-10 minutes of specialized information.  The conference is set for June 14-16 in Boston, MA, and interested parties can check out the event’s proposals page here.

January 19 is the next London IF meetup, and will consist of two talks (one from me) on conversation-based gameplay. If you’re curious about some of the design considerations coming out of my work at Spirit AI, I’ll be talking about that here; and we’ll also be hearing from Florencia Minuzzi of Tea-Powered Games about their conversation-focused designs.

January 22 is a meetup of Chatbots and Voice Assistants London, featuring among other things a talk from BBC R&D on ‘Hidden Cities’ – a 90 minute interactive audio piece where users can explore Berlin. This meetup space is an interesting one in general for people into interactive audio, Alexa games, and similar topics (content varies and is sometimes more commercial, so check out who the speakers are for the particular date you’ve got in mind).

Also January 22, I’m on a short panel about the future of PC gaming at Pocket Gamer Connects.

January 26 the Baltimore / DC IF group will meet to discuss Ian Michael Waddell’s Animalia.

February 2 is the date for the next SF Bay IF Meetup.

February 8-9 there will be a two-day conference Beyond the Console: Gender and Narrative Games.  I will be chairing Friday’s event; for more information about the conference, please click here.

 

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Mailbag: Self-Training in Narrative Design

Big fan here—of your IF pieces and also of the way you’ve spread interactive fiction outside the IF community. I’m emailing to ask if you have any advice on IF education and bringing it to new platforms/media. 

[Some personally identifying information about the writer’s educational background redacted.]

As I move forward with securing workshop/speaking/consulting gigs, I’m feeling a slight panic that my base skills and knowledge of IF are somewhat lackluster. When it comes to a mastery of interactive thinking, I know that I have a lot of room to grow. 

Would you have any thoughts on how to flex those core IF muscles, and also improve the adaptive skills needed for bringing IF to newer formats and into audio?

Okay, so. This is a two-part question. I’m going to break it across two posts. This post will focus on “how do you flex core IF muscles.” I’ll come back next month to the question of skills for adaptation specifically.

The questioner asks about “a mastery of interactive thinking,” not about writing skills, so I’m going to assume the author feels comfortable on topics like prose and character development, and is more interested in understanding and practicing narrative design across multiple media. It also seems to be a design-focused question rather than a tools- or coding-focused question.

So I’ll try to tackle this from two angles: what are the things you might want to learn, and how might you learn them?

Finally, I should say: even with all the scoping-down I just did, this is a topic that I think would take a book to cover, not a single blog post. So the list of things you might want to know is at once very incomplete and unreasonably scary. No one will master all of it in a couple of months.

What I’d recommend doing, therefore, both to the OP and anyone else who is looking to use this as a guide:

  • Pick one or two areas that seem interesting to you and focus on those for a while; let your interest and enthusiasm be your guide
  • Use a mix of strategies to learn from other people (I list a bunch of approaches below)
  • Alternate between working with other people’s input/insights, and building your own thing. When something you’re reading makes an assertion you think is nonsense, build an experiment to prove the opposite. When something you play inspires you, give that a try. When you read a taxonomy of some kind, question whether it covers all the possibilities, and whether you can imagine categories the article-author didn’t consider (and would the results be any fun to play?)

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Survey of Storylets-based Design

Sketching a Map of the Storylets Design Space” is a paper by Max Kreminski prepared for ICIDS 2018, an academic survey of the storylet design space. I wanted to point my blog readers towards it, as it covers a lot of interesting territory in the quality-based narrative/salience-based narrative area (and in fact references my post on structures beyond branching narrative). Those of you interested in ways of structuring IF with more procedural complexity than a branching narrative may find it interesting.

The paper offers an overview of major storylet-based tools and works from both indie and academic experiments new and old, including StoryAssembler, StoryNexus, The King of Chicago, Reigns, and Ice-bound Compendium. It does not discuss Varytale, but then Varytale has been unavailable to play with for some years now, so there may not have been an accessible version for Kreminiski to look at since beginning their research.

Kreminski identifies four dimensions for looking at storylet-based systems: how preconditions for storylets are defined; whether individual storylets can ever be repeated; what sort of content is contained within a storylet (linear text? replacement grammars? branching content?); and finally, the “content selection architecture”, or how storylets are chosen as eligible for display.

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Kreminski also built a storylet system and a small prototype game of their own, a piece called Starfreighter. (It’s available on itch, if you want to look at it yourself.) The scenario is a fairly standard space-trading story, in which you accumulate crew and cargo and travel through a procedurally generated graph of solar systems. There are several cool presentational aspects here, including the way that you can select place names in your storylet and get extra information and see the location highlighted on the map. The actual content is not very deeply developed — there’s enough here that you can travel from port to port, do some trading, and have your hull damaged repeatedly by space debris, but it doesn’t dramatically develop very much more than that.

The structurally interesting bit about Starfreighter as a storylet system is that it looks not just for specific qualities (like Fallen London‘s “if your Connected: the Duchess is greater than 10”) but for resources that fit particular qualities, and subsequently binds those identified resources to the storylet for purposes of producing the narration. So for instance you might have a storylet “sell [cargo] on [planet]”, which would become available if you had any cargo (say, a crate of exotic matter) and were on any planet (say, Uinox), so that the storylet text would then be realized as “sell crate of exotic matter on Uinox.”

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Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget (Stant Litore)

Characters.jpgWrite Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget is actually the first in Stant Litore’s writing series, though I looked at the one on worldbuilding first. It is even slimmer — about a hundred pages in a relatively small-format paperback — and makes for a fast read.

Though very different in form, shape, and style, it reminded me a bit of Lajos Egri’s approach. Litore asks us first about our character’s core strength, a characteristic that will enable them to face down some difficult situation and overcome it. Everything else — both their problems and the solutions to those problems — flow from that strength; just as in Egri’s view of drama, every situation and characterization has to flow from demonstrating the narrative premise.

As in Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget, Litore provides a series of linked exercises for the reader, focused on brainstorming outward from these issues. After the initial task of looking at core strengths, he goes on to build up the reader’s skill in observation. There are exercises on noticing and recording physical sensations associated with emotion, and on developing dialogue style. Ultimately, Litore covers some of the same territory you might see in a more checklist-like approach to building a character bible, but the way he develops the priorities is important. It starts with the things that are likely to matter the most in creating a compelling story, and then allows the details to hang from those.

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End of December Link Assortment

January 5 was mentioned in the previous roundup as the next SF/Bay IF meetup but that event has been canceled.

January 16 will be the next Boston IF meetup.

January 19 is the next London IF meetup, and will consist of two talks (one from me) on conversation-based gameplay. If you’re curious about some of the design considerations coming out of my work at Spirit AI, I’ll be talking about that here; and we’ll also be hearing from Florencia Minuzzi of Tea-Powered Games about their conversation-focused designs.

January 26 the Baltimore / DC IF group will meet to discuss Ian Michael Waddell’s Animalia.

February 2 is the date for the next SF Bay IF Meetup.

February 8-9 there will be a two-day conference Beyond the Console: Gender and Narrative Games.  I will be chairing Friday’s event; for more information about the conference, please click here.

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