TextWorld (Inform 7 & machine learning)

Inform 7 is used in a number of contexts that may be slightly surprising to its text adventure fans: in education, in prototyping game systems for commercial games, and lately even for machine learning research.

TextWorld: A Learning Environment for Text-Based Games documents how the researchers from Tilburg University, McGill University, and Microsoft Research built text adventure worlds with Inform 7 as part of an experiment in reinforcement learning.

Reinforcement learning is a machine learning strategy in which the ML agent gives inputs to a system (which might be a game that you’re training it to play well) and receives back a score on whether the input caused good or bad results. This score is the “reinforcement” part of the loop. Based on the cumulative scoring, the system readjusts its approach. Over many attempts to play the same game, the agent is trained to play better and better: it develops a policy, a mapping between current state and the action it should perform next.

With reinforcement learning, beacuse you’re relying on the game (or other system) to provide the training feedback dynamically, you don’t need to start your machine learning process with a big stack of pre-labeled data, and you don’t need a human being to understand the system before beginning to train. Reinforcement learning has been used to good effect in training computer agents to play Atari 2600 games.

Using this method with text adventures is dramatically more challenging, though, for a number of reasons:

  • there are many more types of valid input than in the typical arcade game (the “action space”) and those actions are described in language (though the authors note the value of work such as that of BYU researchers Fulda et al in figuring out what verbs could sensibly be applied to a given noun)
  • world state is communicated back in language (the “observational space”), and may be incompletely conveyed to the player, with lots of hidden state
  • goals often need to be inferred by the player (“oh, I guess I’m trying to get that useful object from Aunt Jemima”)
  • many Atari 2600 games have frequent changes of score or frequent death, providing a constant signal of feedback, whereas not all progress in a text adventure is rewarded by a score change, and solving a puzzle may require many moves that are not individually scored

TextWorld’s authors feel we’re not yet ready to train a machine agent to solve a hand-authored IF game like Zork — and they’ve documented the challenges here much more extensively than my rewording above. What they have done instead is to build a sandbox environment that does a more predictable subset of text adventure behavior. TextWorld is able to automatically generate games containing a lot of the standard puzzles:

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Quarantine Circular (Bithell Games)

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Quarantine Circular is not a sequel to Subsurface Circular, but is very much an extension of the same core concept: a dialogue-driven game with dialogue menu and topic inventory, plus a lot of polish. In a few select places the topic inventories even allow you to combine concepts, constructing questions with multiple facets.

It’s less puzzle focused than Subsurface Circular, though, and more ambitious in the way it simulates social circumstances. You’re often talking to multiple parties at once, and things that please one character may irritate another in the same conversation. The story is less linear, as well: there’s more room to make choices early in the interaction that may have some long term effects. Meanwhile, the handling of the protagonist has shifted. Subsurface Circular has the player play a single character. In Quarantine, you take on several different viewpoint characters — though you may have limited access to those characters’ true understanding and motivation.

So mechanically, this has a lot of features that appeal to me — more than the original did. But that meant shifting more focus onto the fiction, and that didn’t bear up quite as well as I would have liked.

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Mid-September Link Assortment

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From “Design/Play/Disrupt” at the Victoria & Albert

Entries for IF Comp are due the end of this month.

From Now – February 24, 2019, the Victoria and Albert Museum is featuring an exhibit on contemporary video games. I saw this on a preview night, and it is terrific — so much so that I feel like I need to go back because I didn’t take it all in on the first visit.

Some of it is a picture of the process and considerations of design, with notes and concept art from games all along the indie/AAA spectrum. Some is a reflection on the social context of games and the voices of the people who make and play games: a room full of video clips and thoughtful statements from folks I’ve often linked on this very blog. The third section is about esports — about the size and the spectacle. Where the design section feels intimate and draws you in to look closely at small and intricate objects, the esports room has you to sit down below a huge curved screen playing footage of a match in South Korea, in a position that commands awe. But then the exhibit gives you your agency back again: the final section is a Babycastles-affiliated room with an arcade box where you can play QWOP (among many other things).

It is the first exhibit about video games I’ve seen at a major institution that felt like it was about the video games I know, not purely as a nerdy curiosity or as a commercial phenomenon (though there’s plenty of commercial work there), but for their culture, their design, their power to attract and connect people.

Along with many many other people at different times, I had a small advisory role in giving input on this exhibit, but at the time I was blown away by the thought and care going into the design, and the final result is better than I could have imagined. If you’re in London and can spare the exhibit fee, do check it out.

September 19 is the next Boston IF Meetup.

September 22 is the next Baltimore/DC Are IF Meetup, discussing Kevin Gold’s Choice of Magics.

October 6 is the next SF Bay IF Meetup.

October 6 is the Oxford and London gathering to play games from IF comp.

Also October 6-7, Roguelike Celebration is coming up in San Francisco — this is obviously a bit different from IF material, but there’s some interesting procedural storytelling work that comes up in this space. This year their speakers include Tarn Adams, Pippin Barr, and Max Kreminski, all people who have turned up on this blog/in IF circles before.

October 19-28 is the submission window for the fifth annual PROCJAM, seeking entries for generative software.

October 20 is the Oxford and London workshop in the Ren’Py tool for building visual novels.

October 22 is the deadline for Saugus.net’s 21st Annual Ghost Story Contest.  They accept both traditional prose entries and IF.  Official rules can be found here.

November 10-11, AdventureX will return, this time at the British Library. AdventureX is a conference focused on narrative rich games, whether those are mobile or desktop, text-based or graphical; it’s grown significantly in size and professionalism over the last couple of years. (Incidentally, they’ve published their exhibitor list and it’s pretty sweet.) At the time of writing, weekend passes and Saturday passes are sold out, but there are still a few places for Sunday.

December 2 is the deadline for entering the Russian Language IF competition KRIL.

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Mailbag: Deep Conversation

This one was a follow-up question to the asker wondering whether Blood & Laurels was still available anywhere. (It isn’t.)

If there are any other games (IF or otherwise) that you’d recommend for deeper conversational experiences, I’d love to hear about those… I have a rather broad set of interests there, so anything you find especially exciting, new or odd would be great to hear about, especially where conversation is at the center of the game.

…right, okay. Well, that’s quite a broad field, but here are some possibilities, preferring more recent games (though interesting conversation games go back for quite a while).

Exploration-focused Dialogue

Parser-based conversation games are often designed to let the player explore concepts that interest them, treating the non-player character like a big encyclopedia rather than a goal-oriented partner in dialogue. That tradition goes back — well, back to the 80s, really, since Infocom’s murder mysteries allowed you to ask characters about important subjects and clues.

A few more recent examples that are either carry some of this concept over to a different interface or allow a different spin on it:

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Subsurface Circular (above) and Quarantine Circular are both primarily conversation games. Subsurface Circular has some embedded puzzles in the dialogue, including puzzles around manipulating emotional states and the knowledge of both the PC and other characters. As you find out new things, you gain “focus points”, an inventory of topics that you can introduce into conversation.

Speaking of manipulating emotional states, that’s really the primary approach in The Red Strings Club: you mix drinks for NPCs to affect their emotional status, then ask dialogue-tree questions.

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Donut County (Ben Esposito)

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Donut County is a mellow casual puzzle game wrapped in story. The gameplay: you control a hole moving across the ground. If you place it under something small enough to fall in, the object vanishes below, and the hole gets bigger. It’s Katamari-esque, but there are some nifty extra effects: the hole can fill with water, which makes things float on the surface; sometimes items that are in the hole give off smoke or fumes, or leave appendages sticking out, which you can use to affect the environment in new ways. (Note for new players, by the way: I initially found the gameplay a little sluggish, but going to the settings and turning control responsiveness up to maximum made it a much more natural and enjoyable experience.)

The story? This is all a game-within-a-game presented within a flashback, with multiple protagonists, sort of. Let me start from the beginning because there’s a lot to unpack here.

Donut County begins with a frame story that everyone in town is living at the bottom of the hole, after six weeks in which this hole has been terrorizing the community. Mira, a human, blames BK, a raccoon who has all this time been playing an addictive video game that involves hole manipulation (and just incidentally manages to really swallow things in the real town). BK also happens to run a donut shop, and the hole tends to turn up whenever anyone orders donut delivery at home.

As you, the player, play levels of Donut County, you receive experience points and rewards that correspond to the in-game points BK is trying to accumulate; and then you cut back to the frame story in which the denizens of Donut County are talking about what has happened to them over the past few weeks and whose fault it all is.

This makes for one of the most convoluted triangle-of-identity problems I’ve yet seen. The framing introduces an undercurrent of unease and self-doubt in what is otherwise a relaxing, candy-pink game of playful destruction.

Where do you-the-player stand in all this? Are you BK, playing the game and destroying the entire community? Are you one of the other townspeople or perhaps Mira herself, telling the story of how the gameplay destroyed the community, a kind of interactive reenactment? Is there a possible redemption in store after you’ve done all this? Should you maybe stop being a hole?

I want to talk about where the story goes from there, but this will involve spoilers, so let’s have a break first.

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Video Game Writing From Macro to Micro (Marek Walton / Maurice Suckling)

videogamewritigVideo Game Writing from Macro to Micro. This book bills itself as “four books in one,” and this is not wrong. Part I covers a history of games with a focus on story and storytelling. Part II concerns day-to-day concerns of game writing as a career — the fact that Part II starts with briefs, contracts, non-disclosure agreements gives some idea of the granularity and the focus on the nuts and bolts of doing business as a freelance games writer. Part III, “Beyond the Basics,” backs out again and looks at the theoretical basis of the discipline — why should games have stories? — as well as craft considerations like how we fill a story world with dramatic potential. And Part IV, the briefest and most varied section, pulls together statements from working game writers about what their job is, how it functions, and what the lifestyle is like.

The summary in Part I goes from the 70s, with Colossal Cave, through a year or two ago, landing on Her Story and Until Dawn. It’s a good overview, though most titles get no more than a paragraph or two, and the book is mostly interested in setting up some sense of market context, genre, and the major strengths, innovations, or weaknesses of each title. It doesn’t particularly dig into individual games to take apart how they worked as instances of narrative design. People who are already pretty familiar with the game industry and game history may find this to be largely review.

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