Ladykiller in a Bind (Christine Love/Love Conquers All)

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Ladykiller in a Bind is an erotic visual novel by Christine Love and co, released last year; it won the IGF Narrative category. Consequently, there’s already quite a lot of commentary about it, especially around its handling of queerness and kink; a late-game scene with dubious consent that bothered some players and that Love ultimately wound up replacing; about mechanics that do not make sex the end goal in itself. Andrew Plotkin wrote up his take on it, and the genre of visual novels in general, as part of his IGF Narrative judging overview.

Plenty of interactive erotica exists — and there’s plenty of demand for it, too, as witness the fact that people searching for interactive sex stories form a sizable portion of my daily blog traffic. They’re probably mostly disappointed, but perhaps this entry will console them a little?

But relatively little of what I’ve encountered is as well-written as Ladykiller in a Bind, particularly when it comes to characterization. As Olivia Wood points out, sex scenes avoid being embarrassing by having something to say beyond “here is a peek at the author’s fantasies.” Ladykiller does that. It uses its sex scenes to communicate who the characters are, and shape their relationships with the protagonist; to talk about honesty, fairness, emotional manipulation, self-image, power exchange, and consent. And sometimes the sex conversation feeds back into dialogue about other things:

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The story is very much a fantasy, with a cast of super-attractive, wealthy, popular just-barely-18-year-olds. And the framing plot is ridiculous: the protagonist is a girl cross-dressing as her twin brother and hoping that none of his friends, enemies, and exes on the ship will notice. Nonetheless, the sex scenes detail emotional states that are relatively rarely shown in media. I don’t just mean the BDSM aspects here, either. There’s a storyline about a character who is relatively inexperienced and also doubts her own attractiveness, who gradually alters what she wants to consent to as she becomes more confident, and this played out quite plausibly.

That’s not to say the game is, or is trying to be, an encyclopedia of all possible sex formats. There are some places it didn’t go, at least during any of my playthroughs: the BDSM scenes I saw delved deeper into the bondage and submission aspects than into the masochism side, for instance. And, unsurprisingly, the scenarios skew towards issues that arise early in a relationship or for relatively inexperienced partners. At one point the older Maid does comment on the comparative immaturity of all the characters — an acknowledgement that would have felt like a lampshade, except that of course these characters are immature. They haven’t had time to become anything else.

But never mind about sex. Let’s talk about conversation mechanics.

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Mailbag: Writing for Versu

g_ending_2@craigtimpany writesYou’ve covered Versu’s architecture, but I’m curious what that was like to write for… In particular I’ve been wondering how very non linear tools affect a writer’s flow.

For those just joining, Craig is asking about Versu, a system focused on agent-driven narrative. Versu and the games made with it are no longer available, but there’s information available about the system, including several papers at the Versu website, and past posts of mine here about the conversation system and about what it was like to convert Galatea to the Versu format.

During the first portion of its development, Versu content was driven through Praxis, the language that specified social practices and truths about the world state. Praxis is very powerful and allows the user extremely detailed control over what is true about the world, and what all the agents want; and the baseline implementation of conversational practices, among others, were written in Praxis. However, writing extensive dialogue in Praxis was essentially wrapping conversational elements in code — a high-friction way to compose, and one that discouraged revision. To address that, we developed a DSL called Prompter. I am not going to re-describe here everything about how that worked, since the attached papers go into detail.

But the core point to know is that, within Prompter, one wrote scenes. Each scene could have some opening text; some parameters about what was allowed to happen in that scene (e.g., “no one dies in this scene, but Veronius is allowed to have sex”); a body of dialogue that can be spoken only in that scene and nowhere else; and then one or more ways that the scene can end.

Using that information, the system would follow its own rules about how conversation and social actions could chain into one another, improvising a particular performance around the scene parameters the writer had set on the page.

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Mid-May Link Assortment

Events

Spring Thing has closed and the results are now available: congratulations to Bobby and Bonnie, Guttersnipe: Carnival of Regrets, and Niney.

The Machine Learning for Creativity workshop is accepting papers until May 16 and will be held on August 14; the speaker lineup has people who are interested in computer-aided storytelling or various forms of generative narrative.

May 17 in the Boston area, PR-IF is meeting and will be looking at some new interactive narrative projects created by Nick Montfort’s students, among other things.

PCG Workshop 2017 has a call for papers out. The theme is “PCG in context,” with the tagline “Exploring the biases, and potential to subvert bias, in procedural systems. Proposals are due May 22.

May 31 is the IF Tools Meetup in London, where we will talk about innovations in interactive fiction tools, presenting several different systems, including Juhana Leinonen talking about the new Glulx-compatible version of Vorple; Robin Johnson talking about the JS system underlying Detectiveland; Andrew Gordon talking about DINE, an experimental interactive narrative project at USC; and me talking about the tools we’re developing at Spirit AI, which are designed for commercial application but have a connection back to interactive fiction history.

June 1-3 is Feral Vector, a delightful indie games festival in a really beautiful setting in Yorkshire, which usually includes talks, workshops, and hanging around on the grass eating and drinking with fellow devs. Last year there was also a LARP in the woods. I can’t go this year, but I’ve really enjoyed it both times I went. Not specifically IF-focused, but a good time.

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June 20, the London IF Meetup is gathering at the Eaton Square Bar to play In Case of Emergency, a mystery storytelling game assembled and run by A Door in a Wall. Atypically for our events, there is a small fee of £5 to participate.

June 28-30, I will be speaking at Gamelab XIII GAMES & INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT CONFERENCE in Barcelona, about artificial intelligence and games.

The British Library is running an Interactive Fiction Summer School as a weeklong course in July, with multiple instructors from a variety of different interactive narrative backgrounds. More information can be found at the British Library’s website.

Tools

Texture has added a feature allowing authors to embellish their stories with image files; that link is actually to an example of this at work, namely…

New Work

Jim Munroe has released Data Doesn’t Lie, with illustrations by Luc Allenet de Ribemont. The game is a frequently-fatal gauntlet with ways to lose on almost every page. That’s a somewhat player-unfriendly structure for a Texture piece: in this engine, you can’t save state or undo the last move, so I had to replay a number of times in order to explore the narrative space completely. But I enjoyed doing so, and the protagonist’s confusion is narratively appropriate.

I very much liked the images, too. These work like book plates, interspersed between the textual interactions, providing a lot of hints about this world, and a lot of emotional inflection, which one wouldn’t otherwise get. Unsurprisingly, what this most reminded me of was Jim’s Inform game Everybody Dies, which also uses images as a comment on the action.

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Jeremiah McCall has shared a selection of historical IF written by his students for educational purposes, largely in Twine.

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Betsy Sykes Mysteries – Volume 1 is an Android text adventure game with a noir flavor.

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6 Swords is a fantasy game designed to be played by voice with Alexa.

Articles and Podcasts

apocalypseheadBruno Dias has written a detailed postmortem on his game Don’t Mind My Apocalypse Head, with an emphasis on how he focused the systems and limited the parser mechanic to achieve a systematic storytelling method. He describes the game as a puzzleless story, though in fact it is manipulable to multiple endings and some of those endings could be difficult to find. So arguably that aspect is a matter of terminology.

He’s also written a post about Inform 7’s value as a prototyping tool, and about the concept of “parserless parser” — what games might look like if they drew on the features of a parser IF world model, but with a more accessible UI, perhaps driven by Vorple.

Astrid Dalmady’s Cactus Blue Motel got written up in NDR, a literary magazine put together by the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Louisiana State University.

At Rock Paper Shotgun, I wrote about IF games of linguistic experimentation, and a few curious related pieces, such as Lighan ses Lion.

Jimmy Maher’s always excellent Digital Antiquarian blog includes a post this week on letters from players of CRPGs back when they were newly released — including contemporary gripes about Wizardry, Bard’s Tale, and Ultima games.

On Script Lock, Rob Morgan and Aleissia Laidacker talk about AR experiences and narrative, and especially Rob’s work at Playlines. Playlines create interactive mixed reality experiences, where players interact with one another and also the story beats that are connected to particular points in space.

There’s also a good bit of the podcast at around 1:20 in about how professional wrestling is a training ground of narrative and particularly how to hold off from gratifying the audience too soon. (See also: Slammed!)

And speaking of Aleissia Laidacker, she also has a talk here:

…about how to do systemic design with modular elements. She’s talking about these strategies in the context of graphical games, but the same kind of thinking is useful for any type of system, even fronted by text.

Other things

Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence was nominated for a Hugo for best series — and that sequence includes two Choice of Games works, Choice of the Deathless and Deathless: A City’s Thirst — another step in recognizing interactive SFF works with some of the same recognitions given to non-interactive forms.

Loose, Tight, Flat, and Bumpy Stats in ChoiceScript Games

coglogo2Previously, I wrote about setting, checking, and gating content in stat-heavy choice-based games such as ChoiceScript content.

In that post, I didn’t get into the question of stat distribution: over the course of the game, how possible is it to reach particular stat distributions? Can you reach the top and bottom of each personality stat (raise it to 95+, or lower it to 5-)? Can you do this easily/immediately, or only with persistent (or even perfect) choice selection? If you run a bunch of random plays and look at what levels the random player can reach for a given stat, is the distribution reasonably bell-curve-like, or is it more flat or multi-modal?

If it is easy to reach the ends of the stat spectrum, I’ll refer to this as having a loose stat system: plenty of buffs or nerfs are floating around the system and it’s easy to get to one end or another. A player doesn’t necessarily have to play with purpose in order to achieve a particular character build. The problem here is that the resulting experience may feel fairly low-agency, because there are so many ways to get a particular stat profile that it seems like the player’s particular choice blend doesn’t matter all that much.

The extreme case of a loose stat spectrum is on where being at the ends of the spectrum isn’t even that unusual: by the end of the game, the distribution looks nearly flat, with little or no bump at the middle. This is a very unresponsive stat system, and it’s not going to reward the player at all for playing one personality stat consistently.

The opposite is a tight stat system: buffs and nerfs occur less frequently or in smaller increments, and it takes time to reach very high or very low levels. The problem here is that the game may feel quite difficult, especially if there are special endings or consequences associated with the extreme ends of the spectrum; it may be that most players never manage to reach ideal outcomes without relying on wiki guides to help them map their choices. This is especially frustrating if there is one “main” outcome that is boring/losing and all the special/winning endings require near-perfect execution.

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Mailbag: The Unique Selling Points of Parser IF

@mattlaschneider writes: I’d love to see a series of posts geared towards people who are interested in learning to write parser IF in a post-Twine era… I could be totally off base, but I do think that parser IF has a lot to offer people who would normally otherwise be attracted to Twine.

We then had a long Twitter-thread argument about whether it was even appropriate to try to recruit people to writing parser IF, especially because I think many people who come to IF because of Twine have motives or needs for which parser IF is a terrible fit.

So let’s start with the reasons not to write parser IF, and we can come back to the question of how to write it if somehow none of my persuasions work on you.

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Spring Thing 2017: A Fly on the Wall, or An Appositional Eye

flycoverThere are two A Fly on the Wall games in Spring Thing: this is the one in the Back Garden, written by Nigel Jayne, and apparently riffing on an original from ECTOCOMP 2014. So you might say there are also two A Fly on the Wall games by Nigel Jayne, this current one and the old version from 2014. Except, also, Nigel Jayne submitted two versions of the 2017 A Fly on the Wall, one in Squiffy and one in Glulx. Thus in total, A Fly on the Wall could refer to

  • A Fly on the Wall, Nigel Jayne, ECTOCOMP 2014, Inform/Z-Machine
  • A Fly on the Wall, or An Appositional Eye, Nigel Jayne, Spring Thing Back Garden 2017, Inform/Glulx
  • A Fly on the Wall, or An Appositional Eye, Nigel Jayne, Spring Thing Back Garden 2017, Squiffy
  • A Fly on the Wall, Peregrine Wade, Spring Thing Main Festival, 2017, ink

I played the Glulx version, which uses conventional parser commands plus some special extras, and includes an assortment of cool sound effects.

The premise of all the Nigel Jayne flies-on-a-wall is that you are at a party, but are watching from a centralized security center with five monitors. At any given moment, you can watch any one monitor, but the story progresses unseen in the other monitors. This means a lot of switching your attention when a character moves out of one room and into another; or you can try watching a single room continuously throughout the story, though you’ll get a more fragmented sense of narrative.

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