My Lady’s Choosing (Kitty Curran, Larissa Zageris)

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 2.43.30 PM.pngMy Lady’s Choosing is a branching romance novel — or, arguably, spoof of romance novels. It begins with the heroine as a just-about-penniless lady’s companion, then immediately introduces her to two eligible bachelors and one wealthy and outrageous female friend.

From there, we are offered a buffet of standard tropes. There’s your obligatory Scottish hero with a castle and a lot of dialect-speaking servants who’ve known him since his youth. There’s a Mr Darcy-minus-the-serial-number whose estate is called (I am not making this up) Manberley. There’s a Jane Eyre plot strand with the brooding Man With A Past and a surviving child (and an optional Distraction Vicar if you want to go that way). There’s a subplot with Napoleonic spies and another subplot involving raising the lost tomb of Hathor in Egypt. There’s a side character who is a callback to a side character in Emma, and a sinister servant who owes a lot to Mrs. Danvers, and an obligatory call-out to that summer on the shores of Lake Geneva with Lord Byron. The encyclopedic approach to tropes reminded me of Tough Guide to Fantasyland, as transported to another genre.

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Mid-July Link Assortment

July 15 is the next meeting of the Boston/Cambridge PR-IF.

July 21st, 3-5 p.m. at Mad City Coffee in Columbia, the Baltimore/DC group meets to discuss The Wand.

July 31st in Canterbury (UK) there is a session on how to build escape rooms for libraries.

Gothic Novel Jam is a jam for games or works inspired by the gothic novel in any fashion, and is running throughout July. IF and related narrative games are welcome.

Screen Shot 2018-06-10 at 4.20.43 PM.pngIntroComp is now accepting intents to enter. IntroComp is a competition in which you can submit just an excerpt of an unfinished interactive fiction game, and receive feedback from players about what they liked or didn’t like about it. If you’d like to participate as an author, register with the site immediately (this closes June 30, so today). Games themselves must be submitted by July 31 and judging will occur during August.

Entry registration and prize donation for IF Comp are now open as well, if you’re expecting to have something more complete in the near future.

August 4 is the next meeting of the SF Bay IF Meetup.

August 15, London IF Meetup hears from James Wallis on tabletop RPGs and storygames. This is a field where some of the most interesting narrative design is happening right now, and Wallis is an expert. As always, the event is free and there are drinks and hanging-out afterward.

inkle studios has announced ink jam, a jam for people writing in ink, running August 31-September 3.

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, and last year pretty definitively outgrew its previous venue. I am mentioning this well in advance because they’ve mentioned that tickets will be cheaper for early bird buyers — so it’s something to keep an eye on if you think you’ll want to go.

Mailbag: World Simulation for Story Generation

Hi Emily,

not sure if this is too specific a question, but I wonder if you can help me out:

Last NaNoGenMo I started out on doing a more sophisticated version of Meehan’s Talespin. I ended up doing lots of planning, but not too much implementation, so I’m going to continue my efforts this year. The biggest part of it all seems to be a world simulator. This would be where all the actions the characters are planning to do get executed. In a way this seems very similar to what is part of every IF/adventure game (locations, objects, etc), and I have programmed some of those in my micro computer days on a ZX Spectrum… But I feel this needs to be more sophisticated (and on a larger scale), and general, as there will be a multitude of possible actions that can modify the world state. And it might also have to be ‘fractal’ (for want of a better word), as there is landscape in the wild, cities (which are in the landscape, but consist of many locations where there would otherwise just be a single location of forest), and rooms in houses in cities, etc.

Are you aware of any systems in existence that I could use for that? I am kind of hoping it would be similar to a physics package for arcade games, a ready-made package that I can slot my content data and planner actions into. Or do I have to write my own?

Any pointers much appreciated!

I’ll try to answer this in its own terms below, but first I feel like those answers should come with some warnings.

This is presumably obvious, but there is no such thing as a generic world simulator. Any simulation is making decisions about what to model and what to ignore, what level of abstraction to use, what kinds of state are interesting to preserve, and so on. It’s misleading to think of “a world simulator” as “like” a physics engine. A physics engine is a type of world simulator, one that focuses on a comparatively well-defined kind of state: position, velocity, acceleration, elasticity, and so on. (I don’t mean it’s easy to write a good one! Just that the domain of simulation is reasonably defined.)

Text adventure world models tend to focus on rooms, furnishings, and items of the proper size to be carried by a human being, but that’s also very much a subset of what you might theoretically want to model. Items that are abstract (“love”, “communism”), intangible (“the smell of grass”, “a traumatic memory”), larger than a room (“Antarctica”), or smaller than a human being could pick up (“ant”, “quark”) are less likely to be simulated — though of course some of us have worked on extending the world model to include support for conversation topics, knowledge, and relationships.

Moreover, the choices you make about what to simulate will very heavily affect what kind of story you get out the other end. Finally, the way in which your simulation is described will affect how easily it can be plugged into a planner system.

I’d also warn against thinking of the content data as a minor aspect of the system. It’s common for research on story generation to focus on the process: is this grammar-based, is it a planner, is it partially ordered or not, are we forward-chaining or backward-chaining (or a little of each), are we planning the events of the story separately from the discourse layer, how are we measuring coherence and novelty (if those are even our concerns at all). Those are all interesting questions to ask, but the features of the content data also make a very significant difference to output quality, and a corpus implicitly encodes a lot of things about the possible story space that may not be inherently required by the generative method.

In every project I’ve worked on where there was a target output quality (as opposed to toy or experimental projects), most of my development time on a first release has gone into working and reworking the content data, rather than refining the process of generation. Once the qualities of a good data set are well understood, it’s possible to make additional data sets that conform to those expectations in significantly less time, and sometimes to support the process with tooling. But I tend to regard experiments in story generation to be fundamentally unfinished unless the experimenter also presents reasonably polished artifacts of their generative process. If they’re just describing a process and leaving high-quality artifact creation as an exercise for the future, then most of the work is (in my experience) still ahead of them.

So. That is the end of my speech. Now that we’re done with warnings:

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Postmortems (Raph Koster)

postmortemsRaph Koster’s Postmortems is a series of essays and talks about his work. That work includes online RPGs and MUDs, including some with a story focus perhaps relevant to people on this blog. (Actually, this book is just Volume One, with more volumes to come — but accordingly, it speaks about some of Koster’s earliest work, which is the material that probably dovetails the most with the interests of IF enthusiasts.)

Koster offers an introduction to MUDs that launches from Adventure, but explains the differences about playing such a game with others. There’s a good bit of design narrative and history here about those games — which may well be interesting to readers of this blog, as they’re adjacent to IF. I especially enjoyed reading the (plentiful) examples of MUD scripting, for comparison with how early IF languages worked. There are also detailed descriptions of quests and experiences that would now be difficult or impossible to recapture, such as a “Beowulf” quest from LegendMUD.

I found some of these passages a little dizzying, in a good way: they offered me a glance at an alternate universe of text-based, narrative-studded games, ones that are rarely discussed in the context of the IF canon. By which I mean: I probably should have known about a lot of this all along. (But there are so many things I should have known all along.)

At any rate, I recommend it for people who are interested in the history of games-adjacent-to-IF.

*

Postmortems is also a book about what it’s like to be in a games career, to care about and love games, to think about and with games. The first essay is about Koster’s childhood game writing, as a kid in Peru, and how he grew up from there. It’s illustrated with sketches from the game concepts of his youth. He writes about games he wrote as gifts and as messages to people close to him: another practice I value.

Because the book is drawing from such diverse sources — talks, written work, pieces created as retrospectives and other pieces written at the same time as the games themselves, some articles that include sample code and others meant for very non-technical audiences — it’s quite a varied read. But that is also part of the book’s charm.

*

I’ve written about Raph’s Theory of Fun for Game Design in the past.

Disclosure: I received a free PDF advance review copy of this book for the purposes of coverage.

End of June Link Assortment

The July 4 meeting of the Oxford/London IF Meetup will feature Leigh Alexander presenting on the narrative design process of Reigns: Her Majesty. We will start the session by playing through a bit of the game, so please do feel free to come even if you’re not familiar with it.

(And can I just say how pleased I am with this method of celebrating Independence Day, by hanging out in London with other expats playing a game about being a queen.)

July 6 is the deadline to send your intent to participate in Cragne Manor, an Anchorhead tribute game with rooms written by different authors, and organized by Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna. There’s more about this project on the intfiction forum. Contributions are to consist either of Inform 7 code or of detailed specifications for something to be rendered in Inform 7.

Collaboratively authored IF projects have a long history, from Shades of Gray to Coke is It! and the Textfire 12-pack to IF Whispers and Alabaster to the Apollo 18 tribute album. This particular one sounds like it strikes a nice balance of organization and chaos, so I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.

July 7 is the next Meetup of the SF Bay IF group.

July 19 is the next meeting of the Boston/Cambridge PR-IF.

July 21st, 3-5 p.m. at Mad City Coffee in Columbia, the Baltimore/DC group meets to discuss The Wand.

July 31st in Canterbury (UK) there is a session on how to build escape rooms for libraries.

Gothic Novel Jam is a jam for games or works inspired by the gothic novel in any fashion, and is running throughout July. IF and related narrative games are welcome.

Screen Shot 2018-06-10 at 4.20.43 PM.pngIntroComp is now accepting intents to enter. IntroComp is a competition in which you can submit just an excerpt of an unfinished interactive fiction game, and receive feedback from players about what they liked or didn’t like about it. If you’d like to participate as an author, register with the site immediately (this closes June 30, so today). Games themselves must be submitted by July 31 and judging will occur during August.

Now through August 2, the Future of Storytelling Prize is seeking submissions of interactive storytelling work. The prize is $10,000 and exhibition at the FoST Summit in October. There are two other things I feel I should mention here:

  1. I would not expect this prize to go to something primarily text-based.
  2. One of the categories of prize is for “works that foster empathy” (okay!), funded by the Charles Koch Foundation (…hm.) Considering the Koch brothers’ political involvement, I myself would want to look into that point a little further if I were considering applying for the prize, but your mileage may vary. So, FYI, reader, this is a thing that exists, and those are the connections that go with it.

Screen Shot 2018-06-10 at 4.21.24 PM.png

This is well in advance, but 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, and last year pretty definitively outgrew its previous venue. The way to get tickets in advance is to back the Kickstarter [ETA: The Kickstarter places are all sold, but see the comments on other ways to get in.]

Releases

rentavice.pngRent-a-Vice is a Choice of Games story by Natalia Theodoridou, also known for her shorter interactive fiction published on Sub-Q. Described as “cyberpunk-noir mystery”:

You’re a private investigator with a bad habit, an ex, and mountains of debt–troubles so deep that you stand to lose custody of your kid. When a mysterious client asks for your help finding their missing lover in the seamy world of virtual experience, it’s up to you to gather evidence, experience the technology for yourself, and solve the case.

There’s an author interview here as well.

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Lonely Men Club (Mike Kleine)

LLMMCC1.jpgLonely Men Club is a book by Mike Kleine (@thefancymike), running to exactly 100,000 words and constructed in a five day period via procedural generation. In that respect, it belongs to the same conceptual category as NaNoGenMo projects, or text-focused works from ProcJAM, or Annals of the Parrigues. He references Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Nick Montfort’s World Clock as influences.

Lonely Men Club represents the thoughts of (a fictionalized version of) the Zodiac Killer. These thoughts concern what he read, bills he received, the color of the sky, his bodily functions, the people he killed. A sentence such as “Killed a foreign woman in Mississippi” sits near “Went to the restroom for seventeen minutes”, and neither of these is more important to the narrator.

This sense of repetition, unpredictability and incoherence, and the lack of discrimination between subjects, are Kleine’s desired and intended outcome, so much so that he’s needed a generator to achieve it. There are typos, I believe intentionally. Sometimes words are jammed together without spaces to create new compounds.

This is a text that is playing with cadence, though individual units of coherent meaning are larger than in Allison Parrish’s Articulations. The latter fixates on a single phrase at a time, often repeating it many times in a single sentence, using that repetition to cluster together all the ideas that might be linked by the word “ever”, for instance:

Forever and amen. And ever. Amen. Every man and every maid never a man and never a maid every woman, every man, every woman, every maid: every morn and every night every morning and every night every night and every morning, in every note and every line for in every line, and in every verse and every limb, and every nerve of every virgin element, — never, never believe never, believe me, and ever believe.

…whereas in Kleine’s grammar the repetitions are less insistent, and individual sentences less impressionistic.

Even the layout of the text on the page, with smudges and imperfections, not to mention variant type sizes, is both an reference to the Zodiac’s ciphers and an accidental (but embraced) result of the process of generating, cutting, and pasting text. Sometimes the text in Lonely Men Club is inverted, white on black. Sometimes it’s scrunched, or in landscape rather than portrait orientation, or falling askew on the page, in a way that reminded me of the dynamic text manipulation of Liza Daly’s A Physical Book project. Sometimes a paragraph simply runs off the page’s edge, losing all the words on the right side.

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