Workshop experience: Days 2 and 3

Continuing background on my IF workshop in Passo Fundo.

Day 2: IF history.

I had a whole nifty multimedia timeline thing created for this workshop… and then at the critical moment it wouldn’t open or work at all. So that was frustrating, but it’s the kind of thing that just happens sometimes, and you can’t let yourself get thrown. So I swapped in a PowerPoint presentation I’d intended for later, about different kinds of IF interface. That had a bunch of interesting screenshots, and I ad-libbed the rest.

There are all kinds of angles one could take on a history like this, but my impression from the first day was that the students were most eager to be convinced about the storytelling merits of IF, so that was what I focused on, rather than delving too much into gameplay developments, NPC intelligence, tiny stabs at drama management, etc. I did discuss those topics privately with a few students during breaktime or outside the workshop.

This session was divided in two halves: up to ca. 1990, and afterward. I’d talk for a bit about history, and show screenshots as appropriate, and then we’d stop and play a bit of some games. For part I we played a little bit of Advent and a little of Plundered Hearts.

That was interesting in all kinds of ways. We found Advent really hard going, which didn’t surprise me — I find it hard going myself. Plundered Hearts seemed to interest more of the students. I picked PH for this demonstration because I wanted to show how far Infocom came in terms of narrative from the days of Advent, and in my opinion Plundered Hearts is some of their best work in this regard — fast-paced, with characters who may be cliches but who inspire definite feelings from the outset. But — and this was an issue I hadn’t thought about hard enough — it proved rather challenging to the translators because of the various archaic or unusual vocabulary, and I had to explain the meanings of “reticule”, “coffer”, and “randy.”

For part II we played some of Photopia. Photopia was again a bit of a translation challenge (“keg”, “gettin’ it on”) but I think overall the participants felt there was more of a payoff once the translation had been accomplished. They particularly liked the conversation options available in the first scene.

Several students were very struck on the difference in tone and characterization between Photopia and what they’d seen going on before, so that opened up some interesting discussion. I also told them what happens at the end and what it feels like to play the game. At that point they got into an argument that I couldn’t completely follow, but which I gather concerned whether it’s possible for a story to have multiple endings in any effective way. I mentioned that that was something we’d come back to with IF.

I’d come in prepared to have us play some of Rameses as well, but I realized on the basis of the earlier translation experience that that wasn’t going to fly: there’s too much text, and too much of it is slang or obscenity, and if you don’t understand the nuances of what’s going through the protagonist’s mind, you won’t get any of why the game is interesting. All the same, the participants were really intrigued by what I told them about it. I also described Galatea, and The Baron and Fate. The description of Gijsbers’ work left them interested and a little appalled. (“This author does not have any children, I think,” said one of them.)

I accompanied all that with some screenshots of other work, including Mystery House, The Hobbit, Gateway, Six Stories, Everybody Dies, Alabaster, King of Shreds and Patches, and the Vespers 3D project. My goal here was to point out some of the different impulses at work when using images with IF: on the one hand the desire to make something approaching a graphical adventure with the images creating a strong sense of place and being very game-y, and on the other a trend towards more stylized illustrations of a kind one might find in a book.

I spoke very briefly about some educational IF projects as well.

And, as you’ve no doubt noticed, I left out just enormous amounts of stuff that would have been good to mention, because there wasn’t anything like enough time: we didn’t talk about many large modern games at all, for instance, and that was mostly because I was setting up things we could try on Day 3.

Even so, by the end of Day 2 I had at least a vocal subsection of the class convinced that there was something of literary interest in this whole interactivity thing.

Day 3: More play experience

I wanted the students to get some more hands-on time, so I put together an IFDB list of all the games we’d talked about so far and invited the students to pick ones they were interested in that had available game files, and try them out. (Recall they already had Gargoyle installed, so it was then a fairly easy step to pick and download stuff and play it.) This time, having learned my lesson on Day 1, I encouraged them to play in pairs or small groups rather than solo.

There was some technical kerfuffle because I hadn’t anticipated that the university firewall would block downloads of things it thought of as games. Doh. Fortunately, I had a USB key with copies of most of these works, and we uploaded those to the public server while one of the technical support people looked into fixing the firewall problem (it was resolved a few minutes later).

Students spent most of this period sampling various selections. The most popular were Zork and Alabaster, though students also dipped back into Advent, and I know Galatea and Rameses were also tried.

I hadn’t anticipated that Alabaster would be so popular, honestly, but I think the combination of a story they already knew and the illustrations made it more accessible to this particular group. With the images, they could tell when they’d done something that made an important change, even if it then took them a little while to piece out what the text said. They proved to be very vocal players, too, often gasping in surprise when something striking happened. During our coffee break, several of them told the others about the surprising experience they had of asking Snow White about the magic box.

Zork I think appealed on the basis of its age and because it was the one game some of them had heard of before; but also because it provides some early things to accomplish, with the half-open window and the light source. (Though it turns out that “ajar” is another word that threw the translators.)

Another snag was that one unfortunate got misdirected in his searches to, er, this, and was curious why the game seemed so dull.

After everyone had had a chance to play for a while, we came back to the group discussion format and talked about what people liked and disliked about the games they tried.

All in all, I think these two days worked pretty well. My biggest regrets or uncertainties are about the things I left out: no Andrew Plotkin work, no Blue Lacuna, no Anchorhead.

Blue Lacuna’s omission was an especially tough one given its novice-friendliness in general, and I would have loved to take them through some of the more interesting interaction formats in Chapter 1. In fact, I was originally intending to do that as a group. But we were just running out of time as it was, and it struck me that BL’s verbosity and rather abstract beginning might make it hard to deal with in translation form. Besides, I was hesitant to hand them a teaching game that was too easy: the fact that Blue Lacuna accepts such a wide range of noun-only commands might give them the wrong idea about what would be accepted in other works.

6 thoughts on “Workshop experience: Days 2 and 3”

  1. I’ve been enjoying these write-ups, Emily. It’s been great to hear how you decided to cover the material and what the reactions were.

    Your concerns about Blue Lacuna’s interface being too easy made me smile: I and others have pointed out that it’s great at teaching people how to play Blue Lacuna, and not so much at how to play any other IF. I think its interface works best for people who’ve never touched IF before, or the very experienced who see at a glance how the keywords map to traditional IF commands. In this case I agree it probably would have just been confusing.

    I’m just getting around to playing “Make It Good,” which has some great newbie-friendly nudges– I’m particularly enamored of the single-line status bar suggestions of what to do next.

  2. I considered “Make It Good” too, but there again — there’s so much in the game that’s confusing, or potentially confusing: at certain points you’re told things that directly contradict your expectations. For an English-speaking player that’s fine, but I was worried that it would be too convoluted. (And, of course, it’s massive, and very hard.)

  3. A very cool write-up, Emily. I realize this may be a difficult question, especially given the problems in translation, but I’m wondering if you can tell us what the students got out of it by the end?

    –I understand what you covered; and you mention they were largely more interested in IF-as-story; but do you have any sense what they came away from it thinking and feeling about IF?

    Conrad.

    1. In the nature of such things, I know most about what the enthusiastic (and English-speaking) ones thought: the couple of students who were into the gaming side asked a lot of questions about the graphical possibilities; I think by the end of the class they had already got an idea of something they wanted to write, with a graphical map to go alongside. There were also several who said they really wanted to work on making a Portuguese language file, and several who talked to me more either during break or later who were interested in the possibilities of interaction for artistic purposes. Those all seemed to have enjoyed IF and the class, and to be interested in trying out more.

      But there were also some students who were quieter, and I have no idea what they thought. I know some were frustrated by the parser in the works they tried, but not how much that defined their perceptions.

      If it had been an all English-speaking group I might have tried closing the session with a feedback survey, but that seemed less to the point here.

  4. Interesting posts, Emily.

    The description of Gijsbers’ work left them interested and a little appalled. (“This author does not have any children, I think,” said one of them.)

    Well, it’s certainly true. :) (Though I suspect it’s true for many people who find the time to write interactive fiction!)

    By the way, you write “Gijsbers’ work”–shouldn’t that be “Gijsbers’s work”? I’m wondering since I made the title of my new web page “Victor Gijsbers’s Site”, and I wouldn’t like to have a spelling error in the title of my site. ;)

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