LudoLunch was a game designers’ picnic lunch held in Christchurch Meadow yesterday by Simon Roth, Nia Wearn, and compatriots. (Edited to add Nia — apologies for leaving her out initially, as I hadn’t realized she was co-organizer here.)
Simon asked if I would talk about interactive fiction, and it only really hit me after I accepted that the parameters of a family picnic ruled out most of the kinds of intro IF talk I usually give. We wouldn’t have computers or projection screens or wifi, so I couldn’t teach Twine or inklewriter or Inform. I couldn’t run Lost Pig or Aisle, or do a slideshow overview of recent or canonical IF. Even some non-techy options were out too: it can be fun playing through good paper CYOA books in a small group, taking turns reading passages aloud, but that’s more a 2-6 person activity, and ideally done someplace quiet enough that no one has to shout. Besides, I wanted to communicate something about the diversity of current IF and the appeal of creating it. This was a dev crowd, after all.
Finally, this was a family event including small kids, which meant a) attention spans were likely to be shorter and b) it wasn’t the ideal place to do a presentation on, say, Horse Master, or queer sexualities in interactive fiction, or IF explorations of the problems with late-stage capitalism.
Below is what I came up with: a casual party game meant to give a partial taste of what IF writing involves, and hint at the diversity of IF games out there in the world, while being as flexible as possible about the audience size and composition.
Notebooks and pens, one set per team.
52 cards, divided into 26 Story cards, 19 Constraints, and 7 Secret Aims. I printed the card text on stickers and then applied them to the faces of an old deck of regular playing cards.
The Stories are all based (though in some cases with simplifications to make them straightforward enough to fit on a card) on the premises of actual, existing IF games.
The Constraints all describe rules about what sorts of options can be given to the players, such as “Each choice may only be one word long” or “Each choice must begin with the word USE”. These cards are all based on design constraints that I’ve actually encountered in my own work or seen other people fulfill.
The Secret Aims represent things that the teams are trying to make happen during the reading or voting on the choices — for instance to split votes evenly, to make someone laugh when the choices are read, etc.
This is a game about writing choice-based IF. Judging is intentionally completely subjective — this is a casual game, but it’s also reflecting the fact that people react quite subjectively to finished IF works as well.
Prep: a volunteer is selected to judge (or possibly multiple volunteers if we have a lot of enthusiasts). The rest of the participants are divided into teams and given a notebook and pen each.
Round 1: Each team receives one premise and one constraint card at random. Based on these, the team works together to write some intro text, a sequence of choices, and the choice outcomes.
When the first team is ready to present, they raise their hands. The moderator then sets a 60-second timer for everyone else to finish.
Once the timer goes off, each team selects someone to read their premise and constraint cards. They then present the choice text that they have written. Members of the other teams vote on which options they would pick from the possibilities offered; the winning-voted option response is then read aloud as well.
Judges observe the outcomes and decide which set of choices was the most interesting. The successful team is awarded a point.
Round 2: Similar to Round 1, except that each team also receives a secret aim to try to accomplish with their choices.
Before reading their choices aloud, participants hand the judges their secret aim card. They do not announce the secret aim to the voters. The judges are responsible for determining whether a team’s secret aim has been met and allowing this to influence their judgement accordingly.
Round 3: This time each team only gets a premise card. One of the following variant constraints is selected and applies to all teams (so, for instance, if “hypertext-style choice” is selected, everyone is working on that type of output).
- Hypertext-style choice: player has to choose by selecting a word out of the body text. You are encouraged to use funny voices to indicate link text.
- Options are presented sequentially. At each point the players can accept the option or skip it and go on to the next. If they haven’t voted to accept any earlier option, they’re stuck with the final one.
- Two-stage choice: player has to pick one item from each of two lists.
- Failthrough choice: some choices have negative outcomes, but then the player has the option to choose another from the list.
People seemed to have fun with this. Even people who weren’t judges or on creative teams were able to spectate and come in on the “vote for options” phase. It took long enough to play Round 1 (and the day schedule was already slightly behind) so I didn’t run Rounds 2 or 3, but I could see doing that in some other context in the future.
We got some entertaining choice-writing out of it, too. One team pulled the premise of Snowblind Aces and worked up a fun choice about jealousy and revenge, while another built on the concept of Lifeline to imagine a god-mode game where the player manipulated the environmental factors threatening the stranded astronaut. The team that got the Violet premise also received the constraint that choices could only involve physical/geographical movement, which they managed to resolve inventively by offering responses to your girlfriend’s ultimatum including “run ” and “drop to one knee”.
With minor tweaking, I could see using this as a component of an IF writing workshop — one could easily remove the subjective judging element and instead give group feedback on the choices invented, for instance. With an all-adult audience, I might also imagine swapping out some of the premises to cover more of the range of recent IF about serious topics.
At the end I passed out a few flyers with IF URLs on them, and even a few of the classic parser IF postcards.