Blogs on Narrative Design and Game Writing

I’ve covered many books on game writing here over the years, and I’ve collected and linked a lot of online resources on narrative design and on the history of IF design in particular.

This time, I’m recommending some blogs by other people who post about game writing or narrative design. Originally this post was going to be about blogs and podcasts, but there were enough of both that I have broken it out, and the podcasts section will appear later.

I’ve also intentionally not clustered these blogs by topics, since a lot of bloggers write about different things on the same blog. So instead I’ve mentioned some key posts, if there’s something on the site I consider especially characteristic of that person.

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Graham Nelson on Open-Sourcing Inform 7

This past weekend was NarraScope, a genuinely excellent conference about interactive storytelling in many shapes and forms. It was fantastic, and my one complaint is that there was so much good content that I was forced to miss a lot of things I would have liked to see.

(I livetweeted as much as I could, and I’m grateful to other attendees who did the same from other talks. The #NarraScope stream on Twitter contains a lot of notes about all the things discussed there.)

Graham spoke about Inform 7’s current state of progress, and for those who either weren’t able to attend NarraScope at all, or who chose to do one of the other excellent things going on at the same time, we’ve posted the slides and notes from that talk.

And if you’re curious about the previous time he spoke about I7:

Mailbag: Knowledge-driven Dialogue in Inform

I am doing my first steps in Interactive Fiction and your work has helped me a lot. I have been working on an idea, that requires dialogue based on “knowledge”, in other words, the character and the NPCs will initiate dialogue in order to fill out their gaps in knowing the other person. Firstly, I was wondering if Inform7 can do something like that, and if it can which dialogue system would be the best to serve as a basis. Secondly, I was wondering if Inform7 can implement AI, without falling back to Inform6. Thank you in advance and most importantly, for your work in the community! Sorry for the annoyance of my question but I was kind of lost among the many different dialogue systems that are out there…
[and then on confirmation that the asker was okay with a mailbag post]:

First of all let me clarify that I am not asking for mentorship, with this question. More like pointing to the right direction, if there is such a direction. There is a strong chance that there is not something similar implemented, so in this case, don’t let me take your time.

My question is if there is a dialogue system in Inform7 (or in some other framework) , that is based on knowledge of a predefined set of data. For instance the protagonist to be able to query for any one of that data and to store that information in such a way, that the next answer to reveal even more data. Or the knowledge itself to enable the protagonist to make more specific questions. The answer I would like, is not how to implement such a system, of course, but only a reference of the type  “have a look at this extension of Inform7” or “there is no such thing implemented” or “there is no such thing, but you could draw inspiration from this”. Nothing more than that! I have thought of a potential implementation, treating data as things that are visible or not, and the knowledge to be treated as “possession” of those things, but I am not certain it is the right approach.

First of all, re. the Inform 6/7 question: Inform 7 is a full programming language, and you do not need to drop to Inform 6 to code behavior. In the early years there were things that were hard to express in Inform 7, especially mathematical things or elements that accessed files or manipulated on-screen behavior, but most of those elements do now have an Inform 7 wrapper available. Occasionally people still choose to insert Inform 6 chunks inside an Inform 7 program for various reasons, but it isn’t required.

Likewise, when you say “to implement AI,” this is such a big and fuzzy question that it’s hard to answer without more of a breakdown.

Inform 7 is good — and indeed much better than Inform 6 — for handling rule-based decision-making and firing off character interactions within the model world; the main issue here is performance if you’re driving a large number of characters or asking them to plan over complex world state. The rule-based aspects of Inform 7 in fact have influenced other approaches to game AI in larger game applications, as Elan Ruskin discusses in one of his GDC talks.

For other AI approaches, you’d have to do quite a bit more work; for instance, it isn’t really designed to make use of any natural language processing methods outside of its own rich and complex parsing mechanism, and if you wanted to do something that for instance tried to guess what the player meant by words that weren’t in the game’s dictionary but might be similar to ones that were, you’d more likely use some kind of special pre-processing layer or a call out to an external script, because it doesn’t provide ways to e.g. access WordNet or a word2vec model. Likewise, it’s not designed to plug together with SpaCy or Google NLU or any of the external tools that have come into being over the past decade+ to help interpret the semantic structure of a piece of input. It might be interesting to explore how that would work, but that doesn’t exist currently.

Inform plus machine learning is a slightly more interesting point of conversation, because the TextWorld project exists, and there are researchers who are exploring how to use an Inform-based world model as a sandbox environment for training ML agents to solve a text-based game.

That’s different again from the idea of an ML agent designed not to solve an IF game but to be a companion or competitor within an IF game, for the sake of enhancing the player’s experience. There are relatively few IF games in which it would even really be meaningful to talk about a competitor character within a game, because most IF doesn’t have mechanics designed for competitive play (though Kerkerkruip might work). My old game When in Rome 2 also featured an NPC with dynamically selected characteristics who might work counter to the intentions of the player, and it was possible in some cases to be bested or even killed by this creature, if you went up against a clever one and it got resources ready faster than you could.

Now, on to the main question.

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Return of the Obra Dinn (Lucas Pope)

Return of the Obra Dinn is probably already familiar to you if you follow indie narrative games at all: winner of both the Grand Prize and Excellence in Narrative at the most recent IGF, the creation of Papers, Please designer Lucas Pope. I’m only getting to it now because I’m seriously behind.

The game puts you in the role an an insurance inspector, trying to work out what happened to everyone who used to be aboard a ghost ship. Thanks to a supernatural pocket watch, you’re able to revisit the time-frozen moment of death for every body you find, allowing you to explore one disturbing tableau after another to figure out who died, in what sequence, and why.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a very good game, one that achieves spectacle, surprise, and even some comedy within its confines. It’s worth playing with as little spoiler information as possible, so I’ve put less than usual above the fold. More design thoughts follow below, but they assume you’ve either played the game or read enough of a synopsis to be able to follow references.

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Storytelling in Video Games: The Art of Digital Narrative (Amy Green)

Starting in mid-2017, I’ve used the first Tuesday of the month for reviews of books about game writing, and occasional books about other writing in general.

As of now, I’ve gone through about two dozen — including everything from self-published Kindle ebooks about interactive fiction to acclaimed classics of screenwriting advice — and that doesn’t count the books I read, or started to read, and decided they were just too unhelpful to cover on the blog at all.

I feel like this project is drawing to a natural close.

While there are a handful of good writing books left unreviewed on my shelves or my ebook collection, I’ve talked about pretty much all the ones that had a strong bearing on interactive work; and I’m finding there are diminishing returns on reading more of the same. But it’s been useful for me, seeing what is out there, and I hope it’s been helpful for some of you as well.

So I’m shifting process a little. I’ve started instead to cover academic work that might interest IF authors and narrative designers — trying to make it a little more accessible and curate some of the stuff that might not be easily found. (My article on Max Kreminski’s work is part of that).


Today’s book, meanwhile, is a piece that straddles the line. The title, Storytelling in Video Games: The Art of Digital Narrative, sounds like it could easily belong to authorial how-to piece. But this is a piece of scholarship in digital narrative, rather than a craft guide, a speculation on experimental narrative creation, or a how-to book about getting on in the industry. The subtitle “Studies in Gaming”, is an important clue here. After a general introduction on why her topic is important, Green goes on to look at concepts of agency, immersion, and worldbuilding; and then to dig into how different long- and short-form games deliver their narrative experiences. She ends with a chapter on games studies in the classroom.

Green is interested in talking about how game narratives work, but from the perspective of a critical reader. She covers Firewatch and Everybody’s Gone to the RaptureFar Cry Primal and Fallout 4 — and any number of others — via Baudrillard and Benedict Anderson. The rest of the time, much of the text consists of summaries of the various games and their features, and some the critical insight about them as games is pulled in the form of quotes from game critics.

Relatively little of her own critique struck me as new information, and — ironically — in some cases her desire to communicate the emotional impact of things like complicity and immersion produced descriptions that to me felt both hyperbolic and obscure. For instance, she writes about the climax of Last of Us:

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I puzzled a little over this — is she claiming that the player is more embodied or more present in the narrative here than at other, less tense moments previously? — but I think she means that at this point in the story the player, enacting the protagonist’s grim choices, cannot escape feeling both complicity and an intimate physical awareness of the acts.

I found myself pulling away from this book, and I think I’m just severely not the target audience. Going via Tzvetan Todorov to conclude that stories need an opening hook and that Last of Us has one — this feels like coming up with an itinerary that includes two hours on the Eurostar but the only destination is my corner shop.

For someone who comes from a humanities academic background but who knows relatively little about games, it might be a different story; though I’m afraid probably few people who meet that description are reading this blog with any regularity.

Curating Simulated Storyworlds (James Ryan) – Ch 6f

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This is the third of several posts about James Ryan’s dissertation, Curating Simulated Storyworlds. We are now reading chapters 6 and following, in which Ryan describes his own projects in the curated emergent narrative space.

After the first five chapters, this piece becomes considerably more narrative in its own structure: Ryan is (consciously) telling the story of his own artistic development and practice, and the particular works to which it gave rise.

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