Mid-January Link Assortment

Events

PR-IF in Cambridge/Boston has been running a series of IF readings, and they’ve already started with Liza Daly’s Stone Harbor. That reading series continues on Wednesday afternoons, with more events January 18, January 25 and February 1. Next up is Astrid Dalmady’s excellent Cactus Blue Motel.

January 29 is the next meeting of the Oxford/London IF meetup: this is a pub meetup in Oxford. You’re welcome to bring a WIP, or just turn up to talk.

Tool Session Upcoming

Every successful IF system thrives on the feedback of invested beta users, who bend the tool in directions no one had anticipated, and who often become its first evangelists. But with so much going on, it can be hard to attract that engagement and feedback.

It’s not a complete solution, but periodically at the Oxford/London IF Meetup I run a tools session where tool creators can show and share their work, and get questions and responses from possible future users.

The next one of these will probably be May 2017, and I’m hoping to up our game a little bit. In the past, we’ve had a session of 3-4 talks and demonstrations from different tool creators, some local and some via Skype. Those talks will still be the backbone of the program, but I’d like to make the session a bit longer and add more time for hands-on exploration of at least some of the tools.

If you have something you’d like to share, let me know and I’ll follow up about what is involved.

New Games

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House of Many Doors comes out February 3: this is a Sunless-Sea-reminiscent piece featuring eerie locations and procedural poetry, and one of the first beneficiaries of the Fundbetter funding set up by Failbetter Games. Not exactly standard text IF, but very word-focused:

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End of December Link Assortment

These Violent Delights

mv5bmteyodk5ntc2mjneqtjeqwpwz15bbwu4mdq5ntgwotkx-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Before I’d seen a single episode of Westworld, a journalist reached out to me for comment about it. The show touches on the question of AI consciousness, narrative design, the evocation of empathy with non-player characters, and the morality of gameplay, which may be why it seemed like I might have some thoughts.

If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s an HBO show in which rich people can visit an incredibly detailed western-styled theme-park full of AI-driven robotic characters, called hosts. The human players are called guests. It quickly becomes obvious that they come to Westworld primarily in order to misbehave: they have sex with the prostitutes at the brothel; they assault the daughters of the ranchers; they maim and murder hosts casually or with elaborate sadism. And all of these things take place within the context of storylines crafted by narrative designers and then meticulously supervised. The hosts are able to improvise slightly in response to the input of humans, but then eventually they will revert to their core loops, playing out the same narrative tracks over and over again.

Naturally, when initially asked, I said that I hadn’t watched it and so couldn’t offer much direct insight. I added that I thought full AI consciousness in the sense imagined by science fiction was some way off, and that art about that possibility is often really about something else: about groups of people who feel entitled to the labor and service of others; about the self-perpetuating, semi-human, half-programmed entities that already exist in our world in the form of governments and corporations.

I have now seen Westworld, and I still think the same. The narrative design and the AI aspects are handled competently enough to frame the story, but Westworld is by no means a master class in what interactive narrative design actually entails, or how people actually use games to explore their morality, or again in the way a sort of pseudo-personality emerges in current AI research.

To the extent there’s a thematic point here of interest, it is about the nature of human identity, the role of suffering in how we understand ourselves, and the ways we construct ourselves. I would have liked to see the show go much further, but the plot is often allowed to trump the characters.

I am now going to dig into all those assertions in more detail, with spoilers. If you are interested in watching the show yourself, you should probably do that before going forward.

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2016 Retrospective

(As mentioned yesterday, this is about my own work in 2016, since I’ve already posted a year-in-IF overview at Rock Paper Shotgun. If that’s what you’re looking for, it’s over there.)

The Empress’ Shadow is my latest story for Fallen London, and it is now available for purchase if you’re a player of that game:

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Teach at Sinning Jenny’s Finishing School! Recruit students and train them in important skills, such as deportment and maiming. Then send the class to plunder the secrets of the Empress’ Shadow – Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, who is visiting from the surface!

Unlike some of my other recent Fallen London pieces, this one doesn’t require you to be an Exceptional Friend. It’s playable at any skill level, though at least a little initial familiarity with the world will make it more enjoyable.

I had a lot of fun writing this one, and it’s been warmly received by the first batch of players.

deceased_promoI’ve written several other pieces for the Fallen London universe this year: the three ports of Anthe, Aigul, and Dahut for the Sunless Sea Zubmariner expansion, a Sunless Sea officer storyline about the Cladery Heir, and an Exceptional Friends story called The Frequently Deceased. As always, Failbetter is a huge amount of fun to work with.

I’ve also done a lot of work on other commercial projects. Most of those pieces are not out, and several are not even announced as yet, so there will be more to share in the first part of 2017. One thing I can mention: my Choice of Games project Platinum Package has grown to a dauntingly large word count.

For much of 2016, I’ve been working on conversational and emotional NPC behavior for Spirit AI. It’s too soon talk much about the internals of that project, which is why I have kept this comparatively quiet, but I’m very excited about it. I have the pleasure of working alongside Aaron Reed of IF fame; Toby Nelson (who has done lots of AAA game work but is best known to this audience for his work on the Mac Inform app); Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris (whose work includes Redshirt and this terrific GDC talk on designing games for social simulation); and James Ryan (some of his awesome work on social modelling and dialogue generation is written up here).

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Since roughly June, I’ve had a column with Rock Paper Shotgun called IF Only. Because RPS is specifically about PC gaming, I don’t cover the rich range of IF for mobile there — but there’s been plenty else to say. It’s great to have the opportunity to present interactive fiction to a bigger audience in that venue.

That’s moved a little bit of content off this blog, though I still do write here about topics that I think are too niche or specialist for the RPS audience. I figure that’s probably a net gain for the IF community, though: the audience for Rock Paper Shotgun is several orders of magnitude greater than the audience for this site.

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Mid-December Link Assortment

Events

December, man. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I do not foresee having any time in the second half of December for IF-related events where you have to actually move your body to a new location in order to participate. This space left blank and possibly snowy.

Craft

Adam Strong-Morse from Choice of Games writes about how to do effective end-game structures:

An arm-and-fingers structure is a game with several different final chapters where the player’s decisions determine which final chapter they experience on a given playthrough. Most of the game is the arm, with chapter leading to chapter more or less automatically, but the structure of the end of a game is like a hand, with entirely distinct and separate fingers branching off in each direction. Kevin Gold pioneered this structure in Choice of Robots to great effect, and Lynnea Glasser also used it well in The Sea Eternal. It can maintain a manageable structure that does not require writing thousands of different branches, while still creating the feeling that the end of the game depends on the player’s choices, not just in determining a final outcome, but in determining the entire feeling and plot of the game’s climax.

Josh Giesbrecht has shared a current-Inform implementation of my Waypoint Conversation concept. He welcomes submissions from other people, especially upgrades to the sample content.

No Time to Play has an article on the space between parser and choice games, and how the middle ground has opened up in interesting ways this year. I disagree with some of the article’s points — particularly about how much agency is available in Twine work, where I agree with Juhana Leinonen’s assessment the there’s typically far more narrative agency in a choice-based game than in a parser-based game — but the article makes a pitch for the newish Elm engine and makes some other suggestions you may not have seen elsewhere.

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