The Uncanny Deck: Co-authoring with GPT-2

Artbreeder landscape, developed as an image of Booknesford, from Annals of the Parrigues. Angry citizens threw the last of the Parrigues from the cliff in order to execute her.

Many years ago, I started writing a fantasy story. In the story, there was a culturally important game you could play with friends, which was usually mostly a bit like poker.

The thing was, every once in a while you would draw some totally weird extra card that had never been in the pack before. The Steward of Hearts. The King of Arrows. Both suits and ranks were open to change.

In the story, this was the work of prophetic spirits.

I never finished writing the story because I was really less interested in the plot than I was in the deck itself — the idea of a set of symbols that was mostly known and constrained and human-made, but had an occasional dose of the uncanny.

To me, that dose of the uncanny is also part of the appeal of working with AI — the way it can, at its best, introduce elements that feel both significant and unexpected.

Over the past year or so, I’ve worked on and off on making a text generator that describes fortune-telling cards; where the deck has its own definite imagery and set of meanings; where the generator usually stays approximately on form; but where you sometimes find a card you would not expect at all.

The rest of the article goes a little bit into what I’ve done, what it produces, and why I find this an interesting way to write with a machine.

If you’d like your own experimental output from it: through this weekend (until early July 19), I’m supporting this fundraiser by generating tarot card readings or new Parrigues-style towns with this generator. If you’d like your own, donate any amount, then ping to let me know what you’d like. (More about that offer on Twitter.)

Now, the article:

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Mid-July Link Assortment


Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that over the last year and a half, a lot of these posts have been signed “Mort Short” rather than “Emily.” This is because, for a lot of the pandemic, I haven’t had the time and energy to guarantee that the link assortment would happen on time twice a month.

But knowing how much it mattered to me to maintain the community support, my brother stepped up to help draft and schedule posts. He worked with me to keep the load as light as possible: often I’d forward him email or point him at items of interest online, and he’d pull together event dates, images, links, and summary text for me to review before it all went live.

He’s now stepped back again for the time being, but I wanted to acknowledge the kindness.


July 28 is the next meetup of the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction.

July 31 is the deadline to vote in ParserComp. There are a bunch of people currently writing reviews of these games.

August 7 is the next SF Bay interactive fiction meetup.

Programming Languages and Interactive Entertainment is a 2-day workshop running alongside the AIIDE conference. Paper submissions are due by August 12, and the event itself will be October 11-12. This workshop also has a “conversation starters” track, where people are encouraged to submit materials to spur discussion groups. Demos of languages are also welcome. If you’re working on a domain-specific language for interactive fiction development, this might be a place to share what you’re working on.

September 1 is the deadline to register as an author for IF Comp, and the games themselves will be due September 28. This year, unusually, there is a move so that authors participating in the competition may also act as judges: this rules change may not be permanent, but it’s an experiment this year to help accommodate the growing number of authors and make sure games are getting enough voters.


Here’s a fun interview with inkle about the development of Overboard!


I know I’m constantly linking these, but Aaron Reed’s series 50 Years of Text Games continues to be excellent, and is now up to 1996 with Andrew Plotkin’s So Far.


Mr Pages, from the Mask of the Rose art (Failbetter Games)

This month, I also published a blog post on Failbetter’s blog about character behaviour development for Mask of the Rose.

The game is built in ink, and doesn’t have the programmatic sophistication of something like Versu. But Mask does have its own notion of a social model, used to resolve how characters respond to the player and whether they’re willing to do as you ask.

That response-resolution plays out in the immediate performance as well as the long-term outcome. Even where the lines of dialogue don’t change, the system’s ability to distinguish between “hesitant cooperation” and “happy cooperation” may feed into character expressions and pacing of delivery (since we can do things like automate a brief pause).

These are nuances that could be scripted by hand, in theory, but in practice we just wouldn’t have time to do it.

Books and Games

Not new in general, but new to me: this week I came across A. M. Sartor’s illustrated interactive work, including a couple of hauntingly-depicted poems and storybooks.

End of June Link Assortment


July 3 is the next SF Bay Area IF Meetup.

ParserComp closes for new entrants very very soon, and the games will be available to play and judge throughout July – so if you’d like to try some piping hot new text adventures, they’ll be available shortly. (If you’re curious about the how and why of voting, there’s an extended discussion of it on the intfiction forums.)

Recent Things

RockPaperShotgun has an article about Failbetter’s working process that also includes a bit about our forthcoming work and a few quotes of mine.

The Short Game podcast has recently covered a number of IF and IF-adjacent games – including inkle’s Overboard.

Aaron Reed’s excellent 50 Years of Text Games series continues, this time with an article on Patchwork Girl, a piece of classic hypertext. (If you’re curious about what I’ve written about it as well, that’s here.)

Mid-June Link Assortment


June 30 is the last day to submit games to ParserComp.

July 3 is the next SF / Bay Area IF Meetup.

New Releases

Overboard! is a new interactive detective story from inkle – in which you are definitely the culprit, and the only question is who is going to take the fall for your misdeeds. It’s available for iOS and on Steam.

If you prefer your stories in interactive audio form instead, you may be interested in Wanderword’s audio horror story Escape from 63rd and Wallace, set in 1890s Chicago. Playable on the Amazon Echo, it features two modes, story-focused and puzzle-focused.


Narrative Mechanics is a book of articles on games and the making of meaning through mechanics.


Aaron Reed’s 50 Years of Text Games series continues to deliver extraordinary stories about the history of the medium. I found myself particularly enthralled and fascinated with his telling of the games written by St. Bride’s – a chapter in game history I’d not heard of before Aaron brought it to my attention.


The London IF Meetup heard from Destina Connor about characterisation and identity in JRPGs. A recording can be found here.

Jeremiah McCall recently spoke about teaching history through video games, and that talk can be found on YouTube.

End of June Link Assortment


July 4 is the next meeting of the SF Bay Interactive Fiction Meetup.

July 4 is also the final day for submissions to The Next Adventure Jam. The 8-Bit-Centric contest welcomes games developed with Adventuron Classroom. Contest rules are in the link.

https___cdn.evbuc.com_images_104266328_11605589405_1_original.jpgJuly 6 is an online event for those interested in starting and building a career in game narrative. Andrew Walsh and the WGGB work hard at helping new writers find their way into the game industry, and existing writers build connections and careers. The event is free, but does require registration.

New Releases

Unmapped Path is releasing its first game, Night in the Unpleasant House. Writing and Illustration are by Joel Haddock, and the code is being written by Chris Klimas, who has been mentioned multiple times here, as he created Twine. The mobile game is for iOS devices: “a classic tale of revenge, local politics, pseudoscience, questionable botany, love, and loss.”


Talks, Articles, and Podcasts

NarraScope 2020 wrapped in June, and the folks at the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation plan to post a transparency report about the event (similar to what was done in 2019) in the near future. Many of the talks are currently available on YouTube for those that missed them the first time around.

Mid-June Link Assortment

Links below the fold for those who find them useful; the fold itself is here to acknowledge that the movement I wrote about fifteen days ago is ongoing even if media coverage is somewhat decreased; and that the work of change is more important than anything in the rest of the post.

I’ll put this up here, though: if you have not encountered it yet, you may be interested in the bundle for Racial Justice and Equality.

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