Beckett (Simon Meek)

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The author of Beckett reached out to me and suggested I have a look at it. So did a couple of unrelated people on Twitter. But when I looked at the website, I couldn’t figure out what it was meant to be: the premise, the play experience, how long it was likely to take. What was this thing? No one seemed eager or even able to describe this game to me. It was only after I’d downloaded and played a bit that I encountered this explanation. It has a clearer plot overview than I could really offer myself.

I’ve played the first several scenes of it now. I’m not sure whether I will play more: it is off-putting, intentionally so, and I am not sure whether it’s giving me enough to make me put up with its off-putting qualities.

But here’s what I can tell you so far. Mechanically, it is a point-and-click adventure, albeit one with a fair amount of text, and set in a moody sepia world generally viewed from above:

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As for genre and premise: I am not quite sure of the ground truths of the world, yet. The place is old-fashioned and noir-ish. The protagonist appears to be a form of detective, though he “doesn’t do domestics.” People use physical paperwork and old-fashioned desks. Images hung on the wall look like they come from the 1920s. At one point we visit a bar and to enter we have to speak through a buzzer at the door; it suggests a speakeasy. Someone tells us to plant a bug, and the bug that we see is of the animal variety, shown in video and from a disquieting proximity. Indeed, insects appear frequently and in contexts where you might not expect to see them, including at one point on the neck of an attractive woman, as though it were a kind of jewelry.

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IF Comp Roundup

IF Comp is now over for the year! Here are a few recommendations for different audiences, depending on what you’re looking for.

 

If you want serious story:

cover.pngBogeyman (hypertext) is a story of children who have been taken away by the eponymous character as punishment for behaving badly. It’s a little simplistic to describe it as horror, because this is less a work about fear and more a work about moral queasiness, complicity, and responses to abusive power. It made me feel vaguely ill a good portion of the time — but despite how that might sound, this is a recommendation.

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Dead Man’s Fiesta (hypertext, on the dynamic fiction end of the spectrum) is the story of the after-effects of grief.

 

 

 

 

If you want evocative, illustrated story:

cover-1.pngÜrs is an illustrated hypertext piece about a rabbit who has to learn to manipulate the technology of the ancients in order to save their warren. The art is really good: beautiful, stylish illustrations for every location that manage to communicate the functionality of the technology, the wonder of the setting, and the viewpoint of the rabbit (along with a little Watership Down flavor) all at once. It’s very mildly puzzle-y in a way that I think most people will find easy to solve, but that component gives the story a bit of body and some agency for the player.

 

If you want playful story:

cover-2.pngRe: Dragon (hypertext/fake email interface, executed with Inform and Vorple). Though framed as a meta-piece about the IF Competition, the piece swiftly becomes a charming and well implemented comedic fantasy. This game included some of my favorite turns of phrase in the competition. There is a cocktail recipe that looks pretty good, frankly, though you might have to omit the unicorn sparkles.

 

 

If you want something reminiscent of a Choose Your Own Adventure or gamebook:

cover.pngWithin a Circle of Water and Sand is an attractively illustrated story of a Polynesian girl who has undertaken an adulthood ritual that requires her to visit other islands. The setting is unusual for IF — Aotearoa is vaguely reminiscent but is told from the point of view of a white visitor, for instance. Structurally, this is a bit of a gauntlet: there are many ways to die suddenly and relatively few ways to manage the final ordeal, and you’ll likely need to replay several times in order to build the necessary understanding of the world. There’s a lot of text between choice points, as well — but as you replay, you’ll likely stop reading those closely and move towards a more mechanical traversal.

 

If you like a story/puzzle balance:

magpie.jpegAlias ‘The Magpie’ (parser-based) sees you playing a gentleman thief infiltrating a manor to acquire a priceless artifact. It’s Wodehouse-y farce with one ridiculous scenario piling on another, complete with implausible disguises and unreasonable excuses. As a nice bonus, it comes with stylish virtual feelies and a map of the estate you need to rob. The game does depict mental illness in a pretty unrealistic way for comedic effect; if this is a concern for you, that’s something to be aware of.

cover.pngErstwhile (hypertext) is a murder mystery in which you’re trying to solve the question of your own death, from beyond the grave. As you explore the testimony of the suspects, you’ll build up an inventory of clues and topics, which you can link together to discover new evidence.

 

 

If you’re interested most of all in the texture of language and interactive poetry:

cover.jpgTohu wa Bohu is both puzzleless and storyless, a piece that explores particular ways of thinking and states of mind. Built in Texture, it asks the player to pay close attention to the individual words, and to changing words as a representation of changing thought. Very formally experimental.

 

 

If you mainly want puzzles:

showimage.jpgJunior Arithmancer is your bet for mathematical puzzling. None of the mathematical operations are more difficult than you’d see in a pre-algebra course — there’s some square root-taking, and that’s about it — but some of the challenges require a bit of thought in how you string the operations together. Written by Mike Spivey, who contributed last year’s excellent A Beauty Cold and Austere.

 

showimage.pngAilihphilia is a workout for fans of palindrome-based wordplay. It’s the work of prolific wordplay game creator Andrew Schultz, so if you’re already familiar with his work, you’ll probably have a good sense of whether you’ll enjoy it.

 

 

cover.pngTemple of Shorgil, meanwhile, is an Arthur DiBianca game — this too is becoming something of a brand. DiBianca’s work often has a very light fiction wrapper, gameplay that relies on 2-5 core verbs, with brainteasers around maths, timing, sequencing, and understanding symbolic references. The Temple of Shorgil’s premise is that you’re exploring an ancient temple full of tricky puzzles, as ancient temples always are in Indiana Jones/Infidel-style fiction. Wall paintings and snippets of legend provide additional clues. This was a bit smaller and more focused in design than DiBianca’s earlier comp game Inside the Facility, but both games involve exploring a gridded map in quite a systematic way.

 

If you’re a fan of superheroes with silly powers:

cover-1.pngThe Origin of Madame Time (parser-based) is a sequel to last year’s The Owl Consults: there are a bunch of characters with strange powers, but they’ve all been frozen in time, and you need to rush around dealing with a crisis-in-progress, sometimes drawing on the abilities of these characters in various ways. Solidly constructed, not terribly difficult.

 

If you’re really feeling it being 2018:

There were several games in this comp (Bi Lines, A Woman’s Choice, Ostrich, Careless Talk) that in some way or other address currents of incipient fascism, government oppression, the possibility of fighting back, and the treatment of women at the hands of men. I didn’t play all of these, but we did play Ostrich in the London IF Meetup; I think that was an ideal context to experience. The satirical aspects were broad, but that played pretty well in a group experience.

Mid-November Link Assortment

IF Comp judging is just about over — if you don’t have your votes in, and you want to, you should hurry!

On November 17, the Baltimore/DC Area group will be at Mad City Coffee, looking at choice-based games from IF Comp.

n2YQq1.jpgDecember 1 is the next SF Bay IF Meetup.

December 1 is also the last day for Ectocomp voting.

December 5-8 in Dublin is the next ICIDS, an academic conference on interactive digital storytelling. (I have enjoyed this in the past, though it’s been a few years since I’ve been able to attend.

 

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Mailbag: Research on Dialogue and Story Generation (Part 2)

This is a continuation of an earlier mailbag answer about research that touches on dialogue and story generation. As before, I’m picking a few points of interest, summarizing highlights, and then linking through to the detailed research. In this section, I’m mostly looking at authoring tools and at academic theoretical work on interactive narrative.

This will not be comprehensive.

Authoring Tools for Dynamic or Procedural Storytelling

Several academic projects focus on building authoring tools for various types of dynamic or procedural storytelling, whether or not those are heavily augmented by AI. Many of these don’t rely on machine learning per se but do explore some other aspect of  the problem; in particular, several attempt to furnish the author with the means to build content for a planner-based storytelling system. But there’s a whole range of functionality here (and this is not a complete list):

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Andrew Gordon has done quite a bit of work around tools designed to assist authors with story creation ideas based on large corpora. I’ve written elsewhere about DINE, his interactive story authoring tool. DINE allows authors to describe the sorts of prompts that they want to understand, but uses its own models of language to determine whether a player’s input qualifies as matching a prompt. The result is less controllable but sometimes more robust than a standard interactive fiction parser. (“Sometimes” is the key word in that sentence.)

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Emma’s Journey is a project out of UCSC that combines fragments of choice-based narrative with a planner to create dynamic scenes. Individual pieces feel like they could have been done in Twine, but the selection and ordering of pieces is very dependent on current stats; and there is a distracting minigame for the player that also affects what options are available. This is built with the experimental StoryAssembler tool. There are also several associated research papers.

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Writing for Video Games (Steve Ince)

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Writing for Video Games by Steve Ince came out in 2006. It’s primarily directed at a skilled writer from other media who is considering a move to video games, so it includes a bunch of introductory material about how games are different and what game genres exist (2006-inflected and a bit simplified). Elsewhere, he introduces concepts like story bibles and character profiles, and warns about the challenges of working with a large team. For people seeking these tips about how to work functionally in a game industry team, though, I’d recommend more recent resources like Evan Skolnick’s Video Game Storytelling.

I’m not sure that, if I were a novelist encountering this book, I would be terribly encouraged by the prospect of moving into games writing. Ince warns the prospective writer that interactive narrative is always secondary to gameplay in all types of game, and also indicates that typical games aren’t very well written.

On narrative structure, he tends to be a bit absolutist — that branching narrative is “impossible to create” as “the resources needed to offer all these possibilities would be beyond the budget of even the largest game”. He does suggest some of the traditional alternatives, but the usual narrative structure resources (Ashwell on CYOA, Salience/QBN discussion) cover more territory.

The discussion of dialogue similarly focuses on the need to use variables and if-conditions, fairly basic concepts without a dive into the more systematic ways of handling this kind of information. This probably is helpful if the writer has never had to think about branching and dependencies before — and Ince does elsewhere talk about things like avoiding repeated dialogue, not reusing your punchlines in a comedy, etc. — but it’s not the place to look for guidance in new ways to design and organize interactive dialogue.

Ince also has a tendency to withdraw into general advice (meet your deadlines, make your story and gameplay line up, talk frequently to the development team, listen to the testers). This advice is typically correct but a bit basic.

Overall: not a terrible set of guidelines for its intended audience, but it’s brief, introductory, and now a bit dated (hardly its fault — I’m the one who decided to make as comprehensive a survey as I could).

Restless

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So I released a new game! Here’s its blurb:

You’ve been haunting old Mrs Fagles for decades. Now she’s sold the house, and the new owner’s moved in. Sylvie’s broke, bad at plumbing, and anxious about everything.  And with a living, breathing, fretting roommate, how are you supposed to rest in peace?

Drink blood. Set fires. Tell lies. Give advice, loan out a wedding dress, reclaim your true name.  Remix your dialogue options to reflect your mood or dig deeper into the topics that interest you.

I mentioned this briefly in yesterday’s link round up, but I wanted to give a little more background on it than a link round up typically allows for.

Restless is a game written for ECTOCOMP, a venerable Halloween-themed IF competition. There are six endings, if you’re counting — though some of those endings mean different things depending on how you get to them.

It’s a purely conversation game. As in a lot of choice-based games, you have up to three options, and you can pick one. But in contrast to the typical dialogue situation, you can do something about it if you don’t like your current menu. Click a mood, and your options will shift to reflect that new attitude. Turn on moods individually or in combinations. Discover conversation topics and you can set your dialogue to explore those too.

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