GDC 2020 Previews

Every year I write up a list of interesting-looking narrative-related talks I’m looking forward to at GDC. (I also have an old post about surviving your first GDC that still mostly holds true, though Samovar no longer takes reservations, alas.)

This is a longish list, with a lot going on Monday and Tuesday especially given all the narrative and indie talks presented in the summits.

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Mailbag: Development Process for Storylet-based Interactive Fiction

I’ve been a fan of your site and writing since 2009. Two of your older articles have been nagging at me recently — the one about writing prose for IF, and the other about your drafting process (with examples from Metamorphoses and Bronze, respectively).

I have been wondering how they would look updated for writing prose/process for storylet-based designs. I’m having a bit of a difficulty transitioning from the static fiction mindset, with all its attendant shortcomings in the IF context (text not bite-sized enough, difficult to decide on salient information , too much linearity, etc.)

If you had to address these two articles’ topics today, how would it be different? 

This is asking for an update to two articles, and so I’m also going to split out the response.

This piece will focus on the process side rather than the prose question. If you’re writing a game using storylets, how do you plan it, and how do you stay on track through executing it?

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Mid-February Link Assortment

Events

February 29 is the next London IF Meetup. We’ll be playing and discussing games with trans protagonists.

March 5, “Game Over,” the radio play I wrote about indie game development, is being rebroadcast by BBC Radio 4 at 14.15 (or 2:15 PM, for those of us still keeping time in the US fashion). This is a chance to catch it if you didn’t hear it the first time around and you’re interested. Sometimes the Radio 4 website also hosts the programs from that month for streaming.

March 7 is the next meeting of the SF Bay Interactive Fiction Meetup.

NarraScope organizers will be May 29-31, in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

Podcasts, Articles, Videos, etc

The excellent Anna Megill, Lead Writer at Massive, talks about writing for video games.

Competitions

If you plan to enter Spring Thing 2020, you have until March 1, 2020 to declare your intent to enter. Spring Thing is a long-running competition for interactive fiction that welcomes longer games than IF Comp can accommodate, and features a “back garden” section for games that are unfinished, commercial, experimental, or where the author just wants to opt out of the competitive aspect of the competition. The games themselves will be due March 29.

Mailbag: Breaking into Writing for Voice UI

Dear Emily,

[personal information redacted] I have been following your articles for a long time and I decided to write to you because I am stuck: I would like to expand my skills in the game design field but at the same time I started to get interested in voice applications. I have read that writers and copywriters can make a great contribution to the development of VUI, so that they can understand the language and the context in which conversations take place. I saw that you managed to combine these two areas – game narrative and natural language programming – so I would like to ask you where I can start if I wanted to take this career path? What skills should I focus on? I’m looking for courses on platforms like Coursera and Udemy, but it’s not clear to me what criteria I should consider for the choice. Except for HTML, I don’t know the development software that are proposed, all I know is that I am interested in understanding how an editor, who deals with finding the best plot structure for a story or making characters believable, can contribute to the development of an Avatar or a dialogue flow, for example. And if companies are interested in this type of profile.

I definitely wouldn’t want to discourage you looking into natural language processing if you think you’re interested in it: it’s a fascinating field, and currently under lots of demand.

I didn’t approach the subject with Coursera or Udemy myself, so I don’t know the offerings there very well, but I would imagine that there are introductory courses that would explain a lot of the basic ideas and tools. Another way in would be to look through the resources listed here.

It’s also possible to play with transformer-based language models using Google colab notebooks. These models take a huge amount of skill, data, and computation time to build, but once they’ve been trained, they can be used in a range of applications. For instance, this notebook by Max Woolf will let you experiment with a trained GPT-2 model, which has applications both in generating text and in creating machine translations (among other things).

Then there are also sites such as https://huggingface.co/ where groups doing active research regularly post their progress, sample code, or trained models. You would need a good grounding in the basic concepts in order to make sense of these.

That said, you might not need all of those skills even if you were building your own voice-based system from scratch.

Continue reading “Mailbag: Breaking into Writing for Voice UI”

Broken Places & Outer Spaces (Nnedi Okorafor)

Broken Places & Outer Spaces is a book about creativity and the personal voice that comes from really difficult things in life; from what Okorafor refers to as “the Breaking.”

In it, she talks about an operation that left her partially paralyzed; about the process of learning to walk again, about learning to write as a result of that, and about the changed abilities that she has lived with ever since; about the integration of her Nigerian heritage into her science fiction writing; about her vision of Africanfuturism; about her embrace of the cyborg as a symbol of a potential self that is both less and more than human.

As the TED symbol might suggest, it’s an inspirational piece rather than one dedicated primarily to craft. I’ve come to regard the TED brand a little the way I regard the Papyrus font: it’s not inherently terrible from the outset, but too many exposures have made me wary of the style — polished, digestible, self-consciously heartwarming.

Nonetheless, I very much liked this particular piece. In particular, the idea of the cyborg self resonates: the idea that one is either currently broken, or currently unequal to the tasks ahead, and therefore it’s necessary to become someone else. And not just to grow gently toward the sun, or to undergo some natural process of evolution, but to take responsibility for crafting oneself, to put time and effort, technique and willpower into redesigning oneself.

End of January Link Assortment

Events

February 1 is the next meeting of the SF Bay Interactive Fiction Meetup.

February 8 will be the next meeting of the Baltimore/DC Interactive Fiction Meetup, discussing Mike Spivey’s Sugarlawn.

February 15-16, Rob Sherman is running an interactive fiction masterclass at the British library. This is a paying event; tickets here.

February 29 will be the next meeting of the London IF Meetup. We’ll be doing a shared gameplay session with a curated list of games — I’ll post a link as soon as the session information is up on the website.

Screen Shot 2020-01-14 at 6.19.15 PMMarch 20-22 in Toronto is Breakout Con, a conference on boardgames and tabletop RPGs. Some great narrative designers are scheduled in as guests.

NarraScope will be May 29-31, in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

Competitions

January 31Feb 3, Ryan Veeder is running the first of three events in his Exposition for Good Interactive Fiction. This one is a short jam for Inform 7 games, currently in progress: this one, intriguingly, has Ryan judging the beauty of the source code first, and then only secondarily making judgements concerning the quality of the game itself.

There are a number of rules about how to participate, so please do check out the fine print.

February 3 is also the closing date for the Green Stories interactive fiction competition, which looks for interactive stories about more sustainable futures.

If you plan to enter Spring Thing 2020, you have until March 1, 2020 to declare your intent to enter. Spring Thing is a long-running competition for interactive fiction that welcomes longer games than IF Comp can accommodate, and features a “back garden” section for games that are unfinished, commercial, experimental, or where the author just wants to opt out of the competitive aspect of the competition. The games themselves will be due March 29.

Also on the topic of competitions: the annual IF comp now draws upwards of 80 games a year. That’s a lot, and it’s stretching judging capacity a bit. The organizing committee would welcome input and discussion about how best to handle this.

Releases

If you’re into the more procedural side of narrative, the latest Dwarf Fortress release includes some very cool narration of simulated events. You may also enjoy reading others’ wild tales.

Articles and Podcasts

The Ludology podcast interviews Andrew Plotkin, starting from “what is interactive fiction?”

inkle’s podcast, meanwhile, recently covered the difficulty of dealing with fail states.

Mark Marino has been leading a code critique of a passage of Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and inviting participants to comment.

Talks

I gave a talk about storylet design at the London IF Meetup. The session was (atypically) recorded, and we’ll be able to share the recording when it’s been edited, but there is also a tweet thread about the event for those who are curious. The talk included a workshop component where the group brainstormed possible story events, worked out what the prerequisites and effects should be, and then collectively played through the resulting game.