Mid-January Link Assortment

January 16 will be the next Boston IF meetup.

logo-512.pngNarraScope is still accepting submissions for speakers, and the January 18 deadline is upon us.  This is a new games conference that will support interactive narrative, adventure games, and interactive fiction by bringing together writers, developers, and players.  They are interested in a wide range of games and platforms; more information can be found on NarraScope’s home site.

They are currently looking for a) panels and individual talks that explore the field in-depth, and would last about 50 minutes with a 5-10 minute Q&A, and b) Lightning Talks that contain 5-10 minutes of specialized information.  The conference is set for June 14-16 in Boston, MA, and interested parties can check out the event’s proposals page here.

January 19 is the next London IF meetup, and will consist of two talks (one from me) on conversation-based gameplay. If you’re curious about some of the design considerations coming out of my work at Spirit AI, I’ll be talking about that here; and we’ll also be hearing from Florencia Minuzzi of Tea-Powered Games about their conversation-focused designs.

January 22 is a meetup of Chatbots and Voice Assistants London, featuring among other things a talk from BBC R&D on ‘Hidden Cities’ – a 90 minute interactive audio piece where users can explore Berlin. This meetup space is an interesting one in general for people into interactive audio, Alexa games, and similar topics (content varies and is sometimes more commercial, so check out who the speakers are for the particular date you’ve got in mind).

Also January 22, I’m on a short panel about the future of PC gaming at Pocket Gamer Connects.

January 26 the Baltimore / DC IF group will meet to discuss Ian Michael Waddell’s Animalia.

February 2 is the date for the next SF Bay IF Meetup.

February 8-9 there will be a two-day conference Beyond the Console: Gender and Narrative Games.  I will be chairing Friday’s event; for more information about the conference, please click here.

 

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IF Comp Post-Mortems

Now that some time has elapsed since 2018 IF Comp has closed, a number of authors have followed up with post-mortems (and in some cases, there have also been a few game updates based on player feedback).

This is a tradition that has grown up over the past couple of years, and one that I really like: these posts in aggregate represent a pretty broad picture of the thinking around IF design and development at the moment, and one often hears from authors who don’t otherwise blog about their craft.

IF Comp saw a high number of entries, and there’s a lot to look at in the post–mortems.  In fact, there’s more than I personally could track, but with the help of my new blog assistant (“Mort”), we’ve done a little curation on posts to call out some interesting content and sort them by subject covered.

Just as a reminder, these all link to posts that are riddled with spoilers, so consider this your warning on that score.

Presentation & User Experience These post-mortems shed particular light on questions regarding user interface, design, and what the game would be like for the player.

Instruction Set (Jared Jackson). Jared wrote his entry with Scratch, which is fairly extraordinary given how very much Scratch is not a language designed for text presentation. The post-mortem explains a bit about why he took that approach, and what he learned from coming into IF Comp from a non-traditional direction using a different set of tools.

Abbess Otilia’s Life and Death (Arno von Borries). This piece invested heavily in presenting something that looked like a medieval manuscript, but that raised challenges and some players complained about readability. The post-mortem looks at the implementation challenges and trade-offs between readability and historical accuracy.

showimage.pngBogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth) “The nature of those weekly life-or-death decisions remains at the core of the game. It’s the only choice you really get to make: good vs “good”; conscience vs authority; defiance vs submission; integrity vs survival. Almost every major choice is designed around that conflict.”

The 2018 runner-up Bogeyman has a wonderfully detailed post-mortem that delves into concept, design, character, and the Bogeyman himself.  In the end, though, these elements were created in service to the choices in front of the player/character, as Elizabeth Smyth produced a game straightforward in its design, but emotionally resonant for those who experienced it.

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Counterfeit Monkey (Release 8)

Cover.pngCounterfeit Monkey is now being maintained as an open source, community project, with Petter Sjölund spearheading the effort. Thanks to Petter and the rest of the team, it has just had its latest update with Release 8, available here.  This version fixes various bugs discovered since the last release, which came out about a year ago.  Thanks to Damien Neil, Dan Brown, Ian Kelly, Lauren Brazier, and Michael Gundlach for reporting bugs!  And special thanks to Dannii Willis and Andrew Plotkin.

There’s a link to the complete change log for those who are curious, but a quick summary is below.

Among the most important changes:

  • Fixes a hang that would occur on some interpreters when resizing the game window or clicking on the compass rose while being asked to reply yes or no.
  • Fixes a bug where the game would use the achievements from the save file rather than the external monkeyac file after restoring, This meant that a save game from a different session, such as from another interpreter or computer, would award you the achievements from that session. Achievements are now properly reloaded from the monkeyac file after a restore.
  • Works around a bug where the player could get stuck after showing the pass to the secretary.
  • No longer awards achievements upon dying that were meant to be awarded when finishing the game.
  • Makes all player input case-insensitive.
  • Fixes a bug where restoring a save game from an interpreter without support for graphics would break the map display on an interpreter which supports graphics.
  • Adds a massive pug.

 

Counterfeit Monkey is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license.

Guest Review: Three Games from Ectocomp

The following reviews are from an anonymous-by-request friend who played a number of games from Ectocomp, had a good time with the judging, but didn’t have a good venue for posting his own responses. I invited him to share some reviews of his favorites here. His background is mostly in film and theatre rather than interactive media.  Without further ado…

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Disclaimer: I know Emily Short, but I’m not a game designer or programmer.  I have no games entered into this competition, and my opinions are my own, not Emily’s.

Ectocomp 2018 has just a couple days left before the judging ends!  Here are a few that I particularly enjoyed:

Santa Carcossa Nights (Bitter Karella)

f%2FCc1O.pngSanta Carcossa Nights comes from the mind of Bitter Karella, who recently gave us IFComp 2018’s well-received Basilica de Sangre.  Like BasilicaSanta Carcossa Nights is written using Quest as its authoring system.  It’s a short-ish horror-adventure (gameplay should take about ninety minutes) consisting primarily of exploring and a few puzzles.

I have to admit almost didn’t give this a try, for purely practical purposes.  I was using the itch.io app to play my Ectocomp games, but Santa Carcossa Nights was listed as Windows-compatible only, and I wasn’t going get very far by downloading it onto my MacBook.  Fortunately, the game’s comments section revealed a link to the browser version, which I recommend for Mac users, (with the added suggestion to go ahead and create the free account so you can save your progress.)

I’m happy I didn’t let myself be deterred.  Santa Carcossa Nights is good fun.  It has a bit of a late 1980’s aesthetic and feels a bit like going back into the past, containing ingredients that are reminiscent of classic adventures like Wishbringer or Zork.  You spend your time wandering around a strange town, discovering objects on one side of the map that unlock pieces on the other, while the horror element is constantly bubbling just underneath the surface (but not coming to its fruition until the very end).

Something I really appreciated here: Karella’s user interface has a control panel that allows the player to take stock of inventory, or to see the current room’s potential interactions with objects or other characters.  Additionally, a quick look at the game’s compass reveals all the directions one can go (that’s a godsend for us visual-learner-types).  Often a command can be given in multiple ways: by clicking on an option from the control panel, by clicking the bolded text itself, or by typing it into the parser.  The multiple avenues for gathering info and giving commands makes the game easier to navigate and less likely to hit a snag.

There are a few parts where the game does need a little fixing up.  I had several instances where examining an object immediately after “taking” it wound up returning the object to its point of origin.  In one case I walked halfway across town before I realized that an object I thought I had wasn’t with me any more (though to be fair, I’ve also done this in real life).

But these are minor quibbles.  The game is engaging, and if anything, it is over too quickly.  At the end I found myself wishing there were more (always a good sign).  There were only five reviews when I started this game, which is a shame –– it deserves more attention, and hopefully a few more players will check it out before the competition wraps up.

 

Wretch! (Josh Labelle)

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This was my first time playing anything by Josh Labelle, who has taken the basic premise of Frankenstein and brought it to a modern setting, with the player making choices from the point-of-view of the “monster.”  As you awaken in your stitched-together form, you are also sorting out memories from past lives.  Next you try to figure out your place in the land of the living, first in the home of the scientist that brought you back, and later in the outside world.

The Twine format is simple and user friendly.  Occasionally a choice will appear that you can’t yet click on because pre-conditions have not been met.  When this happens, the choice is rendered as a heavily blurred line of text, so you can guess at what it is you might need to do next.  The result is that the game gives you a hint as to the right direction – but doesn’t tell you exactly how to get there.

All in all, this is a charming game that is “horror” only in regard to its ingredients.  The structure, at least in the story I played, feels much more like a comedy of manners, with the monster awkwardly trying to talk to kids or blend into normal social interactions.  I can’t help but feel that there may be more here that the author didn’t have time to write before the game needed to be entered into the contest.  It’s not that it feels unfinished, but there’s potential here for something fuller (if he wanted to expand on it.)

As it is, I was engaged from start to finish, and am hoping we see more of Labelle’s work in the future.

 

Death By Powerpoint (Jack Welch)

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I most recently encountered Jack Welch’s work in the 2018 IFComp’s re: Dragon, a meta-story referencing the competition itself, and an imagined response to actual games from the previous year.  The result was light-hearted and hilarious.

Death by Powerpoint is not that.  It is considerably bleaker, at least it seems so at first.  After the first ten minutes, I began to feel as though I were watching David Lynch’s version of Office Space, as Welch gleefully piles on surreal imagery and then blends it up with ample helpings of all-too-familiar corporate-life banality.  The effect is unexpected and captivating.

Of course, it helps that Welch is an excellent writer.  I can imagine this falling flat in the hands of a less capable prose stylist.  Part of that lies in the game’s design: Death by Powerpoint feels less like a game than it does a short work of fiction.  Many of the choices one makes are revealed to be little side-plots that lead right back to the point of departure.  Indeed, navigating gameplay here is like being lost in an unfamiliar suburban neighborhood full of dead-ends and cul-de-sacs.  In the end, you keep running in little circles until there seems to be only one way out.

Of course, perhaps I’m wrong and there are some divergent endings… but I played through the game a few times and always got to the same endpoint (my paths getting there were wildly different, though).

What makes the game ultimately rewarding is the gradual revelation of the underlying reasons for the bizarre experiences you’re having.  The journey, in this case, is largely internal, and the “horror” element is more existential/philosophical than anything grotesque or spooky.

I can easily see this game being frustrating or confusing if the player is expecting something else… though perhaps that’s part of the point.  But I found myself thinking about this game for some time after I had played it through.  If you like having your expectations messed with a bit, give it a try.

Guest Review: Three Games from IFComp

The following reviews are from an anonymous-by-request friend who played a number of games from IFComp, had a good time with the judging, but didn’t have a good venue for posting his own responses. I invited him to share some reviews of his favorites here. His background is mostly in film and theatre rather than interactive media, and he was drawn to several of the choice-based games. Without further ado…

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Disclaimer: I know Emily Short, but I’m not a game designer or programmer.  Neither I nor anyone I know (that I’m aware of) has games entered into this competition.  

This was my first time reviewing anything from IF Comp, so I’m looking at it from the standpoint of a relative newcomer.  As such, my opinions are obviously my own, not Emily Short’s.

There are quite a few games in this year’s competition – seventy-seven in total –  of which I played about thirty.  What really leapt out at me was the sheer variety of gameplay experience.  Let’s Rob a Bank, for instance, was stupidly fun but over so quickly that I felt I hadn’t really gotten the full value until I’d played it multiple times (which I was happy to do.)  On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cannery Vale, with its sophisticated interface and immersive story, was much more involved, and was a standout as far as shaping the player’s adventure.

Here are three I really liked, in no particular order:

 

Animalia (Ian Michael Waddell)cover.png

To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting much with this one, based solely on my reaction to reading the blurb.  (Blurbs can be tricky.  Sometimes they’ll capture the basic premise of a piece, but they won’t communicate the tone.  This was the case here.)  Animalia’s description mentioned it was a 30-minute game.  I figured it would be a simple, paint-by-numbers animal adventure…

…so I was completely unprepared for Waddell’s off-the-wall humor and the remarkable variation of storylines contained inside. 

Animalia kicks off with an emergency gathering of woodland creatures.  The annual offering to the Forest God has backfired, putting the forest at risk for human incursion.  During the opening chaos we learn that the animals’ offering was, in fact, a nine-year-old human child (!) named Charlie.  It seems like this ritual is all fairly routine for the cuddly little murderers, but this time their child sacrifice has been getting obnoxious texts from his worried mother, who has tracked his GPS location.  Now the entire forest is in an uproar over the inevitable search-and-rescue that will bring a deluge of humans.

The critters’ solution to this disaster?  Stage an elaborate cover-up, obviously.

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Mailbag: AI Research on Dialogue and Story Generation

I’m curious: do you follow much research that happens in stories and dialog these days? In the world of machine learning research, there’s much less in dialog and stories than other areas (e.g. image generation/recognition or translation), but once in a while, you come across some interesting work, e.g. Hierarchical Neural Story Generation (by some folks in Facebook AI).

For some years now I’ve followed work coming out of the UCSC Expressive Intelligence Studio; work done at Georgia Tech around crowdsourced narrative generation; game industry applications introduced or covered at the GDC AI Summit (though it is rarer to see extensive story-generation work here). I’ve also served on the program committees for ICCC and ICIDS and a few FDG workshops; and am an associate editor on IEEE Transactions on Games focused on interactive storytelling applications. Here (1, 2, 3) is my multi-part post covering the book Interactive Digital Narrative in detail.

That’s not to say I see (or could see) everything that’s happening. I tend to focus on things that look most ready to be used in games, entertainment, or chatbot applications — especially those that are designed to support a partially human-authored experience. I also divide my available “research” time between academic work and hands on experiments in areas that interest me.

So with that perspective in mind:

  • I’m not attempting a comprehensive literature review here! That would be huge. This coverage cherrypicks items
  • I will go pretty lightly on the technical detail since the typical readership of this blog may not be that interested, but I’ll try to provide summary and example information that explains why a given item is interesting in my opinion, and then link back to the original research for people who want the deeper dive
  • I’ll actually start by summarizing a bit the paper the questioner linked
  • Even with cherrypicking, there is a lot to say here and I am breaking it out over multiple posts

That Initial Paper

For other readers: the linked article in this question is about using a large dataset pulled from Reddit’s WritingPrompts board and a machine learning model that draws on multiple techniques (convolutional seq2seq, gated self-attention). After training, the system is able to take short prompts and create a paragraph or so of story that relates to the prompt. Several of the sample output sections are quite cool:

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But they are generating surface text rather than plot, and the evidence suggests that they would not be able to produce a coherent long-term plot. Just within this dialogue section, we’re talking about a tablet-virus-monster object, and we’ve got a couple of random scientist characters.

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