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…



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:

Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 1.41.40 PM.png

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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Mailbag: Deep Conversation

This one was a follow-up question to the asker wondering whether Blood & Laurels was still available anywhere. (It isn’t.)

If there are any other games (IF or otherwise) that you’d recommend for deeper conversational experiences, I’d love to hear about those… I have a rather broad set of interests there, so anything you find especially exciting, new or odd would be great to hear about, especially where conversation is at the center of the game.

…right, okay. Well, that’s quite a broad field, but here are some possibilities, preferring more recent games (though interesting conversation games go back for quite a while).

Exploration-focused Dialogue

Parser-based conversation games are often designed to let the player explore concepts that interest them, treating the non-player character like a big encyclopedia rather than a goal-oriented partner in dialogue. That tradition goes back — well, back to the 80s, really, since Infocom’s murder mysteries allowed you to ask characters about important subjects and clues.

A few more recent examples that are either carry some of this concept over to a different interface or allow a different spin on it:

Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 7.34.33 PM.png

Subsurface Circular (above) and Quarantine Circular are both primarily conversation games. Subsurface Circular has some embedded puzzles in the dialogue, including puzzles around manipulating emotional states and the knowledge of both the PC and other characters. As you find out new things, you gain “focus points”, an inventory of topics that you can introduce into conversation.

Speaking of manipulating emotional states, that’s really the primary approach in The Red Strings Club: you mix drinks for NPCs to affect their emotional status, then ask dialogue-tree questions.

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