Interactive Digital Narrative: Theory

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 1.12.24 PM.pngThis is part two of an overview of Interactive Digital Narrative: History, Theory, and Practice. See my earlier post for coverage of the book’s history section (and one practice chapter that I took out of order because it felt like it fit better that way).

This time we’re looking at the theory section, which addresses academic approaches to interactive narrative (including the question of what interactive narrative even is).

Again, the section begins with a brief overview from the volume editors, and this provides a fair sketch of the academic debates of the last couple of decades, together with a bibliography of a number of foundational pieces in this space. I might also have listed Jesper Juul’s half-real here, as it provides a readable and persuasive cap to the narratology vs ludology debate.

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Interactive Digital Narrative: History

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 1.12.24 PM.pngInteractive Digital Narrative: History, Theory, and Practice is an academic publication from Routledge that retails for £90/$123 on Amazon, which is why even though it is completely relevant to me and my work, it took me a little while to get around to buying it. I would guess that most people who write IF as a hobby won’t buy it either, which is in some ways a shame, because improving communication between the hobbyist and academic communities would be beneficial in both directions. But a book priced for academic libraries is not the most accessible way to accomplish that.

Consequently, this is not a conventional academic book review. Instead, it’s partly meant as a high-level overview of the contents for people in the IF community who cannot afford to read the book, or who might want to know what sort of thing is in it before plunking down more than $100 for their own copy. Much of the rest is an attempt to join up what is in the book with what I know about historical and contemporary interactive fiction and narrative games.

That I spend a lot of time pointing out related IF work is not meant as a criticism or complaint about the book’s scope of coverage — which is in fact quite broad — but as an attempt to help bridge community divides and suggest points of contact between hobbyist IF and academic digital narrative.

Finally, there’s a lot of content, so I’m going to take this in chunks. This post starts with the history section.

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IF-related ideas in computational creativity: ICCC 2015

ICCC is a conference dedicated to computational creativity, which includes a wide spectrum of work: programs that create artwork and images, music generators, systems that invent metaphors and jokes, story and poetry creation systems. I gave the keynote, about Versu, Blood & Laurels, and the work I’m doing in response to the feedback that we got from that process. There was a lot of fascinating content; here are a few of the highlights that had most to do with interactive fiction:

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Procjam assets

Michael Cook gave a passionate talk on the value of jams, especially jams that have been modified to make them more accessible — providing a timeframe including two weekends for people who work for a living, removing some of the constraints on what can be entered, furnishing resources to help people get started, and getting rid of the competition aspect. In particular, he’s running PROCJAM again this year, a jam for “making things that make things”; and he’s providing a set of art assets (sample shown above) for people who want some combinable art to work with. This looks like a really neat jam, and would certainly have room for IF-related work (whether that’s a generator to build IF or IF with procedural content).

He also pointed towards sortingh.at, a lightweight website designed to help would-be game-makers find the tools they need for their particular project. (It discusses IF tools including Twine and Inform, but a number of other types of game-making tool as well.)

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Peter Mawhorter spoke about choice poetics (PDF): how we classify types of choices in choice-based interactive fiction, from “obvious choice” and “dilemma (in which the two options are equally problematic)” to more esoteric types; he used a CYOA story generator called Dunyazad to produce choices that he felt ought to conform to different choice classes, as a way to interrogate the theory more deeply. This paper from FDG 2014 provides some more background on the concept of choice poetics.

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Kate Compton talked about casual creators, creative tools that are a pleasure to explore and encourage playfulness and pleasure. There’s a very nice introduction to the concept online, and she’s made a wide range of examples, including Tracery, a lightweight text generator that George Buckenham has built into an easy twitterbot tool called cheapbotsdonequick.

I used cheapbotsdonequick to make IFDB Sommelier, a bot that tweets IFDB searches that combine random parameters — I was intrigued by the ability to build randomized URLs as well as randomized content text. If you are looking for something a little more NSFW, I recommend Squinky’s AbhorrentSexBot, or perhaps Jacob Garbe’s orcish insult bot.

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While there I also learned about the What If Machine:

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The What If Machine generates speculative premises and imagined outcomes for them. Some of these are more persuasive than others, but they’re all rather cool and evocative. I kind of like this one:

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ICIDS: The future of interactive storytelling, plus some Versu thoughts

Hartmut Koenitz submitted a talk for ICIDS that was essentially a manifesto about what needs to happen next in interactive digital narrative, and accompanied this with a workshop on the future of interactive storytelling. The points of the manifesto are as follow:

  • We need a new theory of narrative for interactive digital narrative in order to get rid of accumulated preconceptions.
  • Interoperability is key: tools need to be developed in such a way that they can be hooked together and progress on one hand can be used by others.
  • Sustainability is essential. Lack of archiving has already destroyed a lot of valuable research work.
  • Interactive digital narrative needs to be author-focused. There is a challenge in training new authors in procedurality in order to get useful feedback from them.
  • User experience is crucial. We need to focus on how people actually experience and enjoy this work.

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What, no game criticism?

Over on Play This Thing!, Greg Costikyan has posted a critique about the lack of game criticism — as opposed to game reviews — in the industry as a whole.

I thought this was pretty interesting, because it hadn’t previously occurred to me as a problem. It’s true that I don’t see a lot of criticism of mainstream games myself, but then, I don’t own a console or a Windows computer, don’t play most of these games, and don’t regularly read the relevant websites and magazines. So I assumed this stuff was out there somewhere, even if I never ran across it. (And, in fact, several of Greg’s commenters argue it does exist.) But this got me thinking about the situation in IF.

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Jeremy Douglass’ Dissertation

on interactive fiction is now available. Jeremy was kind enough to let me read a draft a few weeks ago, and I found it quite enlightening. The introductory chapters, where he re-evaluates the timeline of IF and discusses the role of academic criticism in studying new media, I found pretty convincing.

More challenging is his argument that the term “player character” should be abolished entirely, on the grounds that it conflates several different kinds of relationship that the player can have with the characters in the game, and that using the terminology makes it unnecessarily hard for us to distinguish those different functions. I’m not sure whether this will change anyone’s long-held habits, but the argument is intriguing and worth a read.

Finally, Douglass offers several extended readings of specific works of IF, and especially a very long analysis of Andrew Pontious’ Rematch. This is great stuff, and I haven’t seen much IF criticism like it.

The book is not a small one and will take some time to go through, but it’s worth the attention. If at some point I come up for air from other tasks, I may address the substance of it at more length here — we’ll see.

In the mean time, congratulations to him for finishing, and thanks for making it available for everyone to read!