Writing Interactive Fiction (Deb Potter)

Screen Shot 2017-06-03 at 6.55.20 PM.pngWith the reappearance of IF as a commercial art form, there’s also been a rise in books out there to guide would-be writers in the form.

Deb Potter writes for the You Say Which Way series, which is to say pretty much straight CYOA. She has released Writing Interactive Fiction to teach others how to do the same, in a breezy and accessible style. Potter does not assume the reader has a great deal of pre-existing experience in the space, and starts out exploring basic concepts like choice and consequence, explaining why your basic left-or-right choice is usually such a bore, and suggesting that authors should give readers some warning before an instant death. She also comes down against using IF for moral preaching.

But there are a few places where her suggestions either depart from what I’d tend to consider received wisdom in the IF community, or introduce new terminology. In particular, she talks a lot about how to help the player build a mental model of the structure of the CYOA, and how to draw attention towards (or away from) choices that they might want/not want to replay.

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Procedural Generation in Game Design

Screen Shot 2017-06-08 at 7.10.14 AM.pngProcedural Generation in Game Design is out! Kate Compton of Tracery fame writes about generative art toys; Mike Cook (PROCJAM, Games by Angelina) writes about ethical generation and also about the procedural generation of game rules; Harry Tuffs (A House of Many Doors) writes about procedural poetry generation. Jason Grinblat and Brian Bucklew (Caves of Qud) each have a chapter. Gillian Smith (Threadsteading, plus lots of cool research) writes about evaluating and understanding what’s been generated. Ben Kybertas (Kitfox Games) covers procedural story and plot generation.

The whole volume is edited by Tanya X Short (Moon Hunters) and Tarn Adams (Dwarf Fortress). And I am leaving out a lot of cool people and chapters here, but you can check out the full table of contents on the website.

My contribution — drawing on experiences from Versu, my character-based parser IF, and assorted other projects — is a chapter on characters: how generating dialogue and performances can help realize an authored character; approaches to generating characters; considerations about what is even interesting to auto-generate.

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And in a related update to a previous post: I’m happy to say that the PROCJAM Kickstarter has succeeded and has now put out a call for artists to make art packs for procedural work, together with a call for tutorial authors. If their funding goes even higher, they’ll be able to commission two art packs; translate the tutorials they build into additional languages; and hit some other cool stretch goals.

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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Writing Interactive Fiction With Twine (Melissa Ford)

WritingInteractiveFictionA curious and fascinating thing about Melissa Ford’s Writing Interactive Fiction with Twine is how it combines hypertext craft advice and Twine syntax tutorials with design expectations largely derived from parser-based interactive fiction.

This is a 400 page book about Twine fiction whose index lists Anna Anthropy once (in a passage discussing how she did geographical description in one of her games) and Porpentine never — though it does refer, without attribution, to the tiny Twine jam Porpentine ran. Steve Meretzky and Brian Moriarty appear, but not Michael Lutz or Tom McHenry or A. DeNiro or Caelyn Sandel or Dietrich Squinkifer, nor Michael Joyce or Shelley Jackson or other luminaries from the literary hypertext tradition either. The book has early and prominent chapters about how to design puzzles, inventory, and a room layout; fonts, text transitions, and CSS effects come quite a bit later, despite being much more common than inventory systems in practice. The section on genres starts with a helpful definition of the word “genre,” then runs through bite-sized descriptions of some common fiction genres — rather than, say, trying to describe the range of genres represented in current Twine fiction. The section on story structure explains terms such as “climax” and “exposition” from scratch, assuming essentially no writing-workshop-style experience from the reader.

This writing style, along with the tendency to draw examples from Narnia and Harry Potter, suggests that the author intends the book to be accessible to younger users as well as adults. It would probably be a bit over the head of most young children, but I could picture a motivated tween handling it just fine. Possibly that accounts for a decision not to explore much of the most innovative content for which Twine has been used. If you’ve read Videogames for Humans, almost none of what you saw there is replicated or even mentioned in this book.

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Lunation Series (JJ Gadd)

LunationcoverDisclosure: this review is part of the IF Comp review exchange. J.J. Gadd was kind enough to review Cat Manning’s Crossroads, and to supply me with copies of her Lunation series for review.

Lunation is a five-book series about a fantasy land in which, five hundred years before the beginning of Book 1, the moon was magically constructed as a prison for the queen Marama. In the present day, her descendants include a yellow-eyed boy with powers of sorcery who dreams (literally) of finding a way to free her. He soon meets up with a young female relative who is able to see the future by gazing into smoke and then, trance-like, weaving or embroidering an image that represents what she saw.

lunationThe first three books in the series are technically CYOA-structured, though in the very lightest sense: book 1 contains no branches until chapter 6, when you can pick which of two characters to follow, into 6A or 6B; at the end of 6A, you’re invited to read 6B as well if you’re interested. Book 2 works similarly, with a few sections following each of the two main characters. Book 3 jumps backward to tell the story of Marama herself: the “initiation journey” in which she is cast out of the castle where she grew up in order to familiarize herself with her people. In Book 4 (diagrammed), we reach the point where all the characters so far are reunited — Marama, now released from the moon, joins the fight of her descendants 500 years later. And at this point the structure becomes slightly more complicated than before, though it is still a matter of choosing which character we most wish to follow. Book 5 is roughly similar in complexity to Book 4.

Compared to something like Arcadia, the which-character-to-follow? choice structure in the Lunation series is still tightly constrained. Sometimes we have an option of which chapter to read first out of a set of two or three parallel adventures, but the tracks soon rejoin; there isn’t the dizzying sense of having to piece together the mysteries of the narrative ourselves from numerous complicated components. Instead, in Lunation, this feels like an attempt to mediate for the volume of text: to let the reader choose favorite elements of a story that perhaps runs long, but that is too dear for the author to let any of it go.

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Imaginary Cities (Darran Anderson)

So this year I’ve been trying (with only partial success) to publish a review of a CYOA book on the 5th of each month. “CYOA book” here may be a paper book or a Kindle ebook with links. This month, though, the CYOA book I originally planned to cover turned out to be enough of a non-starter that I didn’t want to post a whole review just griping about it.

imaginarycoverSo instead we have a non-mapped, non-CYOA print book, but one I think might be of some interest to the kinds of people who like IF.

Imaginary Cities is a collection of short chapters about city plans and city concepts. It discusses utopian and dystopian visions, cities imagined for other times and environments than our own, the cities we think other cultures would build and the cities that will suit the culture we hope one day to have. It pulls in the writing of architects and urban planners, historians and fantasists and philosophers. It is, among other things, a vibrant celebration of world-building:

Everything echoes. Inventing the ship and the shipwreck leads to the invention of lighthouses, judas-lights and pirate-plunderers, laws on flotsam and jetsam, the Sirens of Homeric myth, the immrams of Irish verse, Ahab and Prospero. (82)

Imaginary Cities is obviously inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, from which there is a quotation on the first page. I’ve also seen reviews comparing it to W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn — both books combine a wealth of anecdotal material — but Sebald’s work has a flow and continuity that Imaginary Cities does not always emulate, and his anecdotes (take for instance the business of the the herrings that begin to glow after their death) are selected in service of his greater themes. Imaginary Cities is more of a compendium of curious facts, first collated from a wide range of sources and then organized topically, with quite a lot of the content dedicated to quotation. The result is almost overwhelmingly rich. Individual sentences suggest whole stories and courses of research:

Having adopted the ironic name Filarete (‘lover of virtue’) and designed the bronze doors of St Peter’s Basilica, the architect Antonio di Pietro Averlino fled Rome after trying to steal the desiccated head of John the Baptist. (99)

I enjoyed reading Imaginary Cities. And yet — maybe because so much of the content is about formal experimentation? because my memory for isolated detail is not as good as I’d like and I want to retain more from each page than I do? — I kept wondering if it might have been better in some form other than a book.

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