Game Design Vocabulary

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Someone emailed me today to ask for books with which to learn about storytelling in choice-based games, and this reminded me that I haven’t yet mentioned A Game Design Vocabulary: Exploring the Foundational Principles Behind Good Game Design here.

It’s a collaboration by Anna Anthropy and Naomi Clark, and is intended for student-level use — each chapter ends with review bullet points and some suggested study activities.

“Introductory” doesn’t mean shallow, though. For instance, the section on game storytelling covers a number of standard topics (the structural challenges of a branching storyline, emergent vs authored stories) but also brings in a lot of more recent indie and IF community thought on things like reflective choice and shared storytelling. It includes coverage of parser IF, Twine pieces, and Choice of Games works, among others. (Full disclosure: Bee and Floatpoint both get a mention.) There’s also a solid appendix of further playing content. Recommended.

Conventional reading for IF

Recently someone emailed me with the following question:

Going on the assumption that if you like to write, you must also like to read, I was wondering if you would be willing to share any books/short stories/writings — anything non-IF — that you really enjoyed or perhaps even inspired your style of story-telling.

I’ve had a pretty busy week and haven’t gotten around to answering, but I thought it might be an interesting one to throw out here, and see what other people think about IF-inspiring conventional writing.

So, a couple answers of my own:

  • Borges. His stories are often thought experiments about memory, narrative, or language, with implications that are evocative for interactive storytelling. For related but not identical reasons, Italo Calvino.
  • Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Tartt has a special gift for choosing evocative details — little sights or sounds that capture a whole mood or carry a wealth of connotation.
  • Annie Dillard’s essays (not the fiction, which I’ve never been able to get through). Dillard writes deliciously musical prose, and describes landscape beautifully. The opening of An American Childhood remains one of my favorite passages of English prose.
  • John Crowley, mainly Little, Big, for the symbolic weight and metaphysical power it gives to simple objects; this was a non-trivial influence on Metamorphoses.
  • Plato’s Symposium. Often dry or archaic in translation, in Greek it is witty, sly, sweet, sad, sexy and beautiful; it describes vividly and presently people now millennia dead. The dialogue that is both intellectual and personal has great resonance with me.
  • Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn. Again: dialogue both intensely intellectual and intensely personal. And, I would also observe, dialogue that is not very naturalistic. I tend to write somewhat stylized dialogue for IF, and I think in this I’m influenced a bit by my diet of plays (both ancient and modern) and my sense that an interactive dialogue needs to be more compact than our rambling conversations in real life. (Not, I hasten to add, that I imagine myself on Frayn’s level, or anywhere near it. Copenhagen I consider one of the masterworks of the past century.)
  • Mote in God’s Eye. I just finished this a few weeks ago, so it’s not so much a longterm favorite as something I recently have been thinking about. What impressed me about this one was how intensely compelling I found it. Which got me thinking more about how to inspire and use the player’s curiosity as a motivating force to get him to keep playing.

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!

Art in Competition

One of the questions I semi-routinely get asked on interviews about interactive fiction is whether I think the annual IF Comp is a good thing for the community. I find the question hard to answer: the competition is so essential to the community identity that I have a hard time imagining it away, and besides, my opinion wouldn’t change anything; it’s like someone asking whether the human body would be more aesthetically appealing if it didn’t have a spine.

Nonetheless, I’m constantly conscious of the con arguments brought up a few times a year: that the competition siphons off attention from other games released at other times; that it produces a trend towards small games rather than epic works; that there is something wrong or unfair about the voting scheme (opinions vary on what that might be); and — my least favorite — that “real” artforms, like novels and paintings, are not produced primarily for competition, and that therefore competition is an unhealthy or unnatural context for artistic production, and we’d be better off without it. (Here we touch another of my pet peeves: people who make sweeping statements about “real” art are usually talking about [what they know about] commercialized artistic production in the early 21st century. I run into something similar with freshman mythology students: they’re often convinced that “originality” is the defining feature of good art, and so object to the fact that ancient authors reused mythological material. Their conceptions about literature have been shaped by market forces and copyright law in ways they don’t recognize. They also, if pressed, don’t have a very clear idea of what originality means, other than perhaps refraining from reusing the same plot and cast of characters from another work.)

Lately I’ve been reading two books that have helped clarify my visceral sense about this problem into something I can articulate.

Continue reading “Art in Competition”

Two readings of possible interest

The last couple of days have brought some interesting reads that weren’t announced on RAIF, so I’ll mention them here:

Trotting Krips’ review of Planetfall. I’ve never gotten around to playing this one myself.

Nick Montfort’s dissertation on nn, an IF development system he designed in the course of getting his doctorate at Penn. The dissertation runs to several hundred pages, so it’s not a light read, but I’d recommend a look to those interested in IF theory. Some of what he writes is fairly technical discussion of how his system works, and it’s difficult to judge its merits given that there aren’t any actual games written in it (as he admits himself); on the other hand, he also does a lot of theoretical definition of the different aspects of IF games.

Continue reading “Two readings of possible interest”