Liza Daly on “First Draft of the Revolution”

Here is Liza Daly (Threepress) talking at Books in Browsers 2011 about an interactive epistolary story I’ve been working on for and with her.

Liza’s talk is about the possibilities of interactive narrative, her background with IF and hypertext, and what we’ve done together with this story in specific.

As you may gather from the screenshots, “First Draft” is not parser-based, but also not CYOA: the interaction is all about revising the letters between the various characters and then choosing when to send them. So there are lots of small, parallel choices submitted at once rather than a sequence of large choices submitted serially — an effect I am hoping creates some of the texture and exploratory feel that I often feel is missing from CYOA. It’s set in the universe of Savoir-Faire and Damnatio Memoriae at the cusp of that world’s French Revolution.

There will be a public release of this project when it’s done, but I do not yet have a date for that.

Meanwhile for iPad and iPhone

Jason Shiga’s choose-your-own-path comic Meanwhile has been around in book form for a while now. There’s even a copy in my household, but I haven’t ever gotten to the point of reading it properly (and there is a “properly”, as one soon discovers). Now, thanks to Andrew Plotkin, it’s available as an iPad/iPhone application, and in that new format I finally finished it last night.

Meanwhile is a puzzle story: there are many endings, but you’ll know when you’ve reached the point where you finally understand. Structurally it has more in common with Möbius, Rematch, or other replay-puzzle IF than it has with, say, the Choice Of series. Going through the choices with the right knowledge puts a new spin on the things you see, and equips you for a couple of combination lock puzzles that otherwise would be laborious to guess your way through. And — like many games of this ilk — it uses time travel and parallel universe tropes to explain its loops of repetition and discovery, so that you can if you wish rationalize all your playthroughs as belonging to one(ish) reality.

Meanwhile is self-graphing CYOA — you don’t just jump pages, you actually see the lines of narrative — and it plays with that fact frequently and intentionally. Embedded in the story are many witty moments: places where you find yourself stuck in an infinite loop, points where two paths reconverge for comic effect, panels that mirror or summarize other panels in surprising ways. Sometimes the lines connecting panels spiral or tangle or knot, indicating narrative complication or a breakdown of causality.

As a book, it’s a pretty cool artifact — lines running out from the comic panels to the edge of the page, leading to tabs leading to new pages.

As an iPad app, it’s more solvable. All the elements of the story are assembled on a single infinite canvas, making it easier to see how panels relate to one another. A trace records where you’ve been on the current playthrough, so you can easily jump backwards to the last choice or to an earlier segment of the story if you want to try taking a different route. There’s even voiceover functionality for the visually-impaired, though I didn’t experiment with this myself.

If you’re inclined to read Meanwhile, I highly recommend the app version. The crazy, mindboggling outcome is worth getting to — and worth getting to honestly — and it’s easier to do that with those helps.

More on Seven Fables: Planning a Conversation Model

The Seven Fables project I covered a week or so ago is now successfully Kickstarted and then some. With more resources available than they initially expected, the authors are thinking about how they might add conversational characters to the project, using some chatbot technology they’ve worked with in the past.

Here Mark Stephen Meadows and I talk through some of the design and tech issues involved.

ES: Why are you looking at adding chatbot technology to this piece?

MSM: Stories are almost always about people. Narrative’s core is about personalities: people, interactions, society, desire, fear, love, weakness. These are the building blocks of narrative and without people in a story it becomes more an exploration of architecture than a drama or adventure. That’s what IF is often about. Sure, it’s fun to poke around in a dungeon and discover doors that open and close. But I find that hearts that open and close are far more interesting.

Gollum? Princess Leia? Kung Fu Panda? Brothers Karamazov? Even great adventures like that are about the people, and what drives and limits them.

ES: Tell me what excites you about the chatbot technology you’re planning to use.

MSM: The problem with most chatbots these days is not the technology. Even simple systems like AIML have enough hooks and gears to work in a piece of IF as a believable character. The problem is design.

Usually chatbots lack context. They’re like abandoned people, homeless wanderers, that awkwardly roam the streets, looking for conversation. “Hi! My Name Is Bob! How Are You Today?” a chatbot might say. I dont want to talk with these chatbots. They’re drek, informational bums. Just like a person walking up to you on the street saying the same thing. “Hi! My Name Is Bob! How Are You Today?” I would do my best to politely brush him off and just keep walking down the street. But if there’s a design and narrative component to this then it starts to get interesting. If, for example, I see a small green man with dragonfly wings sitting on a post office box, asking me to open it because his faerie-wife is trapped inside, then I’m far more inclined to talk with him than the guy named Bob. Chat is not interesting simply because it is chat. It has to have a context. Chatbots are boring largely because they lack that context. NPCs / NPGs and chatbots should be given a context that allows them to serve a function. Give the bums a job.

This kind of design is, like writing, as much about psychology as anything else.

Once upon a time, in 2007, my company HeadCase had developed some technology that showed how a personality could be distilled from a conversation. We did it with Arnold Schwarzenegger. We were using ‘scrapers’ – an automated system that would traverse websites, search for first-person interviews, drag those back into a
database, snap off chunks of the interviews that were relevant to similar topics, ideas, and categories, and then rank that stuff according to frequency. Then we asked the system a question. So, for example, we asked the Arnold Schwarzenegger system, “What do you think of gay marriage?” and it answered, “Gay marriage should be between a man and a woman, and if you ask me again I’ll make you do 500 push-ups.”

It was Arnold. Like a photo, it was his likeness. This was, really, an authoring technique for NPCs. The goal was to take interviews and be able to generate NPCs from them.

Continue reading “More on Seven Fables: Planning a Conversation Model”

Seven Fables: an Interview with Mark Stephen Meadows

Mark Stephen Meadows is the author of several books on interaction, including Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative. Mark is currently in the process of Kickstarting his new project “Seven Fables”, an interactive ebook with a companion volume in old-fashioned codex form. (Leather-bound, no less.) Being a sucker for retellings of classic stories, I was curious about the project. Mark has kindly agreed to talk a bit here about the interaction in “Seven Fables” and what he hopes readers will take away from it.

ES: Who is your ideal audience for “Seven Fables”?

MSM: The same folks that read the Grimm fable collections, back in the 1800s. I’d like those folks to be reincarnated, iPad in hand! That would be adults, mostly in their 30s. In the 1960s and 1970s Disney did a fine job of both sterilizing and infantalizing fables like Snow White, but the real, undiluted fables are pretty intense. There’s real horror and joy in old fables, so I like to think that we adults can read them, too. Fables have generally been read by many generations, because they can be read on many levels, so I hope we can span that gap.

The Grimms did it, and I’m mostly copying them. I went out and collected nautical fables from Japan, India, Europe, North America (generally while visiting those countries), and I’ve rewritten some of the words, changed a few of the characters, illustrated them, and now i’m trying to get them into a modern outfit. But the stories are wicked old, and
already quite popular in some ports, so I like to think they’ll be enjoyed by many people as they’ve already been proven to be valid tales. I think this will naturally both attract and filter an audience.

Ideally, I’d also like hard-core fans of fables to read this work. There’s a terse language, a tight form, and a meaty metaphor in the fable genre, which is why I like them so much. From a literary perspective, a good fable is a bit more like poetry than anything else (there’s often even repeating stanzas), but if that’s true then it’s a lazy-poet’s poetry, and its for a reader that wants a little sugar with his philosophy. The genre is very constraining, and I look forward to knowing how people think we’ve done, if we’ve preserved that tightness and form in these interactive versions, or if we’ve flopped by expanding reading options. That’s a big challenge, and it will also determine who our readers are.

So it’s an experiment for those of us that were raised outside of Disneyland.

ES: What is the experience you want to create for your player/reader through the interaction?

MSM: Exploration punctuated by moments of surprise. I want the reader to enter an amazing world, a world where even Jim Woodring would be wide-eyed, and to explore things, test things, evaluate their actions, and try to suspend judgment until the outcome of their actions are clear.

There’s this fable about the old Chinese man whose horse ran away. All the villagers said, “Oh, that’s bad!” and the old man said, “We will see, we will see.” then, two weeks later, the horse came back, and it brought another horse with it, and all the villagers said, “Oh, that’s good!” and the old man said, “We will see, we will see.” Then, two weeks later, his son was out riding the new horse, and it threw him, and he fell and broke his hip. All the villagers said, “Oh, that’s bad!” and the old man said, “We will see, we will see.” Then two weeks after that, the army came and they were recruiting young men for a war, but the old man’s son could not be recruited because he had a busted hip. All the villagers said, “Oh, that’s good!” and the old man said, “We will see, we will see.”

Continue reading “Seven Fables: an Interview with Mark Stephen Meadows”

“Interactive fiction” from the publishing side

Recently I’ve run into a few references to “interactive fiction” where the term doesn’t mean any kind of game, but something more choose-your-own-adventure-like. In the 80s we had Infocom appropriating the word “fiction” in order to lend an impression of literary depth and respectability to its brand; now we have book publishers borrowing interactivity in order to make their publications seem more appealing, particularly to young people. I’m interested in this, but not terribly heartened by the samples I’ve run into recently.

One example is this series of choose your own adventure books aimed at helping “tween” girls make Christian decisions. I assume the author has the best intentions for this project, but — leaving aside the actual content of the decisions — I get the strong impression that the reader is presented with choices each of which has only one rather blatant “right” solution:

In the Scenarios series, each main character is faced with many choices and moral dilemmas. Eventually, they find that their choices have led them into a situation that requires them to make a very difficult and potentially life-altering moral decision. When the story has fully unfolded, and the main character arrives at that moment of truth, the reader makes the big decision for her and then turns to the corresponding section in the book where the resulting circumstances unfold. This places the responsibility for those decisions squarely on the reader’s shoulders, in hopes that she will learn from her personal experience as she lives it through the eyes of the book’s character. She will learn the importance of good decisions as well as the truth about forgiveness and grace. Even when poor choices are made, the redemptive power of Christ is evident as forgiveness is sought, offered and received.

When I was in sixth grade we had a drug awareness program in school that included similar exercises, in which we were asked to pick whether we would Give In To Peer Pressure or Just Say No. Not so much roleplaying, which I can somewhat understand; just picking what was the Right Answer. I’m not sure what this was meant to accomplish other than to make sure the students knew what the teacher wanted to hear.

Though I’m very interested in interactive choice in general, I find this particular use of choice (“you get to choose, but if you choose the Morally Wrong Answer, you get preached at!”) aesthetically repellent and also ineffective as propaganda. This is not a story; it’s a quiz. I have no problem with that in the context of, say, safety training: I once had a job that involved potential exposure to chemical toxins and radioactive substances, and I had no problem being trained with multiple-choice questions about what to do when I dropped a beaker of liquid, or the role-playing scene where I needed to dispose of something safely. But there wasn’t any moral judgment involved there, just a procedure I needed to learn to follow.

I suspect the Christian Morality Storyquiz does the reader a disservice by pretending that life is simpler than it actually is. Unless the reader has some ability to share the protagonist’s temptation, it’s easy to piously do the right thing on her behalf — and for that experience to be nothing like preparation for real world situations. (Not to mention that sometimes you can do what you absolutely believe is the right thing and still hurt someone’s feelings thereby and face unhappy consequences.) So it all sounds a bit plastic. And most kids old enough to fit the “tween” category are old enough to smell the artificiality a mile off.

The second example comes in the form of a press release emailed to me:

Writers of interactive fiction for the 21st Century wanted

mifiction calls for entries from established and aspiring authors to create modern day interactive fiction –

UK, October 13, 2009: mifiction, an innovative online publisher based in the UK, is looking to reinvigorate interactive fiction using the latest in modern technology, and your writing skills.

In an effort to encourage authors and to find a host of exciting and imaginative stories, mifiction is hosting a writing competition which is open to anyone with an interest in interactive fiction and a passion for writing.

About the competition:
Aimed at writers who are enthusiastic about teen fiction, mifiction is encouraging authors over the age of 16 to submit entries from almost any genre…

It turns out that what they’re looking for is choose your own adventure stories that can be delivered in snippets of 150 words, the better to display on a mobile phone.

This is a fairly restrictive form, I feel, and I’m not encouraged by the fact that the very first snippet of their example “interactive fiction” contains the text “You can sees it now…”.

But what bothers me about it even more is the recommended implementation structure. To avoid uncontrollable amounts of content, the guidelines suggest that story branches should reconnect to the main storyline. However, the system does not track variables and has no preserved state other than the fact of which text we’re currently looking at. So player’s past choices are forgotten and disregarded as soon as the story rejoins, which means in practical terms that none of one’s early choices will matter. (Unless — one could argue this — viewing one branch rather than another significantly affects the interpretation of later material. But that’s a bit meta.) In any case, what they’re implementing could be implemented equally well as a series of very simple HTML pages, with none of the complexities to be found in more sophisticated literary hypertext software.

That said, first prize in this competition is 300 UKP (about $490 at present exchange rates), for what I suspect is substantially less work than entering the IF Comp once. So hey, perhaps someone will find it’s worth trying to wrangle an interesting interactive experience out of this extremely bare-bones format.