“Inventing the Future of Games” Symposium

April 15, the UC Santa Cruz Center for Games and Playable Media is hosting a one-day symposium on the future of games, where I’ll be speaking on characters and conversation. I’m very much looking forward to it; and if any of you are in a position to come, you’ll also get to hear from Jordan Mechner, Will Wright, Rod Humble, and all these people.

IF Demo Fair themes: interface

I should have posted about this more immediately, but I came home from PAX East with a bad cold and I’m just now getting really over it. However: the IF Demo Fair went off with a minimum of fuss and a lot of great entries. (And if you’re curious what the physical setup was like, there is a stream of photos by Mark Musante here.) I’m planning to cover the full list more thoroughly in SPAG — a little more official and permanent than my blog, as the entries deserve. But I did want to look at a few trends and examples.

The Demo Fair specifically invited people to experiment with the interface and/or UI, and we saw several experiments in dealing with the parser challenges that have been so frequently discussed lately.

Vicious Cycles with hyperlinks
Simon Mark submitted Vicious Cycles, a game that already existed as a parser-based piece of IF from 2001, but now re-envisioned as with wholly browser-run, hypertext-like interface. It sometimes feels a bit like Undum, but sometimes branches out a bit, with windows of explicit inventory — an inventory that includes thoughts and ideas as well as objects. The effect is sleek and streamlined, though (in my own opinion) it makes the sacrifice that all CYOA makes relative to parsed IF: as soon as the player is thinking only in terms of a single set of choices (which object to interact with, say), some of the texture and depth of the world is set aside. And I did sometimes miss having a full transcript and scrollback. However, there was a lot about the experience I did like — its smoothness and accessibility — and it is relatively rare for CYOA/hypertext to come so close to suggesting an IF-style world model. (Though not completely unheard of.)

Richard and Larry Build a Time Machine
A related demo was Richard and Larry Build a Time Machine, by Jeremy Penner. Interactive objects are hyperlinks, but clicking on them brings up a contextual menu with a couple of suggested verbs. The whole transcript expands — and in keeping with the time-travel theme, things the player does later in the game can insert new content earlier in the story. What’s more, the player can click on any section of the transcript to undo the action there — sending other ripples of causality through the transcript. It’s a short piece, and worth a look. More information, and the source code, may be found here.

Quest 5.0 WebPlayer
Alex Warren brought us the web player for Quest 5.0. The standard features (easily turned off, however, I gather) include a constant inventory window, another window of items present in the game world, and buttons for the compass directions. As in “Richard and Larry,” clicking on an object name in the game produces a drop-down menu of possible verbs. The inventory and stuff-in-this-location windows are more than I personally would want on-screen all the time in many games, but it’s clear that these are highly modifiable features of the system. (The flexibility of the system is clear from Warren’s second small demo game, in which two side by side windows present command lines and descriptive text, and the player can type on either side to see what happens from both points of view.)

Vorple, with a tooltip
I was also excited by the possibilities in Juhana Leinonen’s Vorple interface demo. Vorple is a javascript front end that Juhana plans to adapt to multiple game engines, including CYOA tools like Undum and conventional parser-based IF systems like Glulx and the Z-machine. The example in the demo fair showed off a number of neat abilities, like the ability to erase parser error messages after a turn, leaving behind a clean transcript. But I especially liked its ability to bring up a tooltip-like guide when hovering over game text. This is a mechanism I currently find really appealing as a way to provide help and affordance clues to the player: hover over a word or phrase in the text to get some tips about what verbs will work on that noun, a bit like the menu constructions in “Richard and Larry” above. Move your mouse away again, and the tooltip is gone. Alternatively, click to paste the command in line. Without getting rid of the command line entirely, and without cluttering the transcript or the screen with unattractive structures, a tooltip system could offer helpful glosses using UI conventions people are already familiar with from other web pages and applications.

Vorple is still a long way from completion, as I understand it, and the tooltip concept is only one of a number of things it can do. But I’m currently quite enamored of the possibilities.

Finally, this wasn’t part of the Demo Fair at all, but Jon Ingold’s recent experiment in a parser that error-corrects in the command line is worth a mention too, as it’s approaching many of the same problems from a different perspective.

Highlights from the first two days of GDC

So tired, so very very wired. But some of my favorite moments from GDC so far:

The weird, wired, super-fast Rapid-Fire Indie Game session. Chris Hecker’s speech at 250 miles an hour about getting your game out there and getting it known. Hearing about the genesis of pOnd, a game that made me laugh so hard I had trouble breathing. (Or have so much trouble breathing that I had to laugh? One of those.) Anna Anthropy’s talk on the indie game scene being so much about the same set of nerds making games for the same set of nerds… followed by a hilariously in-crowd-y performance during the Q&A session. Getting to meet Anna.

Seeing Aaron Reed’s book in the GDC bookstore:

The AI Summit, in just about every particular. Content-wise, even the stuff that has no bearing on my own work, like the talk on influence maps, has been fascinating. People-wise, they’re cool, brilliant folks, and tremendously approachable.

Eric Zimmerman and Naomi Clark’s talk on the Fantasy of Labor, which postulates that people play time management games and their ilk — games that are more or less impossible to fail and largely decoupled from skill — because they like believing persistent work will get them somewhere. I wanted to ask whether they thought this fantasy has become more powerful and more pervasive as the economy has tanked, but that seemed like too much of a downer even for a fairly serious talk. I think there might be some psychological terrain to be mapped that goes even deeper and to even stranger places: namely, a sense of virtue from doing large amounts of busy work that someone else has bidden you to do. I can’t say that has motivated me in real life very much as an adult, but it’s what got me through the first few years of elementary school for sure.

Not favorite: I didn’t get my speaker t-shirt! They asked me what size I wanted, but then it was not in my bag. I am sad. Childishly sad. I don’t wear my shirt from last year much, but I like having it, you know?

Preview of the IF Demo Fair

The IF Demo Fair will be held from 8:00 to 10:00 PM on Saturday, March 12, in the Alcott conference room at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel adjacent to PAX East 2011 (map). No PAX badge is required to attend. This is an IF community event sponsored by the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction.

We have 23 pieces, including interactive poetry, journalism, and documentary; experiments with styles of interaction that go beyond the puzzle, and modes of input other than the standard parser form; new prototype authoring tools; and new interpreters, both serious and whimsical.

Here are some highlights:

The XYZZY-nominated Automatypewriter, Jonathan M. Guberman and Jim Munroe. Like a more literate cousin of the player piano, the automatypewriter is a manual typewriter that types by itself, and takes input. You may have seen the video online where an early version of this project plays Zork — the one being showcased here is an entirely different typewriter, playing a custom-built interactive fiction piece by Jim Munroe (Everybody Dies, Roofed).

A new way to interact with fiction from Jonathan M. Guberman on Vimeo.

what if im the bad guy?, Aaron Reed, UC Santa Cruz. Exploring a frozen battlefield moment from a half dozen violently conflicting perspectives, this prototype (part of the author’s work towards a digital arts MFA) merges traditional IF with video, sound, and web conventions. Inspired by the currently unfolding trials of six US Marines accused of committing war crimes in Afghanistan, the project asks what interactive stories can say about contemporary, real-world events, and wonders if there can be such a thing as an IF documentary.

Vorple user interface library, Juhana Leinonen. Vorple is a JavaScript user interface library designed to be used together with interactive fiction and hyperfiction systems. Vorple provides an additional user interface layer on top of existing web interpreters and systems. Story and library authors can build user interface and web elements the underlying system might not support natively. Through Vorple, stories can display YouTube videos, pull data from Wikipedia, communicate with Twitter or Facebook, integrate to blogs, or use any other services and techniques available for web applications.

Procedurally Generated Narrative Puzzles, Clara Fernandez Vara, Michaela Lavan, Alec Thomson, Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. This project focuses on methods to generate narrative puzzles procedurally. The point-and-click game Symon was a proof of concept of what an adventure game would be like if players had the chance to restart the game and get different puzzles, because they were being generated by the system. The project here presented are a set of tools for designers which eventually should be compatible with different development environment, including those dedicated to interactive fiction. The tools include a series of building blocks to build puzzle patterns, and a database editor, which designers can use to create the characters and items involved in the puzzles.

Also to look forward to:

  • Combat and conversation demos from Bob Clark, Victor Gijsbers, and Robb Sherwin
  • New browser interpreters by Dave Cornelson and Alex Warren
  • Nick Montfort’s Curveship system for narrative variance
  • Adam Parrish’s Frotzophone interpreter, which interprets changes to the object tree in the Z-Machine into music

IF Demo Fair Update

So intents are in for the IF Demo Fair, and they look awesome. And there are a lot more of them than I was anticipating — 23 in total. I’m really excited about this.

However, it also means that we’re going to need to change the format a little bit, since the original plan of playing through everything as a group makes a lot less sense with that many entries. If you’re an entrant, you should have already received email from me about this; if you didn’t get it, please let me know and I’ll re-send.

Demo Fair intents deadline

Just a reminder: if you want to enter the IF demo fair but haven’t told me so yet, now is your chance. Intents close tomorrow night, the 18th of February.

We’ve got an excellent line-up so far, with a mix of new and veteran IF authors and some participants from outside the standard community; I think it’s going to be exciting, but I don’t want to miss anyone who wants to be in.

Tomorrow night is a hard deadline because I then have to design flyers, wrangle equipment, and so on, so I need to know what I’m covering.