Mailbag: Teaching Spatial Storytelling

A Twitter follower asked me for resources to teach students to pair space and story in a meaningful way, and they were already familiar with my article Plot-Shaped Level Design.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 1.36.22 PMTo state what will be extremely obvious to some of my readers, but probably new to others: this is classic craft territory for parser IF, where maps are generally developed in tandem with plot and puzzles.

The primacy of the map, in this tradition, is why Inform had a map index much earlier in its development than it had a scene index: charting the space, together with its doors and access points, was understood as more critical (and also easier to do programmatically) than diagramming a CYOA-style node structure.

Classic text adventures rarely experimented with treating space as continuous rather than room-based, even though the possibility of doing so cropped up in discussion at least as early as 1991, with another discussion in 1996. Some of that may have had to do with technical challenges, genre convention, and the relative difficulty of expressing quantitative information in prose. But I suspect another major factor was simply that the room-based approach to map design offered a lot of leverage in controlling which parts of the story the player saw at a time. Games such as Ether that allow for very free movement through a highly connected volume have to rely on alternative methods to control narrative presentation, or else have story content that can safely be encountered in any order.

In classic parser IF design, the companion of the map was the puzzle dependency chart. Puzzle dependency charts showed which barriers had to be crossed before which others; maps represented how this manifested in physical space.

In most parser IF, not all of the map is available at once, and the player has to solve puzzles to open particular areas, whether by unlocking a door, getting past a guard, throwing light on a dark room, etc.: many of the classic IF puzzles reward the player with access to new spaces, though there are many different ways of setting up the challenge initially.

That progression of spatial access was typically what let the author control the difficulty curve (only give the players puzzles that they’ve proven they’re ready for) and the plot reveals (put the more important clues deeper in the map). Often, reaching a particular location, or reaching it under particular circumstances, or interacting with an object there, would serve to trigger dramatic scenes marking a major advancement in the story.

Then there’s the question of pacing and content density. How much story material belongs in each room? How much real space does a given room represent, and how does that connect with narrative presentation? Adam Cadre’s review of Lost New York gets into detail about some of these topics, and the problem of representational space vs. literally simulating a large area.

So with all that background explanation, here are a few other resources beside the links already given, but if anyone reading wants to recommend others, please feel free to comment as well. Continue reading

Morality and Diegetic Agency in IF (via Radio K on Slouching Towards Bedlam)

Radio K screenshot

Adam Cadre’s Radio K podcast, continuing its coverage of IF games from the early to mid 2000s, now covers Slouching Towards Bedlam, Gourmet, and The Dreamhold.

Part of Adam’s discussion of Slouching riffs on what he says was my view at the time, that this was one of the first IF games to seriously address moral choice. He objects to that view because the player is very likely to explore all the possible endings, and therefore it’s unlikely that they’ll feel much weight in their decision, and also because he doesn’t consider the final question morally all that interesting.

It’s possible I did characterize Slouching that way at some point in a newsgroup discussion – I don’t now recall precisely. It’s not really quite what I would say now, though — and actually it’s not exactly what I say in my contemporary review.

I bring this up not to nitpick Adam’s generally excellent podcast, but because thinking about Slouching Towards Bedlam from the perspective of the current IF scene sent me off on something of a tangent of further thoughts.

So with apologies to Adam, here’s what I would say about it now: Slouching is an early, and still relatively rare, example of parser IF that makes diegetic outcomes depend on a complex set of world model machinations on the part of the player. First you have to figure out how the world model affects the story, and then you have to use that information to bring about the ending you want. You’re likely to luck into several endings you don’t want at the same time.

Continue reading

Competitions, Anthologies, and Shows

IF Discussion Club this month is looking at the incentive systems and formal infrastructure in the IF community: competitions, anthologies, and shows. But as there’s a lot of material out there, I wanted to preface that discussion by providing a little bit of an overview to some of the things I’m aware of. (Edited to add: the transcript of that discussion is now available.)

Consequently, I contacted a number of people who have put together one of these events, and asked them to give me an overview of their thinking: what were they trying to do? Why? How did their goals change, and how well did it all work? I got a lot of response: many thanks to all those who took the time to write detailed responses.

I did not try to capture and describe things that were primarily about presenting a single IF work to the public (e.g., read-alouds of Lost Pig) or talks or demos of IF creation system (such as talks about how to use Inform 7 or intro-to-Twine workshops). I also didn’t attempt to cover sites that do/did on-going curation, such as IFDB, Baf’s Guide, freeindiegam.es, or Forest Ambassador, whether or not those were IF-exclusive.

Even without those restrictions, I’m sure there are a number of things that I left out. There are many general-purpose game jams that sometimes turn out to include IF entrants, which would be impossible to track down thoroughly. I didn’t try to cover all of the themed minicomps of the past decade and a half, because there have been so many. ifwiki lists 44 standalones of varying degrees of seriousness and specificity — including ToasterComp (12 entries) and BreadComp (0 entries). There are also people I wanted to contact but couldn’t reach, and there are also doubtless events I’m not aware of.

If you know of projects that are not discussed here but you have some insight into how they’re run, please feel free to add information in the comments.

Continue reading

More IFDB data

On my previous post, Ron commented speculating about what has changed about IF in the last few years, and that spurred me to check a couple of other hypotheses.

(1) Slice of life games have gotten more popular in the post-2000 period.

Not so much, it turns out.

I’d really love to do a full breakdown on genre percentages and see how horror, SF, fantasy, and other elements have fluctuated over the years, but that would require a Lot of Counting.

(2) Games have gotten more novice-friendly since about 2004, with more tutorials, help menus, built-in hints, maps, improved parser messages, smarter can’t-go replies, navigation by GO TO ROOM, and so on. Certainly it feels like we’ve talked a lot more in the past five years or so about how to make games accessible and reduce stuckness, and there have been a host of libraries, extensions, and goodies designed to make this easier.

But is it making a significant difference?

This one is harder to address, because there aren’t tags for most of these features. (I did go in and tag games that I know of that have included feelie maps, built-in maps inside the game, room-name navigation like GO TO THE KITCHEN, or tutorial modes, but my memory is faulty and incomplete. If other people want to go in and add their own tags, that would be very welcome.)

The one tag that is readily searchable is “built-in hints”, and it doesn’t give the results I might have expected:

In fact, it’s a bit dippy around 1998. But wait! As we saw last time, 1998 was the year of the puzzleless-game spike. Do we expect built-in hints in puzzleless games? Probably not so much. A “Puzzleless *or* built-in hints” chart looks like this, a kind of anti-stuckness graph:

Still, even with the adjustment, it looks as though game “friendliness” or accessibility has developed in just the opposite way to what I would have expected.

This could be another sign that my expectations are just wrong, all wrong, but I think there might be some other issues.

These graphs don’t account for game length: games used to be longer on average, and therefore there was more need for built-in hints in order to get through the morass. And there are a lot of options that IFDB tags don’t currently cover, as mentioned, or don’t cover enough to be significant. For instance, several of my games don’t have built-in hints but did feature invisiclues-style accompaniments outside the game, and there are other people who have done feelie hints as well in preference to something inside the game. So I feel like we’d need a lot more tagging of various kinds to give a clear idea of accessibility features as they’ve evolved over the past few years.

Another thing this graph doesn’t deal with is the difference between major releases and trifles or toys. Speed IF isn’t likely to come with any player niceties — because there’s no time, and no one is expecting any polish. But a year with a lot of Speed IF competitions in it tends to bulk out (in a numerical sense) with dozens of tiny games that are never intended for presentation to a wider audience. Likewise, IntroComp games might reasonably be lacking the features of a full and complete release. But it’s difficult to factor out those sorts of things without a different and more sophisticated counting method.

Or, you know, I could still just be totally wrong. That’s possible too.

Scraping IFDB

Working on updating some old articles for the IF theory book, and reading discussions on the intfiction forum, I found myself wondering about some of my preconceptions of IF history. So I decided to check some of my assumptions against IFDB, by searching on certain tags and then reducing the results to a list of dates.

My initial hypotheses were more or less as follow:

  1. Recent years have seen some experimental break-aways from the early convention that all IF must be second person.
  2. Female protagonists are much more common after the mid/late 90s.
  3. Single room games took off in the late 90s and have been relatively frequent ever since.
  4. Puzzleless games took off in the late 90s and have been relatively frequent ever since.

(1) To get my worst prediction out of the way first, here is the result I got on first/third person games:

Assuming that the tagging on these is remotely accurate, the 80s actually saw a lot of experimentation at least with the first person, which then died off; since then there has been just a modest trickle of both first and third person. The early first-person trend is even clearer when expressed as a percentage of total publications per year:

There are some serious issues with this methodology, I should point out. One, tagging on IFDB is not consistent; less-known games tend not to be covered, and many older games are likely to be less tagged than new ones. Many examples are likely to be omitted from these counts. (But if anything I would expect 80s games to be underrepresented in the tagging, rather than the reverse.)

Moreover, there is no distinction here between English-language games and those in other traditions. I know that some language traditions tend more towards the first person than others, so probably a more intelligent approach to the data would break out the Italian, Spanish, etc., games from the English ones. Even with those caveats, I’m kind of surprised by this one.

Assuming the data are worth anything, though, they suggest that language/library support is not actually the key issue determining whether IF authors use persons other than second person. TADS 3 (via built-in support, I believe) and Inform 7 (via extensions) both are better at letting the author select another person or tense than the previous generations of these languages. But their introduction hasn’t led to a boom in non-second-person games.

(2) On female protagonists, I was sort of right, but not in the way I expected.

I had vaguely assumed that there would be a lot of male protagonist games and then a gradual rise in female protagonist games to match it, more or less at the point around 1997 or so when the gender balance of the IF newsgroups seems to have started shifting to include more women. (A bit of anecdata: “Everybody Loves a Parade” (1997) has a moment that reveals the PC as female; at the time, reviewers hailed this as an amusing surprise twist. A couple of years later it no longer seemed all that surprising and twisty.)

What actually happens is that there’s a spike in female protagonists, but subsequently a rise in the count of explicitly male protagonists as well. I’d guess that reflects changing gender proportions in the writing and playing communities, but also a movement towards having specific player character personae at all:

(3) Here’s the chart for single room games. It more or less does do what I expected:

Perhaps the most notable thing about this chart is the way the number jumps suddenly at 1998. But 1998 was a year of very high production overall, and a lot of minicomps. Suddenly there were a lot more venues for bite-sized works. And once that trend started, it continued.

(4) Puzzleless games, I was sort of right about.

My first impulse was to think, hm, I wonder whether this phenomenon correlates with years when the IF Art Show was running, since that competition encouraged experiential and often puzzle-free work.

But there was an IF Art Show in 2007; it just seems that the entries were not as frequently puzzleless as the earlier ones, or aren’t labeled as such.

Reformatting the data to represent not absolute numbers but percentage-of-all-published-games for these periods shifts the effect even harder:

Over ten percent of the games published in 1998 are tagged as puzzleless. 1998 again! That 1998 was a big year for IF is obvious just from a glance at the XYZZY list: this was the year of Anchorhead and Photopia, Spider and Web and Losing Your Grip, Once and Future and Bad Machine. But the other numbers suggest it was also a year of massive innovation and change in the community and in the types of games that were being produced.

The drop-off is as striking as the pickup. It suggests either that the IF community has actively rejected the puzzleless experiments of 1998-2001 or so; or that we’ve stopped labeling as “puzzleless” games that would previously have come under that category.

My personal, fuzzy sense of this is that we had a boom in experimental puzzleless games, and that that gave way to a series of works that are more balanced between puzzle and story than what went before. “Make It Good”, “Blue Lacuna”, and “King of Shreds and Patches” are hardly puzzleless, but they tend to integrate their puzzles more deeply with stories than many older works.

So. I’m not sure what to make of all that. As mentioned, the data is pretty flawed, and there’s a lot I’d like to be able to look up (average play times, for instance) that isn’t covered by IFDB. I wouldn’t mind doing some comparisons on game genres as well (am I right that “slice of life” IF has become more prevalent since 2000 or so?), but there are just too many games in each category for my partly-manual counting process to cope with, so I’d need some other way to get the IFDB data on those.

And finally, what the charts don’t show at all is the relative influence of the games in question.

There are only nine games tagged “moral choice” in the whole database, but I feel like “Fate”, “The Baron”, “Tapestry”, “Slouching Towards Bedlam” and “Whom the Telling Changed” all raised significant discussion — enough so that I think of this as an important focus of mid-2000s IF even though, by IFDB standards, there are very few examples.