World Models Rendered in Text

Last month I wrote a bit about text generation and generated narratives overall. This month, I’ve been looking more at parser games — games that typically are distinguished by (among other things) having an expressive (if not very discoverable) mode of input along with a complex world model.

My own first parser IF projects were very interested in that complexity. I liked the sensation of control that came from manipulating a detailed imaginary world, and the richness of describing it. And part of the promise of a complex world model (though not always realized in practice) was the idea that it might let players come up with their own solutions to problems, solutions that weren’t explicitly anticipated by the author.

It might seem like these are two extremes of the IF world: parser games are sometimes seen as niche and old-school, so much so that when I ran June’s London IF Meetup focused on Inform, we had some participants asking if I would start the session by introducing what parser IF is.

Meanwhile, generative text is sometimes not interactive at all. It is used for explorations that may seem high-concept, or else like they’re mostly of technical interest, in that they push on the boundaries of current text-related technology. (See also Andrew Plotkin’s project using machine learning to generate imaginary IF titles. Yes, as an intfiction poster suggested, that’s something you could also do with an older Markov implementation, but that particular exercise was an exercise in applying tech to this goal.)

There’s a tighter alignment between these types of project than might initially appear. Bruno Dias writes about using generative prose over on Sub-Q magazine. And Liza Daly has written about what a world model can do to make generated prose better, more coherent or more compelling.

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Mid-June Link Assortment

Events

June 16 (tomorrow), the Baltimore/DC group meets at Mad City Coffee to discuss the game Grayscale. This group also has a Facebook page.

Also June 16, 2 PM Pacific time (tomorrow), Dylan Holmes at the Sacramento Public Library is running the first of three monthly book club meetings about video game related topics, via Twitch. (So people from all over are welcome to join online.) They are starting with Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

spiritCE

June 17 (day after tomorrow), London IF Meetup has another Character Engine workshop available, as there were a number of interested parties who were not able to come to the first of these. This is a chance to learn about the tools we’re building for AI-driven dialogue and narrative, and to join an indies-and-academics-focused development program.

June 20, the People’s Republic of IF in Cambridge MA meets.

June 21, Wonderbly hosts its Strange Tales talk series in London, this time focusing on puzzles and games. I’ve attended (and spoken at) this series in the past — it’s lots of fun and looks at the intersection of conventional publishing and interactive work.

June 20-21, there is a free two-day event at University of St Andrews, University of Glasgow & Abertay University on the topic Literature and Video Games: Beyond Stereotypes. Speakers include Rhianna Pratchett and Simon Meek. This looks to cross over academic approaches and experiences from professional video game writing.

ICCC, the International Conference on Computational Creativity, runs June 25-29 in Salamanca this year, and Spirit AI is sponsoring its industry crossover panel. I will be there, talking about what we’re doing at Spirit and checking out the other interesting work in this space.

The July 4 meeting of the Oxford/London IF Meetup will feature Leigh Alexander presenting on the narrative design process of Reigns: Her Majesty. We will start the session by playing through a bit of the game, so please do feel free to come even if you’re not familiar with it.

(And can I just say how pleased I am with this method of celebrating Independence Day, by hanging out in London with other expats playing a game about being a queen.)

July 7 is the next Meetup of the SF Bay IF group.

Gothic Novel Jam is a jam for games or works inspired by the gothic novel in any fashion, and is running throughout July. IF and related narrative games are welcome.

Screen Shot 2018-06-10 at 4.20.43 PM.pngIntroComp is now accepting intents to enter. IntroComp is a competition in which you can submit just an excerpt of an unfinished interactive fiction game, and receive feedback from players about what they liked or didn’t like about it. If you’d like to participate as an author, register with the site before June 30. Games themselves must be submitted by July 31 and judging will occur during August.

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This is well in advance, but November 10-11, AdventureX will return, this time at the British Library. AdventureX is a conference focused on narrative rich games, whether those are mobile or desktop, text-based or graphical; it’s grown significantly in size and professionalism over the last couple of years, and last year pretty definitively outgrew its previous venue. I am mentioning this well in advance because they’ve mentioned that tickets will be cheaper for early bird buyers — so it’s something to keep an eye on if you think you’ll want to go.

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Recent Parser Treats

At the most recent IF Meetup, I prefaced the discussion by talking about recently released parser games, and we played a bit of A Beauty Cold and Austere as a group. A couple of the games I mentioned then, I haven’t actually written up here. So in the spirit of June being (sort of) Parser Month:

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quickfire
Quickfire (Sean M. Shore) was a contestant in the New Year Minicomp this year. If the author’s name sounds familiar, it may be because he won the IF Comp in 2014 with his comedy-lovecraftian puzzle game Hunger Daemon, and came second place in Spring Thing 2011 with Bonehead, a parser game about baseball.

The premise this time is that you’re a contestant on Top Chef and have 20 minutes to prepare latkes — a timed puzzle where you do have a basic recipe, but it’s still possible to get the details and timing wrong. The scenario is straightforward enough that you can replay if things don’t go quite right the first time — it took me four passes to get the outcome I wanted out of the game.

And there’s a lot to appreciate about the implementation. The game notices a lot of possible details if you miss a step or swap out a suboptimal ingredient or don’t quite nail your cooking times. And I found myself engaging the cooking part of my brain (“hey, I could start heating this skillet up while I’m still mixing things to go in it”). One of the most persuasive cooking puzzles I’ve seen in parser IF.

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Mailbag: Two letters about IF and language

This Mailbag post we have two related letters, and I don’t have a super-long answer to either, but I suspect readers may be interested and perhaps have their own comments to contribute:

Are you aware of any IF that has been produced in any endangered, minoritized, or indigenous languages? The only example I’ve come across is Harry Giles’ work in Scots: https://aitch-giles.itch.io/raik

I’m not very familiar with the IF world, and your site has been very educational. I’ve tried a few keyword searches to locate works that might not be in the IF databases, but found no other results.

IF would seem to be a useful format for sharing and learning underresourced languages. I’m currently working with folks in the Cherokee and Lakota communities on a handful of translation and localization projects, and I can’t imagine I’m the first to be exploring this area. I would be grateful for any insights. Thanks in advance for your time.

It would be fine to post my note, especially if you thought others might be interested. I’m writing a bit (and curating writing) about work in this area here: medium.com/r12n

— Derek Lackaff, Ph.D., Associate Director, Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, Elon University

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Notes on the Direction of Inform

Yesterday Graham Nelson spoke to the Oxford/London IF Meetup about what he has been doing with Inform recently, what has and has not been successful (in his view), and where the project is going next. The slides and text are now available here.

Because the talk is intended for a mixed audience, it does explain some things that readers of this blog may already know well, but by the later part of the talk is introducing some new elements.

A Beauty Cold and Austere (Mike Spivey)

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A Beauty Cold and Austere is a parser-driven text adventure about the awe-inspiring loveliness of mathematics. Its set-piece puzzles range from basics of arithmetic and geometry, through combinatorics and probability, up to linear algebra, calculus, and a wonderful interactive toy that explores the concept of divergent vs convergent series. Along the way, you encounter a number of historical mathematicians, math-related poetry excerpts, and mathematically-relevant settings (Trinity College Cambridge puts in an appearance, as does the Library of Alexandria). There are also obligatory Zork and Adventure references.

Puzzle-driven exploration of a surreal, conceptual space is less common in IF than it was circa twenty years ago, and indeed this game feels like it would have been a smash hit in the IF community of the mid-90s. The implementation is meticulous, the puzzles ingenious and pleasingly crafted, the state space free of unwinnable situations, the hints neatly coordinated with your progress, and the sense of humor pretty much exactly on point for the rec.arts.int-fiction days. Though there are lots of NPCs, all of them are there for puzzle-related purposes, and none of them really disrupt the player’s sense of splendid solitude. The author credits Curses! with acquainting him with the genre, and that makes plenty of sense: ABCA has fairer puzzles and less cruelty than Curses!, but it shares in that game’s gleeful juxtaposition of modern, historical, fictional and surreal locations. I liked A Beauty Cold and Austere immensely: I still have a great fondness for that type of game, and this is a superb example. I am glad the IF world still produces this kind of game, and also glad it no longer produces only this type of game.

I don’t want to suggest that ABCA‘s appeal is exclusively nostalgic. There are parser puzzle games written these days that exist mostly as a nod to bygone tropes, but A Beauty Cold and Austere has something of its own to say. Compared with the 2017 average, the game may be light on story and characters, but it’s strongly and elegantly themed. This is a game about intellectual awe, about the attraction of abstract and intangible subject matter, about human response to more-than-human truth. The final imagery is moving, sublime, and all the more meaningful because it feels earned, both by the protagonist and by human intellectual progress overall.

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