JavaScript front ends for Inform Games

I initially titled this post “Glulx-compatible Vorple,” but felt that possibly that headline wouldn’t convey much to authors who aren’t already familiar with the esoteric edges of IF tooling history. The good news is that it is now much easier to make your Inform game look good in the browser, and to take advantage of CSS and JavaScript in sophisticated ways.

Juhana Leinonen has announced a public beta of the Vorple extension set for Inform that works with Glulx, consisting of not one but several connected extensions for achieving various JavaScript effects.

Vorple’s functionality goes beyond the (still quite cool) work that furkle did to support the front end of WorldsmithA version of Vorple has been around for some time, and the prototypes for it existed as far back as the IF Demo Fair, but what’s been available so far has been compatible only with the Z-machine, a format so small that it’s increasingly hard to generate any viable Z-machine games with Inform 7 at all. Meanwhile, Hugo Labrande has maintained a Vorple version suitable for use with Inform 6.

There are some extra details available at the announcement post here.

The new edition of Vorple opens the following possibilities for games that are being played online or in a browser (which, these days, is more and more of them):

  • Large (not the tiny and currently rare z-machine format) Inform games that can issue JavaScript instructions
  • Authorial control over fonts and typography on a level that has generally been difficult or impossible
  • Hypertext games programmed and driven through Inform, something that was previously possible but tended to come out looking rather clunky
  • Parser IF that makes attractive, dynamic use of illustrations, maps, and even videos
  • Inform games that use JavaScript to access information that has usually been sandboxed off, from checking the date to using information widely available on the internet. The Vorple extension set includes an example that pulls data from Wikipedia, for instance
  • Games that remove text after it has already been printed to the screen (something that was just about impossible with former non-Vorple Inform interpreters); this means that one can, among other things, remove error messages from the scrollback, or change the game’s printed history to reflect changes in the protagonist’s mentality
  • Tooltips and modal dialogue boxes to do things like offer definitions or confirm player choices outside the main narrative
  • Help menus other than the horrid nested, keypress-driven things we’ve been suffering with since 1994
  • Probably many other things I have not thought of yet.

I’ve had the chance to play with the extension set as Juhana tested it for release, and it is really cool.

In addition, those in range of London are welcome to join us for the IF Tools meetup May 31, where Juhana will Skype in to talk to us about the Vorple project, so those interested can get a first-hand introduction.

Spring Thing 2017: Balefires Burning

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Balefires Burning is a Twine story about a girl nearing the age of initiation in a village that practices witchcraft. She is in love with a young man who, though not a blood relative, is off-limits for other reasons of clan tradition. The text (as shown) is formatted like poetry, which initially felt a bit self-important, especially when I encountered dialogue arranged that way. This put me off the first time I tried the piece.

On a second try, I got used to the format as I read, and came to see it as representing the narrator’s ritual-inflected perspective on the world, where everything that happens is keyed into traditional practices and calendars. Meanwhile, the writing also accomplishes quite a bit else with its space — communicating the protagonist’s problem, introducing half a dozen or so additional characters, getting us familiar with the setting, suggesting the natural beauty of this world.

The piece feels very influenced by young adult genre fiction (and I notice the game is tagged as “teen fiction”). I found myself wishing for just a bit more edge to the fantasy in a couple of respects.

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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

All Hope Abandon (Eric Eve)

allhopecoverI’ve been meaning to catch up with All Hope Abandon for years now: back in 2005 when it came out, it pulled down a number of XYZZY nominations (Best Game, Best Story, Best Setting, Best NPCs, Best Individual Puzzle, Best Individual NPC). It’s one of a handful of religiously-themed IF works reputed not to be especially preachy. Eric Eve is a theologian, and his story starts out with the protagonist listening to a stultifying lecture on the relation of the gospels to one another and to the historical Jesus.

From there, the protagonist experiences an ambiguous health event and moves to a surreal allegorical hell-scape. Hell, when you get there, is in the process of being “demythologized,” thanks to trends in theological scholarship. A demon is taking down the lettering over the gate.

Some of the game incorporates lessons about Biblical scholarship into the gameplay proper. The hell section features, among other things, a puzzle on the methods of criticism used to guess which gospel elements likely came from Jewish tradition or backdated early Christian tradition, and which might reflect historical truth. THINK often provides some genuine insights into the current situation, unusually for IF. And much of the game’s setting concerns a contrast between the old way of understanding spirituality — a landscape of angels and demons and lashing chaotic seas — and a more modern way, which is portrayed as even darker and gloomier, mechanized and full of warfare. (There are also other puzzles that are more standard text adventure fare, like trying to find some ink to refill a pen.)

It’s harder — or at least it was harder for me — to say that there’s a consistent message behind all this. I have various thoughts about this, but they’re pretty spoilery, so I will put them after the break. Continue reading

Mid-April Link Assortment

Events

May 6 is the San Francisco Bay Area IF Meetup.

May 11 is Hello Words in Nottingham, a text game writing group.

May 15-16 I will be at the Creative Coast festival in Karlshamn, Sweden, where I will speak about interactive narrative structures beyond branching narrative. Because I am out of town a lot this month, there is no Oxford/London Meetup planned for May, though I’m hoping to be able to do a tools-focused meetup in June.

The Machine Learning for Creativity workshop is accepting papers until May 16 and will be held on August 14; the speaker lineup has people who are interested in computer-aided storytelling or various forms of generative narrative.

PCG Workshop 2017 has a call for papers out; the theme is “PCG in context” and proposals are due May 22.

The British Library is running an Interactive Fiction Summer School as a weeklong course in July, with multiple instructors from a variety of different interactive narrative backgrounds. More information can be found at the British Library’s website.

The Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction is live; you can play the games here, and I’ve written some thoughts on this blog and at Rock Paper Shotgun; other reviewers are starting to share thoughts on festival games.

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Spring Thing 2017: Not Quite a Sunset

notquitecoverNot Quite a Sunset describes itself as a hypertext opera, a research project into allowing the player to influence how the music changes and evolves, together with the plot of a story. I had a weird time with it, and I’ll describe what that experience was, but I’m not sure the results deserve to be called an actual review.

I am not an expert in music, and post-Wagner opera I would identify as particularly a weak point of mine: I’ve seen Akhnaten in person, heard a little other Glass here and there, and that’s about it. I don’t feel equipped to comment on the form of the opera, nor about how interactivity might affect that form.

What I can say, in my musically uninformed way, is that the music in this game had a primacy that soundtracks usually do not. Individual instruments stand out. There is an articulate quality to the tune. The game’s blurb describes it as “a story with a soundtrack,” but what I experienced from it was very much not that; soundtracks fade to the back, supporting. What I experienced was a musical piece sufficiently interesting that I had a hard time concentrating simultaneously on the longish blocks of science fiction that accompany the opening.

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