Mailbag: QBN System Variants

Hello Emily,

I was reading through your blog and, in your post dated May 25, 2017 you describe several narrative systems, and the last one you write about you name it “System with Dynamic Requirements”

I’ve been working for a couple years now (on my free time) on a system that is very similar to what you describe: A tool to create narrative very similar to the way QBN does but with dynamic requirements for actors and locations.

The main difference is that it is a system to run over a real time game and the choices are done by gameplay inputs instead of selecting or letting the game select.

The tool provides a visual-node interface to create attributes and rules. The player actions trigger events on the system (i.e. looting a body trigger and event and we can create a rule on the tool that say “when loot event is triggered add attribute looter to the player”) and the attributes are evaluated continuously by the rules and giving results (i.e. If player have looter attribute with a value higher than 5 add world attribute “looter missions activated”)

Of course, there are the dynamic requirements that I’m using as I think the player’s engagement will be higher if the characters used on the story are people they “choose” to met in the game instead of previously designed so I can check if at one point they helped someone to escape or to acquire some item or whatever and later check the list of actors and use that one to be part of the story, or I can check between the locations in the world and create a mission that use a location with a certain attributes instead of always the same location for the same mission.

My question is: Do you know about other projects working on the same line?

Sort of, depending on how precisely you define “the same line”.

I know of projects that make use of Node-RED to visually define rules for various purposes other than interactive narrative rules.

I know of IF games, including my own, that allow the player to unlock new gameplay and story sections with any item that matches some general requirement; and sometimes a puzzle will have multiple solutions, but the specific solution the player picks turns out to be important or expressive in some way, or is used to judge the protagonist’s character.

I know of experiments with dynamically-gated story elements — most (but not all) of these tools in the academic space rather than among hobbyist IF tools or (for that matter) commercial video game tools. You may be interested in Ian Horswill’s Dear Leader’s Happy Story Time, described here in an academic paper with references and mentions of other related academic projects, or here in a video talk. (The references here provide a lot of potential further searches, with context.)

I know of realtime games that serve up specific beats depending on what tags are currently matched about world state. See Elan Ruskin’s work for Left4Dead, covered in this excellent talk. This is salience-based matching for various world states, which then in turn influenced the design of the dialogue-fitting in Firewatch. Not the same as constraint solving, but relevant to some of your other points about wanting to unlock specific story beats if the player has the right background.

I do not know of an existing tool with all the features you describe: a visual interface to create the rules for a dynamic-conditions interactive narrative system, applied to a realtime experience. (That’s not to say no one’s building one. I just haven’t seen it.)

That said, I’d like to suggest that you’re opening not just a technical space but a challenging design space, and you’ll want to test your assumptions about the player experience. There are some finished, public examples of games that do play a little in this space. For instance, games in the Fable series assigned story importance to figures the player had spent time with. I would suggest, based on my experience with that, that your initial assumption (“the player’s engagement will be higher if the characters used on the story are people they “choose” to met in the game instead of previously designed”) may not be true in all cases.

 

Oxford / London IF Meetup in 2018

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We’re putting together a cool selection of craft and design talks as well as tool workshops for next year — starting with a talk on story and mechanics from me in January, and a workshop on using ink with Unity in February. I’ve also got some very cool speakers who have expressed interest in joining us later in the year, covering a range of choice and parser IF, commercial and hobbyist work.

That’s all possible in part because we have a new, regular venue: Karlien Van Den Beukel is kindly hosting us at London South Bank University, which means we can afford to do more London events in 2018.

Work has me traveling a lot these days, so I am looking for support in a couple of areas to keep Meetups running regularly.

– volunteer co-hosts for London events in 2018 (multiple). Co-hosts promise to come to one or more specific events, do announcements, introduce the speaker, close the meeting again afterward, usher folks on to the pub at the end, and be on hand in case any issues arise. This is a limited time expenditure (mainly the event itself, and you can volunteer for as few as one). But it is a position of trust — please volunteer only if you’re committed, and willing to chat with me first about how we keep Meetups safe and welcoming.

– volunteer A/V assistant. I get requests to record our talks and make them available to people beyond London, but I don’t have equipment or experience with this. If we have someone who can take responsibility for recording and uploading talks, I’ll figure out which of our speakers are open to having their presentations captured.

– workshop presenter on an IF tool (other than ink and Tracery) in Oxford. Time of year is open, but I’m looking especially at early March, May or October, as students would be around. I’m in conversations with an Oxford maker-space that might host. This role pays an honorarium; if you’re new to running tool workshops, I’m also happy to offer coaching and suggestions.

If any of that sounds like you, please drop me a line at emshortif@gmail.com.

Mid-December Link Assortment

Events

December 16, there’s an intro to Twine run by Queer Code London and co-sponsored by the Oxford and London IF Meetup. We are not otherwise having a meetup this month, as it’s such a busy time of the year.

The New Year’s Minicomp is accepting interactive fiction submissions through January 4.

The Opening Up Digital Fiction competition runs through February 15, 2018. It offers cash prizes and the possibility of future publication.

News

Jacqueline Ashwell is taking over from Jason McIntosh as IF Comp organizer next year.

Articles and Reviews

Atlas Obscura covers this year’s IF Comp top finishers, interviewing Buster Hudson, Liza Daly, Stephen Granade, Nick Montfort, and others.

As part of PROCJAM, Bruno Dias wrote a tutorial in how to use the procedural text tool Improv.

Releases

The last couple of weeks have seen some really nice new work. Particularly recommended:

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Mama Possum is a new interactive story from Cassandra Khaw and Kevin Snow with art by George Kavallines and sound by Priscilla Snow. It’s a short, effective piece; light on branching, but it doesn’t need much either.

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Brendan Patrick Hennessy has released the fourth and final chapter section of Known Unknowns, a serial set in the same universe as Birdland, Open Up! and Bell Park, Youth Detective. Endearing characters and excellent dialogue.

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Reigns: Her Majesty is a sequel to the original Reigns, written by Leigh Alexander and taking on the experiences of a female ruler. It has a lot of the appeal of the original Reigns — easy, more-ish play through a Tinder-style choice interface, events that gradually unlock the further you get into the story — but for my tastes is considerably funnier. Alexander gets the most out of event descriptions that might be just a sentence or two long.

And from a structural perspective, this is worth looking at for people interested in quality-based narrative styles: Reigns and Reigns: Her Majesty both use a deck of storylet cards, with new cards being added or old cards removed based on what you’ve accomplished so far.

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Story Speaker is a system to support Google Home voice-driven IF.

Pushing Loyal People is a satirical piece about being a cog in the corporate machinery.

Isak Grozny’s The Bitter Drop is taking preorders now on itch. He describes the game thus:

Itinerant Rabbi Chaim Shlomovich Vidal and his pupils, the bigender horror writer Lev Venyaminovich/Lyubov Venyaminovna and the witch Mogila Borisovna Balshemnik arrive in Svet-Dmitrin, the capital of a crumbling empire. They stay with one Anzu Tamiratovich Menelik, a necromancer dandy with more than skeletons in his closet. As the days pass and Lev recovers from a recent stint on a psych ward, Anzu and Lev grow closer; Anzu shows Lev around the city and the two of them stumble on a horrifying, eldritch truth about the current Czar and his White Guard. Following this lead will cost them dear.

Screen Shot 2017-12-02 at 11.06.53 PM.pngLiza Daly’s NaNoGenMo project A Physical Book treats the letters of a page as physical objects that can be dropped, bumped, and squished. You can add your own text and play with it, too, though (as the site explains) it may make your computer run hot.

Pictured: what (one of) its many deformation methods does to the Counterfeit Monkey blurb. (Somehow that seemed like the most appropriate of my projects to play letter-games with.)

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Meanwhile, this is not strictly speaking IF related, but this article on Artificial Intelligence Augmentation has typographical generative systems that you can play with, together with some really interesting discussion of computational creativity and what we’re even hoping to do with AI.

Elsewhere

Elizabeth Sampat writes about why it is hard for women in games specifically to talk about the sexual harassment and abuse they’ve faced in the workplace.

And this article from The Cut speaks to the professional damage to women caused by harassment and other related abuses of power.

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This is something I have seen a lot, unfortunately, and been affected by myself, around the edges. It’s always enraging, encountering the reminder that some men will always judge women on their appearance and availability, no matter what effort, talent, hard or soft skills those women bring to workplace.

Character Development and Storytelling for Games (Lee Sheldon)

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 5.24.18 PM.pngIn an essay on Tom Bissell years ago, I took a not-very-contextualized swipe at this book, as follows:

The latest book on the pile is Lee Sheldon’s Character Development and Storytelling for Games, which is apparently designed for those game writers who have never written anything before and came in from some other part of the production team.

Sheldon’s book dutifully describes many, many basic aspects of story-building; offers an introductory view of plot structures for video games, while deftly avoiding any really hard problems or really interesting solutions; and takes care to remind the reader every few pages of Sheldon’s credentials not only as a professional writer but as the sort of person who has shared a limo with Dick Clark… It is the mental-nutrition equivalent of buttered macaroni…

That was way more of a cheap shot than it needed to be, and I’ve felt a bit guilty about it since. In the unlikely event that Mr Sheldon is tracking my opinion of his work, I apologize for being so flippant.

As I reread the 2004 edition on my ongoing survey of game writing books, I do still have some related criticisms, but I would phrase them more gently and admit more virtues in the project. There’s also a fair share of material that is likely to be helpful to beginners, as well as observations that go a bit deeper. It’s also perfectly readable from moment to moment. I just find that the rate of new revelations per chapter is significantly lower than I would prefer.

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End of November Link Assortment

December 2 is the SF Bay Area Interactive Fiction Meetup.

December 9, the Baltimore IF meetup gets together to talk about Harmonia.

The next meetup of the People’s Republic of IF in Cambridge (MA) will be Tuesday, December 12 at 6:30 PM in MIT room 14N-233.

Also December 12, there’s an IGDA Writers SIG panel in London for people who are interested in getting into game writing as a career, presenting views from creators who have worked on a number of different commercial genres.

December 14, Hello Words meets in Nottingham, UK.

December 16, there’s an intro to Twine run by Queer Code London and co-sponsored by the Oxford and London IF Meetup. We are not otherwise having a meetup this month, as it’s such a busy time of the year.

December 27, “Game Over,” the radio play I wrote about indie game development, is being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It’s produced by Judith Kampfner and starring Sarah Elmaleh, and I’m delighted that I got to work with such amazingly skilled people on this project.

The Opening Up Digital Fiction competition runs through February 15, 2018. It offers cash prizes and the possibility of future publication.

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Thaumistry (Bob Bates)

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I recently wrote about Bob Bates’ commercial parser IF game Thaumistry for PC Gamer. Bob was kind enough to speak with me about the project for context.

A couple of other observations came up in that conversation with Bob that couldn’t go into the PC Gamer article because they involved spoilers or too much detail about parser IF implementation, but I thought I’d discuss them briefly here.

I’ll do the spoilery bits last, with additional warning, for those who might not have played the game but intend to do so in the future.

Other references.

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