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DINE is, as I posted earlier, an unusual interactive fiction system that takes typed input but does not handle it through a parser. Instead, it uses text classification to find a response that is most coherent with the player’s input — a measure that depends heavily on linguistic similarity.

To author content for DINE, the author writes example player inputs (such as “I picked up the photograph”) followed by the response text that the author has in mind. Both the sample input and the actual output are considered when the system chooses a proper response. The system also applies a penalty to any output text the player has already seen.

There’s one final affordance: next to each paragraph of output is a “Huh?” button. Click it to reject the response you were given, and the system will search for the next best fit. It’s not guaranteed to work more with the story than whatever you read last, though.

DINE is not a particularly ideal tool for the kind of experience we associate with parser IF. If you do >INVENTORY twice in a row, you might well get a totally different response the second time — and one that is not especially coherent with the input. Indeed, there’s no way to explicitly author world state, other than as “pages” for the player to land on.

Different DINE pieces handle this in different ways. Olivia Connolly’s “A Quiet Street” offers quite long pages of story between interaction points, and sometimes sets up obvious single tasks for the player to try next, as for instance here, where the game directly tells me what to do:

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At its best — for instance, when the circumstances of the narrative made one particular action feel compelling, but didn’t explicitly spell out what that action was — this could achieve a pleasing level of fluidity, as here, where I know that there are strangers approaching the house but that my mother hasn’t seen them yet:

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What Fuwa Bansaku Found (Chandler Groover)

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 9.09.45 PMWhat Fuwa Bansaku Found is a new piece at Sub-Q by the astonishingly prolific Chandler Groover. In it, the eponymous samurai must investigate a haunted shrine: the emperor has sent him there, but the emperor was certainly spurred to do so by Bansaku’s enemies at court. The piece draws on translations of Japanese poetry, plots from kabuki, and images from woodblock prints.

It is a parser game, but a relatively accessible one. As with quite a bit of Groover’s other parser work, Fuwa Bansaku tightens the list of needed verbs to a simpler subset of the usual library. It also gets rid of the standard compass directions and acknowledges ADVANCE and RETREAT instead. This serves the piece well: it’s quite short, and not having to worry about a possible complicated map frees the player to concentrate on other concerns. (Gun Mute also does this, but it’s a comparatively rare feature in parser IF.)

Then, too, a number of the responses specifically prompt what the player should do next:

>x grass
These long grasses resemble hairs
growing from a courtesan’s skull.
They tower around Fuwa Bansaku.
He will search them.
>search grass
Fuwa Bansaku pushes the long grass
aside with one hand at his katana.

In a different context, this kind of guidance might be exasperating. But Bansaku is extremely focused and brief.

These hints also serve as a reminder that the character of Fuwa Bansaku is not the player. He is someone specific and skilled, a man of culture and intrigue and warfare. In fact, he is based on a historical figure, though with considerable embellishment. What’s more, everything he encounters in this haunted shrine receives a short but evocative description. Every item seems to point back to the details of the experience that sent him here.

Even though the piece is quite short, there is room enough in Groover’s story for several surprises. A lovely, eerie meditation on what is truly monstrous.

Spring Thing 2015: Doggerland (A. DeNiro)


A. DeNiro’s Doggerland belongs to the interactive poetry school of Twine: highly personal, only loosely narrative, making play with hover effects as well as links in order to evoke some connections that aren’t explicitly stated. It concerns, among other things: winter and isolation, global warming, childhood, problems with America’s health care safety net, parenthood, glaciation, the passage of time, and a personal decision which (since the work is described as autobiographical) I assume is true to DeNiro’s actual experience.

There is, as far as I could find, one branch point where you can choose which of two vignettes to read, and since links are marked with icons rather than with text, it’s hard to call this a choice: it’s more of a lottery. The work is otherwise linear-exploratory, allowing the player to decide only how much depth to experience at each point before moving on.

I might almost have preferred not to have that branch. I replayed the story to see what I had missed the first time around, but the structure is otherwise so tight and the emotional impact so much tied up in the process of revelation that playing for completeness the second time felt like a diminishing of the experience. Perhaps. But then, the theme of opportunity cost is also appropriate for the story. And then, also, I understood the shape of the piece better the second time around, so perhaps it was worthwhile to encourage this. I don’t know.

I do know that it has a quality I associate with good poetry, which is that the more I think about it, the more it pulls together, the more the different screens and different text seem thematically interrelated.

The rest of what I think about this is not about craft but about content, so I’m going to put a spoiler jump in now.

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Elegy for a Dead World (Dejobaan Games)


Elegy for a Dead World is a game almost entirely about aesthetics and interpretation. As the player, you traverse artistically rendered side-scrolling environments, and from time to time you find a place where you’re encouraged to make some sort of annotation. The idea is to develop a story of your own based on the images you see, and then (if you wish) to make your version of the story available to others.

I played the version that the team submitted to IGF last year. At that point, it was a little more freeform than it looks currently (judging by the screenshots); you could stop and annotate anywhere you wanted, rather than having sentence-starters that you need to fill in. I spent quite some time going back and forth over one of the worlds, developing it into a storyline and then returning to edit earlier bits to keep the whole thing consistent. That was a little bit laborious, but also cool, because I could wait until the background and foreground elements were arranged just as I wanted them and then write something that corresponded to that precise spot.

Anti-coloring Book pages provide hooks but ask you to draw based on your own ideas.

Anti-coloring Book pages provide hooks but ask you to draw based on your own ideas.

In any case, even though I haven’t tried the latest version, I feel pretty confident about saying this is a very unusual thing — a bit like a coloring book but for writing. The experience reminded me a little of working with the The Anti-Coloring Book when I was younger.

This is sort of what I was trying for with San Tilapian Studies, but that was such a one-off experience that it was difficult to collect meaningful player feedback; likewise, the (now long ago) Walkthrough Comp, which provided a bare series of commands and invited authors to write games or full stories around those commands.

I’m particularly interested — though I think there’s not yet enough evidence to come to any conclusions yet — in the question of what sorts of prompts and images prove to be most richly productive of different interpretations. Again, I’m going off my experience at the time of last year’s IGF, so things may be substantially different now, but my impression then was that most people’s stories felt somewhat similar: while there were these evocative and non-prescriptive images to work from, they nonetheless tended to suggest roughly similar events and tonalities to the players. Contrast, I suppose, the tarot, which is notoriously fluid and variable in what different cards say to different people; Mattie Brice has written several intriguing articles on this topic.

Is there a form of interpretive game design that consists of coming up with especially resonant, multivalent images? What would skill in this area look like? How much does it matter that the tarot is a system with a built-in structure of relationships between the images?

Speculation aside, Elegy is really one of the only video games I know of to be seriously exploring this area.

Poems by Heart (inkle/Penguin)

Screen Shot 2013-03-24 at 5.15.03 PMPoems by Heart is an interactive text game created by inkle for Penguin. The idea is to make a game of learning poetry: you can play through an individual poem over and over, at different levels of difficulty, until you have all the words by heart. At the first level, a few words have been removed from the verse and you must fill them in from the selection of options at the bottom of the page. The blanks are marked up to show how many syllables are needed in the blank space. At each new level, more words are removed, until finally you’re assembling an entire stanza from bits, with a timer going. If you miss a word, or let the time run out, firm red handwriting marks in the correct version: your invisible English teacher intervenes.

The words you’re offered are not random, either. Often the right choice is accompanied by many close-but-wrong options, things with similar sense or sound. Learning poetry this way draws attention to repetition, syllable count, and rhyme, because those elements become active helps in filling in the missing words.

If you turn on sound, male or female voices will read the lines aloud as you complete them, helping teach the words aurally as well as visually. I find this useful, though it isn’t suitable for some of the times I use a tablet device. There’s even a mechanism to do a timed recording of your own, once you’ve mastered the words. I see the point of this, yet dread it; I recoil from the sound of my own recorded voice, and would like to be able to master spoken poetry without ever having to hear the results from the outside. This may be a personal quirk.

Playing repetitive poetry madlibs might sound not very fun, but it is, in fact, entertaining, in a slightly virtuous, Concentration-y way. There are scores, and achievements, and the whole presentation is polished and slick, in the way inkle has proven to be very good at. Still, the app pitches itself not just as a game, but as an educational tool for people who want to master poetry.

A couple of free poems are offered to start with, and you can buy more from the poem store, in “packs” arranged around themes: love, odes, Elizabethan, etc. The selection covers a number of crowd-pleasing standards: Shakespeare and Donne, Wordsworth and Whitman, the inevitable Poe. Very long poems, like the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, are broken over multiple sections — and, cunningly, sold piecemeal in different packs, to encourage expensive completionism. (I say expensive, but each poetry pack is $.99, so buying several is not necessarily going to break the bank.)

Because the app is not just about being fun but also about teaching something, the selection is going to be particularly important. People will vary in just which poems they want to bother committing to memory. I would have picked a little differently, had I been selecting purely the things I’d like to have memorized myself: some Pound, some Yeats. Perhaps some other modern favorites, though I realize for recent poets copyright may have been an issue. Bits of Chaucer and Beowulf. Other pieces by Donne and Dickinson that I happen to prefer to the pieces they picked. Perhaps some Chinese and Japanese poetry in translation. I’d even go for some untranslated Latin or Greek, but I accept that there may not be such a sufficiently large number of people clamoring for an in-app purchase of the opening of the Odyssey, or a selection of Horace’s odes, to make the effort worthwhile. Still, I think foreign language poetry readings would be great from a language-pedagogy perspective.

I wished at times that the gameplay engaged more than it does with the sense of the poems. Possibly what I’m imagining would be more like, somehow, an interactive game enactment of Le Ton Beau de Marot, playfully trying out multiple metaphors for the same concepts, offering translations and comparisons. Skinning sonnets to show the structural bones beneath. Contrasting a poem with the text or texts to which it is an answer. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” has meaning because of what it reacts against, after all. Perhaps this kind of play would not be so good at teaching the exact words of a poem, but there are different ways of knowing poetry.

This is not really a fair criticism of Poems by Heart. I found the app slick, pleasurable, and effective at its aims. It would be a lot to demand that it also function as literary critique by way of gameplay. I suppose what makes me wistful is that it sort of approaches more sophisticated pedagogical territory by forcing the player to think through the verses again and again, ask what fits, remember what goes where, and so internalize certain structural rules. But I think it does not really contribute new aspects to the experience or comprehension of those poems — not the way Gregory Weir’s Silent Conversation does, not the way a literary commentary or an illustration does, not the way The Waste Land app does, not the way a translation does.

I want a game that is a translation of a poem.

I want to write a game that is a translation of a poem.

This is my own problem.

Poems by Heart is pretty cool. If you want to do the things it teaches you to do, you should check it out.