Mailbag: IF and game writers

As you studied IF for a long time, would you think IF writers are videogame professional writers, or those are 2 separated groups of people ? And would you be able to estimate the number of IF writers ? 

[I’ve edited out a number of side points, but the longer letter also made clear that the writer is interesting in building a tool and/or platform, and is curious about the possible market for this tool and the ways people might use it. — Ed.]

Headcount is a very hard question to answer, because there is no longer one single “IF Community” — I mean, really there never was, but lately there has been much more of a diaspora. The Twine space or the Choice of Games space don’t always overlap and aren’t even always that visible to people working with the parser interactive fiction tradition (and vice versa); and then you’ve got huge, huge numbers of people who are doing interactive story of some kind but only within an app like Episode.

As for the skills you might find among IF writers, that’s again a spectrum. If you went back to 1998 and looked at who was writing IF then, you’d have found a community that was somewhat-to-very technically skilled, since writing code was necessary for almost all the projects that called themselves IF; but also pretty much entirely amateur, since almost no one had ever done any IF writing for pay. 

Now by contrast you would find that there are

  • gig-economy creators who have created technically simple projects and sold them on platforms (like Episodes or Kindle ebooks) that are designed for low barriers to entry; or who have built up some following on Patreon
  • technical inventors and academics who have built very complex and ambitious projects but never worked in the game industry at all; 
  • successful authors in linear media like Cassandra Khaw and Max Gladstone who have made a crossover to working with interactivity;
  • grant-funded interactive media artists who are often experimenting with form or subject matter features that wouldn’t necessarily work as for-market projects
  • well-known professional game writers and/or designers like Liz England, Meghna Jayanth, Jon Ingold, Brendan Hennessy, or Leigh Alexander; these may have background experience with interactive fiction or might still create some text-focused projects at times

So some of those people might be drawn to a new platform. Others, though, already have plenty of venues to publish, or on the other hand are engaged in IF precisely because it gives them a space where they can experiment, build weird science projects, or create personally meaningful art.

Then the question becomes: what could a new platform offer that would appeal to the largest possible subset of the above?

  • the ability easily to deliver experiences that people currently want to build but for some reason cannot — but then you have to figure out what there’s the most thirst to do — I haven’t done this in a few years so the answers are no doubt very out of date, but in the past I’ve run some informal interviews and surveys to find out what people found most vexingly absent from current platforms. Those surveys come from 2014, so there’s definitely room for new research here
  • an audience
  • money — but money typically follows from the audience, and if you had a space were new works got thousands or tens of thousands of readers, you’d definitely find at least some IF authors bringing their work there even if no cash were exchanged.

Mailbag: IF for Reinforcement Learning

Hi Emily

I’m a PhD student working with Prof. Mark Riedl at Georgia Tech and Microsoft Research Redmond. I am currently working on making AI agents (specifically using reinforcement learning) that play interactive fiction games (text-adventure games in the vein of Zork) in a non-game specific, generalizable way.

I was advised by Prof. Janet Murray that you would be the right person to help answer a question I had regarding these games, given your expertise in interactive fiction. If you have a list of such games (e.g. those given here https://github.com/microsoft/jericho#supported-games), is it possible to identify a subset of maybe ~10-15 of them that reasonably cover a majority of all interactive fiction games in terms of game structure, i.e. linearity of progression/score accumulation from the perspective of a learning agent? If it is possible, what would this set look like? Any insight at all would be great.

Nice to hear from you — I’ve been keeping an eye on this space as people have been publishing about it recently.

I’m not sure there’s a perfect answer to this, since IF is hugely varied in how it handles world model, score, pacing, etc. Also, your list here skews very much towards early interactive fiction, which means it doesn’t cover some of the formal experiments that came along later.

I also don’t remember how score works in all the games in this list — some of them I’ve not played, or played a long time ago.

However, with that in mind, here are a couple of categories that represent some fairly standard game structures:

Short or medium game in which score is given out rarely — Lost Pig (max 7)

Short or medium game in which score is given more frequently — Meteor etc. (max 30), Balances (max 51)

Long game in which score is distributed fairly frequently throughout — Adventure, Zork; possibly Enchanter and Sorcerer also; Anchorhead, as I recall

And from your list, I recall these being ones that might pose an interesting challenge:

Curses — it’s long, it’s complicated, it does have a scoring system which it doles out gradually, and it also does a trick (if I’m remembering right) where it actually at one point deducts score from the player again. 

Wishbringer — this one’s interesting because there’s a scoring system that reacts to how many times you’ve used the magic stone in the game — so the more you use wishes, the easier the game becomes, but the lower your final score.

Hunter, in Darkness — doesn’t keep score. There’s also a procedurally generated maze in this, which I would expect to make it very challenging indeed.

Thinking about games not on your list, here are some other formal extremes that might be interesting to try to reason about; all of these can be found on https://ifdb.tads.org/ and in most cases they’re available for download.

ASCII and the Argonauts — an intentionally short and simple game that gives a bunch of +1 rewards for doing basic tasks; the relatively small verb set might make it easier than some of the other games.

Aisle — a game that takes one move to play, and for which many different verbs are available; there’s also no score. It’s hard to imagine how one would use reinforcement learning on this, but it represents one extreme that might be valuable for purposes of thought experiment.

Adventurer’s Consumer Guide — as I recall this one gives out a pretty steady stream of +1 point rewards, rather than only a few or only rarer rewards, so it might be a nice counterpoint to some of the others.

Savoir-Faire — a game of mine, and I suggest it just because I happen to know it well enough to know how the rewards work; there are frequent opportunities for scoring and some rewards are bigger than others.

Bronze — a game that I wrote that keeps track of how many rooms you’ve explored and triggers certain narrative events when you’ve found more of the space, so you could use the explored-rooms count as a secondary signal to score and probably get some useful reinforcement out of that aspect as well.

Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder — gives you a score based on how much loot you managed to rescue off a sinking ship before it goes under. Genuinely an interesting optimization problem; human players have competed to try to come up with the highest-score possible traversal.

Journey to Alpha Centauri in Real Time — as the name would suggest, this takes place over a certain amount of elapsing real time and therefore it’s not possible to finish, because it’s representing a very long journey in space.

Rematch — a game in which the challenge is to figure out a single very long command that will solve the game in a single move, and in which there is a cyclical pattern to the initial world set-up. (I think this one is not a z-machine game, so it might not work with Jericho.)

Zero Sum Game — starts with a score and counts down to zero (but this may be less interesting than the others since you could just reverse the sign of the signal and wind up with something equally valid).

Hadean Lands — fiendishly hard puzzle game, in which instead of score you’re gaining access to lots of objects which could arguably be used as a proxy for progress. Also features areas where the player has to do similar things in slightly different ways.

Mailbag: Pedagogical Uses of IF in the Classroom

Pardon, may I ask for some suggestions of resources (articles, short essays) about Interactive Fiction in classrooms? Thank you very much.

And then when I asked whether they were looking for IF taught as the subject or as a means to learning other things:

Surely I’m interested in IF used as a pedagogical tool, as broad as possible (in terms of grades, subjects, case history). An introductory (and inspiring!) blog post would be very useful. Thank you!

Interactive fiction has a long history of classroom use at most levels (a little bit of elementary-level use, but then more in middle school, high school, and university teaching). Several researchers have built syllabus materials that make extensive use of IF; have published about IF-related pedagogy; or have given talks and workshops about how to teach using interactive fiction. At NarraScope, for instance, there were some workshops on this topic as well as a panel on IF and education.

I haven’t done much hands-on work with this myself, but here are some links that may be useful in this area:

Continue reading “Mailbag: Pedagogical Uses of IF in the Classroom”

Mailbag: Recommendation requests

I’ve glued together two rather different requests for recommendations here, one about queer representation in IF and the other about classic parser-style work from recent years.

I’m okay with doing this occasionally, but for what it’s worth, IFDB is better than you might think at letting you answer this kind of question for yourself. You can set up polls or search people’s pre-existing curated lists, or use IFDB’s tagging system. I’ve recommended a few related search approaches here as well.

Do you have personally favorite narrative-gaming works among those in which the player character is identifiably queer? (Either incidentally or as part of The Point of the work.)  I imagine you get secondary-research type questions like this with some frequency, but if you have any brief thoughts I would be grateful for thoughts for things in that (very broad) category to especially check out.

These are differently fit for different contexts, but my personal favorite interactive stories of queer protagonists would probably be these:

Birdland by Brendan Patrick Hennessy. Charming lesbian goes to summer camp story. Several of BPH’s games are about queer teenagers (see also Known Unknowns, which gets slightly more seriously into how-this-relationship-can-go-wrong territory, with characters who aren’t out yet or haven’t yet figured out their own sexuality).

With Those We Love Alive, Porpentine. Kind of the other end of the spectrum as far as accessibility. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this one for kids, and it might need unpacking of its trans themes even for some adult audiences. A lot of Porpentine’s other works would qualify here.

SPY INTRIGUE by furkle. This is definitely not for kids either.

But in picking my favorites here, I have a very large set of works to choose from, since queer-protagonist interactive fiction is pretty abundant.

Several pieces explicitly look at some aspect of queer experience as the main point of the story. Among the ones I’ve found most striking are Coming Out Story by Nicky Case; Bloom and Cis Gaze by Caelyn Sandel; and Tentacles Growing Everywhere by Dietrich Squinkifer. I’m also interested in, but haven’t yet had time to play, A Bathroom Myth by Anya Johanna DeNiro.

There are also several brands and serieses that explicitly permit the player to self-define a character’s gender expression or sexual attraction. Here I’d include Fallen London and all the games in its universe including Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies, as well as the Choice of Games brand. Fallen London and many of the CoG games allow non-binary gender protagonists as well as same-gender relationships, and in some cases allow the protagonist to negotiate poly relationships. The Failbetter blog includes a discussion by Hannah Flynn of how they approached gender in their work.

There are other games in which the protagonist is of fixed gender but can opt into relationships with other characters of various genders in the course of play, without explicitly making that part of protagonist identity. 80 Days includes at least one same-sex romance encounter I know of, and there may be more I didn’t see.

An IFDB search for the tag “queer” will turn up further options. Meanwhile, Queerly Represent Me offers some resources on this general topic and on sensitivity reads.


I’m a fan of old-style text adventures. Is anything like those still being produced?

Yes indeed. It’s not entirely clear what time frame we should consider for “still” here, but I’ll arbitrarily band to the past five or six years, with a couple suggestions that go further back if they might have gone overlooked at the time. And as for “old-style,” I’m pairing with some Infocom games but also some canonical early hobbyist IF.

The Enchanter series in general: for comedy-fantasy, try Oppositely Opal (Buster Hudson, 2015) or Illuminismo Iniziato (Michael J. Coyne, 2018). A little further afield from Enchanter but still in the general vein of light-hearted puzzle game with fantasy approach to reality, consider Thaumistry (Bob Bates, 2017). The Wizard Sniffer (Buster Hudson, 2017) is also highly acclaimed, though I personally haven’t played it.

Zork III and Spellbreaker for their challenging set-piece puzzles: Try Scroll Thief (Daniel Stelzer, 2015). It allows you to get the world model into surprising states, and the solutions often left me with a pleasing sense of having really gotten away with something. And if you really want parser puzzles with a minimum of fiction, try Junior Arithmancer (Mike Spivey, 2018) as well as pretty much the entire oeuvre of Arthur DiBianca, who excels at this style.

Deadline: Make It Good is my favorite answer to Deadline, but that itself is now a decade old. More recently, if you were interested in comparing people’s stories and trying to extract a consistent meaning, you might like Color the Truth (mathbrush, 2016).

Infidel: try Arthur DiBianca’s archaeology puzzler Temple of Shorgil (2018). Or, if you want something a bit more Indiana Jones, there’s Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life (Truthcraze, 2013).

Plundered Hearts: If you liked it for its romance theme, I have to reach back a few years to the work of Kathleen Fischer. But if you liked Plundered Hearts for its self-conscious pulpy use genre, its forward-moving plot, and the opportunities to cause wild reactions in the various NPCs you encounter, I recommend the heist game Alias ‘The Magpie’ (J.J. Guest, 2018), or the alien-invasion adventure Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! (Steph Cherrywell, 2015).

Planetfall: I don’t have any recommendations that will give you a Floyd replacement, precisely, but in the “abandoned SF station with puzzles to solve” zone, here’s Richard Otter’s Word of the Day (2017) or Steph Cherrywell’s Chlorophyll (2015).

Hollywood Hijinx: this is one I didn’t get all the way through myself, but Diddlebucker! (J. Michael, 2018) very explicitly casts itself as an Infocom nostalgia piece, and the reviewers appear to have found it a solid puzzle game.

Suspended: Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303 (Victor Gijsbers, 2018). Well, maybe. I haven’t actually played Suspended. But both of these games involve control of a distant robot that provides your senses.

Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It: Andrew Schultz‘s games do wordplay surrealism in pretty much every configuration you can imagine.

Trinity: A Beauty Cold and Austere (Mike Spivey, 2017), a math-themed, historically-informed puzzle-fest. It has a happier meta-arc than Trinity, but the puzzles are generally excellent.

Frenetic Five series: The Owl Consults series consists of two games by different authors, but both involving teams of superheroes whose skills can variously be activated to get through the game.

So Far: Sub Rosa (Joey Jones and Melvin Rangasamy, 2015) presents an excellent selection of puzzles set in an environment that doesn’t physically resemble our own very much at all.

Tapestry: Map (Ade McT, 2015) is my favorite recent-ish parser puzzle game that reflects on key turning points in the protagonist’s life, and what it would mean if they’d gone differently.

Anchorhead: the obvious recommendation here has to be the multi-author tribute game Cragne Manor (everyone under the sun, 2018).

The Act of Misdirection: Three Card Trick (Chandler Groover, 2016).

Bonus suggestions: I didn’t get nearly all the way through Worldsmith (Ade McTavish, 2016), but it’s huge. If you’re looking for something epic and ambitious, maybe that’s worth a try. Also, at 2014, Hunger Daemon falls just outside the category but it’s solid, funny stuff.

If you search for tag:parser published:2015-, you can find IFDB’s list of titles that might also fall into this category.

Finally, I’d also say that there is a whole genre of parser games written in the past five years or so that retain a lot of the parser’s advantages but work on making the experience more accessible to new users. Since they’re not really “old-style”, I haven’t listed them here, but I discuss the phenomenon in this Rock Paper Shotgun column.

Mailbag: Environmental Storytelling

This is actually a reprint of a comment exchange that appeared earlier on this blog, but it’s the kind of question that I typically mailbag, so I’m reproducing it here for visibility.

A question, if I may: I’m not much of a story-writer (as in coming up with the ‘adventure’ part of the equation), but I’m working on a densely interactive VR diorama (http://naam.itch.io/apotu) and a story/plot is starting to emerge from all the incidental detail popping up everywhere, taking shape in my head. It’s more of a situation/slice-of-life thing than a story per se. What would you (or any other reader!) say is a good way to come up with narrative cues to divulge this to the visitor?

I guess I’m mainly struggling with process – how to come up with just the right bits of information to relate to the listener, and how to make that matter.

Start by identifying the bare minimum. What are the 3-7 most important events or beats the player must know about in order to understand your story? What traces might those events have left on the world?

Continue reading “Mailbag: Environmental Storytelling”

Mailbag: Knowledge-driven Dialogue in Inform

I am doing my first steps in Interactive Fiction and your work has helped me a lot. I have been working on an idea, that requires dialogue based on “knowledge”, in other words, the character and the NPCs will initiate dialogue in order to fill out their gaps in knowing the other person. Firstly, I was wondering if Inform7 can do something like that, and if it can which dialogue system would be the best to serve as a basis. Secondly, I was wondering if Inform7 can implement AI, without falling back to Inform6. Thank you in advance and most importantly, for your work in the community! Sorry for the annoyance of my question but I was kind of lost among the many different dialogue systems that are out there…
[and then on confirmation that the asker was okay with a mailbag post]:

First of all let me clarify that I am not asking for mentorship, with this question. More like pointing to the right direction, if there is such a direction. There is a strong chance that there is not something similar implemented, so in this case, don’t let me take your time.

My question is if there is a dialogue system in Inform7 (or in some other framework) , that is based on knowledge of a predefined set of data. For instance the protagonist to be able to query for any one of that data and to store that information in such a way, that the next answer to reveal even more data. Or the knowledge itself to enable the protagonist to make more specific questions. The answer I would like, is not how to implement such a system, of course, but only a reference of the type  “have a look at this extension of Inform7” or “there is no such thing implemented” or “there is no such thing, but you could draw inspiration from this”. Nothing more than that! I have thought of a potential implementation, treating data as things that are visible or not, and the knowledge to be treated as “possession” of those things, but I am not certain it is the right approach.

First of all, re. the Inform 6/7 question: Inform 7 is a full programming language, and you do not need to drop to Inform 6 to code behavior. In the early years there were things that were hard to express in Inform 7, especially mathematical things or elements that accessed files or manipulated on-screen behavior, but most of those elements do now have an Inform 7 wrapper available. Occasionally people still choose to insert Inform 6 chunks inside an Inform 7 program for various reasons, but it isn’t required.

Likewise, when you say “to implement AI,” this is such a big and fuzzy question that it’s hard to answer without more of a breakdown.

Inform 7 is good — and indeed much better than Inform 6 — for handling rule-based decision-making and firing off character interactions within the model world; the main issue here is performance if you’re driving a large number of characters or asking them to plan over complex world state. The rule-based aspects of Inform 7 in fact have influenced other approaches to game AI in larger game applications, as Elan Ruskin discusses in one of his GDC talks.

For other AI approaches, you’d have to do quite a bit more work; for instance, it isn’t really designed to make use of any natural language processing methods outside of its own rich and complex parsing mechanism, and if you wanted to do something that for instance tried to guess what the player meant by words that weren’t in the game’s dictionary but might be similar to ones that were, you’d more likely use some kind of special pre-processing layer or a call out to an external script, because it doesn’t provide ways to e.g. access WordNet or a word2vec model. Likewise, it’s not designed to plug together with SpaCy or Google NLU or any of the external tools that have come into being over the past decade+ to help interpret the semantic structure of a piece of input. It might be interesting to explore how that would work, but that doesn’t exist currently.

Inform plus machine learning is a slightly more interesting point of conversation, because the TextWorld project exists, and there are researchers who are exploring how to use an Inform-based world model as a sandbox environment for training ML agents to solve a text-based game.

That’s different again from the idea of an ML agent designed not to solve an IF game but to be a companion or competitor within an IF game, for the sake of enhancing the player’s experience. There are relatively few IF games in which it would even really be meaningful to talk about a competitor character within a game, because most IF doesn’t have mechanics designed for competitive play (though Kerkerkruip might work). My old game When in Rome 2 also featured an NPC with dynamically selected characteristics who might work counter to the intentions of the player, and it was possible in some cases to be bested or even killed by this creature, if you went up against a clever one and it got resources ready faster than you could.

Now, on to the main question.

Continue reading “Mailbag: Knowledge-driven Dialogue in Inform”