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”

Mailbag: Multimedia in Spanish Text Parser IF

Hi Emily,

I thought you might be able to shed some light on this question:

Text parser IF tends to rely heavily on the text for narrative, and uses little by way of multimedia.  Until you get to Spanish parser IF… here, multimedia is much more common. Spanish-language games often incorporate video, pictures, or sound effects.  Is there a reason behind this (possibly due to Spanish-language games using different engines better suited to multimedia?).  Or is there another reason?  Can Inform and similar platforms support these elements as well?

[Ed note: at the request of the asker, the original question has been re-written from a longer, less anonymous format.]

Several points here. One: for a lot of English-speaking IF fans, the defining IF of the commercial age came from Infocom in the early to mid 1980s, and almost all of their work was without illustration. There were a handful of late exceptions, but they were generally not considered Infocom’s best work.

arthur-the-quest-for-excalibur_3.png
Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur (Infocom / Bob Bates, 1989)

In Spain, by contrast, the golden age of commercial IF came just a few years later, on different hardware. Adventuras AD was publishing illustrated interactive fiction and setting expectations somewhat differently for hobbyist fans to follow. So most likely there was a certain amount of founder effect at work, in terms of what interactive fiction fans wanted to build.

Perhaps as a result of this, or perhaps coincidentally, Spanish language IF games have been written with an overlapping set of tools to Inform. Superglus for instance is a tool that compiles to the Glulx virtual machine, but uses a different, non-Inform parser.

And, in fact, the French and Italian IF communities have also traditionally done more with multimedia parser games than the Anglophone community — I’ve put a few links about this below as well.

Can Inform and similar platforms support these elements as well?

Yes, they can, though historically it was quite a bit of effort to get them set up. That’s less true now.

Continue reading “Mailbag: Multimedia in Spanish Text Parser IF”

Mailbag: Academic literature on modeling conversations

hello :) I was reading some of your stuff about conversation systems, was wondering if you’d have any links/pointers to academic literature on modelling conversations (can be more theoretical/non-game-related), or stuff relevant to people who might be trying to do it?

This one came in via Twitter. I’ve covered some adjacent topics before on mailbag, including

  • Games that do complex conversational mechanics
  • Dialogue and story generation techniques (Parts 1, 2, 3)
  • Dialogue filtering to apply personality and emotion to existing text — this includes links to some academic research into how personality traits affect people’s utterances
  • And back in 2009 I wrote this on conversational analysis and how it applied to my work at the time, including going through a number of dialogue situations recorded in literature and talking about how the conversation model I was using at the time would address or fail to address those

But this question is asking something a little different, specifically about how conversation is modeled in the abstract, not necessarily in games and not necessarily for AI production purposes. What academic literature is out there to help us understand how people talk to one another? What types of approaches exist for modeling conversation in general?

Unsurprisingly, this is a huge field of study, so this is not remotely a literature review; instead, it’s a tour of a few pieces of terminology and resources that might be useful in digging deeper.

Also, I am not approaching it primarily from the perspective of a trained linguist (I’ve taken a few classes, but it’s not my field) and instead from the perspective of a person trying to model things for interactive conversation purposes.

So, with those caveats:

Continue reading “Mailbag: Academic literature on modeling conversations”

Mailbag: Getting Beta-Testers for Parser IF

I know you’re busy, and hopefully you didn’t delete this as spam ;-)

I’m writing my first interactive fiction game. Although it’s not finished, I’m already looking ahead to finding beta testers – beyond the few friends I have who once way back when played the original Infocom games.

I imagine it takes time to establish the relationships necessary to get people to the point they’re actually willing to take a look. Do you have any advice?

An aside: I’m a computer programmer and using Inform 7. It’s a nice system, and I get it. But I am not familiar with the culture of IF users. (For example, the authors of the Inform manual mention how disabling the UNDO function when the story ends is anathema to many players.) Also, just understanding how to make beta-testers’ jobs easier in general would be nice.

A first step would be to hang out a bit at the intfiction forum or possibly euphoria (I haven’t been to the latter for a while, so I don’t know how active it is, but it’s more of a chat space). Introduce yourself, participate in a few conversations.

It sometimes helps to offer to beta-test for other people, for two reasons: one, it builds those social connections, and two, it familiarizes you with how other people typically do this. If you’re planning to enter a competition, sometimes there are threads in the weeks before the competition deadline where authors are offering to swap beta-testing, and that can also be a useful way to pick up help.

Alternatively, if you live near Baltimore, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, or London, there is a live meetup that meets pretty regularly near you, and those can be a great place to cultivate connections more quickly. My link roundups twice a month list all the events I know of that are coming up in the near future, but you may already have seen these.

As for expectations and norms: it’s a good idea to read some reviews of recently released games, especially ones that might be similar to yours; they may help you work out what people are expecting and what goes over well or badly. You don’t have to take this as gospel, of course, and sometimes you just really want to do something with your work that isn’t in the expected range. That’s fine. But it can be helpful to know what people are looking for so that you’re not too surprised. One way to look for that information is to check out IFDB and find games in your genre/style and see what people wrote about those. You could also read through reviews from the latest IF Comp to get more of a cross-section view.

Suggestions for Testing is a fairly old article of mine, but as it’s about parser IF, a lot of the recommendations still hold. It talks about what testers might expect to do, and what authors might expect from testers.

Preparing a Game for Testing is about figuring out where your game is likely to present problems so that you can look at those yourself before you ship it off.