Curating Simulated Storyworlds (James Ryan) – Ch 6f

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This is the third of several posts about James Ryan’s dissertation, Curating Simulated Storyworlds. We are now reading chapters 6 and following, in which Ryan describes his own projects in the curated emergent narrative space.

After the first five chapters, this piece becomes considerably more narrative in its own structure: Ryan is (consciously) telling the story of his own artistic development and practice, and the particular works to which it gave rise.

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Curating Simulated Storyworlds (James Ryan) – Ch 4-5

This is the second of several posts about James Ryan’s dissertation, Curating Simulated Storyworlds. The previous post looked at chapters 1-3, which set out the concept of the dissertation and documented the pleasures of emergent narrative.

Here I read Chapter 4, concerned with the pain of emergent narrative, including critiques from other scholars and projects in emergent narrative that have failed; and Chapter 5, in which he presents his argument for curationist emergent narrative.

The major issues Ryan identifies with simulations are:

Boringness. Some simulations are simulating events that aren’t that engaging, and therefore they will never have the range to compel readers. (Something I was wondering about while reading chapters 1-3.)

Granularity extremes. The system is operating on either too large or too small a scale. As an example, Ryan showcases the system that controls how drinks may be taken in the Saga II story generation system, with an arguably excessive focus on moving objects from hand to hand.

  • As a side note: this is a granularity of state that most text adventure games wouldn’t bother with. There are some exceptions, though a few of the most granular works I know of were also never finished: for many years NK Guy worked on a game code-named Hamsterworld, which attended to player clothes and body parts (and many other systems) with great precision; of Gunther Schmidl’s And the Waves Choke the Wind, only a first few scenes were ever released. TADS 3’s library supports more in this range than any other text adventure world model I’m aware of, and handles some of the related challenges around making small actions implicit when they aren’t individually very interesting, so that at its best, the granularity of the world model becomes invisible except when there is something down in those details that really does interfere in the player’s intended action, at which point the consequence is reported. Return to Ditch Day remains one of the best examples of this kind of work, and Eric Eve’s work is also exemplary here.

Lack of modularity. The idea here is that elements of the simulation must be small and reusable; otherwise, it isn’t possible to recombine them in interesting ways. To illustrate this issue, Ryan looks at Sheldon Klein’s murder mystery generator, an example I haven’t seen written up particularly often (though perhaps I’ve been looking in the wrong places).

Lack of abstraction. Here, Ryan argues for the value of simulators that can cast different characters in different spaces and situations, rather than retelling (possibly different) stories about the same set of characters and events, since if we have a large number of stories about different characters, the appeal of the vast and the appeal of the ephemeral are preserved. (These are key features of the aesthetic of emergent narrative, as Ryan lays these out in earlier chapters.)

I am not sure what I think about this one. I will grant that the repetition of the same characters can give a kind of sameyness to story generators — though some systems, from Fallen London to Rafael Pérez y Pérez‘ Mexica, refer to characters by title or function in order to avoid the concrete effect of granting them a name.

Modeling gaps. This refers to places where it seems the simulation ought to cover some possibility or set of actions, based on what else is modeled, but for some reason certain elements are omitted.

Causality issues. Here Ryan describes how simulation causality can be too diffuse to make for good storytelling, especially in systems that rely on utility scoring where many different aspects of world state could all be considered to partially explain a particular outcome. (He gives a detailed example based on trying to interpret consequence in Prom Week, which is especially valuable here.) Though I’ve encountered this phenomenon, I haven’t seen the problem labeled or analyzed in depth before.

The solution Ryan proposes — contingent unlocking, where some events explicitly are made possibly by a finite set of prior conditions, and causal bookkeeping, where the system somewhere records how a particular outcome has been made available — will apparently come back in later chapters when he talks about his own work.

It’s a method we also used to some degree in Versu, where characters could record a string that represented why they’d adopted a particular attitude towards the player; and for that matter I use it lightly in my Choice of Games work in progress, which is not a simulation of the kind Ryan is talking about at all, but I still find it useful for the sake of later callbacks to be able to recall, say, the worst thing one character has ever done to another.

*

After these, Ryan next identifies pains of curation, and this is where the gloves come off.

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Curating Simulated Storyworlds (James Ryan) – Ch 1-3

James Ryan recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz, and he was kind enough to make available his dissertation, Curating Simulated Storyworlds, for anyone to read. Of academic work coming out recently, this is one of the more interesting to the interactive fiction crowd, and I’ve already recommended it to quite a few people. I’m going to be writing about it in a few posts, since it’s long enough that I wasn’t able to read it in a single sitting.

As with other posts about academic work, I’m aiming partly to make interesting academic work on interactive narrative visible and accessible to hobbyists and people from the game industry; but I also use the opportunity to record my own thoughts and reactions to the material, and these are often based especially on the history of interactive fiction. So while Ryan’s dissertation is not primarily about text adventures, I will sometimes draw connections from his ideas to work from the text adventure community.

The basic idea: Ryan is interested in the kinds of emergent stories that can be built by Dwarf Fortress-like simulations — large, complex worlds that generate many many events over many simulated years of interaction, often with striking and memorable chains of causality. But from a narrative perspective, experiencing these worlds is not always satisfying. Sometimes they generate fascinating emergent plots. Sometimes they just seem unfocused or dull. Hence: curation. We need either a human being or a second AI system capable of extracting the good stories from the simulator and presenting those to the reader:

To understand the successes, we might ask this essential question: what is the pleasure of emergent narrative? I contend that the form works more like nonfiction than fiction—emergent stories actually happen—and this produces a peculiar aesthetics that undergirds the appeal of its successful works. What then is the pain of emergent narrative? There is a ubiquitous tendency to misconstrue the raw transpiring of a simulation (or a trace of that unfolding) as being a narrative artifact, but such material will almost always lack story structure. (xii)

This is an area that a few others have touched on; Jacob Garbe’s Dwarf Grandpa project is essentially about curating a simulated storyworld.

In essence, Ryan’s assertion at the beginning of the dissertation appears to be that the difference between good and bad emergent narrative generators is simply whether anyone is sufficiently interested to bother curating the output: so Dwarf Fortress and the Sims are good emergent narrative generators because people retell their constructs, while some academic projects are not because no one is moved to retell those. To me this did seem to miss some points about what makes generators effective, including

  • whether they use a number of systems that interlock in interesting ways (this is a somewhat handwavy description, but Tarn Adams describes the point much more effectively)
  • whether the systems account for the possibility of stakes and motivations, or whether they mostly model less interesting things
  • whether the components of the systems are polysemous or symbolically rich, thus capable of supporting additional interpretive constructions beyond what the author might have intended
  • what range of outcomes and story shapes can be achieved; the expressive range of the generator

…though it may be that Ryan will come back to those or similar points later in the dissertation.

Ryan’s approach includes an explicit, extensive discussion of the aesthetics of emergent narrative. Why are we even bothering with this, and what experiences are we attempting to achieve? What does emergent narrative make possible, and what are the problems with it?

I was very glad to see this, because I think this kind of discussion is of critical interest for people who approach these systems from an artistic perspective, and they’re often entirely omitted or at best not very thoroughly considered in academic writing on procedural narrative systems.

The dissertation is sizable, so I’m going to be talking about it in a multiple chunks here.

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Subsurface Circular (Bithell Games)

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Subsurface Circular is a game of puzzle conversation. The look and feel are quite polished — nice animations, sound effects, a sense of three-dimensional place, a UI representation of how far you are along your subway journey — but your activity in the game is talking to your fellow robots on a subway car, mostly picking dialogue options.

For Plot Reasons, you yourself are never allowed to leave the subway. But other riders come and go, and you can interrogate them for as long as they’re seated near you. The subway ride also functions as a measure of your progress through the story, in an elegant understated way: you know where you started, and roughly how far you are from completing the loop.

Character entrances and exits are gated in such a way that, as far as I can tell, it’s not possible to fail at an important conversation beat because you’re too late and the character leaves the train before you’ve talked to them. The frame structure provides just enough sense of passing time to imply a little urgency, but not so much as to actually get in the way of success.

As you do so, you gather “focus points” — a topic inventory that you can deploy whenever your current strand of conversation runs out, unlocking new menu items. Your focus point buttons highlight when you have any available gambits associated with them. And there are also a handful of things to figure out, passwords you can extract from one character to use on another and so on.

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Twine Gardening

I haven’t published much in Twine on IFDB, but I actually use it a great deal: it’s become a prototyping tool of first resort for a wide range of professional projects, the format in which I deliver content to be converted into some other final presentation. A not-trivial amount of pro-level game story prototyping happens in Twine these days.

Which reminds me to mention that Chris Klimas has a Patreon for Twine maintenance and development, and it would be great to see that get some more support. Twine is usefully free to creators who might not be able to afford it, and long may it remain so — but I use it for industry purposes, so I pay for mine. (He’s also reachable via Unmapped Path, and has developed an engine to bring Twine pieces to mobile.)

One of the most characteristic things about writing in Twine is the business of curating the narrative map. Twine generates this map automatically, making a new passage for content every time you create a link that doesn’t refer to an existing passage, and placing that box somewhere near the originating passage. Which is fine, to a point, but very soon several things happen.

  1. performance drags and Twine takes its own sweet time inserting the box
  2. Twine’s idea of where to auto-place the box doesn’t correspond to my idea of how the contents should be visually arranged
  3. I can never zoom out as far as I want to, because even the smallest-box depiction of the Twine map doesn’t show me the whole monstrosity I’m working on

A really large portion of my time working in Twine consists of clicking back to the map view and dragging boxes around to better convey the story structure I have in mind. Pruning. Gardening. Rebalancing. Trying to make clusters of content stick together and make critical moments visible at a glance. Structuring so that I can recognize certain standard mini-structures.

For instance, both of these passages belong to a narrative that is, at the large scale, a standard branch-and-bottleneck, but the lower-level structure is actually very different:

The first diagram describes an “are you really sure you want to commit to this disaster” sequence: if the player heads down the left-hand path, they have several opportunities to opt out and rejoin the main storyline; but past a certain point, they’ve lost the game and are committed to a losing epilogue. And then, if the player survives that and traverses to the lower right portion of the diagram, there’s a big delayed-branching result with many different outcomes customized to what the player’s done so far: a narrative payoff for earlier choices. There’s some clustering to those delayed-branch results, which the diagram also tries to convey.

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Those Trojan Girls (Mark Bernstein)

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Those Trojan Girls is a hypertext novel by Mark Bernstein, written in Storyspace. Storyspace is Bernstein’s project, and the blurb for Those Trojan Girls describes how the tool might add to the possibilities of the medium:

Those Trojan Girls is also the first published hypertext to use the new Storyspace 3 facilities for stretchtext and sculptural hypertext – ideas explored in the research literature for more than a decade but that remain little known outside the research community.

In practice, stretchtext and sculptural hypertext refer to ideas that already exist in interactive fiction. As discussed in an interview with Bernstein here, “sculptural hypertext” refers to having pieces of text that appear based not on links but on other variable conditions, similar to quality-based narrative. Stretchtext refers to replacing a section of text with a longer, more detailed section, which is one of several things Twine texts do fairly routinely with text replacement macros. So “little known outside the research community” might be a slight exaggeration.

But the point, I think, is that the piece is attempting to introduce some of these features and methods to a community of practice — academic/literary hypertext — that has historically not paid terribly much attention to the IF community of practice, despite very significant overlap in many of the technological affordances of their tools.

Those Trojan Girls is definitely unlike game-like hypertexts, and avoids the kinds of agency found therein. I’m not sure I’d say there’s much of what I typically think of as “readerly” agency either. It’s hard, for instance, to decide on a theme, character, plot point or other element you want to pursue and track that train through the narrative (in contrast with Arcadia, which is designed for exactly that type of reading, or if, which thematically encourages completionist rigor).

There are a few formatting challenges familiar from Twine and not exactly solved here. Some blue links expand in place, while others lead through to a new passage of text — a frequent complaint about Twine works as well — and in Storyspace (or at least in this implementation) one can’t predict which is which without either clicking through or referring to the map, which appears in the lefthand side of the screen and moves as you read:

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