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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Lonely Men Club (Mike Kleine)

LLMMCC1.jpgLonely Men Club is a book by Mike Kleine (@thefancymike), running to exactly 100,000 words and constructed in a five day period via procedural generation. In that respect, it belongs to the same conceptual category as NaNoGenMo projects, or text-focused works from ProcJAM, or Annals of the Parrigues. He references Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Nick Montfort’s World Clock as influences.

Lonely Men Club represents the thoughts of (a fictionalized version of) the Zodiac Killer. These thoughts concern what he read, bills he received, the color of the sky, his bodily functions, the people he killed. A sentence such as “Killed a foreign woman in Mississippi” sits near “Went to the restroom for seventeen minutes”, and neither of these is more important to the narrator.

This sense of repetition, unpredictability and incoherence, and the lack of discrimination between subjects, are Kleine’s desired and intended outcome, so much so that he’s needed a generator to achieve it. There are typos, I believe intentionally. Sometimes words are jammed together without spaces to create new compounds.

This is a text that is playing with cadence, though individual units of coherent meaning are larger than in Allison Parrish’s Articulations. The latter fixates on a single phrase at a time, often repeating it many times in a single sentence, using that repetition to cluster together all the ideas that might be linked by the word “ever”, for instance:

Forever and amen. And ever. Amen. Every man and every maid never a man and never a maid every woman, every man, every woman, every maid: every morn and every night every morning and every night every night and every morning, in every note and every line for in every line, and in every verse and every limb, and every nerve of every virgin element, — never, never believe never, believe me, and ever believe.

…whereas in Kleine’s grammar the repetitions are less insistent, and individual sentences less impressionistic.

Even the layout of the text on the page, with smudges and imperfections, not to mention variant type sizes, is both an reference to the Zodiac’s ciphers and an accidental (but embraced) result of the process of generating, cutting, and pasting text. Sometimes the text in Lonely Men Club is inverted, white on black. Sometimes it’s scrunched, or in landscape rather than portrait orientation, or falling askew on the page, in a way that reminded me of the dynamic text manipulation of Liza Daly’s A Physical Book project. Sometimes a paragraph simply runs off the page’s edge, losing all the words on the right side.

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Narrative Design Toolkit (Gamisolution)

narrativedesignThe Narrative Design Toolkit (available in both English and Spanish) is a deck of cards intended to help the user think through the creation of a new plot, starting with a twelve-card representation of the Hero’s Journey as the basis for elaboration.

As the picture shows, it’s got a simple but stylish design, and includes cards in different colors to represent events and character archetypes, drawing on the writing of Jung and Propp, Campbell, Rodari, and Vogler. Cards include elements such as “the Shadow,” “the Innocent,” “the Grump,” et al. (I think some of the more personality-driven archetypes may have been supplied by the creators of the deck, since they alone don’t have an alternative attribution on them.) Meanwhile, it skips some of Propp’s more specific and startling elements, such as “The hero follows bloody tracks” or “someone pursues the hero, rapidly transforming himself into various animals.” (Though even that’s not as wild as some of the stuff in S. Thompson’s motif index of folk literature, featuring motifs like “Cow drops gold dung” and “Council of fishes decide to get rid of men (who eat fish)” and “Sun and moon born of lizard”. I could page through that stuff all day.)

I myself probably wouldn’t call this a toolkit for narrative design overall so much as a toolkit for plot generation — but that’s still an interesting and useful thing, potentially. Different writers wrestle with different aspects of writing, but “I hate plotting!” is a more common cry than one might think.

Those who’ve been tracking this blog for a while will know that I’m skeptical of the Hero’s Journey and especially of its overwhelming prevalence in game narrative how-to books; also that I’m a total sucker for card decks designed to inspire creativity or to teach IF methods or to tell stories. Likewise tabletop RPGs that offer interesting rules for inventing plots and characters, and the whole challenge of thinking procedurally about the working elements of story. So I went into this unsure whether I’d turn out to like it a lot, or find it very exasperating.

The recommended method for using the Narrative Design Toolkit is perhaps a little underspecified relative to one of those RPGs. It suggests that you:

  1. Lay out cards 1-12 representing the stages of the hero’s journey, then
  2. Swap, remove, and/or replace those cards with other cards in whatever way you wish.

So all in all rather a loose grammar. However, I did sit down and follow these rules.

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Expressive Range in Tarot Decks

I collect Tarot decks, and I’ve been meaning for a while to write about why. Even with a fairly standardized set of cards and suits, Tarot decks demonstrate how a procedural system can be focused on particular domains of meaning and types of significance.

The cards may be dealt randomly, but the card names, images, suits, and interpretive booklets create a space in which certain meanings can be expressed and other types of meanings cannot (or can be expressed only in a veiled and oblique way). This is the expressive range of the procedural system.

The Tarot decks I find most interesting are the ones that go beyond minor re-arting/re-skinning and instead significantly rethink or revise the expressive range of the Tarot, inflecting their decks towards particular problems or meanings — often via conceptual blending between the original Tarot elements and the new theme domain. For instance:


Urban Tarot, Robin Scott. This is my favorite deck, grounded in the iconography of New York City. The images are dense and detailed, providing plenty to think about and read. Most of the cards, not just the arcana, have human figures on them, and many of those that do not are associated with specific landmarks. The Moon is the crescent formed by a displaced manhole cover; the Wheel of Fortune is a ferris wheel from Coney Island, desolate and abandoned. The Tower is — inevitably — the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11.

There’s a lot here about being a human in a society — or withdrawn from a society — and about how we regard justice, celebrity, wealth and poverty. I especially connect with the Aeon from this deck, which shows a woman visiting the memorial at Ellis Island.

At the same time, it’s very personal, with narratives about the card models often forming part of the reading. In this deck you’ll find public defender Verena Powell as Queen of Wands, or the artist’s own grandmother as Queen of Disks. The human reality of these individuals is inspiring — or disquieting, as in the case of the seductive Knight of Cups.

Robin Scott spent many years on this deck, and that shows in the evolution of style from somewhat more stylized and blocky cards like the Fool or the Knight of Souls to the bright realism of Satiety (10 of Cups) or the painterly quality of Art. Arguably that makes the deck less coherent, in some abstract sense, but I like having this evidence of growth and personal change built into the deck.

But I think what I like best about Urban Tarot is the diversity of mood and attitude it contains. Some Tarot decks are predominantly upbeat or predominantly grim; some focus on a small range of human experience or human problems. Urban Tarot encompasses a wider range of human possibility, the dark and the joyful, the healthy and the sick, the personal and the communal.

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