Gamasutra interview with Susan O’Connor

There’s an interesting interview over on Gamasutra with Susan O’Connor, who has written for a number of major games, including BioShock and Far Cry 2. There’s a wide range of stuff in there, including her personal background and some observations about the industry, but what struck me as especially notable for readers of this blog were her comments at the top of page 3 (too long to just quote here), in which she talks about managing how much of a gameplay conversation is about conveying gameplay mechanics and how much is about story.

Exercises in Generated Prose

What follows is an overview of some ways I7 can be used to generate more writerly prose, especially in the context of room descriptions. It refers to several extensions; of these, “Complex Listing” and “Plurality” are bundled with Inform and part of the standard distribution, but “Room Description Control“, “Tailored Room Description“, “Introductions“, “Assorted Text Generation“, and “Automated Drawers” are available from the I7 extensions site.

Continue reading “Exercises in Generated Prose”

Eric Eve’s “Shelter from the Storm”

shelter My most recent playing: Eric Eve’s Shelter from the Storm. The major gimmick is that you can set the narrative voice to first, second, or third person, using past or present tense. Eric’s announcement of this makes it sound as though it’s more experiment than game, which isn’t at all fair. It’s a short but complete story about espionage, with lots of twists along the way, and it moves along at a pretty good pace.

It comes along at a perfect time for me, since I’m in the middle of an old series called The Fourth Arm, which is all about soldiers and agents in training in the south of England during the second world war.

Gameplay-wise, it’s not too hard: most of the interesting interaction is in the form of conversation and other highly-directed scenes. There are some puzzles, but they’re mostly of the variety that involves inspecting everything carefully and collecting keys when you find them. (I managed to get stuck at one point, but it was largely my own fault — I didn’t examine everything closely enough and then misinterpreted what the hint system was telling me to do next.)

I had some odd reactions to the way that the end of the story plays out, which I’ll probably cover later in a spoilery venue. Still, it’s well worth a play in its own right.

Now, on the topic of the experiment itself: I played around with this a fair amount, but eventually settled into playing second person present for a while and then first person past. The second present seems natural to me (too much IF, I guess), except that at some point I started to feel some cognitive dissonance between what I would do and what my protagonist had to do, and it became more comfortable to play the game in first person past tense.

That said, I think more could have been done with the experiment (though at the cost of considerably more time and effort). As far as I was able to tell, the choice of person and tense changes the grammatical form of the sentences, but it doesn’t affect things like interiority and descriptions of motivation. It would have been very interesting, and made the narration styles much more distinct, if the first-person past voice had been more strongly characterized and contained more overt hints of the protagonist’s feelings; or if the third-person voice had been a bit more estranged and cinematic.* (Not that third-person narration can’t do character thoughts — I just mean, as a contrast.) It seems to me that a game that is written so that all the text can be swapped between persons and tenses is not going to take maximum advantage of any of those choices — so it might not actually prove as much as one hopes about their relative value for IF.

But I could be totally wrong. I hope Eric gets some interesting feedback from this, so I hope people do play and let him know what happens.

* Or perhaps what I’m envisioning is really a different game, where instead of the commands FIRST PERSON or PAST TENSE, the player is allowed to type OMNISCIENT VIEWPOINT…

(At which point the temptation would be to get all meta and require viewpoint shifts to solve puzzles.)

Conventional reading for IF

Recently someone emailed me with the following question:

Going on the assumption that if you like to write, you must also like to read, I was wondering if you would be willing to share any books/short stories/writings — anything non-IF — that you really enjoyed or perhaps even inspired your style of story-telling.

I’ve had a pretty busy week and haven’t gotten around to answering, but I thought it might be an interesting one to throw out here, and see what other people think about IF-inspiring conventional writing.

So, a couple answers of my own:

  • Borges. His stories are often thought experiments about memory, narrative, or language, with implications that are evocative for interactive storytelling. For related but not identical reasons, Italo Calvino.
  • Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Tartt has a special gift for choosing evocative details — little sights or sounds that capture a whole mood or carry a wealth of connotation.
  • Annie Dillard’s essays (not the fiction, which I’ve never been able to get through). Dillard writes deliciously musical prose, and describes landscape beautifully. The opening of An American Childhood remains one of my favorite passages of English prose.
  • John Crowley, mainly Little, Big, for the symbolic weight and metaphysical power it gives to simple objects; this was a non-trivial influence on Metamorphoses.
  • Plato’s Symposium. Often dry or archaic in translation, in Greek it is witty, sly, sweet, sad, sexy and beautiful; it describes vividly and presently people now millennia dead. The dialogue that is both intellectual and personal has great resonance with me.
  • Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn. Again: dialogue both intensely intellectual and intensely personal. And, I would also observe, dialogue that is not very naturalistic. I tend to write somewhat stylized dialogue for IF, and I think in this I’m influenced a bit by my diet of plays (both ancient and modern) and my sense that an interactive dialogue needs to be more compact than our rambling conversations in real life. (Not, I hasten to add, that I imagine myself on Frayn’s level, or anywhere near it. Copenhagen I consider one of the masterworks of the past century.)
  • Mote in God’s Eye. I just finished this a few weeks ago, so it’s not so much a longterm favorite as something I recently have been thinking about. What impressed me about this one was how intensely compelling I found it. Which got me thinking more about how to inspire and use the player’s curiosity as a motivating force to get him to keep playing.