Postmortems (Raph Koster)

postmortemsRaph Koster’s Postmortems is a series of essays and talks about his work. That work includes online RPGs and MUDs, including some with a story focus perhaps relevant to people on this blog. (Actually, this book is just Volume One, with more volumes to come — but accordingly, it speaks about some of Koster’s earliest work, which is the material that probably dovetails the most with the interests of IF enthusiasts.)

Koster offers an introduction to MUDs that launches from Adventure, but explains the differences about playing such a game with others. There’s a good bit of design narrative and history here about those games — which may well be interesting to readers of this blog, as they’re adjacent to IF. I especially enjoyed reading the (plentiful) examples of MUD scripting, for comparison with how early IF languages worked. There are also detailed descriptions of quests and experiences that would now be difficult or impossible to recapture, such as a “Beowulf” quest from LegendMUD.

I found some of these passages a little dizzying, in a good way: they offered me a glance at an alternate universe of text-based, narrative-studded games, ones that are rarely discussed in the context of the IF canon. By which I mean: I probably should have known about a lot of this all along. (But there are so many things I should have known all along.)

At any rate, I recommend it for people who are interested in the history of games-adjacent-to-IF.

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Postmortems is also a book about what it’s like to be in a games career, to care about and love games, to think about and with games. The first essay is about Koster’s childhood game writing, as a kid in Peru, and how he grew up from there. It’s illustrated with sketches from the game concepts of his youth. He writes about games he wrote as gifts and as messages to people close to him: another practice I value.

Because the book is drawing from such diverse sources — talks, written work, pieces created as retrospectives and other pieces written at the same time as the games themselves, some articles that include sample code and others meant for very non-technical audiences — it’s quite a varied read. But that is also part of the book’s charm.

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I’ve written about Raph’s Theory of Fun for Game Design in the past.

Disclosure: I received a free PDF advance review copy of this book for the purposes of coverage.

Recent Parser Treats

At the most recent IF Meetup, I prefaced the discussion by talking about recently released parser games, and we played a bit of A Beauty Cold and Austere as a group. A couple of the games I mentioned then, I haven’t actually written up here. So in the spirit of June being (sort of) Parser Month:

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quickfire
Quickfire (Sean M. Shore) was a contestant in the New Year Minicomp this year. If the author’s name sounds familiar, it may be because he won the IF Comp in 2014 with his comedy-lovecraftian puzzle game Hunger Daemon, and came second place in Spring Thing 2011 with Bonehead, a parser game about baseball.

The premise this time is that you’re a contestant on Top Chef and have 20 minutes to prepare latkes — a timed puzzle where you do have a basic recipe, but it’s still possible to get the details and timing wrong. The scenario is straightforward enough that you can replay if things don’t go quite right the first time — it took me four passes to get the outcome I wanted out of the game.

And there’s a lot to appreciate about the implementation. The game notices a lot of possible details if you miss a step or swap out a suboptimal ingredient or don’t quite nail your cooking times. And I found myself engaging the cooking part of my brain (“hey, I could start heating this skillet up while I’m still mixing things to go in it”). One of the most persuasive cooking puzzles I’ve seen in parser IF.

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Human Errors (Katherine Morayati)

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Human Errors is a new piece on Sub-Q, by the author of (among other things) TAKE and laid off from the synesthesia Factory.

Human Errors describes a world in which human attention (and empathy, care, and understanding) are a severely limited resource. The player plays the role of a contractor brought in to triage support tickets on a product that (we quickly realize) has a rather alarming range of functionality. What you’re supposed to do is close as many tickets as possible, while prioritizing only the undeniably critical ones.

You also have the option — not preferred by the company — to follow up with particular users and try to get more of their stories. Here, you can engage either as a nameless QA figure or via personal email.

But engage too much, with too many people, and the company will start to view you as inefficient, or as going outside the proper parameters for engagement, and your access to the system will be cut off entirely. So you’ll have to budget your sympathy, dole it out cautiously, try not to get in trouble too quickly.

A single interaction node looks like this:

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There are, of course, other games out there working through the interface of simulated email or other computer-mediated messaging — I recently covered Grayscale, which puts you in the role of an HR employee resolving complaints, for instance. Several of Christine Love’s pieces act similarly.

But what I particularly like about the system in Human Errors is the way it combines the guided and the open-ended, the effective and the reflective choices. If you choose to close an issue, it goes away, is no longer your problem. If you write an email to a user, you get a brief time — enough to type a short sentence or two — to type whatever you want before the text box fades to “Sent.” It’s not expressive in the sense of a parser input, because you’re not constructing a complex command all of whose aspects will be understood by the game; but it does allow and indeed encourage the player to express something. Continue reading

Interactive Digital Narrative: Theory

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 1.12.24 PM.pngThis is part two of an overview of Interactive Digital Narrative: History, Theory, and Practice. See my earlier post for coverage of the book’s history section (and one practice chapter that I took out of order because it felt like it fit better that way).

This time we’re looking at the theory section, which addresses academic approaches to interactive narrative (including the question of what interactive narrative even is).

Again, the section begins with a brief overview from the volume editors, and this provides a fair sketch of the academic debates of the last couple of decades, together with a bibliography of a number of foundational pieces in this space. I might also have listed Jesper Juul’s half-real here, as it provides a readable and persuasive cap to the narratology vs ludology debate.

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