A few more corpses from BOYD

Last year, I ran a little itch.io jam called Bring Out Your Dead, for which people could submit unfinished projects and weird concept experiments. And I started doing some write-ups at the time of the pieces that caught my attention, but in some kind of meta keeping with the jam, I didn’t finish and publish that project. So here are a few of the other things I was meaning to cover.

The Doorman, Emily Boegheim: “Proof of concept for an animate door.” The premise here, awesomely, is that there is a door that is also a person, and it will take commands, such as positioning itself in a new wall. From a gameplay perspective, that affords some changes not wildly different from, e.g., putting the player in an elevator that can open on different rooms, or the Carousel Room in Zork II, but there’s something pleasingly surreal about the idea. (The proof of concept does not prevent you from opening and closing the door without its permission, but I did feel I was being rather rude by doing this.)

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 6.27.17 PM.pngThings That Happen Behind Closed Airlocks, Kitty Mirror: though slightly buggy and erratic in spots, this is one of the few actually finishable games I ran into in BOYD. It sort of frames itself as interactive erotica, but there’s very little actual sex. The fantasy it really offers is that of being able to ruthlessly mock — and then ruthlessly carve to bits — a thoroughly obnoxious and self-satisfied man named Zeckery. The writing is snappy. I smirked.

Kulhwch, Nate Taylor: a puzzle Twine presented in rhyme, and one that mimics a parser game’s room description and inventory layout — meaning that every room description has to be one or more verses, followed by a maybe-rhyming-or-not description of which objects are present currently. (The puzzle is not too terribly difficult, and the main actions are hinted by the text.) There are a few other executions of a similar idea in IF history: Valentine Kopeltsev’s A Night Guest, XanMag’s Into the Dragon’s Den; at least one other whose name I’m currently forgetting.

I generally find that the author has struggled a bit to get the meter to work, and that’s true here as well. I think this may be one of those constraints that is particularly challenging for IF, because the need to mention only specific nouns, hint at possible actions, and faithfully depict a world space runs at odds with the kind of control required for rhyming verse. Still, I admit there’s something appealing about the idea, even if most of the executions I’ve seen have made me wince here and there. I think it’s partly that it foregrounds the difference between world model layer and discourse layer, and there’s some appeal in the idea that you might influence how the poetry worked by changing the underlying model to which it refers.

See also: Graham Nelson’s difficult to play but interesting The Tempest, the work of B Minus Seven, A. DeNiro’s Doggerland. Nick Montfort’s I Palindrome I meanwhile turns its constraint into the main point of its (very brief) gameplay.

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Form and Void, Lea Albaugh, comes with a really beautiful map, in multiple colors or black and white. The conceit is that you are a creator at the loose on a fresh planet, and you must first gather together various objects that let you access verbs (the Goer, the Taker, etc), then make things out of the mud you find at the shore.

I immediately, instinctively did what I think the game intended, namely to make a man; satisfyingly, the man started wandering around and doing things. But he also got hungry very quickly, so I had to make him a fish, and then another fish, and then another fish, and so on. This was exasperating, and I started to look for a Teacher object so that I could teach the man to fish for himself. When that failed, I tried giving him his own ball of mud so he could make his own fish. He was clueless about what to do with the mud, so I had to give him my Maker object. It went downhill from there.

The author notes for this game suggest that Lea thinks it needs more of a story. I think, actually, that it makes an amusing (if brief) arc more or less as it is: it’s less narrative than many another form of IF, but as a quick little parable about the risks of creating autonomous intelligence, not bad. The only thing I ran into trouble with was that I did some foolish things at the end and consequently reached a game-state I couldn’t get out of, without an actual ending.

I bet it would look cute in Vorple, too.

Procedural Generation in Game Design

Screen Shot 2017-06-08 at 7.10.14 AM.pngProcedural Generation in Game Design is out! Kate Compton of Tracery fame writes about generative art toys; Mike Cook (PROCJAM, Games by Angelina) writes about ethical generation and also about the procedural generation of game rules; Harry Tuffs (A House of Many Doors) writes about procedural poetry generation. Jason Grinblat and Brian Bucklew (Caves of Qud) each have a chapter. Gillian Smith (Threadsteading, plus lots of cool research) writes about evaluating and understanding what’s been generated. Ben Kybertas (Kitfox Games) covers procedural story and plot generation.

The whole volume is edited by Tanya X Short (Moon Hunters) and Tarn Adams (Dwarf Fortress). And I am leaving out a lot of cool people and chapters here, but you can check out the full table of contents on the website.

My contribution — drawing on experiences from Versu, my character-based parser IF, and assorted other projects — is a chapter on characters: how generating dialogue and performances can help realize an authored character; approaches to generating characters; considerations about what is even interesting to auto-generate.

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And in a related update to a previous post: I’m happy to say that the PROCJAM Kickstarter has succeeded and has now put out a call for artists to make art packs for procedural work, together with a call for tutorial authors. If their funding goes even higher, they’ll be able to commission two art packs; translate the tutorials they build into additional languages; and hit some other cool stretch goals.

Stats and Narrator Viewpoint

coglogo2.pngI’ve written a few times before about handling stats in ChoiceScript games, and making particular choices available. But in writing my own WIP, I also wanted to make sure that the story felt distinctly different if the player gave the protagonist a different personality — not just in terms of which choices they were able to make (or make successfully), but also in terms of the inner narrative.

With that in mind, I set for myself the following (silly) goal: when I ran randomtest, after the very first segment of play, none of the narrative output should be repeated across more than 4000 of the randomized playthroughs. That means that

  • many plot beats are reached only on 1/3 playthroughs (or fewer)
  • those plot beats that do occur every playthrough are narrated in at least three different ways, depending on the player’s stats and relationships

This speaks more to the fiction than to the mechanics, but the aim was to make the moment-to-moment texture of the story feel malleable, not just the plot structure.

This was also a good time to do more with the extreme ends of my choice spectrum: as discussed previously, I wanted to give some acknowledgement to players who managed to work their way into the top (or bottom) 10-15% of particular stat ranges, because that demonstrated a commitment to playing a particular way and should probably be understood as representing more deliberate agency than other approaches. So a lot of my alternate narration is designed to capture those high-end or low-end variations in how people view the world.

As I’ve often found before, it often enriches an interactive fiction to approach that story with some mechanical disciplines in mind.

Continue reading

Kickstarting PROCJAM

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Currently on Kickstarter Mike Cook is raising funds towards the 2017 edition of PROCJAM, a yearly 9-day sprint to make things that make things.

I’ve been involved at some level the last couple of years: in 2015, I wrote Annals of the Parrigues sort of because of PROCJAM even if not strictly during the timeframe of the event (so you can decide for yourself if that counts as participating, I suppose). Last year, Mike invited me to Falmouth to the day of kickoff talks for PROCJAM, where I spoke about Annals and was recorded as part of the string of talks there. Falmouth also hosted a workshop adjacent to that, where I had a chance to talk with other researchers in the space about what more and better casual procedural text generation tools might look like.

This year, I’m contributing to the fundraising effort: if you back the Kickstarter at £10 or above, you’ll get a mixtape of procedural toys and gizmos, including some Annals of the Parrigues-related materials from me.

I like PROCJAM for a lot of reasons, and it’s simply gotten better over the years, to the point where I now consider it one of the best projects out there in terms of supporting a creative community. Why?

  • Subject matter. An easy one, perhaps, but PROCJAM defines itself broadly enough to be interesting (“make something that makes something”) but narrowly enough that contributors’ work is likely to be interesting to other contributors.
  • Inspiration. Mike is passionate about this subject and communicates that well — and he brings in other creators to give talks about what inspires them. PROCJAM also features a zine called Seeds covering lots of past procgen projects.
  • Resources. In past years, PROCJAM coordinators have put together elements like art packs for participants to use, and supplied links to potentially useful resources. This year, they’re upping the ante by building tutorials in different areas of procedural generation as well.
  • Accessibility. Mike has thought a lot and collected a lot of feedback about how to make PROCJAM’s resources as open as possible to anyone who wants to partake. Related events occur in accessible buildings. Talks are recorded and made available for free, along with all the other resources. The jam itself is defined to take place over a 9-day period rather than over a weekend, making it a better fit for those of us too busy or too old to commit to staying up for 48 hours intensively working on a project.
  • Cross-community communication. Again, this has taken intentional work, but Mike solicits talks and input from indie creators and artists, academics in PCG and creative computing, and people with game industry experience, getting groups to talk to one another who often do not communicate nearly enough. Last year’s talk sequence also had an excellent gender balance, which I am guessing is also not the result of pure chance. At the same time, PROCJAM is very much framed as being open to all comers.
  • Coverage and feedback. Participating projects actually get video coverage made by Jupiter Hadley as part of the event’s output, along with whatever responses might come in from other PROCJAMmers or bloggers.

So, a good thing. Funds this year will help pay the artists, video makers, and tutorial-creators who contribute their time to building up PROCJAM’s resources, adding yet another bullet point to why this is good:

  • Compensating community-support labor.

On which notes: if you’re interested in the long history of IF-related competitions and jams specifically, here is a survey of them I put together in 2015; and the IFTF is another organization worth knowing about if you’re interested in community support and accessibility drives.

The Frankenstein Wars Released

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Back in 2015, Cubus Games kickstarted a new gamebook app called The Frankenstein Wars, described as follows:

Tom and Anton Clerval have long guarded the secret to Victor Frankenstein’s resurrection technology. In revolutionary France, in 1827, that secret at last comes to light. The radical Zeroiste movement creates an army of the reanimated dead to seize control of the country, and then to cross the Channel to strike at the heart of the British Empire.

Only Tom and Anton have the power to halt the Zeroistes – or to stoke the flames of all-out war.

The game is out today for iOS and for Android next week (June 8). Please note that this is not a zombie story, technically. And I do enjoy an epic piece of historical-fantasy IF. And I have to say that the app looks pretty handsome in the screenshots:

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End of May Link Assortment

Events

June 1-3 is Feral Vector, a delightful indie games festival in a really beautiful setting in Yorkshire, which usually includes talks, workshops, and hanging around on the grass eating and drinking with fellow devs. Last year there was also a LARP in the woods. I can’t go this year, but I’ve really enjoyed it both times I went. Not specifically IF-focused, but a good time.

Also June 3 is the SF Bay Area IF Meetup; the choice of what they will play there is still to be determined.

June 8 in Nottingham is the next session of Hello Words, which takes a writing club approach to IF development.

June 12 is the next PR-IF meetup in Cambridge, MA.

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June 20, the London IF Meetup is gathering at the Eaton Square Bar to play In Case of Emergency, a mystery storytelling game assembled and run by A Door in a Wall. Atypically for our events, there is a small fee of £5 to participate.

“Smart Oxford” is soliciting applications for a £30,000 grant to put together an interactive, publicly-playable experience in Oxford city center. Applications are due June 20.

June 24 at 3 PM, the Baltimore IF Meetup is getting together to discuss The Weight of a Soul from Spring Thing this year, so if you’re attending, you may want to try the game in advance.

June 28-30, I will be speaking at Gamelab XIII GAMES & INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT CONFERENCE in Barcelona, about artificial intelligence and games.

The British Library is running an Interactive Fiction Summer School as a weeklong course in July, with multiple instructors from a variety of different interactive narrative backgrounds. More information can be found at the British Library’s website.

New Releases

Arc Symphony: Sophia Park and Penelope Evans launched a Twine that had a social ARG component to it as well. It’s about the way 90s internet connections (of both kinds) functioned and made meaning for those who relied on them.

Apology Simulator by Matthew Seiji Burns (of The Writer Will Do Something). You play as both people in the exchange–crafting the best apology you can, and then send it off; you then also have the option to choose whether or not to accept that apology. I frequently found that on a particular screen, there was no way to mutate the message into anything that really felt sincere by my own standards. Often, you have a series of options for things to say, but none of those options involves taking real responsibility for your actions and owning your own mess. And there are options to be extremely passive-aggressive. It’s more experience than story arc, but interesting as a meditation on how apologetic phrasings work in practice.

castellupo.jpgThe Secret of Castel Lupo is an interactive fiction/RPG originally released in Italian and now available in English for Android and iOS. It’s designed for younger readers (8+), but is meant to be entertaining for adults as well.

Causeway is a short IF piece that is only available for PC.  

Richard Goodness has released Hatred, a piece he describes as a “text-based murder simulator.” I have yet to play it, but he describes it as closely tied to Zest.

Narrows is a system for participatory storygames for groups of people, a bit similar to Storium, where the protagonists each submit their actions and then a narrator writes what happens next.

Awards

Reading Digital Fiction has announced its award winners for 2017; among the winners, Mark Marino and family won for best Children’s Digital Fiction with the Tangerine House series.

The Kitschies awards are accepting nominations for work published in the UK during 2017, and they include a reward for “natively digital” work, which goes beyond the ebook: this would include interactive fiction.

Articles

I wrote my last IF Only column for RockPaperShotgun, this time on The Pawn and Magnetic Scrolls games. The Strand initiative is also bringing MS games to mobile and exploring new ways of presenting parser IF in that context.

If you enjoyed what I wrote about high-agency narrative structures like quality and salience-based narrative, you may also like Bruno Dias’ recent post about building a generic QBN system.

Dylan Holmes and Joanna Price discuss plot and character in Night in the Woods.