Parrigues Tarot (draft)

I’ve tweeted a bunch about this project, but talked about it less on my blog: for a while I’ve been working on a followup to Annals of the Parrigues called Parrigues Tarot, a system that generates tarot card descriptions like these:

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Though it might seem similar, this was actually a much more difficult and extensive project than Annals of the Parrigues, for several reasons.

First, it’s doing more work with narrative arcs. Many (though not all) cards are built around the idea that the protagonist wants something and takes some action to try to achieve it (or else fears something and takes action to try to avoid it). The chosen action either succeeds or fails, with some results.

Not all of that story has to be represented explicitly in the card description: indeed, the fact that these are nominally descriptions of static images was a little limiting, because I tried to only describe things where an action and its consequence could be pretty clearly implied visually. Meanwhile, sometimes the story can include additional information — why does the protagonist need money in the first place, for instance? But centering the story generation on an action and a desired outcome gave the output more consistent narrative potency than various other constructions I tried.

Finally, the system uses much less random content and requires much more salience of its symbols: if it mentions a lion, or diamonds, or the color blue, there’s usually some underlying tagging that makes those elements relevant to the meaning of the card.

The system is also able to do some quirky variations, like “find a node expansion that matches the current world state except it should be opposed along one axis” — useful for finding an opposite for something already pictured: a thief to go up against a virtuous judge, say.

But maybe the biggest difference is simply down to the nature of the medium. The Annals are, and are expected to be, repetitive, with modest amounts of new information per entry. A tarot card is expected to be compact and evocative with high information density.

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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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World Models Rendered in Text

Last month I wrote a bit about text generation and generated narratives overall. This month, I’ve been looking more at parser games — games that typically are distinguished by (among other things) having an expressive (if not very discoverable) mode of input along with a complex world model.

My own first parser IF projects were very interested in that complexity. I liked the sensation of control that came from manipulating a detailed imaginary world, and the richness of describing it. And part of the promise of a complex world model (though not always realized in practice) was the idea that it might let players come up with their own solutions to problems, solutions that weren’t explicitly anticipated by the author.

It might seem like these are two extremes of the IF world: parser games are sometimes seen as niche and old-school, so much so that when I ran June’s London IF Meetup focused on Inform, we had some participants asking if I would start the session by introducing what parser IF is.

Meanwhile, generative text is sometimes not interactive at all. It is used for explorations that may seem high-concept, or else like they’re mostly of technical interest, in that they push on the boundaries of current text-related technology. (See also Andrew Plotkin’s project using machine learning to generate imaginary IF titles. Yes, as an intfiction poster suggested, that’s something you could also do with an older Markov implementation, but that particular exercise was an exercise in applying tech to this goal.)

There’s a tighter alignment between these types of project than might initially appear. Bruno Dias writes about using generative prose over on Sub-Q magazine. And Liza Daly has written about what a world model can do to make generated prose better, more coherent or more compelling.

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Mid-June Link Assortment


June 16 (tomorrow), the Baltimore/DC group meets at Mad City Coffee to discuss the game Grayscale. This group also has a Facebook page.

Also June 16, 2 PM Pacific time (tomorrow), Dylan Holmes at the Sacramento Public Library is running the first of three monthly book club meetings about video game related topics, via Twitch. (So people from all over are welcome to join online.) They are starting with Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design.


June 17 (day after tomorrow), London IF Meetup has another Character Engine workshop available, as there were a number of interested parties who were not able to come to the first of these. This is a chance to learn about the tools we’re building for AI-driven dialogue and narrative, and to join an indies-and-academics-focused development program.

June 20, the People’s Republic of IF in Cambridge MA meets.

June 21, Wonderbly hosts its Strange Tales talk series in London, this time focusing on puzzles and games. I’ve attended (and spoken at) this series in the past — it’s lots of fun and looks at the intersection of conventional publishing and interactive work.

June 20-21, there is a free two-day event at University of St Andrews, University of Glasgow & Abertay University on the topic Literature and Video Games: Beyond Stereotypes. Speakers include Rhianna Pratchett and Simon Meek. This looks to cross over academic approaches and experiences from professional video game writing.

ICCC, the International Conference on Computational Creativity, runs June 25-29 in Salamanca this year, and Spirit AI is sponsoring its industry crossover panel. I will be there, talking about what we’re doing at Spirit and checking out the other interesting work in this space.

The July 4 meeting of the Oxford/London IF Meetup will feature Leigh Alexander presenting on the narrative design process of Reigns: Her Majesty. We will start the session by playing through a bit of the game, so please do feel free to come even if you’re not familiar with it.

(And can I just say how pleased I am with this method of celebrating Independence Day, by hanging out in London with other expats playing a game about being a queen.)

July 7 is the next Meetup of the SF Bay IF group.

Gothic Novel Jam is a jam for games or works inspired by the gothic novel in any fashion, and is running throughout July. IF and related narrative games are welcome.

Screen Shot 2018-06-10 at 4.20.43 PM.pngIntroComp is now accepting intents to enter. IntroComp is a competition in which you can submit just an excerpt of an unfinished interactive fiction game, and receive feedback from players about what they liked or didn’t like about it. If you’d like to participate as an author, register with the site before June 30. Games themselves must be submitted by July 31 and judging will occur during August.

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This is well in advance, but November 10-11, AdventureX will return, this time at the British Library. AdventureX is a conference focused on narrative rich games, whether those are mobile or desktop, text-based or graphical; it’s grown significantly in size and professionalism over the last couple of years, and last year pretty definitively outgrew its previous venue. I am mentioning this well in advance because they’ve mentioned that tickets will be cheaper for early bird buyers — so it’s something to keep an eye on if you think you’ll want to go.

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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:


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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Mailbag: Two letters about IF and language

This Mailbag post we have two related letters, and I don’t have a super-long answer to either, but I suspect readers may be interested and perhaps have their own comments to contribute:

Are you aware of any IF that has been produced in any endangered, minoritized, or indigenous languages? The only example I’ve come across is Harry Giles’ work in Scots:

I’m not very familiar with the IF world, and your site has been very educational. I’ve tried a few keyword searches to locate works that might not be in the IF databases, but found no other results.

IF would seem to be a useful format for sharing and learning underresourced languages. I’m currently working with folks in the Cherokee and Lakota communities on a handful of translation and localization projects, and I can’t imagine I’m the first to be exploring this area. I would be grateful for any insights. Thanks in advance for your time.

It would be fine to post my note, especially if you thought others might be interested. I’m writing a bit (and curating writing) about work in this area here:

— Derek Lackaff, Ph.D., Associate Director, Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, Elon University

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