S. (J. J. Abrams, Doug Dorst)

sfeelies.jpgS is a puzzle-novel with feelies, imagined by J. J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst. The premise is that there’s a novel, The Ship of Theseus, written by the mysterious VM Straka and edited by his devoted editor FX Caldeira. This novel is the object of considerable academic debate and political struggle.

There’s also an ambiguity about the true ending of the book: the Chapter 10 printed here is (fictionally) not the original written by the author, and the “true original” ending has been made available online.

The scholarly debate draws in two students, Eric and Jen, who start leaving one another notes in the margins of the book, and then get entangled in the struggle, and also entangled in one another’s lives. Jen and Eric’s story is organized semi-thematically rather than chronologically with the passing pages: they tend to come back to certain bits of the book to talk about certain subjects. Even the early pages of the book contain notes from late in their relationship. Conveniently, they change pen colors at a couple of key points, which at least tells you what era you’re looking at.

Between the pages, there are a number of other very lovingly made artifacts, including postcards, photographs, letters, and in one case a map hand-drawn on a café napkin. The book is also (for various reasons) full of ciphers and clues, some of which Eric and Jen solve themselves, and some of which have been discussed at great length by internet onlookers. The artifacts are amazing, and the whole book shows tremendous production values.

So it’s a piece that feels like a form of analog interactive fiction, or a classic Dennis Wheatley mystery dossier. Or, also/alternatively, a call-out to literary mystery/romance stories like Possession. I didn’t really find it satisfying either as puzzle or as novel, though, because what it communicates is in fact fairly thin relative to the number of pages and amount of work involved.

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Mailbag: Academic literature on modeling conversations

hello :) I was reading some of your stuff about conversation systems, was wondering if you’d have any links/pointers to academic literature on modelling conversations (can be more theoretical/non-game-related), or stuff relevant to people who might be trying to do it?

This one came in via Twitter. I’ve covered some adjacent topics before on mailbag, including

  • Games that do complex conversational mechanics
  • Dialogue and story generation techniques (Parts 1, 2, 3)
  • Dialogue filtering to apply personality and emotion to existing text — this includes links to some academic research into how personality traits affect people’s utterances
  • And back in 2009 I wrote this on conversational analysis and how it applied to my work at the time, including going through a number of dialogue situations recorded in literature and talking about how the conversation model I was using at the time would address or fail to address those

But this question is asking something a little different, specifically about how conversation is modeled in the abstract, not necessarily in games and not necessarily for AI production purposes. What academic literature is out there to help us understand how people talk to one another? What types of approaches exist for modeling conversation in general?

Unsurprisingly, this is a huge field of study, so this is not remotely a literature review; instead, it’s a tour of a few pieces of terminology and resources that might be useful in digging deeper.

Also, I am not approaching it primarily from the perspective of a trained linguist (I’ve taken a few classes, but it’s not my field) and instead from the perspective of a person trying to model things for interactive conversation purposes.

So, with those caveats:

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Mid-April Link Assortment



odphmbjbolppopab.jpgApril 16 is the next meeting of the People’s Republic of IF in Cambridge.

April 27 I will be at GameFest 2019 in Albany, NY, speaking about narrative design in games and other media.
April 27 is also the next Baltimore/DC Area IF Meetup; discussing Castle, Forest, Island, Sea, and Cragne Manor.
May 4 is the next San Francisco Bay Area IF Meetup, at the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment.
May 10 I am speaking at the 10-Year Anniversary Event for State of Play, in Dublin, Ireland.

May 14 is the deadline for submitting short papers to the IEEE Conference on Games (CoG).  The conference itself will be August 20-23 in London.


May 22, the London IF Meetup hears from Chris Gardiner about the narrative direction of Sunless Skies — how the Failbetter team set a course for their content, how they developed it, and how/when they chose to course-correct.

The 2nd International Summer School on AI and Games will be held in New York City, May 27-31.  The event is organized by Georgios N. Yannakakis and Julian Togelius, who wrote the Artificial Intelligence and Games book.  More info can be found at the site.

Narrascope is set for June 14-16 in Boston, MA.  This is a new games conference that will support interactive narrative, adventure games, and interactive fiction by bringing together writers, developers, and players.  More information can be found on NarraScope’s home site.

ICCC 2019 takes place on June 17-21 in Charlotte, NC.  The event is in its tenth year and is organized by the Association for Computational Creativity.

Articles and Podcasts

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 8.41.30 AM.pngThe Story Fix carries an interview about the creation of Star Wars-themed choose your destiny stories.

The Narrative Innovation Showcase from GDC 2019 is now available as free content, if you’d like to see short talks on a number of interesting narrative design and interactive storytelling solutions.

Not a single article but a whole website: Can I Play That? is a site dedicated to reviewing games for their accessibility, including “how I play” articles about accessibility adaptations (such as using voice recognition to play games whose usual controllers would cause RSI problems for the player). There’s also an ongoing series of deaf game reviews.


Heaven’s Vault is out as of April 16, and will be available on Steam.


Spring Thing is now open, if you missed that announcement. There are a whole bunch of new works to play, both choice-based and parser-based.

The festival will be open until May 6, so plenty of time remains to survey this year’s offerings. For those interested, a few impressions can be found on the intfiction board here, here, and here.

Also worth a look is the new interactive fiction Lies and Cigars by Katherine Morayati, written as a commission for Now Play This.

Orihaus has publicly shared the hypertext tool used in some of their past work:



Wharton (yes, the business school) is hiring an interactive fiction coder to help with an educational narrative project. This is a full-time job with benefits.


Spring Thing 2019

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 2.06.35 AM.png

Spring Thing 2019 is now open. The second-biggest regular competition of the interactive fiction calendar, this year it has 20ish games including both choice-based and parser-based work, some experimental and some more classic in style. I haven’t had time to play nearly all of them, but here are a few I’ve had a chance to look at so far:

ballroom_cover.jpgLiza Daly has for several years been working with her own custom Windrift system, which produces lovely and typographically pleasing browser stories like Stone Harbor and Harmonia.

The Ballroom is a piece in this system where you can tweak certain details of the story in order to mutate it towards being a different story entirely. What starts as a disappointing anecdote in the life of an impoverished Regency miss can turn in other, rather startling directions as you alter your protagonist’s clothing and social choices, and the rest of the scene changes in consequence. Initially that stays within the Austenesque world, but it soon starts genre-hopping.

There is a logic of world features that persist through significant changes of genre and tone, that reminded me in some ways of Dual Transform or Invisible Parties. And the way you have access to the whole temporal sequence at once and can change the state of things earlier or later in the narrative as you choose, felt a bit Midnight. Swordfight. (though it’s definitely smaller than that work).

Meanwhile the player’s role in the game is not exactly protagonist or co-author — you don’t have enough control to really be responsible for the authorship of the story, but you’re also not straightforwardly a single person in the narrative, either.

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Choice Poetics (Peter Mawhorter)

Peter Mawhorter is an academic who looks at how choices work in interactive narrative, elaborating a theory of choice poetics. His articles offer some taxonomies and vocabulary for talking about choice design — with partial, not complete, overlap with IF community terminology for these topics — and he has built a system that procedurally generates new choices from scratch.

In this post, I’m looking at three of his articles and offering some thoughts of my own, but all three are linked and accessible without a paywall, so if you find this interesting you can read the originals. This is part of a series in which I’m looking at academic approaches to interactive fiction and related topics.

Towards a Theory of Choice Poetics (Peter Mawhorter et al) sets the stage for later work and argues that there is a field here worth looking at. As the title would suggest (“Towards…”), he’s not advancing a completed theory himself here, but pointing out some of the factors that would go into such a theory. The article is thus mostly a set of annotated lists: of player motives in choosing options in a game; of play styles; of choice structure styles, as defined by the outcomes of the choice; and “dimensions of player experience”, which I found at once the most interesting and most slippery of his groupings.

He is careful always to point out that these category lists aren’t, and don’t expect to be, complete.

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Can AI tell a good story?


Tuesday I was invited to speak at the interactive narratives summit at the London Games Festival, specifically in a debate over whether AI can create a good story.

Perhaps the original scheme was to start a good showdown, but I have somewhat complicated views about what the question even means, and my would-be debater Brenden Gibbons did also, as it happens. So instead we had a more temperate but I think more interesting conversation, moderated by David Tomchak.

This is not a transcript of that conversation, because I can’t do that, but it’s an attempt to recapture some key points, drawing also on notes I made before the event, and expanding some of the ideas with links or examples I didn’t have available in the room.

First, AI can definitely already create stories, by pretty much any definition that a narratologist would establish. Indeed, we can set the bar higher than just “is there a sequence of causally-linked events,” though many scholars would accept that as enough. Some of GPT-2’s output is interesting, funny, and narrative. So are the outputs of other techniques stretching back to the 70s, from generative grammars to the model-and-curate approach used by James Ryan in his recent dissertation Curating Simulated Storyworlds. If AI were an orchard, we would have already plucked many and diverse story fruits there.

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