Me Who Done the Walkin’

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I had some thoughts about themes of responsibility, cruelty and past trauma in several of the games I’ve played in this IF Competition. It’s impossible to get too far into that without discussing themes and endgames, so you should be warned of major spoilers for the following pieces:

The Mouse, Norbez

To the Wolves, E. K. White

Rite of Passage, Arno von Borries (be advised that some playthroughs include description of sexual assault)

Hill Ridge Lost and Found, Jeremy Pflasterer

Sigil Reader (Field), verityvirtue

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Halloween Selections

Wanting to play something Halloween-flavored this week? Can’t wait for the new Ectocomp games to turn up? Here are some suggestions:

Choice

Lethophobia (Olivia Wood and Jess Mersky) is a game of haunting and lost memories. This is one of the longer pieces in this set — it took me a couple of hours to play in full.

16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds (Abigail Corfman, current IF Comp) is an entertaining, silly vampire-fighting game from the current IF Comp. There are a bunch of different ways to solve the game’s key puzzle (as the title implies): expect to play several times trying out different approaches.

If you’re more in the mood for science fiction-flavored horror, Tentaculon (Ned Vole, current IF Comp) is in the mode of The Axolotl Project: Researchers Do Something Extremely Foolish. I ran into a few rough spots in the implementation, but I liked what you have to do in order to deal with your situation.

Evermore (Adam Whybray and Edgar Allen Poe, current IF Comp) is a choice-based IF based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe. I wouldn’t really call it an adaptation — more pastiche, or medley. But if you feel like your IF lately has been undersupplied with italics and adjectives and exclamation points, this might be just the ticket for you. Also if you’d like to spend more time wandering Mouldering Tombs.

(True story: in sixth grade my teacher put me in a reading group that for some reason spent three months supposedly working on a diorama representation of The Pit and the Pendulum. We never completed it because we never received the promised modeling clay to make the rats. In digital literature, though, you never run out of rat-matter.)

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Mailbag: Studying IF and Narrative

I sometimes print letters I’ve received and what I wrote in response. This is usually for one of two reasons: I’d like to pass on what the writer had to say, or the writer asked a question that requires a long detailed answer, and I think other people might benefit from seeing that as well.

I am experimenting with doing this in a more formal way, with a regular mailbag post. Reprinted letters may be edited for length; if so, I will note that editing has occurred. I do not do this without the permission of the letter-writer, so if you write to me and would be open to seeing your email appear as a blog post, feel free to mention that fact. On the other hand, I do not guarantee to print every letter that grants permission.

*

Hi! 

[Identifying information removed.] I’m in the formulation phases of an honors project, for which I am working to create and advocate for interactive fiction as a literary medium. In doing so I’ve been trying to explore interactive fiction and engage with creators, and I’ve repeatedly had people refer me to you! I’ve been spending time reading your blog and your IF work, and I was wondering if you would answering a few questions (or, at least, directing me to more reading material). 

• First, I am a bit curious about how you would define Interactive Fiction. When beginning reading about it, I began with my preformed definition of the medium that has since been a bit challenged. Initially, I had been using the term to describe any fiction that is interactive, i.e. video games and visual novels, as well as traditional text-centric fictions. Would you say that Interactive Fiction, at least in regards to how it is broadly discussed, is more of a straightforwardly defined medium consisting of text-based fictions, multilinear or otherwise? Where is the line between video game/visual novel/interactive fiction?  Nick Montfort, in Twisty Little Passages, suggests that a work isn’t truly interactive fiction if it does not utilize a parser and have an interactive world. What do you think about this? (I know that this is probably a question without a very quick/easy or objective answer, but I would still love to hear your thoughts).

I intentionally avoid trying to specify such definitions.

In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of community upheaval around what is or is not “real” interactive fiction, which somewhat mirrors the broader arguments about what is or is not a “real” game. These are not bloodless battles: they’re pitched fights about who gets access to resources, coverage, and respect. In that context, I’ve become much more cautious about trying to provide exact labeling instructions for IF.

I’d also say that it’s common to see choice-based and hypertext work included in lists of interactive fiction and submitted to IF comps these days, so it seems that at least a significant part of the community is inclined to include those.

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Mid-October Link Assortment

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Events

Today, October 15, there is a Los Angeles area IF Meetup adjacent to Indiecade.

Tomorrow, October 16 the Oxford/London IF Meetup is getting together to play a bunch of newly released IF Comp games. There will be readers; there will be snacks; there will be a lot of games.

October 19, Boston/Cambridge, there is a People’s Republic of IF meetup.

October 21 is PROCJAM Talks Day, a day of talks about procedural generation (of text and of other things). I will be speaking, as will many cool folks. The Talks Day takes place in Falmouth, but the sessions will be streamed, so you can catch them even if you’re not there in person.

October 22 is the deadline for the yearly Saugus.net Halloween story competition, which includes an interactive fiction section.

October 28, I’ll be speaking in Vienna at Subotron arcademy.

October 30 is the deadline to submit content to Ectocomp, the IF minicomp for Halloween themed games.

Voting for IF Comp continues through November 16. Voting is open to anyone not contributing to the comp as an author who is able to rate five or more games.

The weekend of November 19/20 is a double treat for IF and word game enthusiasts in London: the 19th is the one-day WordPlay event held at the British Library, and the 20th will see IF-related content featured at AdventureX.

New releases

All the IF Comp games, obviously! I’ve started writing about the comp at an overview level for Rock Paper Shotgun — and I’m not the only one writing up comp games there.

Reviews from other people are linked at ifwiki, and there’s ongoing conversation about the Comp at the euphoria &if channel, a The Short Game podcast, and some live playthroughs on Lynnea Glasser’s Twitch channel. Or if you really like keeping track of every possible detail, there’s even a huge spreadsheet that records which games have reviews from which reviewers.

Labour’s Letters Lost is the third in the Peterkin series of period detective stories by Christopher Huang.

Ladykiller in a Bind is Christine Love’s latest, a game around relationships, sex, and kink. Katherine Cross writes about its handling of that material.

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Zubmariner DLC for Sunless Sea

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The Zubmariner expansion for Sunless Sea is out… now. I was the writer for three of the ports — Aigul, Anthe, and Dahut. (As always with Failbetter projects, the writer is not alone: a number of other people contributed significantly, from concept to mechanical QA to prose editing, and of course I’m not behind the art, either. That’s why I say “was the writer” rather than “wrote,” which might make it sound like I did all the work.)

I’ve talked before about writing for Fallen London and its extended universe (which includes Sunless Sea), about how receptive I find that environment for endangering the player character as well as writing about fear, pain, and grief. The fantasy and humor of the setting make it possible to tell stories that might otherwise demand too much from the reader. And through all that, the Failbetter team are superlatively on top of giving quality feedback and direction.

Sunless Sea is a darker, scarier place than Fallen London, and Zubmariner is more monstrous still. Zub didn’t just permit me to go dark; it demanded that I do so — and then also write funnier or more beautiful in order to keep the experience in balance. Dahut contains some of my favorite imagery of anything I’ve written. Anthe provoked a lot of appalled laughter from my editors. Aigul… well, I’ll let you see when you get there.

I’m proud of what’s in this one. I hope you enjoy it.

References from a talk on AI and procedural narrative

Last night I spoke to the Oxford AI Meetup about a variety of work going around artificial intelligence and (especially) game narrative. We talked about simulation-based and narrative-model based approaches to plot generation, agent-driven stories, dialogue selection and generation, and natural language understanding, with an emphasis on relatively recent or ongoing research projects and released games. (So I didn’t do a deep dive into the history of narrative generators.)

At the end of the talk, several people asked for links to the things I’d mentioned, so here they are:

Games and projects:

Dwarf Fortress and other dwarflikes
Talk of the Town (James Ryan et al) (or if the paper is a bit dense, you might also like Games by Angelina’s writeup of the core concepts)
IDtension / Nothing for Dinner (Nicolas Szilas et al); I discussed it a bit
Scheherazade project (Mark Riedl et al, Entertainment Intelligence Lab, Georgia Tech) using crowd-sourced event descriptions to generate a graph of possible story developments
Restaurant Game (Jeff Orkin et al)
Dear Leader’s Happy Story Time (Ian Horswill, relatively new/early but I thought an interesting contrast)
Ice-Bound Concordance (Aaron Reed and Jacob Garbe)
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Firewatch (see also my review)

My own work:

Galatea (and this article on translating Galatea to Versu)
Versu and Blood & Laurels
Annals of the Parrigues (and other discussion about procedural text generation)

Other talks, tools, and resources that were mentioned in the talk or in subsequent Q/A time:

Elan Ruskin’s GDC talk on salience mechanism
Kate Compton’s easy CFG tool Tracery
My Beyond branching narratives post
80 Days (came up in discussion about player agency and visible mechanics)