daddylabyrinth (Steven Wingate)

daddylabyrinth is an interactive memoir that showed in the Singapore ArtScience Museum exhibit of interactive stories (alongside Troy Chin’s Forgetting and Nick Montfort’s From the Tables of My Memorie). It explores the author’s relationship to his long-dead father, and it’s constructed of short writing passages, photographs, scanned documents, and speak-to-camera video bits. It’s a big piece of work, much bigger than you can explore fully in a setting like a museum exhibit, but because it is made up of many small accessible anecdotes, I nonetheless felt like it worked pretty well in that space.

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Like several of the interactive documentaries profiled at ICIDS, daddylabyrinth offers multiple curated paths through its assorted reflections. But it also tempts the reader with many diversions, many opportunities to go off and look at a document or a fuller explanation of a particular experience. Individual documents stand at the crossroads of different interpretive paths: dad’s army records can be part of an initial character sketch of Wingate’s father, or an element in a more thorough history of his army career, or part of a story about Wingate’s mother’s campaign to get those records altered. Many times a fresh path opens out of the middle of another, with the tempting “begin this path…” button offering a way in. Sometimes following links takes you through an unexpected loop, and over time certain pages repeat. Likewise, when you reach the end of a path, clicking the “end of path – continue” link lands you somewhere entirely unexpected and new (but thematically linked).

You may think you’re going to be able to go back to the path you first selected, but for me that didn’t happen: my curiosity always, always won out over my self-discipline and sense of order.

The effect is of course intentionally disorienting. The more information you amass about Wingate and his father, the less you have a sense of stability and direction. If you’re the kind of person who gets a little anxious about the prospect of being lost in an interactive story — if you dislike not knowing where the end is and how to get there and how far you’ve come already — then this is likely to awaken those discomforts.

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Procedural Text Generation in IF

In the Missing Tools discussion some time ago, one of the things people mentioned wanting more of in IF was procedural text generation, which here is meant specifically as the ability to have the computer describe complex world model states or story events without having to hand-author every possible variation.

This is an area where there’s a lot to learn from work going on in academic research, but as far as I’m aware there’s relatively little communication. As I mentioned in my ICIDS writeup, James Ryan at UCSC and Dr. Boyang Li at Georgia Tech’s Entertainment Intelligence Lab are doing work on a) how to better represent a richly complicated world model and b) how to procedurally alter narrative features such as the tone of narration. One of the things we particularly don’t seem to do in hobbyist IF, perhaps for lack of resources, is experiment with large word databases such as WordNet or crowd-sourced work in particular areas like that used on Scheherazade.

Speaking for myself, I’ve also tended to stumble towards solutions in this space based on trial and error and the needs of my own projects, rather than having a strong grounding in the relevant academic work. Most of what we’ve needed — and most of what we’ve done — is pretty much work in the shallowest end of this pool.

And, of course, text generation for parser IF comes with special additional challenges, in that the player usually expects to be able to refer to any generated noun or noun phrase element; therefore if we generate a description of a thing as “blue”, the system also needs to remember how we described that object and accept the input “blue” to refer to it.

Here are the things I’m currently aware of. Unfortunately, I’m inevitably more aware of the internals of my own libraries and games than I am of other people’s work, so if I left out something cool that you did, please by all means say something in the comments: I am eager to know about it. In particular, there may be a lot I don’t know about under the hood in Kerkerkruip.

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ICIDS: The future of interactive storytelling, plus some Versu thoughts

Hartmut Koenitz submitted a talk for ICIDS that was essentially a manifesto about what needs to happen next in interactive digital narrative, and accompanied this with a workshop on the future of interactive storytelling. The points of the manifesto are as follow:

  • We need a new theory of narrative for interactive digital narrative in order to get rid of accumulated preconceptions.
  • Interoperability is key: tools need to be developed in such a way that they can be hooked together and progress on one hand can be used by others.
  • Sustainability is essential. Lack of archiving has already destroyed a lot of valuable research work.
  • Interactive digital narrative needs to be author-focused. There is a challenge in training new authors in procedurality in order to get useful feedback from them.
  • User experience is crucial. We need to focus on how people actually experience and enjoy this work.

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ICIDS: Interactive Documentary

I mentioned in my general ICIDS post that William Uricchio spoke about interactive documentaries: interactive story forms designed to convey information, sometimes by journalists to support news articles, sometimes as stand-alone long-form projects. He showed us his team’s project _docubase, a collection of (currently) 172 documentaries: these aren’t hosted at _docubase, but have catalog entries there, allowing the curious to link through and see the originals.

There was quite a lot in his keynote, and what follows isn’t so much a summary of that as a reflection on some of the specific tools and examples that he shared.

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ICIDS, Some Thoughts

ICIDS is an academic conference in interactive storytelling. This year it was held in Singapore, and I was invited as a speaker, which was awesome. I spoke about Versu and Blood & Laurels. Graham Nelson accompanied me, and though he was sightseeing for some portion of the trip, he did come along to one of the workshops, which tackled story modeling and authorship; and we co-guest-taught Alex Mitchell’s class in interactive storytelling at the National University of Singapore.

I found the whole experience pretty fascinating. ICIDS is devoted to a lot of the same things that we discuss in the IF community: how to make interactive stories, how to build tools for authors, how to make use of procedural techniques to do things that stories haven’t mostly tried before, how to gauge player/reader responses to interactive story experiences and learn to make better ones.

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Forgetting (Troy Chin)

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Forgetting is an interactive graphical story by Singaporean artist and author Troy Chin, and was exhibited at the Singapore ArtScience Museum as part of a show that ran concurrently with ICIDS this year (more about ICIDS in a future blog post or two).

The ArtScience Museum. Cool, no?
The ArtScience Museum. Cool, no?

Forgetting concerns a man who keeps experiencing amnesiac episodes, as well as memories of a relationship with a woman named Julia. It starts out with the hoary “amnesia in a non-descript location” trope, but it soon moves beyond that as the protagonist returns to full memory and starts trying to piece together what’s really going on. The Singapore setting isn’t the main point of the story, but it’s manifest in a number of subtle ways, from the details of the protagonist’s job to his comments on the changing nightlife.

As Chin explained during an introduction to his work, Forgetting is meant to feel linear. Clicking on different panels in a strip, or on different objects in some of the more location-based scenes, can lead to different outcomes, but the system does nothing to indicate that you’ve made a choice, or to tell you where or what the other options are. It’s only at the end, when you are told which ending you reached, that there’s any kind of tracking acknowledgement. Reaching new endings unlocks additional clips of information; conceivably, there may be some grand reward for reaching all of them, as in many visual novels.

I haven’t managed to get that far yet, though, because despite trying to play as thoroughly as I could and going through the story seven or eight times, I’ve only found three conclusions and I haven’t been able to work out what else I could be exploring; and there’s no way of bookmarking or going backward in the story or (a la visual novels) fast-forwarding through already-seen bits, so a complete run-through takes a little while. Ultimately, that’s left me a little dissatisfied: I would like to have gotten far enough to piece together the mystery, whereas all I’ve got at the moment is some hints. I think that might be the experience the author intends — he’s gone to some lengths to conceal the mechanical underpinnings of this work — but it leaves me itching for more information.

Still, this is worth a look. There are moments of exploration, where you’re examining objects in a space and then getting multiple comic panels of exposition about those objects, that felt somewhere on the spectrum between graphical adventure and parser IF. I’d also be curious to know if anyone else gets further than I did. (My endings were Bliss, Instinct, and Cleansed, fwiw.)