Emergent Puzzle Solutions

A recent RAIF thread brought up the Magnetic Scrolls games, and the fact that they used a simulationist system that could produce puzzle solutions that the game authors hadn’t thought of:

“Talk of current IF development drifted on to whether it’s possible to create a game in which the player is not really constrained by the author’s intentions. Michael noted that Magnetic Scrolls games were kind of like this-for example, if an object had the “sharp shards” bit set, dropping or throwing the object would cause it to shatter into many sharp shards. In total, 128 bits were used to describe a more or less working universe that the player could interact with in ways that hadn’t been anticipated. As an example, Michael described an unintentional situation in which one could put a rat in some liquid nitrogen, snap off its tail and, for a few turns, use the tail to puncture feed sacks and obtain food.”

This raised a fair amount of interest (most of the “ZOMG that would be GREAT!!” kind). This yearning to do something the author didn’t think of is something I hear a fair amount of: Mark Bernstein has complained that, because IF games anticipate solutions, the IF player is always robbed of the pleasure of having invented a novel solution because he always knows the author was there first. Emergent-solution design might address that complaint. It might also address the frustration players often feel when a logical-seeming approach is either forbidden or not recognized by the game at all.

So I found myself thinking, again, about why more IF games don’t work this way.

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A Plea to IF Authors (which I’ve probably made before)

It’s easier for interested third parties to promote your stuff outside the community (e.g., on indie game blogs) if your game has some cover art that can accompany the review/article. Screenshots of pure text are usable, but not as much fun, and it takes a little more time to set them up and crop them to be the right shape.

The cover art doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to have a picture. The title of the game in an appropriate font, with appropriate colors, still catches more attention than a) no picture or b) a screenshot of text.

Art in Competition

One of the questions I semi-routinely get asked on interviews about interactive fiction is whether I think the annual IF Comp is a good thing for the community. I find the question hard to answer: the competition is so essential to the community identity that I have a hard time imagining it away, and besides, my opinion wouldn’t change anything; it’s like someone asking whether the human body would be more aesthetically appealing if it didn’t have a spine.

Nonetheless, I’m constantly conscious of the con arguments brought up a few times a year: that the competition siphons off attention from other games released at other times; that it produces a trend towards small games rather than epic works; that there is something wrong or unfair about the voting scheme (opinions vary on what that might be); and — my least favorite — that “real” artforms, like novels and paintings, are not produced primarily for competition, and that therefore competition is an unhealthy or unnatural context for artistic production, and we’d be better off without it. (Here we touch another of my pet peeves: people who make sweeping statements about “real” art are usually talking about [what they know about] commercialized artistic production in the early 21st century. I run into something similar with freshman mythology students: they’re often convinced that “originality” is the defining feature of good art, and so object to the fact that ancient authors reused mythological material. Their conceptions about literature have been shaped by market forces and copyright law in ways they don’t recognize. They also, if pressed, don’t have a very clear idea of what originality means, other than perhaps refraining from reusing the same plot and cast of characters from another work.)

Lately I’ve been reading two books that have helped clarify my visceral sense about this problem into something I can articulate.

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