Fiction Crowd

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Fiction Crowd is a new website that describes itself as an “alternative, interactive literary zine”. It’s probably a misnomer to describe it as a zine for interactive fiction, though: the interactivity is mostly with the zine rather than with the fiction itself.

What I mean: the first story up in the table of contents is “The Bad Hotel”, which consists of a sort of “about this hotel” page and then three write-ups of different rooms in said hotel, all posing as hotel website copy. There’s a very zoomed-in Google map of the hotel’s location, which you can zoom out enough eventually to discover that it’s meant to be on a dead-end road on the India-Pakistan border. You can also participate in a customer-satisfaction poll rating your stay experience from “Fatal” to “Euphoric”, and leave your own guest book comment. Some of the guest book bits left by other users are cool:

I didn’t think I would have to pay extra for the faceless man that is always in the periphery of my vision.

…but some of them don’t hit the mark so well, which I suppose is to be expected when you invite a bunch of people to come along and riff on your premise.

“The Infinity Corporation” is a story that consists of three nominally unrelated documents from different viewpoints; it’s basically a straight epistolary short story. “Collective Dream Journal” is a page on which several different authors have contributed dream narratives. “Doomsdates” is a collection of flash fiction about really unpleasant dates. “The Parallels” does have a point-and-click interface for exploring part of the story; but this felt a bit clumsy to me, a rather rough picture linking objects to descriptions on another page. Many of the stories are illustrated or supported by mocked-up images of Twitter exchanges and text screens from phones — again, something of an epistolary instinct.

Then: the “literary” bit. The writing in these stories often feels self-conscious and effortful to me:

An increasingly lucid gaze over moonlit wavelets provides a spacious interlude of counterpoised anxiety and calm. (“Collective Dream Journal”)

Or they tell jokes that are mis-paced and land wrong:

It seems that while he was President, Lincoln would frequently engage in inappropriate, some might even say randy chit-chats via telegraph with women of ill repute. Several of the women were so scandalous they were over the age of 13 and not yet married or widowed. (“Urban Legends”)

Or stretch too hard for their whimsy:

This week, a Roman Centurion and a Zeta Reticulan from the 23rd century are among the guests discussing Russell Brand and the apathetic masses that lap up his cheeky Dickensian fop banter. (“Tune In Next Week”)

These are by various authors, and some have a tighter style than others, but overall the type of prose featured here suggests an editorial taste that I don’t quite share.

This overview feels like it’s come out largely negative, but there are some things about this website that do attract me. The cues for future writing feel a bit like a rolling version of the IF community’s themed minicomps (ShuffleComp, ECTOCOMP, the Apollo 18 Comp, the cover art comp, etc). The design itself is rather slick. Some of the work is that style of speculative fiction that uses a few brief references to suggest an alternate universe very different from our own. It’s Patreon funded, which I think is not always a great model for every type of endeavor (specifically, I worry that it encourages some creators to do shorter, less ambitious works than they really want to because Patreon rewards creators with a steady stream of frequent output), but Patreon makes a certain amount of sense for a regularly-released zine.

Appointment with FEAR (Tin Man Games)

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 8.16.05 AMAppointment with FEAR is an adaptation of a Steve Jackson gamebook, available in various mobile formats and also on Steam for desktop machines. It’s been polished up into a graphical-novel style interface — a juicy one that slides panels into place and makes stats expand bouncily when you click on them – but it retains a slightly disorienting early-80s mentality: there are jokes about “Michael Jixon”‘s new release “Chiller”, and “Vulture Club”‘s lead singer “Georgie Boy”. This kind of thinly-veiled reference is symptomatic of its sense of humor.

Content-wise, it’s straight parody superhero fiction. You have an alter ego who has a newspaper job (which you rarely have time to attend), and when you’re “in disguise”, your avatar wears a pair of Clark Kent-style glasses. There are various villains with various unlikely costumes. For yourself, you get to pick from a roster of jokey auto-generated names. I played first as “Sparse Manifestation”, a mind-reading black female superhero with amazing breasts but no other body fat, and then as “Apathetic Chicken Leg”, a flying white female superhero with amazing breasts but no other body fat. Once I had a fleeting chance to name myself “Absolute Chaos”, but I misclicked the show-more-options button before I could select it; that was pretty much the least bizarre title I was ever offered.

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Goofiness aside, I’m struck by the colorful energy of the interface here; it really feels as though it has projected you into a superhero universe with BAF and BOW animations. The mechanics are on the simple side, but have been carefully blended into the story. There are combat sequences, in which you can pick from a range of easy-but-weak or risky-but-powerful attacks, and these get some context-appropriate narration. There is a detection component to the game, in which you gather clues from various events and use them to solve additional problems you run into: when there’s something you might be able to resolve with clues, you go to your clue notebook and pick the clue you think applies, in good Phoenix Wright style. There are some simple stats: luck, stamina (hit points by another name), and Hero Points, which track successes along the way.

I never played the original gamebooks, so possibly I’m about to take issue with something that is fundamental to the whole historic experience. But despite the surface polish and the similarity to a number of games that I do enjoy quite a lot, I found myself pretty frustrated by this as both a game and a piece of narrative design.

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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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IF Comp 2014 Results, and upcoming post-mortem discussion

ifcompIF Comp 2014 is over! Congratulations to Sean M. Shore for the winning entry Hunger Daemon, a thoroughly enjoyable piece of work. Full comp results, including the stats breakdown on all the votes, can be found at the IF Comp website. There are also some interesting author post-mortems on various games turning up on the intfiction forum; currently these include background for Hunger Daemon, Krypteia, Raik, Missive, Eidolon,
Transparent, Alethicorp,
The Entropy Cage, Following Me, Fifteen Minutes, Tea Ceremony, Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes and Ugly Oafs. (And my Roundup post is no longer stickied, but if you want it, it’s here.)

For those who’d like to discuss any aspect of the Comp live, we’re having a session of IF Discussion Club on that very topic! It’s 8 PM British time, 3 PM Eastern, noon Pacific, on November 22 on ifMUD (and there’s also an IRC channel set up to access the discussion for those who have trouble with ifMUD for whatever reason). I don’t have a strong planned agenda for this discussion; I feel like I’ve said a lot about this comp already and I’d rather hear about what others think.

But maybe you have something you’d like to see discussed: things that you particularly liked, trends you found exciting, experiments you hope will see some followup, or something else entirely? If there’s something you’d like to get people thinking about prior to the discussion itself, please feel free to post questions/thoughts here, and we’ll take that as a bit of a springboard.

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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