Workshop experience: Day 1

One of my tasks at the 13ª Jornada Nacional de Literatura was to give a workshop (three hours a day, four days) on interactive fiction, touching on history, how to play, some background on why the form is interesting in general, and then how to create one’s own.

I was blessed with not one but several excellent translators, and also some technical help. We were working in a standard computer classroom, which is to say that there was a place to plug the demo computer into a projector, and then networked individual workstations for all the participants.

Day 1: Introduction to playing IF.

One obvious place to start a workshop like this would be with a history of IF, but I didn’t want to do that: we’d get to it on day two, but I wanted to start off by giving students an idea of how to play in general before returning to the question of how it got there.

I started off by asking about student knowledge and expectations — something I like to do in pretty much all my classes unless I already know the participants. It turned out that I had around 20 participants in a fairly diverse mix: some were interested in the literary side; some saw IF as an interesting thing to do with students (language students primarily); and a couple were really into gaming. There was no one who seemed to be coming to it from a hardcore CS/artificial intelligence perspective, so I decided to skip some of the things I’d initially thought of including, talking about (for instance) the nuts and bolts of complex NPC coding. Some spoke English well; others only a little or almost not at all.

After establishing that, I talked with them some about what IF is. It’s a somewhat peculiar experience teaching through translators, because you have to use short sentences and pause frequently — my usual style is a bit more verbose — and it’s not always clear when students look suddenly interested or confused what it is that they’re reacting to. Still, we got the basic idea.

Then I put up Aisle on the demonstration computer. One of my translators gave a spirited Portuguese rendition of the opening, and I invited the students to suggest things to do. A few of their suggestions were not workable (one suggested that we make the woman NPC do things, and I had to explain that we controlled only the protagonist), but for the most part Aisle handled very gracefully the things they thought of to throw at it, especially given that in this format I was able to filter the commands into IFese. The translator would then read the game’s response. We got several entertaining outcomes, and I think they were pleased to see the diversity of results.

The next step was to get them playing some IF on their own. We’d preinstalled Gargoyle and Bronze on the room’s public server, so it wasn’t hard to walk them through installing these on their own computers. I also gave them the Portuguese verb list and put up a map of Bronze’s first floor on the projection screen, as a help. We had the translators roving around to assist with reading, and several people also experimented with Babelfishing the output text.

The results here were more varied, I’d say. Some people took to Bronze fairly easily; others struggled quite a lot. I’d explained briefly about compass directions, but I probably should have talked about this more, or perhaps demonstrated the first few moves to them before setting them free on their own. Some participants were also confused by Bronze’s style of tutorial clueing, as in

…examine yourself or the helmet

where it gives one line to each possible verb, and they literally typed in

>EXAMINE YOURSELF OR THE HELMET

with predictably poor results.

Another expressed frustration that Bronze has copious help text that is only really useful if you can understand what it says!

No one got anywhere near the end of the game doing this, but many of them mapped out a good bit of the territory, and I overheard one telling another that he suspected you should pick up anything portable in these games: clearly rederiving the laws of IF from first principles.

In retrospect, for this particular group it was a mistake to let them try individually: it would have been better to pair up players, perhaps deliberately mixing so that each pair contained at least one person with fair English skills.

I also thought about whether Bronze had been the right choice for this group, and there I was a bit more stuck. The context of a fairy tale they already knew does seem to have been a help; on the other hand, while Bronze is written for novice players, it assumes fluent English. In particular, I think, things that might be fairly clankingly obvious clues to a native reader may not be for someone struggling to understand the text.

Still, I’m not really sure what I might have substituted. I really wanted a game that did provide a lot of help about what commands to use, and also one for which I could show them a map. Dreamhold provides the help, but in a different format, and its surrealism might have been an additional barrier for a group already struggling to comprehend what was happening. There are some games aimed at children — Mrs Pepper’s Nasty Secret, for instance — but I don’t recall that giving quite as much command guidance.

Aisle, on the other hand, was definitely the right choice for the group game, because it is so open-ended, and responded well to people who wanted to go for transgressive actions (like attacking people in the shop) as well as those who wanted to play along.

More on the rest of the workshop to come.

One thought on “Workshop experience: Day 1

  1. Glad to here they enjoyed Aisle — and in Portuguese no less! Hopefully this will have engendered in them a lifelong love of interactive fiction, Italian cuisine and supermarkets.

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