Call for Papers: ICIDS 2014

From the call for papers from ICIDS 2014, held in Singapore in November this year:

The International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling (ICIDS) is the premier venue for researchers, practitioners and theorists to present recent results, share novel techniques and insights, and exchange ideas about this new storytelling medium…

The ICIDS conference series has a long-standing tradition of bringing together theoretical and practical approaches in an interdisciplinary dialogue. We encourage contributions from a range of fields related to interactive storytelling, including computer science, human-computer interaction, game design, media production, semiotics, game studies, narratology, media studies, digital humanities and interactive arts criticism.

ICIDS would welcome papers on many topics of interest to readers of this blog, including digital storytelling authoring tools, interactive narratives in digital games, interactive narratives used in education, close critical studies of interactive stories, and post-mortems of completed projects.

The submission deadline is June 16.

I will be participating in this conference as a keynote speaker.

ShuffleComp: Truth, Sparkle, Invisible Parties

A few more items from ShuffleComp:

Truth is a goofy, very mildly satirical puzzle game, with one (fairly easy) main puzzle and some additional challenges that you can collect to increase your score.

It belongs to a category I think of as “stick figure IF”: the implementation is clean and I noticed no obvious bugs, but there are very few objects per room and very little you can do with each object. This kind of thing feels less immersive and takes less work to put together than IF with deeper environments, but it can still communicate effectively in an iconic way, and I wouldn’t say it’s badly crafted — it’s just aiming at something different from other, more lushly implemented works.

Truth also sticks closer than most of these games to the lyrics and concept of the original song.

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Sparkle has an odd little item-transformation mechanic. I am somewhat partial to item-transformation mechanics, I confess. In Sparkle, the deal is that, with meditation and deep study, each thing can be turned into one other, utterly unrelated thing. Learning which transformations are possible constitutes a strong hint about what you’ll need to do to solve the various puzzles.

There were a handful of these puzzles, especially one about the deployment of the dog, that I found difficult to guess and a bit dark (is there any way to rescue the pet after he’s been used that way? I couldn’t see one). But for the most part they seemed fair, and the game went out of its way to give achievements for some of the more interesting deployments.

I’ve seen other reviews suggesting that some players felt the ending was annoying. I quite liked it: it acknowledged how goofy all the object transformations had been, and suggested a transcendent explanation for the whole thing.

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Invisible Parties is about a being who walks between worlds, who has been brought to a “tangle”, a place where parts of many worlds are accessible at once, from the hot brilliance of Africa to the rich green of an idealized English summer to the banality of a hotel meeting space. These are more than locations. They are also moods, cultures, world-views, ways of thinking, each familiar and distinct, each subject to its own form of apocalyptic destruction. But the tangle is also a sort of trap, and the player must destabilize it enough to get away, and, ideally, rescue their lover Jave. The game never stops to explain to the player in so many words how the world works, so you have to learn as you go along. The effect reminded me of some of Diana Wynne Jones’s stuff, in a good way.

Both the protagonist and Jave have an assortment of gifts, abilities that can be used in surprising circumstances, and it’s possible to trigger Jave’s gifts as well as one’s own. Jave’s gifts are very different from the protagonist’s, and this is an excellent mechanic for a) making the protagonist appreciate Jave (she’s extremely useful) and b) rapidly sketching her character, even in a context where it’s impossible to hold a conversation with her.

In its current form, Invisible Parties is kind of broken. There are NPCs you can talk to who won’t necessarily respond at all, there are under-clued bits, there are things that look like they’re going to be puzzles but then seem like there wasn’t time to finish implementing them. There are gifts that don’t ever get deployed. The first time I played, I got totally stuck, and it took another run through from the beginning, mapping on paper, for me to complete the game. (I almost never have to map on paper! But in IP the layout of rooms is subtly changing, and it’s hard to track even if you have a decent mind for IF layouts.) Anyway, it’s not currently putting its best foot forward.

Even despite those issues, though, Invisible Parties is my favorite ShuffleComp game so far, because it also has so very much going for it. It’s well-written, vivid, quite pleasing when the puzzle solutions do work, and primarily about people and mindsets rather than things and physical mechanics. There is a masterful ending where it’s possible to save yourself by leaving Jave behind. The text for this acknowledges that the protagonist will move forward, is too mature and sensible for Romeo-and-Juliet posings, but nonetheless recognizes the painful impact of the loss. The happier ending, where the player and Jave manage to leave together, is also rather satisfyingly constructed.

I really hope that the author will give this another pass, because I think with polish it could be a strong XYZZY contender come next awards cycle.

Shufflecomp: More, Cryptophasia

More is a Shufflecomp game, based on a whole big batch of different songs. Structurally it reminded me quite a bit of Tea and Toast: both pieces give the player a task to perform in the foreground while simultaneously providing a slow drip of memories about a lover. It’s a way to get memory and emotion and interpersonal relationships into a parser game where all the main verbs are about picking up and moving objects. Not a trick that would work across the duration of a long game, but for both of these it works fine, I think.

There are differences. More is more overtly puzzly than Tea and Toast; there’s actually something to solve, not just something to do (though I didn’t find it especially difficult). The content is more implausible, and more melancholy. The lovers in Tea and Toast are lesbians who met on a bus and have a backstory that could easily belong to someone I know; the lovers in More are Bonnie-and-Clyde-style robbers who have finally been brought down by the need to keep acquiring, long after they had plenty.

I particularly liked this paragraph:

You try to remember when you and Tommy first met. You can’t. Isn’t that weird. That’s the sort of thing everyone remembers. It’s just like how you don’t remember when you first read a book or watched a movie. Everything fades into the past. His love haunts your entire life; the rest is gone.

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Cryptophasia is about a baker in a voiceless future space-faring society which dedicates a lot of its time to ASMR (short for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos — a whole genre of videos in which people tap things, rustle things, and whisper or speak softly to the viewer in order to trigger a physiological response. Even for people who don’t get the tingling head ASMR response (not everyone does), they’re often very relaxing — which is why it’s possible for a 20-minute video of someone folding towels or tapping fake nails on a wooden box to have hundreds of thousands of views. A few ASMR videos have a plot, but that’s not really the point.

In the context of the story, the ASMR videos become doses of intimacy secretly delivered in a society that discourages such connections — which may not be so far off from their appeal in the current world, come to that.

I enjoyed the strangeness of this piece. It probably needs to be played a couple of times; at least, I found that it made most sense when I’d seen more than one of the endings.

Shufflecomp: Mirrorwife

Shufflecomp is responsible for introducing me to Nightwish, specifically “Over the Hills and Far Away”, which is the inspiration for a piece called Mirrorwife.

I can totally see why someone might have picked this song. It’s got a simple, tropey premise that turns up everywhere from medieval ballads to current-run lawyer shows: dude is falsely accused of a crime, but he chooses to pay the penalty rather than present his alibi, which is that he was sexing up his best friend’s wife at the time the crime occurred. It takes an instant to understand and there are a gazillion ways you could hook off of it. No subtleties about the music either: big singing! Big guitars! It’s all about the emotion and the color. Even if you’re not particularly a fan of its genre, you can at least get it.

Which is why Mirrorwife is such a surprising evolution of the song. It takes the simple barebones premise and turns it into something strange and fantastical, which takes most of the game even to understand. (Sure, it’s a short game. But still.) It takes a song about separation and makes a game about homecoming, of sorts. And it does this in a way that is intentionally spare and dry. Though it’s in Twine, and though the story concerns people, most of Mirrorwife is told through settings and object descriptions, terse and evocative and cold.

I liked the story. It’s still about infidelity, and bad marriages, and being silent, and being punished for something that wasn’t your fault, but it’s about those things differently. In the original song, the protagonist could save himself with a word, but chooses not to speak it; in Mirrorwife, speech is impossible and would not in any case be believed. It is a story about living on the margins, without power, without autonomy.

Shufflecomp: An Earth Turning Slowly

An Earth Turning Slowly is a submission in Shufflecomp. Shufflecomp is a comp with an impressive 33 entries (and one more written for the comp but technically outside the rules), in which IF authors created games based on music suggested by other entrants. It’s like a giant mix-tape IF compilation, and the games include Inform and TADS parser games as well as choice-based Undum, inklewriter, and Twine pieces. (The excluded game is a Seltani age, excluded because it breaks the comp’s rules about archivability.)

An Earth Turning Slowly is… an Undum parser game? A choice-based game with partially hidden choices that you access by typing? The parallel-universe anti-twin of Jon Ingold’s The Colder Light?

Typing the beginning of a command brings up completion suggestions

Typing the beginning of a command brings up completion suggestions

Here’s how it works: you type the beginning of a command. AETS supplies a menu of possible completions for the command that are currently valid. If you type something that’s not on that menu, you can’t submit it, so there’s no need for actual parser error messages: you never get as far as submitting a malformed command.

I’m fairly sure this isn’t doing most of the work your classic parser has to do, as far as breaking up sentences and looking for objects in scope and matching against them; I don’t get the impression that there’s that much of a world model under the surface. The menu is making up for that work, because it pattern-matches the beginning of a valid command and then helps you complete that command in the one way that the game is actually designed to understand.

So for the author, there’s less error-message-writing and bad-entry-handling to do; for the player, there’s less opportunity to get caught in guess the verb/noun situations. The effect of the system isn’t just to eliminate problems, though: the menu also comes with a sentence or two describing why your protagonist might be considering that particular action, which gives it some extra context.

This is all quite nifty. I really liked having Undum’s attractive presentation associated with a parser game. It feels so elegant. I think there’s possibly a bit more infrastructure around the command line than is strictly ideal — a lot of the page is taken up telling you what you’re trying to do and what you could possibly type — but I think this could be tweaked. (And I don’t dislike it as it stands; I’m just tempted to streamline a little.) Those who are at all interested in the ongoing discussions and debates about parser/choice game UI really really should give it a look, and I hope that the author will choose to share the code or make a tool available after the competition.

All that and I’ve said nothing about the story! It’s a short SF story; short enough that I don’t want to say very much and spoil it. I did feel a bit frustrated halfway through that one of the viewpoint characters seemed not to realize an obvious action when I had already figured it out, but that can be a tricky point to get right. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the read. I might have enjoyed it even more if I hadn’t been distracted by trying to analyze how I felt about this fancy new UI. (Note: it is not the author’s fault that they have created multiple intriguing elements in the same game.)