GDC: Me at Indie Soapbox, Ranting about Text

At GDC 2013 I was onstage three times — twice to speak about Versu, but once also at the Indie Soapbox, which is a session in which ten indie game developers get five minutes each to talk about whatever they want. The soapbox topics were extremely varied and covered everything from the pleasures of writing indie games while traveling the world to publicity challenges to how to make interactive music that changes as the gameplay changes.

I talked about interactive text. Actually, I kind of ranted about interactive text.

The gist of my rant was: text is not just cheap. It’s not just the medium you use when you have no resources and no high-end software. It’s a very powerful medium for communicating nuance, viewpoint, interiority, motivation, the experience of the outsider. It’s an artistic medium with its own beauties. And because language is all around us, embodying cultural norms and politics, word-mechanics can address big issues.

Sometimes in the game industry you encounter people who don’t respect text, or don’t respect the craft of writing, as though creating good text were less expressive than creating good art, or less challenging than creating good code. That’s their error.

Sometimes people assume text games must be ugly and have low production values. That isn’t true either. It is possible for text games to be visual feasts.

Here are some of the pieces I talked about or didn’t get time to talk about, and one or two more that I might have talked about if they’d been out at the time.

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18 Cadence

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18 Cadence is a new interactive text experience by Aaron Reed: he calls it a “story kit” rather than a story or storyworld or interactive fiction. This is fair enough. Scraps of text describe the rooms in the house at 18 Cadence during each year from 1901 to 2000, as well as the objects and the inhabitants. To manipulate the story, one moves back and forth through the years, or through the rooms by clicking on a floor plan. Different inhabitants have different understandings of what is going on. The story of the house includes both personal histories — deaths, betrayals, love affairs, weddings and births, addiction and depression — and hints of the history of the 20th century, social change and prejudice. During the house’s turbulent years in the 90s, inhabitants come and go quickly, and there are lots of roommates, so it is hard to care as much about any one of them as they flicker past: a hint of social disintegration. But there are also props that last through the years, features that persist and change.

If the piece were only that much, it would be interesting, an exploratory text heavily tied to the history of the house. But each scrap of text can be moved and manipulated by the player. Descriptions of objects can be juxtaposed, glued together into new sentences or simply left on top of one another. Characters, ages, room names and dates, actions and motivations can be laid out in new arrangements, and the arrangements shared with other readers. If you want to read things that others have written with/about 18 Cadence, you can browse through, looking at alternate arrangements.

Aaron draws an analogy with fridge magnet poetry, and there’s a bit of that feeling of play and sometimes randomness. But it’s also an experience that invites the interactor to discover her own themes in the work. Because the scraps can overlap, obscuring one another, it’s possible to replace intended meanings with others. Sometimes the effect is intentionally comical:

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Sometimes it’s not, as in this tale about the deaths of three sons of the household:

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And sometimes the juxtapositions call out themes or possibilities that are less explicit in the work. I encountered one disturbing cluster of text that seemed to hint at incest, though that story wasn’t obvious on the surface of the text. Working out what is supposed to have happened to all of the characters is one sort of semi-puzzle; working out new or different perspectives on their experiences is another.

As the screenshots should make obvious, this is a really lovingly textured piece of work. When you lay out scraps of words, they drift into attractive positions, perhaps skew a little bit as though you were arranging them on a table. Dragging together two scraps that refer to the same scene will glue those scraps into a continuous sentence, but the X-Acto knife tool will separate them again. It’s all a pleasingly tactile, precise and elegant interface, and reminded me of some of the attractive work inkle has done with text; also of Andrew Plotkin’s My Secret Hideout. I recommend giving 18 Cadence a look.

ETA: Additional comments from Aaron on his work.

IF Comp 2012: Valkyrie (Emily Forand)

Valkyrie is a CYOA in Twine. As usual, the jump will be followed by non-spoilery comments; then if I have anything spoilery to say, there will be spoiler space. I don’t know that this had beta-testers, but because the Twine format makes it more difficult to test for that, I’m being a little lenient with the choice-based pieces.

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Edge article on video game AI

This has been out in print form for a while, I believe, but the content is now available online: I was interviewed for an article on video game AI for Edge. The article draws extensively from the talk I did at the AI Summit at GDC 2012, with subsequent followup. I talk about social behavior AI and its potential in gaming, and there are also comments from Ben Sunshine-Hill (whose GDC talks always leave me in gobsmacked awe) and Mike Treanor (talking about Prom Week and Facade).

Storydeck: Steampunk and Ella

Storydeck is a system by Ian Millington and Emily Bembeneck, using the concept of Doodle God as a mechanism for storytelling. You play by accumulating story elements and combining them to unlock new storylet events, which in turn give you new elements to combine. In Doodle God those elements were things like “fire” and “water” combining to make a “steam” element; in Storydeck elements are instead characters, locations, artifacts, and so on. There are two Storydecks in current release, a Steampunk deck about a clockwork Victorian mystery and an Ella deck that appears to be a recasting of Cinderella. They’re prettily-made things, too, with evocative, mysterious illustrations for each of the story element cards.

This sounds great. I enjoyed Doodle God. I’ve enjoyed other games that were to some extent about combining narrative elements in inventive ways, often using some kind of card mechanism: Once Upon A Time, Gloom, Daniel Benmergui’s recent Storyteller game (not to be confused with his earlier game of the same name).

But the Storydeck games aren’t really clicking for me as interactive experiences, and the reason is — paradoxically — that they’re not generic enough.

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