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.)

CYOA Structures transcript up

The transcript is now available from yesterday’s theoryclub chat on structures in choice-based stories.

Our next meeting is scheduled for June 14, on the topic of interactive nonfiction. That can include everything from educational simulations to persuasive pieces to personal memoir. As before, there are some suggested reading pieces for those who are interested in preparing a bit for the discussion.

Some upcoming IF-related events

Tomorrow, May 10, there’s a #theoryclub meetup about CYOA structures on ifMUD. Details and some reading suggestions here. I am not going to be able to be there myself this time, but there’s an appointed deputy MC/transcript-taker, and I’ll post the results when I get them back.

May 17th in London, GameCamp is a one-day game jam and unconference. Again, I am not going to be able to be there myself, but I know several interactive narrative-interested folks are planning to attend, and it has the reputation of being a cool thing. Some tickets are still available.

May 25th is the next meetup of the Oxford/London meetup group, in Oxford this month.

Inform 6L02

Panel15A good deal of my IF-related time in the last couple of months has gone into Inform, and I’m pleased to say that the new build is available today for Windows and Mac (and other apps to follow shortly). There’s an introductory blog post here that gives an overview of what the new build does; there’s also a change log, which is absolutely mammoth, here.

There are loads of new things going on, but I’m particularly excited by Inform’s new adaptive text, which I see as a partial step towards making the system more capable of doing interesting things with procedurally generated text output. The adaptive text allows Inform to inflect verbs according to the current tense and viewpoint of the story, automatically turning “[We] [walk]” into “You walk” or “He walked” or “We will walk” according to the current settings.

But it goes considerably beyond this. The new example “Narrative Register” shows how to associate verbs with different actions, then have the narrator automatically describe what has just happened with a verb that is appropriate to a current “diction” setting. The “Relevant Relations” example associates verbs with relations as well, and shows a way of doing room descriptions in which the author tells Inform which relations ought to be described to the player, leaving the system to assign appropriate verbs and construct sentences around them.

These are all fairly early-days things; there’s a lot that would still need to be done in order to get from here to the kind of text generation I would one day like to see, including (especially) some code designed to do a good job of sorting and concatenating related sentences before printing them.

But Inform can now track the meaning of its output more deeply than it did before, and perform more grammatical functions automatically, and that’s a helpful step.