News about Versu and Blood & Laurels

Emily Short:

An announcement from the relaunched versu.com site:

Originally posted on Versu:

Until February of this year, the Versu project had its home at Linden Lab, exploring the possibilities of interactive storytelling with advanced character AI by Richard Evans (Sims 3, Black and White) and dialogue modeling by Emily Short (Galatea, Alabaster), as well as work by authors Jake Forbes (Return to Labyrinth) and Deirdra Kiai (Dominique Pamplemousse).

Regency-era comedy of manners and a modern office comedy stories, released for Versu, had received significant attention in various forms, including an appearance at GDC’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop, an award for best AI in an independent game in 2013, and coverage at Edge Online and New Scientist.

When the Lab decided to refocus its offerings and cut support for Versu, the project was only three days from launching a Roman political thriller called Blood & Laurels. Blood & Laurels represented a significant step forward in complexity and depth from previous Versu…

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ShuffleComp Conclusions, and a couple more reviews

The ShuffleComp results are in, with the top third of the games earning “commended” status.

I didn’t get to play all of the works during the competition period itself. There were 33 games, as many as in a typical IF Comp, with a shorter play window, and while some of the games were little five-minute pieces, many of them were surprisingly involved.

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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’s Outcast: Barbetween

Barbetween is a Seltani age written for Shufflecomp but excluded from the final competition because it was impossible to archive. Seltani is an online multiplayer text space that combines Twine-like room and object descriptions with the capacity for live chat and exchanges with other players in the same area.

I’d like to talk about Barbetween, but it’s the kind of piece that benefits a lot from being played in more or less complete ignorance of what’s going to happen, so I really suggest you do that. (It doesn’t take long.)

I played with the song that inspired it on in the background, and that proved to be a good choice.

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