Riddles and Madlibs UI: Blackbar; Interactive Sexy Story

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Blackbar is an interactive puzzle story, for various mobile platforms, about censorship: you see one side of a correspondence, and must guess the missing words in order to move forward, as the participants try to communicate through the filter of an oppressive regime. It got a reasonable amount of enthusiasm at the time, and appeared on some top-ten lists for 2013.

screenshot-2-3.5-outlinedI have to confess that I went to a walkthrough for some of the later puzzles. One of the issues with riddle-style puzzle design is that it isn’t very explorable: you either have that flash of understanding or you don’t, and if you are thinking along the wrong lines, it can be very hard to get back on track. A few of the puzzles in Blackbar are divided up into components that you can try to solve individually, which moves it more towards crosswords territory — you can figure out some bits, get confirmation, and then use that to work out the parts you don’t understand — but others aren’t as friendly.

I also thought there wasn’t all that much to the story when it was all stitched together. Others described its storyline as Orwellian and said that it critiqued censorship, but that critique mostly boils down to: “Censorship. It’s bad.” Orwell made points about how controlling language ultimately means controlling thought, as sophisticated arguments become impossible to form. Blackbar is more about goofy ways to try to get around the censors, and casts the censors themselves as pretty incompetent. Surely a censor who really wanted to suppress information would black out more at a time, leaving us with puzzles that were harder to solve. Still, it was entertaining and competent and lots of people had fun with it.

I was reminded of Blackbar again recently because, while I was looking for a completely different thing, the iOS app store recommended Interactive Sexy Story, a free to play app with in-app purchases. I downloaded it as a piece of potential kusoge, and I was not wrong.

It tries to get you to buy in-app currency that will reveal letters. It aggressively pops up ads to try to make you download other apps. And when you get into it, it has imitated Blackbar‘s interaction concept with no notion of what made it interesting.

flowersOnce again we have words blanked out, which we must fill in order to progress. But this time, at least as far as I got, there aren’t any real riddles to solve. The words that are blanked out are not narratively important words, nor are they words cleverly hinted elsewhere in the text.

In Blackbar, the decision to black out one set of words rather than another tells us something about the concerns of the censor, too, but here there’s no censor character and no metafictional reason why some of the words are removed. (Also — a smaller point, but typical of the lack of polish here — Blackbar gives you blank spaces that are exactly wide enough to type the correct answer, but here the blanks are sloppily a bit too long.)

Interactive Sexy Story is essentially a quiz testing your mastery of English idiom and cliché. The writing is very predictable in order to facilitate this. You don’t see a vase full of daffodils or a vase full of tulips, just a vase full of flowers — because generic flowers can safely be guessed from context, whereas a specific flower type might communicate some new additional information.

I had some notion that maybe the gag was going to be that, when we got to the sex scenes, Interactive Sexy Story would have you typing in dirty words, thus providing about the same level of taboo thrill as looking up bad words in the dictionary during sixth grade Language Arts class. (The definitions were not very interesting.) I don’t know whether that happens, though. For the sake of Science, I played several chapters of this, but it remained steadfastly plotty and non-sexual. The protagonist gets in a car accident and has amnesia and then there’s a lot of discussion about what to do concerning the amnesia.

I will say that the story reads like it was created by a native speaker of English, that I didn’t find any typos, and that its prose, while unimaginative, was functional in a way not always seen in amateur work.

So, okay, why bring this up at all? I usually don’t cover work unless either a) I feel it has some strong qualities or b) it’s commercial work that’s gotten sufficient attention that criticizing it doesn’t feel like punching down.

Two reasons. One: I could imagine some revision of this idea (possibly with some additional types of hint support) being used in an educational context. Filling in cliché phrases isn’t very interesting to me in English, but I could learn from doing so in French.

I was going to add “and maybe the educational version should be revised not to be a sex story” but as the portion of the game I saw was devoid of any sexy content, it might be fine on that front. Ideal, maybe, for students of a certain age, if you motivate them by telling them it will get sexy ANY MINUTE NOW and then lure them through pages of explicit hospital vocabulary.

Stepping one level up from that, I could imagine an engine that took any piece of text, did some N-gram frequency tricks to find phrases where the word used was vastly more likely to appear than any other, and blanking those out, so you’d get a dynamic language teaching quiz-maker that could be run against any piece of prose assuming you had a solid N-gram corpus for that language.

Two: I started wondering about this as an interface for something that wasn’t riddle-based. What if the text boxes would accept any word belonging to a certain category — any flower name, for instance, or any verb from a pre-established list? I could see this being used for customization and aesthetics, or for actual branching. There might still be discoverability issues here, but not quite the same issues that you have with parser IF, because the context of a larger sentence creates constraints on what the player could reasonably type.

Or maybe you’d accept a wide range of inputs, but do some sentiment analysis or diction level analysis with the words people typed and use that to subtly inflect the story as a whole. (Interactive Flowers for Algernon spin-off where the grade level of the words typed by the player affects the complexity of subsequent pages?)

I dunno. I considered Blackbar‘s UI more or less a unique gimmick at the time, is the point, but now I think there might be other possibility in that design space. Thanks, Interactive Sexy Story.

(If you came here looking for actual madlibs porn, sorry. FWIW, there’s a site called Hyperdreams that will let you type in names for the other characters and in some cases specify their physical attributes, then generate a customized porn story just for you. I cannot say that I have rigorously investigated it, however.)

7 thoughts on “Riddles and Madlibs UI: Blackbar; Interactive Sexy Story

      • Perhaps it means that you are free to get as far as the screen asking you for money, but effectively not any farther i.e. the purely “free” content is so limited or difficult as to be unplayable.

  1. A long time ago I built a system for doing translation between languages, where the user chooses grammar rule substitutions with bits of vocab. So from abstract stuff like NP -> Det Noun down to concrete choices like Noun -> ‘Cat’. The idea being that, because the user chose items with known semantic value, the computer understands what they were saying, so can translate it at a structural level. For the original use it proved too unwieldy. But it’s been something I’ve played with a few times as the basis for IF. So rather than interactive fiction, more like gamified writing. It made me think about it when I played Elegy for a Dead World, and more recently I’ve been doing some design for a writing course that uses almost madlib style placeholders (at a higher level, more like ‘describe your protagonist here’, ‘protagonist has a scene in their home demonstrating their problem’, etc. Which struck me as something that could be fun if it were made more recursive. So how about, instead of filling in blanks at one level, having recursive blanks. You choose from a set of protagonists, but have to fill in more details. And those choices are stored, and can then be brought back later into the story you’re creating. Code-wise it is very simple. As usual with me, I can’t think of an application of it that is amazing, so I’ve not done more than muse on it.

  2. Dunno if you’ve played Mindwheel (the Pinsky game from the 80s), but there’s bits where you have to fill in parts of poetry with this kind of blacking out. I thought they were the weakest part of the game.

  3. Pingback: Bookmarks for August 24th through August 25th : Extenuating Circumstances

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