IF-related ideas in computational creativity: ICCC 2015

ICCC is a conference dedicated to computational creativity, which includes a wide spectrum of work: programs that create artwork and images, music generators, systems that invent metaphors and jokes, story and poetry creation systems. I gave the keynote, about Versu, Blood & Laurels, and the work I’m doing in response to the feedback that we got from that process. There was a lot of fascinating content; here are a few of the highlights that had most to do with interactive fiction:

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Procjam assets

Michael Cook gave a passionate talk on the value of jams, especially jams that have been modified to make them more accessible — providing a timeframe including two weekends for people who work for a living, removing some of the constraints on what can be entered, furnishing resources to help people get started, and getting rid of the competition aspect. In particular, he’s running PROCJAM again this year, a jam for “making things that make things”; and he’s providing a set of art assets (sample shown above) for people who want some combinable art to work with. This looks like a really neat jam, and would certainly have room for IF-related work (whether that’s a generator to build IF or IF with procedural content).

He also pointed towards sortingh.at, a lightweight website designed to help would-be game-makers find the tools they need for their particular project. (It discusses IF tools including Twine and Inform, but a number of other types of game-making tool as well.)

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Peter Mawhorter spoke about choice poetics (PDF): how we classify types of choices in choice-based interactive fiction, from “obvious choice” and “dilemma (in which the two options are equally problematic)” to more esoteric types; he used a CYOA story generator called Dunyazad to produce choices that he felt ought to conform to different choice classes, as a way to interrogate the theory more deeply. This paper from FDG 2014 provides some more background on the concept of choice poetics.

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Kate Compton talked about casual creators, creative tools that are a pleasure to explore and encourage playfulness and pleasure. There’s a very nice introduction to the concept online, and she’s made a wide range of examples, including Tracery, a lightweight text generator that George Buckenham has built into an easy twitterbot tool called cheapbotsdonequick.

I used cheapbotsdonequick to make IFDB Sommelier, a bot that tweets IFDB searches that combine random parameters — I was intrigued by the ability to build randomized URLs as well as randomized content text. If you are looking for something a little more NSFW, I recommend Squinky’s AbhorrentSexBot, or perhaps Jacob Garbe’s orcish insult bot.

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While there I also learned about the What If Machine:

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The What If Machine generates speculative premises and imagined outcomes for them. Some of these are more persuasive than others, but they’re all rather cool and evocative. I kind of like this one:

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June Link Assortment

stickerphotoMy casual storygame San Tilapian Studies is running at a free exhibition of play at The Wellcome Collection in London the evening of July 3. Many other terrific things will be there too. I can’t be there myself, but I am really excited to have the game played in such a cool space.

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The next Oxford IF meetup will be Sunday, July 12. Oxford meetups tend to be cozier than the meetups in London, making them a great place to bring works in progress or concept ideas to throw around with the group.

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Competitions are opening shortly: IF Comp starts accepting intents to enter on July 1 (tomorrow!). Meanwhile, the Windhammer Gamebook Prize starts accepting submissions August 1.

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When I wrote up Feral Vector, I couldn’t find a good online source talking about the game poems Harry Giles had introduced. Now there is one! Harry wrote up a primer on the form with some examples; it also discusses Twine poetry, art in text adventure form, and a number of other interesting topics.

Somewhat related: this page of 200-word indie RPG rulesets. They’re trying perhaps a little harder (sometimes) to describe something you could practically play, but again have an intriguing focus on getting across a core gameplay concept distilled to its essence.

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Terminator (Matt Weiner)

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Terminator — not to be confused with Terminator Chaser — is a game from ParserComp that I didn’t get around to reviewing while the competition was running.

Low on story, high on simulation and experimental features, Terminator requires you to move a group of robot explorers across the face of an alien planet in order to collect unconscious astronauts from the surface and bring them to your ship, where they can receive medical attention. Meanwhile, the terminator line, representing the arrival of destructive sunlight, moves in steadily from the east. You have only so many turns before the encroaching light forces your spaceship to launch, abandoning any astronauts and robots remaining.

On my first tour I managed to rescue only three of six crew members; the other three were within sight of my spaceship but just hadn’t quite made it.

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Her Story (Sam Barlow)

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Last year I wrote about the way Gone Home is mostly backstory but doesn’t yield to thematically directed exploration. I talked then about wanting to see more games of research, pieces where the player could make guesses about where things were going and then test them out.

Sam Barlow’s Her Story accomplishes that nebulously-framed wish of mine, and brilliantly so.

The idea is apparently straightforward: the protagonist has access to a database of video snippets taken from the interrogation of a woman involved with an apparent murder more than 20 years ago. The video snippets all have searchable subtitles, which means that if you look for a word that is spoken in one of these snippets, you can bring it up. What you can’t do is watch all the snippets in order; and if more than five snippets are associated with a particular keyword, then you can’t access those after 6. (This prevents the game from being too easily solved by someone who latches onto key names early on.)

As a police filing system this is perhaps not very practical, but it makes for a highly engaging game. One starts with a prompt, “murder”, which turns up several snippets with which to get started. From there, it’s a matter of thinking of new keywords to enter. Sometimes the keywords are names or places mentioned in one video that are obviously important. Sometimes I reached them by association or guesswork instead: if one hears about a death, it’s reasonable to want to know what happened at the funeral, for instance. And, of course, the same snippets of video may be reached by several different routes, so there’s less of a premium on exhaustiveness than in something like Toby’s Nose (but perhaps more than in the intentionally unmappable daddylabyrinth). It also feels less controlled and gated than Analogue: A Hate Story.

The game also has a second level of robustness, namely, it’s not necessary to see absolutely every snippet in order to work out what happened. 80-90% is probably sufficient. Personally I had a pretty good idea of what had happened by the end of a couple of hours, though I kept playing for a while longer in an increasingly quixotic mission to find the last remaining bits. I failed to get them all, but I reached a point where I felt pretty satisfied.

It’s massively daring to tell your story in whatever order the player happens to stumble upon — and yet my experience and the experience of every reviewer I’ve read so far was that the narrative order they experienced was compelling and memorable. After playing through this myself, I brought it along to an interactive fiction meetup and watched another group of people play: they saw the story unfold in a totally different way than I did, but it still worked. (They were also so fascinated with the game that we stayed on that for two hours and never moved on to other activities.)

There are a couple of features of the snippets themselves that make this scheme work. First, they’re telling a story that is very complicated (so there’s quite a lot to find) but differently shaped from what you might initially expect (so you’re not just filling in some sort of Motive/Opportunity/Method chart).

Second — and this is a reflection of both writing skill and the quality of the acting — they contain multiple kinds of information. In the earliest phases of the game, the player is just trying to get a sense of the key people and places in the story, scanning the snippets for names to build up a who’s-who. Then one starts comparing new snippets to old ones, looking for factual discrepancies and implications. Later, after the shape of the story has started to emerge from the mist, they start to be readable for emotional hints as well. There are details — visual details, verbal details, tones of voice and choices of imagery — that only take meaning after the player knows quite a lot about what is going on. And that is why the same snippet can still function well in the building of the narrative regardless of whether you see it as almost your first pick of the game or not until quite late.

I’d like to talk about the actual content a bit; however, any discussion of the story itself is of course massively spoilery, even more so for this work than for most games. So I’m going to put that behind a tag.

However, if you’re reading this review to find out whether I think it’s worth playing: yes, absolutely. If you’re a parser IF fan from the old days, you probably remember Sam Barlow from Aisle, a one-move game that is still one of my go-to pieces for introducing new players to parser IF despite the fact that it was written in 1999 — and you may find that the game has more in common with parser IF than you might have thought possible. If you’re a student of experimental narrative forms, this is a smashing example that people will be discussing for some time, and you should know about it. If you’re more of a mainstream indie game enthusiast, you’ve probably already seen the collection of positive reviews Her Story has racked up elsewhere, but in case you haven’t: this is not only a fascinating experiment, it’s also a solid, suspenseful gaming experience that kept me on the edge of my seat.

And the disclaimer: I bought this game in preorder, but Sam then sent me an advance key so that I could play early and review it.

Go play it before you read anything else I have to say. PLAY IT PLAY IT.

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Mrs. Wobbles and the Tangerine House: Book 2 (The Marino Family)

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The first episode of Mrs. Wobbles and the Tangerine House was an IFComp entry in 2013. (Here’s my review.) It is a choice-based Undum children’s story about a group of foster children who go to live in the home of the eponymous Mrs. Wobbles, and the whole story is being told through a magical book. Reading as an adult, one has a distinct sense of not being the target audience, most of all because of the slightly teasing tone the narrator adopts towards the reader.

This installment, Book 2, picks up with the children transported to a pirate land. We again have the framing narrative of a magic book, and then at one point Mildred (one of the children) can herself tell about a memory of hers, so the layers of story and other-reality get fairly thick.

As before, Book 2 is fairly linear, with just a few points of significant branching, and a few others in which you’re effectively picking the order of operations for doing a series of tasks that all have to be completed. And as before, the story incorporates ludicrous poetry, elaborate similes, and wordplay. A few examples that give a sense of the narrative tone:

The front was guarded by a big pirate henchman, who looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there, as if he were missing his favorite TV show and perhaps even his favorite episode of his favorite TV show.

…and when it comes to the way things work in the sort-of-make-believe, sort-of-true universe of the children:

‘Take this, then.’ And Mrs. Wobbles handed Mildred a giant rubber heart. ‘It’s a shield,’ said Mrs. Wobbles, ‘and an eraser.’

And there are quite handsome illustrations in a sort of woodcut style:

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Book 2 is not the end, either. There’s apparently meant to be at least one more in this series. All the same, Book 2 more or less stands alone, and it would be possible to read it knowing little more than I’ve just outlined.

To go into more detail about the story will require some spoilers, however.

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And the Robot Horse You Rode In On (Anna Anthropy), with some thoughts about Spider and Web

robothorseWriting about Videogames for Humans, Robert Yang noted some ways in which he found it a useful but not comprehensive guide to the games it covers. His review includes this passage:

Or when Cat Fitzpatrick plays Anna Anthropy’s “And The Robot Horse You Rode In On” (merely one of TWO lesbian westerns featured in this book!) and Fitzpatrick does not know, or does not care, that this is probably a remake of Andrew Plotkin’s “Spider and Web” except with sexy lady fighting instead of overly intricate Cold War futurism. With that background, you can read Anthropy’s changes and simplifications to the original plot device as an admonishment of the hardline parser-based interactive fiction establishment and their historic ambivalence about accepting Twine as interactive fiction. It’s as if she’s saying, “look, Twine can do what the canon parser IF does, and with less bullshit and more style.”

[Edited to add: Anna says Robot Horse is not a remake; see the comments section. I’ve left the original discussion here, but it’s worth having that fact up front.]

I’d never played And the Robot Horse You Rode In On, and it had somehow escaped my awareness among Anna Anthropy’s games, so when I read this blog post, I immediately went to try it out. And —

Yes, this is the same story; also, it is not at all the same story. The contrast throws both Anna’s and zarf’s work into such high relief that it makes me grin. In addition to which, Robot Horse is possibly my favorite of Anna’s Twine work that I’ve played so far.

But to talk about this I will have to spoil both games a lot. If you haven’t played Spider and Web and you’re planning to do so one day, you don’t want it spoiled before you play, trust me; if you haven’t played And the Robot Horse…, it’s short and you should probably go try it now. (Subject to the usual warnings: like a lot of Anna’s other work, it contains references to sexual activity, and while its primary intent is not pornographic, it may not be suitable for workplace reading. However, this discussion will not itself be unsafe for work.)

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