IF and Other Media

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June 14, the Oxford/London IF Meetup had talks from three speakers. First up was Tory Hoke of Sub-Q Magazine, who Skyped in from Los Angeles to talk about the process of founding and edition for Sub-Q. She gave us some background on how she got started, how she decided on the pay rate they currently use at Sub-Q, and a bit about the collaborative process.

Next we heard from Derek Moody, whose whodunnitmanor project is designed to facilitate multi-player mystery games, where the author has created clues and information for each player to discover at each turn. Different characters have different expertise, as one might expect in a mystery dinner party set-up, and they can decide what to share with one another during any given turn. When the players think they’ve figured out who is guilty, they can vote — which makes this partly a game of persuasion, like Werewolf, in which the guilty party is trying to pass off attention to everyone else.

Moody also talked about how his system is designed to support players who might not feel sure what they want to do, and how automated features take over if a player disconnects or skips out on the game — always issues in a multiplayer IF context.

Both Derek and Tory are currently seeking writers.

Finally, we heard from Nathan Penlington about his Choose Your Own Documentary project. Penlington is a collector of CYOA-style books — his blog documents many choice-based artifacts of all kinds — and at one point he bought numbers 1-106 of the original CYOA series in a single lot on eBay. When his set arrived, he found that the books contained notes from a Terence Prendergast, and several handwritten diary pages. He became fascinated with the question of what had happened to Terence and where he was now, so he made a documentary about the process of trying to track Terence down. The documentary itself was then performed in front of a live audience equipped with voting clickers so that they could respond to choice points in the story. So, to recap: Choose Your Own Documentary is a choice-based performance that is itself about the Choose Your Own Adventure series, as well as several people who became fascinated with them.

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IF Only column on Rock Paper Shotgun

I’m pleased to say that Rock Paper Shotgun has invited me to do a fortnightly column on interactive fiction. For those who aren’t familiar with RPS, they’re a gaming site focused on PC games. They’ve often given coverage to interactive fiction in the past, listing Comp highlights or tucking some IF releases into larger lists of freeware games. They decided to go bigger, though, so they’ve given me a pretty broad scope to cover whatever IF works, authors, and events might interest RPS readers. This is awesome of them.

In practice, that means that I’ll be writing about the same amount as before, but that some news, reviews, game lists, and analysis will wind up at RPS rather than on this blog — and thus in front of a much larger readership.

But you can still expect to see fresh material appearing here, including link roundups, craft and technique discussions, IF Meetup event reports, reviews of mobile IF that wouldn’t be a good RPS fit, and so on. And I’ll link across from here to my IF Only content, in case you find that an easier way to track what I’m writing.

Mid-June Link Assortment

Events

July 2 the SF Bay IF Meetup gets together at 1 PM.

July 3, the Oxford/London Meetup has a WIP exchange meeting in Oxford. We keep a low ceiling on attendance for these because we don’t have time or room to go into too many games in detail in one afternoon, but waitlist spots do sometimes open up, so feel free to sign up if you’re interested.

Further in the future, there are a couple events that might take some planning to get to:

Felicity Banks is organizing an IF writers’ get-together in Melbourne in September.

September 10-11, Guildford, UK, the Always the Sun festival will feature a crowdsourced interactive fiction project.

Competitions and Jams

Once again the Future of Storytelling Prize is awarding $10K. To me, it looks likely to favor fairly glossy, video-like projects over traditional IF or games, but I suppose you never know.

Much sooner and with much lower stakes, Bring Out Your Dead opens for entries June 18. This is an opportunity to share unfinished, abandoned or experimental work that you think others in the IF community might like to know about.

If your WIP is more alive than dead, on the other hand, you might be interested in Introcomp, a competition for the opening sections of non-commercial IF works. Introcomp has been running for fourteen years now, and offers a chance to get some early player feedback about how well your hook is working, what is promising or otherwise about the gameplay, etc.

New Releases

I released a small parser puzzle game set in the universe of Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! called The Mary Jane of Tomorrow. If you like procedural text generation and/or fanfic of existing IF works, it might interest you.

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Teviot is a Twine piece by Hannah Nicklin that came out in May, but I didn’t hear about it then. It’s about (among other things) demographics and daily life and the history and present of unionization in one of the poorer bits of the UK.

Kevin Gold (Choice of Robots) has a new ancient-history-themed game out, Choice of Alexandria. I haven’t checked it out yet, but approve the theme.

Simon Christiansen’s wordplay puzzle IF PataNoir is now available on Steam, complete with an updated interface and illustrations.

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Visualizing Procgen Text

Lately I’ve been aggressively telling everyone I know to do more visualization of the systems they’re building, and thinking about what that might mean for the procedural text experiments I’ve been up to.

If you’ve played with The Mary Jane of Tomorrow, you’ve probably noticed that some of the poems it generates show a lot more variation and richness than others. That’s easy to observe, but can we quantify it? Can we draw observations about what level of complexity is the most satisfying, and identify portions of the game where more or less complexity would improve the experience? If we’re procedural text artists, how do we decide where to direct our attention?

One of the fun/horrifying things about this particular medium is that it pretty much never feels like you’re done: it would always be possible to add more corpora and more variant templates. Both Mary Jane and Annals of the Parrigues came to an end because I needed to move on to other work, not because I couldn’t think of anything further to add. But one thing I might want from a procgen text tool is help discerning where the biggest blank spots are currently.

The first step towards visualization is of course figuring out what aspects of the system you might want to look at, and in fact I often find “how would I draw a picture of this?” to be a good way of making myself think about the salient qualities of a particular system. Here are the things I decided I wanted to know about the text in Mary Jane:

Size of component phrases: how long is the smallest atom of text in a given composition? When you see something in the text, was that produced by a human or is it the juxtaposition of several pieces selected algorithmically? This is very varied in Mary Jane, with some poems or conversation options picking entire sentences, and other selections being just a word or two long. (Parrigues goes even further and composites town names from constituent syllables, but Mary Jane isn’t going that far.)

Number of alternatives: if a phrase was picked from a list, how many other options were there? Number of options is going to determine how unique a particular element is in your experience of the text.

Salience of selected phrase: why did we pick this piece? How many pieces of information about the world model did it have to match in order to be selected? (And to combine those two points, if we picked a highly salient phrase, how many other options were there of equal salience?)

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Mysterious Cases on Indiegogo

Robert Sabuda is a paper engineer who designs pop-up books. He — with collaborators — is now running an Indiegogo campaign to put together three Mysterious Cases: boxes that come with clues, props, puzzles and locks. He was good enough to answer some questions for me:

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ES: The trailer and photos make these look really appealing and tactile — it looks like there’s a lot of physical manipulation of props to solve these puzzles. And I know you’re a pop-up book artist and have done a lot of past projects that involve manipulating a book in order to bring about, as your FAQ says, a “WOW” moment. What qualities in a pop-up most contribute to delivering that sense of wonder?

RS: I think what it really comes down is providing a sense of a wonder and magic.  We like to be surprised, and maybe even a bit fooled, when we’re unable to come up with answer to “how did THAT happen?”  Pop-up books and interactive experiences, like the Mysterious Cases, supply that in droves.  We want to wrestle a bit and be delighted by new discoveries and the magic of the moment.

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