Interactive Narrative GDC Talks (Part 2)

As I noted here, there is a bunch of GDC content that might be of interest to interactive story folks. Last time I looked at talks that were really focused specifically on interactive fiction, especially work by inkle and by Choice of Games.

This time, two related subjects: social simulation and character modeling of various types, and complex morality. (And character with complex morality, as a bonus.)

Thinking About People: Designing Games for Social Simulation, Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris, The Tiniest Shark. (Recorded talk.) I’ve linked already to the Gamasutra presentation of Mitu’s slides, so you may have seen me mention this talk before. Gets into a number of types of games and also a series of criteria for thinking about social simulation games. Some of those criteria are pretty-much-always-desirable things such as “communicating to the player”; some describe a spectrum with many possible spots for productive work (“autonomous vs authored”).

Designing Morally Difficult Characters, Dan Nagler, Gigantic Mechanic. (Slideshow only.) This talk calls out the idea of giving characters complex, non-binary ideologies, and also shouts out to some of the very same tabletop storygames that I mentioned in my microtalk. If you follow the links, you’ll also find that this talk relates to a partially live action educational simulation that is sort of Senate LARP.

Beyond Binary Choices: How Players Engage With Morality, Amanda Lange. (Slideshow only.) This one gets at the issues with simplistic good and evil choices, offers some statistics about how people tend in practice to play simplistic-choice games, and then pulls out a couple of interesting exceptions to the general rules (like: Spec Ops: The Line manages to get a lot of players to do the pure-evil choice by laying enough emotional groundwork to make them feel their protagonist might be quite angry at that point).

Desire is Not A Dirty Word: Writing Healthy Fanservice for Games, Michelle Clough. (Slideshow only.) As with several of the other slideshows, there’s definitely some information being missed if you can’t see the full recorded talk, but there’s still enough here to give the gist: it’s about writing characters who are meant to be sexy and perhaps romantically active without falling into creepy objectification.

Measuring and Manipulating Player Trust, Chris Hazard, Hazardous Software. (Slideshow only.) This is the kind of talk I love to go to because it expands the boundaries of what I think I should bear in mind when working on a game. It’s an AI summit talk, it’s fairly math-heavy, and it’s about mathematical models for a) describing how likely NPCs are to make barters and do favors given various levels of trust in the player and b) conversely, assessing what the player feels about the risks and rewards in the game using similar trust modeling. It’s sufficiently abstract that I think one would have to put in a good amount of work to get from “these are some really interesting concepts” to “here is what gameplay based on this would feel like.” But I find this kind of thing fascinating.

And a bonus link not from GDC: this now-in-progress orc dating sim looks like it takes on a lot of the issues in Mitu’s and Michelle’s talks.

XYZZY Award Finalists are out

The finalists for the 2014 XYZZY Awards have been announced; if you want to vote, you have until April 25th at 0:01 US-Pacific to do so. Perhaps the most obvious difference vs previous years is how many of the nominees are commercial IF; there was more of it this past year than usual, but also I think it got more attention than it has in some years. There was also a strong showing for choice-based IF, featuring Twine, inkle, ChoiceScript, and Versu games.

In a few categories there are (unusually) only two nominees. If you’re curious, this thread on intfiction talks about why that is and how the nominees are selected; also about whether the current nomination system is best or whether we might want to go to one that allowed people to nominate multiple games per category in the first round.

Spring Thing 2015, and Aspel

Spring Thing is now open, with nine new games: six in the main category, three in the “Back Garden” area for games that aren’t in competition for prizes and have somewhat looser entry requirements. There’s a mix of systems, too — Twine, Undum, Seltani, Glulx and z-machine, and Ren’Py.

My contribution is a Back Garden game called Aspel, which is a realm in the choice-based multiplayer Seltani platform. As my entry blurb says:

Aspel is an experimental interactive experience designed for multiple players, featuring asymmetric information and collective decision-making. The text you see on the screen won’t necessarily be the same as what everyone else sees, so you’ll need to communicate with your fellow players in order to experience it most fully. To make that easier, I’ll be around to participate/host at the following times:

Tuesday April 7 at 8 PM British/3 Eastern/noon Pacific
Sunday April 19 at 8 PM British/3 Eastern/noon Pacific
Friday May 1 at 8 PM British/3 Eastern/noon Pacific

…but of course people are more than welcome to arrange their own visiting hours.

At some point I’ll likely write something about the experience of writing for Seltani.

Interactive Narrative GDC Talks (Part 1)

Every year GDC talks are recorded and stored in the “GDC Vault”, which is accessible to people who have attended a recent GDC. There are also usually a few talks that are outside the paywall, though — and this year, there are quite a few non-paywall talks that might be of interest to IF and interactive narrative folks. There are also quite a few talks where the actual recording is behind a paywall, but the slides are available for free.

There are so many recommendable talks in this collection that I’m going to break them out over a couple of posts, starting with these fairly IF-specific talks:

Leading Players Astray: 80 Days and Unexpected Stories, Meg Jayanth, Freelance/inkle. (Slideshow, recorded talk.) An entertaining and watchable presentation about the tension between 80 Days’ boardgame mechanics and the story and the way the game tempts players into embracing bad strategy decisions. Meg also talks about the research that went into building 80 Days and the process of constructing the story as a whole.

Adventures in Text: Innovating in Interactive Fiction, Jon Ingold, inkle. (Slideshow, recorded talk.) Talks about narrative structure and tool implementation in inkle products, usable lengths of text, choice design, and a lot else. Well worth a look for anyone working in the choice-based game space.

Classic Game Post-mortem: Adventure, Warren Robinett. (Slideshow, recorded talk.) This is about the construction of the action-adventure game Adventure for the Atari 2600, but it talks about how that game was based on the Crowther and Woods game — and it also gets into a lot of delightfully sticky detail about the memory costs of a lot of the game elements. The latter is something that people working on interactive fiction now only have to worry about rarely, and usually only if they’re doing something either very large or targeted at a very restricted platform. A neat piece of game history with IF relevance.

Harvesting Interactive Fiction, Heather Albano, Choice of Games. (Slideshow only.) Intended to acquaint games narrative folks with recent developments in IF, this talk covers material that may already be familiar to IF veterans. Includes discussion of Hadean Lands, Codename Cygnus, Blood & Laurels, various Choice of Games titles, and much of the inkle collection, among other things. Edited to add: it’s a little hard to work out fully from just the slides, but I meant to mention that Heather did talk a lot about the use of ambiguity in text, and the storytelling leverage that you get from not overspecifying everything (which is sometimes easier when you’re working with words and not a full 3D model). This is an interesting area I’ve heard the Choice of Games folks talk about on various occasions but I’m not sure it’s gotten the discussion traction of some of the other concepts here (such as complicity).

Twine Shorts: Silver and Gold (Rosencrantz); Isis (Liz England)

Silver and Gold is a Twine piece “in two voices” by Rosencrantz. It’s a bit similar to Origins from last year’s IFComp, in that it presents two competing views of what is going on side by side:

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Silver and Gold is more of a story and less of an experiment than Origins, though: there’s more at stake, and we get more of a sense of the two main characters and of the way the agency of one constrains the other. There are times when one character or the other is locked in a sort of reverie that doesn’t affect the other; there are also times when one character gets a chance to make a definitive move that alters the other’s state. At a couple of points, seeing the same effect from two viewpoints allows you to grasp what is happening more completely than would otherwise be possible (one character can hear something that is out of earshot for the other, for instance).

The two characters in question are locked in a dark horror/fantasy situation that can end in one of at least two ways (I played several times and found two endings and no obvious directions that might have led to more, but that doesn’t guarantee I didn’t miss something). The content of the story affected me less than the way the story was told — some of the backstory adheres to standard tropes, while other parts are a bit underexplained. Nonetheless, a piece with some cool formal aspects, and the most successful I’ve yet seen to make use of simultaneous dual-viewpoint narration.

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Isis is a science fiction piece casting the player in the role of the AI life support system on a sentient space craft. It allows you to respond to your pilot in various ways, including trolling him with disobedient or subversive interpretations of his orders. If you don’t, and behave like a good little spacecraft, then the story nodes eventually start to loop and becomes boring: this creates a kind of meta-game motivation to perform the AI-spaceship-goes-mad trope. It’s not long, but I found it amusing.

March Link Assortment

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The movie Interstellar now has an official text adventure tie-in. It looks like this was hand-rolled in javascript. I haven’t had a chance to play it through (and I didn’t see the movie, which may be important), but here’s Wade Clarke’s take.

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The Shadow in the Cathedral is a parser-based, puzzly, adventure-rich game in a steampunk setting, developed commercially by Textfyre. For a long time it was available only for sale, but you can now get it from itch.io for free. (Back in the day, I put up an IFDB review, if you’re curious what I thought then.)

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The McFarlane Job is a new game by Jason McIntosh (Barbetween, The Warbler’s Nest).

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Bus Station Unbound is perhaps the biggest inklewriter story to date.

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The Oxford/London Meetup group is meeting Sunday April 12 in Oxford (leisurely lunch or drinks or whatever you feel like ordering) and Wednesday May 13 in London (conversation in a meeting space and then drinks at the pub). Please join us if you are in town and are so inclined.

If you’re elsewhere, here are some other upcoming meetups:

April 4 – San Francisco.
April 4 – Seattle.
April 10 – New York. ITP at the NYU Tisch school, off the 8th St. N/R stop.
April 13 – Boston. 6:30pm in the Trope Tank (MIT room 14N-233).

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Those who want to use IF educationally may like to know about Brendan Desilets’ book on the topic, now available in PDF form, based on years of using parser interactive fiction with middle-school students; and also Creative Writing in the Digital Age: Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy, which includes a chapter by Aaron Reed on using Inform 7 in a creative writing workshop.

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IF Answers is a new Stack-Exchange-like site for collecting answers to IF-related questions, especially technical ones. The aim of the project is to provide a more searchable and consistent collection of help than is currently available from the intfiction forum, where the same basic issues often get raised repeatedly. IF Answers is currently in a kind of seeding phase in which people are asking and answering some expected FAQ, but it is only likely to get off the ground with the help of contributors; so if you feel like asking or answering some IF tech-related questions, have a look.

Alex Warren goes into more detail about the project.

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Javy Gwaltney, who has written several Twine games and now organizes the Interactive Fiction Fund for commissioned interactive fiction, wrote for Paste Magazine about representation of disabled people in video games: why we need it and what it means to him. He also covered Antholojam, which includes several IF pieces.

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Liz England provides a blog overview of what Twine is, how it fits into the interactive fiction tradition, why people might want to use it and which Twine pieces she recommends. It’s intended for a game developer who is not already familiar with Twine; so if you read this blog, it might not be something you need, but possibly you know someone else who would find it a useful entry point. The categorization of Twine games and recommendations within categories may be particularly helpful as a counterargument to the assumption that all Twine authors are writing the same kind of thing.

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GDC was excellent. Not all of the content is publicly available, but here’s a blog-format version of Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris’ GDC talk on social simulation games. Well worth checking out, and I’m not just saying this because of the discussion of Blood & Laurels.

Brandon Dillon did a talk on the design of Hack ‘N’ Slash, which is free on GDC Vault. Though it’s not IF per se, there’s lots of fun stuff here about systematic challenge design and coming up with a series of levels that will challenge and instruct the player.

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Here’s Tronmaximum talking about alt games — games beyond the typical indie sphere — and the role of friendships and ideological similarities in creating communities that can then become productive spaces.

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Squinky writes about community and family and loneliness, which is kind of an interesting pairing with Tronmaximum’s piece above.

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Max Gladstone writes about narratives of friendship, and how they often get lost because romance and sex are so often treated as primary, the things of greatest importance. It goes into a lot of detail about Agent Carter, a show I don’t watch, but I found it accessible and moving anyway.

I also filed it among my arguments (though I don’t think Gladstone intended it this way exactly) for more moments of intimacy in games, including those that are not romantically coded. I’ve argued for a while that we need better game romance, but I think what I’m really looking for is better character connection.

One of my favorite moments in movies is the scene in the middle of Heat where a cop and the hardened criminal he’s been chasing sit down for a cup of coffee. And although they are in one sense enemies and recognize that one may end by killing the other, in another sense they understand one another better than anyone else. Another is the moment at the end of The Fugitive where the federal marshall who has just recognized Harrison Ford’s innocence takes the cuffs off him.

Neither of these are moments within the kind of friendship that Gladstone is arguing for, but they are about connection, mutual understanding and affection even under adverse circumstances.

These are rare in games — perhaps because real intimacy is challenging to portray in a game context. One of the reasons I liked 80 Days so much is that it offered several of these types of connection with characters you meet only in passing. (I have a special fondness for the man dressed as Death, in New Orleans.)

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Katherine Cross has a detailed review of the world-building tabletop RPG Microscope up at Offworld. I’m fond of this game and have written it up before; it’s great to see more attention for it. I’ve recently been playing the related game Microscope Union, which explores a specific family tree; I’ll probably write that up here soon.

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Folks interested in indie sales numbers for narrative-driven games may like the deep dive into Sunless Sea’s numbers, provided in multiple parts on the Failbetter blog. [1: Kickstarter], [2: Steam Greenlight], [3: Early Access and Release].

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Tim Fowers (creator of Paperback, a wordplay card game) is Kickstarting a new heist-themed board game, Burgle Bros. It’s already successful, but there are a few more days to get in on the action if it looks like something you’d like.

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From earlier: Shift Escape is an iOS puzzle game by Toby Nelson, who is the Mac IDE maintainer for Inform (and my brother-in-law, not entirely coincidentally).