Headstart Institute, Now Play This, and other appearances

headstart_logo Aug 31-Sept 3, Antwerp: I’m going to be presenting a workshop and mentoring at the Headstart Institute. This is a week-long summer school for indie game developers, with workshops in a whole range of topics from interactive narrative (me) to sound design, marketing, production, how to quickly put together a custom controller, and lots else. The experience culminates in a game jam (which unfortunately I’m going to have to miss), and the mentors will be around all week to provide feedback. Housing and communal breakfast and lunch are provided. I don’t know of any other programs quite like this, and I’m myself excited to meet my awesome fellow mentors, many of whom I’ve heard of but not had a chance to talk to in person over the years. There are still a few spots remaining, so if that sounds good to you, come to Antwerp!

Sept 4, London (and this is the reason I have to leave Antwerp a bit early): I’m presenting on intimacy in games at Now Play This, alongside Meg Jayanth and Merritt Kopas. This is a ticketed event.

October 7, London Literature Festival: I’m on a panel with Cara Ellison and Naomi Alderman about stories and games.

Later in the year: I will be on the east coast of the US and Canada in the first couple of weeks of November, including doing a couple of talks at WordPlay in Toronto. I know a number of other IF people expect to be at that session as well. After that, I’m spending a few days in Boston and then going to PRACTICE in New York City. My schedule is filling in, but if you want to talk while I’m in town, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

March 2016: I’m part of a proposed panel for SXSW Interactive on interactive fiction, esolangs, and other juxtapositions of language and code. I don’t know whether this will be approved, but if you would like it to be, you can vote or comment on the proposal.

There are a couple of other items on the calendar that haven’t been announced yet, but when they are I’ll mention them here. And I’m trying to be good about keeping my Contact page updated with information about upcoming events that are announced and open to the public.

*

More generally: I routinely give

— introductions to interactive storytelling
— workshops on choice writing and other IF design skills
— classes in specific IF tools
— in-depth talks on past projects and technical subjects

…and I’ve worked with a range of target audiences, from members of the general public interested in stories to game developers to graduate students working in procedural narrative. If you’d like me to present to your conference, classroom, or studio, please do get in touch and I’ll see whether it’s feasible.

(But if you’re considering coming to Antwerp, you should definitely do that. It will be much cooler than just me talking.)

Scroll Thief (Daniel Stelzer)

scrollthief

Scroll Thief is a game by Daniel Stelzer, set in the Zork/Enchanter universe, though with significant nods to Colossal Cave as well. It’s a puzzlefest built around the same magical spells that appear in the Enchanter series — gnusto to copy things into your spellbook, frotz to make them glow with magical light, blorb to enclose them safely in a strong box, rezrov to open and untie things — to which Stelzer has added a couple of “metamagic” spells, including the lleps reversal-spell from Balances and another spell that strengthens the effect of a given casting. Stelzer released Act One of the game in IntroComp 2014. (My review at the time.)

Meanwhile, though the spells may be ones we’ve mostly seen before, they’re generally being used on situations that we haven’t. The resulting puzzles do well (or at least, did for me) on the originality and explorability axes. Some take longer than others to work out, and for one or two I needed the hints; on the other hand, others are made easier because they have multiple solutions involving different spell combinations.

To make the exploration more fun, Stelzer provides a number of good easter egg responses for using the spells in unusual places or unexpected ways. There are also a lot of nods to IF community figures and institutions, including what I take to be a reference to ClubFloyd and NightFloyd. In keeping with the Infocom originals, the author has provided invisiclues-style hints which you can highlight to view solutions; these are of course themselves full of misdirections and red herrings.

At the same time, Scroll Thief sets itself apart from its predecessors and inspirations with an expanded role for NPCs, especially the Adventurer from Colossal Cave whom you can summon into your world. Your initial interactions with him are quite manipulative (and you really have no opportunity to make them otherwise), but later in the game it becomes possible to treat him more as an equal, someone you can talk to and do favors for. The bird and the snake from Colossal Cave get cameo appearances, and with judicious use of spells, you can get the bird’s insights into its situation. Then, too, the game’s setting gives more time and attention to the training of novices and the organization of the community of spellcasters, making it less a world of lone heroes and more a world of collaborative effort — a point that becomes particularly clear at the transition to Act II.

The result is less lonely and more focused on interpersonal (or inter-creature) connection than the original games — in a lightweight way reminding me of the transition in Endless, Nameless from a puzzle-oriented model to one where NPC conversation is possible.

The game’s story is not complete in itself. Scroll Thief contains two acts of a longer story, which promises to be a trilogy. The end of Act II introduces a mechanic from Spellbreaker which I would enjoy seeing explored further, so I look forward to the next chapter.

Scroll Thief is certainly possible to play with only moderate knowledge of the source material, but I wouldn’t give it to someone as one of their first encounters with parser IF. Technically, this piece is doing some very challenging things — viewing from one room into another via magical scrying glasses, tying ropes to objects, ordering NPCs around from a distance, and other tasks that justly give parser IF authors pause.

A huge amount of work has gone into making this complicated world model easy for the player to manipulate, and providing hints when some unusual bit of syntax is required. The world model works smoothly most of the time despite the difficulty of what it’s trying to accomplish. But the parsing involved in issuing commands and viewing things from a distance is still sometimes tricky to deal with. When scrying, for instance, LOOK IN SPHERE produces a disambiguation about what you want to look at while LOOK INTO SPHERE actually gives the desired room description of the thing on the other side. In other places, it can be necessary to run through several variant phrasings (ASK ADVENTURER ABOUT HELP vs ASK ADVENTURER FOR HELP, e.g.) in order to land on the one that will work. I ran into a few snags that meant I had to look for hints on puzzles I would otherwise have been able to solve on my own. However, Stelzer is releasing new updates rapidly, so it may be that these issues will be less of a concern in a couple of weeks.

And one more thought on the puzzles, post-spoiler space:

Continue reading

Tender Loving Care (Trilobyte)

hurt

I don’t think I truly appreciated John Hurt’s acting ability until I saw him in Tender Loving Care, a late-90s-era game with live action footage, created by the same people who made 7th Guest and subsequently brought to iOS by Trilobyte Games.

This is a truly extraordinary game. It has decent production values for its time, including hours of live video content; offers an assortment of conceptual innovations; deals in the realm of character and emotion rather than physicality; and then manages to be boring, offensive, and misguided in ways I’ve not seen in a game before. It is supposed to be an erotic thriller, but the one time I felt true apprehension was when I restarted the app after some time away and saw that I was offered only a “Begin” button. Had it lost my progress? Was I going to have to go through those three hours again? Answer: No, it hadn’t; it just had a UI bad at communicating state.

The premise is that Dr. Turner, played by John Hurt, is showing you scenes from a case that went terribly wrong. The case involves Allison, a woman who has lost her daughter in a car accident but lives in the delusion that Jody is still alive; Michael, Allison’s frustrated and exhausted husband, who hasn’t processed his own grief or gone back to work, but who has been forced to look after Allison as she’s ceased to be a partner in any meaningful sense; and Kathryn, the live-in psychiatric nurse specializing in trauma whom Michael has hired to sort things out. Kathryn is cartoonishly provocative, wearing insufficient clothes and licking her lips to camera.

Continue reading

Neon Haze (Porpentine, Brenda Neotenomie)

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 2.12.21 PM

Neon Haze is this week’s release at Sub-Q Magazine.

A side note: If you are interested in IF, especially Twine IF with a speculative fiction focus, you should be paying attention to Sub-Q: it’s an ambitious venture, a website with stories and interviews that pays pro rates for interactive fiction. It provides some resources for matching storytellers with people who can implement content for them, if the author doesn’t already have those skills. The guidelines would allow for parser IF, but possibly they simply haven’t been offered any so far that met the other requirements. Sub-Q is paid for by memberships and donations, but it’s free to read; I’d like to see it continue, though, so I’ve signed up.

So, Neon Haze. It is the story of someone living in a dark-rainy-night-plus-neon kind of environment. The protagonist suffers from Vessel Syndrome, a condition that produces a sense of not really being oneself, or not being in one’s own body; a sense of being occupied by other spirits. Sometimes they seem to dissociate. Often they use language drawn from therapy sessions to describe their experience.

One of the game’s key moments comes when you’re allowed to choose which of two people you were in a scene: someone safe and surrounded by friends, or an outcast who has gotten into a fight? Whichever you choose, the game does not contradict you, and either way provides an interesting way of understanding the situation. Perhaps the protagonist has always been an outsider and imagining themselves as someone different and safe was a way to escape that experience. Or perhaps the protagonist comes from a background of safety that is now lost, one in which they acted entitled and did not understand how difficult things could be elsewhere, on the outside.

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 2.17.38 PM

The story is supported by CSS effects that make the links glow on the page against a dark cityscape, and by Neotenomie’s music, which loops and hums with seductive energy. Sometimes, at least for me, the music was more than a mood-setting device. It communicated hope, or perhaps some not-quite-hope will to live, even when the text itself was describing a bleak situation.

Continue reading

IntroComp 2015

IntroComp is a yearly IF competition which invites participants to send in the first part of a game. Judges vote on how much they would be interested in playing the rest of the submitted game, and authors who finish and release their pieces within a year are eligible for a prize based on where they placed. The games for 2015 are currently available, and judging is open through August 21.

Below, thoughts on the pieces I ranked highest.

Continue reading

Snake Game (Vajra Chandrasekera with Tory Hoke)

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 3.08.17 PM

Snake Game is the first new story at Sub-Q Magazine, written by a veteran speculative fiction author turning to IF for the first time. It tells the story of a man who has left the army and returned to his father’s home in the jungle, where the wife he barely knows waits with his young daughter. The story concerns his relationships to all of them, the things we pass down through generations, the way our parents can confuse us about our own identities, and several other things as well. Chandrasekera is Sri Lankan, and I had the impression, though I could be wrong, that the non-fantastical elements of the setting are drawn from his homeland.

Snake Game challenges categorization. It isn’t really choice-based fiction since the player is never making choices for the protagonist, nor does it quite seem like “dynamic fiction”, the term Caelyn Sandel uses for her linear but interactive Bloom. Instead, it is a navigable fiction.

Most of the incidents in the story have three alternate versions, and the reader can choose whether to slither forward through the story or whether to move sideways, considering alternate interpretations and understandings of what is going on. The options — forward, sideways left, sideways right, backward — match the four directions one can take in a game of Snake. Nonetheless, the events are still consistent enough that however much we might turn aside from a moment or an interpretation we dislike, some truth remains truth.

Continue reading