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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The Mary Jane of Tomorrow

mj_of_tomorrow.jpgFor IF Comp 2015, I offered as a prize to contribute a piece set in the same universe as the author’s game. Steph Cherrywell chose this prize for Brain Guzzlers from Beyond!, which was exciting, since I’d enjoyed Brain Guzzlers a lot; and also slightly daunting, since Steph obviously didn’t need any help in coming up with art or feelies. Originally I was going to write a short story, but as I replayed the game and reviewed transcripts, I was hit with an idea for something more interactive. The result is The Mary Jane of Tomorrow, a not-too-difficult parser puzzle game set a few months after the events of Brain Guzzlers. (Estimated play time roughly 45 minutes, give or take.)

In the tradition of fanfic, it focuses on the relationship between a couple of the characters in the original game, Mary Jane Minsky and Jenny Yoshida. In canon, their closeness is demonstrated in various ways but never given center stage.

Gameplay-wise, The Mary Jane of Tomorrow is about training a robot to demonstrate certain personality and knowledge traits. To do that, the game makes extensive use of procedural text, borrowing the text generation library and even some of the corpora I used for Annals of the Parrigues. After the fold, I’ll talk about Mary Jane as a procedural text project, but it’s spoilery, so you probably want to play it first if you think you might enjoy it.

Steph decided she wanted to share her prize with the public, so The Mary Jane of Tomorrow is now available to play — and she even very kindly made some cover art for it, to match up with the rest of her work.

The game’s been uploaded to the IF Archive; in the short term, there’s also a Dropbox link for it, which I’m hoping will hold up until the file moves out of Archive Pending.

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Learning about Multiplayer Puzzle Design from Escape Rooms

I’m standing on a London street across from a scrap metal recycling establishment, in front of a door with no sign except a cryptic symbol. I’ve been told I will only be admitted if I press the buzzer at exactly the right time. A stranger asks me whether I’ve “had experiences like this” before.

I have, unless the stranger means “have you ever ridden the London Overground before this evening,” in which case the answer is no. We are a little outside my comfort zone there. But there are no Tube stops in this part of town.

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Time Run: the Lance of Longinus is a London escape room. There is an hour of gameplay, but if you count in brief and debrief time, it will take a good chunk of two hours to complete. We played with a team of four, which is the recommended number. They will let you play with three or five, but there were several of the puzzles that I think would have been just a bit more tricky to do with three (and fully impossible with two, so that’s fair enough). It was excellent fun; the team came out fairly psyched up and energized, and immediately talking about finding another escape room to do together.

I’d also say that, except for the travel to get to London in the first place, escape rooms turn out to fit my lifestyle surprisingly well: the gameplay itself is self-contained and memorable, it doesn’t take 60 hours to get a full experience, it doesn’t rely on reflexes I don’t have, and I’m less likely to get stuck than when playing a graphical adventure. No prep is required. It’s also a playful social experience with sufficient structure that you don’t need to Do Smalltalk, and enough adrenaline and excitement that you do build a sense of connection with the rest of your group. It doesn’t tend to involve the level of creativeness and emotional risk-taking that you see in storygaming, so it’s suitable to do with people you don’t yet know super-well, and it doesn’t require as much energy.

As with the previous escape game I played, it would be bad form to go into too much detail: a lot of the fun of an experience like this is in the discovery, and I won’t describe the puzzles or much about the format. But to speak very broadly, I felt that the individual puzzles in Longinus were a bit less difficult than in Enter the Oubliette, and the narrative frame less stressful. In Oubliette, you have to ask for hints when you’re ready for them; in Time Run, there’s a constant line open to a hint-giver who will nudge you along if you seem to be missing something, and we spent less time actively stuck. The “run” in Time Run doesn’t refer to any actual physical activity, but the game does keep up a pretty good pace, with new puzzle content reveals happening on a regular basis. Conversely, less of what you see in Time Run is there to help flesh out characters or develop the fiction of the surrounding world. None of this is a criticism of either Oubliette or Time Run — just a difference in flavor.

Perhaps in exchange for their non-central location, Time Run’s organizers have plenty of space at their disposal, and they make good use of it. The game uses some quite large-scale props, and a few puzzles that would be cramped in a smaller setting. The whole space, including the intro and exit rooms, has been imaginatively set-dressed, but in a way that doesn’t overload the team with red herrings. At the end, you get a score card for your team, and it’s printed on thick linen-finish stock with gold stamping. There are no actors in the escape rooms themselves, but there are several at intro and outro, and possibly more staff we didn’t see working levers behind the scenes while we played. The whole experience feels deluxe, which reflects the ticket prices, a few pounds more than average for a game of this type.

Multiple activities in the course of the game were adventure game-style puzzles that I have never seen executed in real life before. I won’t say what my favorite was, but I will say that when our team found it, there was a certain amount of incredulous, appreciative laughter that someone had *actually* built this setup.

I found this fascinating from a game design perspective. Escape rooms generally and Time Run in particular are very much multiplayer puzzle games, and we have so few of those in the IF space that it’s worth digging in for guidance wherever we can find that. Some thoughts, based on the grand total of two escape rooms I’ve done so far:

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End of May Link Assortment

Upcoming events

June 2-4, it’s Feral Vector in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. I will be there, talking about interactive narrative. Many other people will be there as well.

June 2, 7 PM, you can hear Matt Sheridan Smith talk about his game You Can’t See Any Such Thing in Brooklyn.

June 4, 1 PM, the SF Bay IF group meets.

June 14, 7 PM, the Oxford-London IF Meetup is meeting in London at the Failbetter headquarters to talk about IF and other media.

June 23, the Oxford Festival of the Arts includes some general game content and (at 7 PM) a panel with various Oxford-based indie games folks. Not specifically an IF event, but likely to include some interactive narrative components.

Upcoming Comps and Jams

Discworld Open Jam runs through July 28, and welcomes any works inspired by or set in Discworld.

June 18-25th, I’m running Bring Out Your Dead. Do you have a work-no-longer-in-progress that is gorgeously broken? Massively overambitious? Too niche to finish? Bring it, lay it on the pyre, let us gaze upon its face.

The rational explanation: good science looks at failures as well as successes. This is a chance to learn from one another’s quirky experiments and colorful failures, extremes of interaction that just didn’t work in practice, and other items that the IF community might find archaeologically interesting.

The emotional explanation: sometimes it feels like the hard drive is filling up with unfinished, unfinishable things, and it gets in the way. This is a chance at midsummer, before the height of comp season, to make a final use of those items and clear them out of the way, leaving mental space for the projects that are still viable.

Post-mortem comments and author notes are welcome, and so is checking out and commenting on other people’s work.

New Releases

Robin Johnson’s entertaining choice-parser hybrid Draculaland is now available as an app for Android.

Hadean Lands is coming to Steam, and will become available June 20. There is also DLC! Namely, a certificate in which you swear to solve the game without hints. I can’t decide whether this is genius or cruelty.

And this is not a new release, but Daniel Stelzer’s puzzle-rich Scroll Thief has received significant updates to puzzles. If you haven’t played it (and possibly if you have), now might be a good time to look.

Craft

Failbetter editor Olivia Wood gave a VideoBrains talk about sex writing in games and its pitfalls — with particular attention to Sunless Sea.

Business

Alexis Kennedy is leaving Failbetter Games. Failbetter has had a huge effect on the interactive fiction landscape, very much thanks to Alexis’ initiating vision. The company has of course grown to encompass a great deal of other talent, in writing and editing and community management and other areas, and I expect it will continue to be influential for quite a while to come. But it will be fascinating to see where it goes, and also what Alexis does next.

Elsewhere

IF author Caleb Wilson (Lime Ergot, Starry Seeksorrow, The Northnorth Passage, and others) has a short story coming out in this Swords v. Cthulhu anthology.