Choose Your Own Autobiography (Neil Patrick Harris)

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 1.10.49 PM I’m not a big reader of celebrity memoirs, but this one came my way for Christmas: Neil Patrick Harris’ autobiography takes the form of a choose your own adventure book, in which Neil’s life story, together with some made up incidents clearly recognizable as fantasy, are narrated as happening to “you”.

This sounds like a gimmick, since the set of people who know of Neil Patrick Harris because of Dr. Horrible or How I Met Your Mother likely has a good overlap with the set of people who retain warm fuzzy nostalgia feelings about Choose Your Own Adventure books. But it turns out that it’s formally interesting as a CYOA piece, too.

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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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Hollywood Visionary (Aaron Reed, Choice of Games)

hollywood_visionaryHollywood Visionary is a game by Aaron Reed, published by Choice of Games. And before I say a lot more about it, I need to put up a big disclaimer, because a) I beta-tested the game; b) I am currently under contract to Choice of Games for a project of my own. For those reasons, I hadn’t been planning to write up the game at all. However, since its release I’ve found myself thinking a lot about a couple of things that it does. I’d like to write about those, just so long as you know how I relate to the project and that this doesn’t qualify as a disinterested review.

So. Hollywood Visionary is a game about artistic vision and realization in the context of both complicated personal loyalties and a tough political climate. It’s the 1950s, McCarthyism is in full swing, and you’re trying to find enough money and enough talent to put together the project of your dreams while at the same time avoiding any unfavorable attention.

To make the artistic aspect interesting, Visionary allows for a degree of combinatorial invention that most Choice of Games pieces don’t really attempt: you can combine genres, figure out how many leads you’re going to have and of what genders, give your movie its own title. You can also hire unknown or celebrity historical figures to direct and star in it — bring on Alfred Hitchcock, if you can afford him. The result captures some of the generative humor of Game Dev Story, but within a much more narrative setting.

At one point I set up to make a black & white racy religious fantasy set in a convent, featuring a nun at odds with forces beyond her control. I was picturing this as a Joan of Arc story that sexualized her religious passion. I didn’t really have a way to express the Joan of Arc concept within the game, but I had been allowed to pick enough details that they shaped how I imagined all the filming and decisions afterward.

Aaron’s mentioned that he’s gotten a lot of messages from people telling him about the different movies they created within Hollywood Visionary — a clear sign, I think, that there’s enough freedom in these choices to let people feel some creative ownership over their movie concepts. Which is a pretty cool thing for a game like this to achieve.

Now the more spoilery bit.

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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)

terminator

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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