Morality and Diegetic Agency in IF (via Radio K on Slouching Towards Bedlam)

Radio K screenshot

Adam Cadre’s Radio K podcast, continuing its coverage of IF games from the early to mid 2000s, now covers Slouching Towards Bedlam, Gourmet, and The Dreamhold.

Part of Adam’s discussion of Slouching riffs on what he says was my view at the time, that this was one of the first IF games to seriously address moral choice. He objects to that view because the player is very likely to explore all the possible endings, and therefore it’s unlikely that they’ll feel much weight in their decision, and also because he doesn’t consider the final question morally all that interesting.

It’s possible I did characterize Slouching that way at some point in a newsgroup discussion – I don’t now recall precisely. It’s not really quite what I would say now, though — and actually it’s not exactly what I say in my contemporary review.

I bring this up not to nitpick Adam’s generally excellent podcast, but because thinking about Slouching Towards Bedlam from the perspective of the current IF scene sent me off on something of a tangent of further thoughts.

So with apologies to Adam, here’s what I would say about it now: Slouching is an early, and still relatively rare, example of parser IF that makes diegetic outcomes depend on a complex set of world model machinations on the part of the player. First you have to figure out how the world model affects the story, and then you have to use that information to bring about the ending you want. You’re likely to luck into several endings you don’t want at the same time.

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Black Closet (Hanako Games)

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Black Closet is a dating sim/resource-juggling sim from Hanako Games (Long Live the Queen, Date/Warp, and numerous others). In it, you are Elsa Jackson, the student council president at St. Claudine’s, an all-female Catholic boarding school. (I hadn’t heard of St. Claudine before this game, but it was satisfying to look her up and discover that the authors seem to have picked her with some intention. Claudine Thevenet was interested in schooling for girls and also founded an institution to support female authors. It seems she was also, less happily, a sufferer of lifelong PTSD after seeing her two brothers executed in front of her.)

Catholic or not, the school still features quite a bit of romance between its students. Your task is to get through the year and graduate – which will require you to investigate and resolve assorted conspiracies, crises, and personal misunderstandings in the student body.

The other members of the student council are therefore both your dating pool (if you choose to date, which is not mandatory) and your tool for solving problems, as you’re assigning girls to intervene where their skills make them most suitable.

This by itself gives the game quite a different flavor from the lonely and ridiculously hard Long Live the Queen. This time, you are not alone. You don’t have to make yourself into a singular repository of all virtues. Not everything falls to you to deal with. Conversely, there are some paths of action that will alienate one or more of your team members so that they are less available (or, worse, leave entirely).

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Experimentation in the Parser Domain

I’ve done a couple of retrospectives of 2015 in IF: here’s one on the state of the art in late September just before IF Comp, and here’s my Comp roundup. Most of the things I observed there hold, I think, even if you include the last month and a half.

But I also wanted to talk more about what is going on in the parser domain.

At one point about a year or a year and a half ago, in the ongoing discussions about the fate of parser interactive fiction, I observed that I felt like most of the interesting experimentation in IF had moved into other spaces. There were constantly new Twine games that surprised me with new ideas or new quirks of the interface; there were assorted new handrolled systems doing neat things; there were Seltani and Texture. But it felt as though not that much new was being said with parser IF.

That’s been less true in 2015. People continue to do amazing things in Twine and other choice-based systems, but we’ve also seen more experiments in parser hybrids (though I’ll talk about some of those in a minute) and in what the parser natively can do.

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World model and story

Perhaps most obviously, there’s some surprising work from IF Comp 2015. Map and Midnight. Swordfight. both give the player a world model that is as much about story as it is about place and objects, inviting us to change elements of the backstory one way or another in order to produce different outcomes, exploring fully a space of possibilities and consequences. Map in particular captures some of the sense of wide-ranging, life-changing choices that you get in Alter Ego, and then in the Choice of Games works inspired by Alter Ego. In Map, though, this happens within a parser context where you can also putter around and look at the furniture and get a sense of the texture of the life you’re altering.

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World model and map

Several 2015 games experimented with space presentation, breaking up the traditional handling of rooms to allow for genuinely three dimensional space (Ether), for continuous space best understood as a grid (Terminator), or for objects visible from a long distance away (Endless Sands).

There have been some games in the past that experimented with this, back as far as the subdivided rooms in Stone Cell or Shade, but 2015’s pieces suggested a renewed interest in the topic –particularly in creating systemic puzzles that required the player to understand a large space. In both Terminator and Ether, you’re challenged to figure out how to move yourself or other objects most efficiently in a large grid; instead of arriving at the single optimal solution, you’re likely to come up with some loose general approaches that are likely to work best.

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World model and resources

Onaar didn’t do continuous space, but did do RPG-like gameplay with spawning resources, combat, and crafting/harvesting mechanics. Again, it’s not the first IF game to experiment in this space at all, but it is one of the more plausible ones I’ve seen. The gameplay feels very different from the play of a classic text adventure, but it has its own internal coherency.

Gotomomi also offered a big open world with lots of ways to gather money and other resources (but also lots of ways to fail to do so). I found it quite a bit harder than Onaar, not always entirely fair, but also intriguing and unexpectedly deep in some places.

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World model and conversation

Ectocomp is a Halloween-based speed jam, and Ectocomp 2015 pulled in a fair crop of entrants. The short development time means that the games tend not to be super polished, but Halloween Dance is a neat little experiment in using inventory items to model conversation.

 

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Conceptual space rather than literal space

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 11.55.27 AMTechnically this isn’t a 2015 piece; it’s something from late 2014 that has gotten a good deal more attention in 2015.

In December, Sub-Q did a reprint – with updated content and new cover art – of Caleb Wilson’s excellent Lime Ergot, in which the story is told almost entirely through deeper and deeper levels of examination of scenery objects.

I’ve written a little before about why I liked this piece, which wound up being one of my favorite IF games of 2014. The new version also prompted some reflections by Chandler Groover and Bruno Dias, and an interview with Caleb as well.

If you like Lime Ergot for the way it re-envisions parser storytelling, then I also recommend CEJ Pacian’s Castle of the Red Prince and Weird City Interloper, Toby’s Nose by Chandler Groover (also a 2015 release), and Porpentine’s Contrition. I already talked a bit about Toby’s Nose in my mid-2015 roundup as well.

(If you enjoy Wilson’s writing style, he’s got a number of other games on IFDB – The Northnorth Passage might also appeal. And I’ve always had a soft spot for Hey, Jingo!, his never-finished introcomp game from years ago. Even though it’s not a complete story, it has some of the same feel of postcolonial horror that comes through in Lime Ergot.)

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Database storytelling

One rational extension of those ideas is Her Story:

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Whether or not you liked it, whether or not you think it qualifies as IF, Her Story‘s database delving through search terms was thoroughly engaging for a lot of people. It demonstrates a way of separating an exploratory, typed-input UI from the traditional world model of the parser and doing something quite different with it.

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Keyword storytelling but with continuous forward movement

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Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory, meanwhile, also uses a hybrid parser/keyword interface to explore, but it does so in the context of a continuous narration. Where Toby’s Nose or Lime Ergot or Her Story let you get stuck if you can’t think of the next interesting thing to type, Laid Off‘s narrator keeps talking to you no matter what. There are a few key moments of possible choice, but a lot of the time your dialogue options are more steering what you’ll find out about next than they are deciding an outcome or unpicking the puzzle.

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Interactive parsing

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Code 7 is a one-week student prototype that bills itself as a “modern text adventure.” Unsurprisingly for a prototype, it’s not a very strong game yet, especially when it comes to narrative. The plot is about as predictable and hackneyed as you can imagine, and the dialogue could use some work. The characters are also pretty much just ciphers inhabiting their situation. There’s voice acting for the main person you’re talking to, which I also felt could have been a bit stronger – but by including this at all, of course, Code 7 is making a statement about the kinds of assets and production values the authors would like to see in interactive fiction. It’s being developed into a full game, though; Rock Paper Shotgun wrote it up, and it was entered in the IGF.

In Code 7, you’re a) communicating with another character whom you’re directing to explore an abandoned ship and b) hacking some of the systems of that ship in order to help the character. Structurally, it’s a fairly simple gauntlet with some deaths (though usually you get some warning when you’re in danger, and the game automatically jumps back to the latest safe point after death).

The use of audio and the reliance on another character to do most of the legwork are both soundly in line with other experiments in commercial IF, but the interface is a bit different.

Most of your options are dialogue options, presented with a straight numerical menu. There are some hacking segments where you have to rapidly figure out a password, given a mastermind/hangman-style system that lets you know when you’ve found a letter in the correct position. These are not a very plausible representation of what hacking would involve (obviously), but they’re no more terrible than some of the other hacking minigames I’ve played. There’s a nice use of staged difficulty here: you have to figure out how to crack the password, then figure out how to do longer passwords under time pressure; and at one point the difficulty of a password puzzle is used to make a narrative point, which is neat.

But the most text-adventure-ish part is that you can discover additional instructions, usually by typing the name of the object you want to interact with; the command line will then show you some suggested actions:

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It’s not a million miles from some of Jon Ingold’s experiments with interactive parsing or noun-focused parser discovery in Dead Cities and A Colder Light.

In this implementation, I would say the resulting experience is much more “gamebook with some hidden nodes” (like say this one) than “trad text adventure with improved discoverability”. Either there is no backing world model, or the designers have done a good job of concealing the fact: objects are named inconsistently, actions that work in one room aren’t guaranteed to work in another, and in general you’re always searching for the single intended action that is enabled to work right this minute. I did even have a guess the noun moment, when I didn’t realize that the system would recognize the name of a particular object only if I typed it in with its attached adjective.

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Keywords within hypertext

Porpentine’s Spring Thing piece Ruiness, meanwhile, is mostly a Twine game, but one that implements its knowledge puzzles through keywords – essentially passwords, really – that you type to gain access to some of the game’s alternate locations.

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Other resources on IF interfaces

You may also like this old post on hybrid interfaces, and this post on a tool called Wunderverse, designed for writing iPad IF with a complex world model but no command-line interface. Also, here is a page on IF interfaces in general and a Pinterest board of IF interface screenshots.

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Finally, none of this is to suggest it was a bad year for more traditional parser puzzle IF, either. I recommend the comp-winning Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! and Daniel Stelzer’s large and ambitious Scroll Thief, which riffs on the Enchanter series with a bunch of really terrific interlocking puzzles. And of course there was all of ParserComp.

Brief Reviews from December

I didn’t post many reviews in December, partly because I was a bit burned out (thanks, IF Comp), partly because of paid workload, and partly because I was playing so many things, between IGF judging and working on the Kitschies list, that there wasn’t time to review all of it. But here are quick thoughts on a few December releases.

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 11.54.09 AMLyreless, a Bruno Dias retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story for Sub-Q magazine. This version tells of a journey to the underworld in which we must shed one aspect of ourselves after another in order to pass through the gates of Hell and find our beloved again.

It is not a love story. Eurydice is essentially uncharacterized: who she is, or was, doesn’t matter as much as the quest, and specifically the question of how a quest changes us and our motivation for starting out on that quest in the first place. What happens when you are motivated by strong passions – pity, anger, a sense of justice – but those passions get in the way of what you are trying to accomplish? What if you have to give up some of your identity in order to become the sort of person who can do what a person-like-you would want to achieve?

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Cibele (Nina Freeman)

Cibele

Cibele is Nina Freeman’s game about being a 19 year old college student who spends a lot of time in an online game, and who meets an Internet Friend who becomes more; and about what happens to their relationship next.

It intersperses non-interactive video (in which Freeman plays her younger self) with largely agency-free segments where you’re playing the game (mostly endlessly clicking on enemies to attack them) and hearing voice dialogue between Nina and her new friend. There are also some more exploratory elements – you can poke around a bit on Nina’s computer and look at her email and the selfies she’s been taking to send to her internet companion, but they’re fairly limited and none offer diegetic agency that I can see. This is pure dynamic fiction in which the actual events will unfold in the same way regardless of what you do.

I’m not the first person to see Cibele as a kind of bookend piece to Emily is Away. (I am, for the purposes of this article, not getting into the concerns I had about consent in Emily is Away, which the author has said were not intended; there’s more that could be said there, but I’ve already talked about it elsewhere. Cibele does not present similar issues – it does directly show you how some of the main character interactions go down – and in comparing the two pieces for the rest of the article I am comparing the rest of the experience of playing EiA.)

So. These games are both stories of internet relationships that go wrong between people who have some difficulty articulating their feelings to one another, difficulty listening to one another. They’re about people who are too young and inexperienced to be skilled at relationships yet. They both trade on the likelihood that the player has actually had a relationship somewhat like this, sometime in the past, whose details can be pasted in even though the actual characters in each game are minimally specified.

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December Link Assortment

Upcoming Events:

The Boston IF meetup for January will be Wednesday, January 6, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

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Folks have been continuing to hang out at the Euphoria chat space originally used for the IF Comp post mortem, so if you’d like a place to discuss interactive fiction with fewer technical hurdles and strange commands than ifMUD, there’s another option.

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I wasn’t able to be at ICIDS this year, but Juhana Leinonen was there, and he has written up a description of some of the talks, workshops, and posters from the perspective of someone coming from the IF community. Meanwhile, David Fisher curates a bibliography of ICIDS articles from the past several years that he thinks are particularly interactive fiction-relevant.

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The creators of a room escape game give an interview about their reasoning and process.

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Tell a Demon is an upcoming visual novel featuring characters in a kind of 20s style, and sharing some of the team that worked on Sunrise, the curious fantasy/dieselpunk VN from Spring Thing this year.

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If you liked Phoenix Wright and you liked Hatoful Boyfriend and you like the French Revolution and you would like to see those things meld together into one mildly terrifying whole: here is the trailer for Aviary Attorney (which I have not yet had a chance to play myself).

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Austin Walker writes about Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective (the boardgame, not the FMV version), with some comparisons to database-driven storytelling in Her Story and Digital: A Love Story.

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Here’s Javy Gwaltney on surviving as a freelance writer, apropos of the ongoing discussions about how people really make money in gaming and games-related industries.

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Sufficiently Human has a long, detailed post on the work of Kitty Horrorshow, which includes both Unity games and horror Twine IF. (If the name sounds familiar, I previously wrote about Kitty Horrorshow’s contribution to Lights Out, Please, but that’s just a tiny part of Horrorshow’s output.)

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The MIT Puzzle Hunt is a yearly puzzling tradition. 2015’s took place quite a while ago (January, I think?); however, an online version is now available, so if you want you can play for yourself.

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My old post about the making of Bronze, including map design and puzzle layout, has been reprinted at content | code | process, a site that looks at design work in the interactive narrative space. The same site also offers, among other things, background on Blue Lacuna by Aaron Reed, commented creative code by Nick Montfort, and statements by Andrew Plotkin on Dreamhold and on Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home.

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Here’s the story of a birthday party where the partiers created the art of an evolving culture.