Planet Interactive Fiction

November 20, 2014

Emily Short

Appointment with FEAR (Tin Man Games)

by Emily Short at November 20, 2014 10:00 AM

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 8.16.05 AMAppointment with FEAR is an adaptation of a Steve Jackson gamebook, available in various mobile formats and also on Steam for desktop machines. It’s been polished up into a graphical-novel style interface — a juicy one that slides panels into place and makes stats expand bouncily when you click on them – but it retains a slightly disorienting early-80s mentality: there are jokes about “Michael Jixon”‘s new release “Chiller”, and “Vulture Club”‘s lead singer “Georgie Boy”. This kind of thinly-veiled reference is symptomatic of its sense of humor.

Content-wise, it’s straight parody superhero fiction. You have an alter ego who has a newspaper job (which you rarely have time to attend), and when you’re “in disguise”, your avatar wears a pair of Clark Kent-style glasses. There are various villains with various unlikely costumes. For yourself, you get to pick from a roster of jokey auto-generated names. I played first as “Sparse Manifestation”, a mind-reading black female superhero with amazing breasts but no other body fat, and then as “Apathetic Chicken Leg”, a flying white female superhero with amazing breasts but no other body fat. Once I had a fleeting chance to name myself “Absolute Chaos”, but I misclicked the show-more-options button before I could select it; that was pretty much the least bizarre title I was ever offered.

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 8.44.40 AM

Goofiness aside, I’m struck by the colorful energy of the interface here; it really feels as though it has projected you into a superhero universe with BAF and BOW animations. The mechanics are on the simple side, but have been carefully blended into the story. There are combat sequences, in which you can pick from a range of easy-but-weak or risky-but-powerful attacks, and these get some context-appropriate narration. There is a detection component to the game, in which you gather clues from various events and use them to solve additional problems you run into: when there’s something you might be able to resolve with clues, you go to your clue notebook and pick the clue you think applies, in good Phoenix Wright style. There are some simple stats: luck, stamina (hit points by another name), and Hero Points, which track successes along the way.

I never played the original gamebooks, so possibly I’m about to take issue with something that is fundamental to the whole historic experience. But despite the surface polish and the similarity to a number of games that I do enjoy quite a lot, I found myself pretty frustrated by this as both a game and a piece of narrative design.

Over and over again, the protagonist is confronted with “do you turn left or turn right?” dilemmas — choices for which there is no indication why it matters or how it will turn out. Very frequently you’re simultaneously called upon to visit two different emergencies at once, but there’s no way of knowing in advance which you’re equipped to help with (it’s very possible to try to intervene but get beaten up instead) or which might give you clues that you’ll need for the overall narrative arc (because sometimes an important clue is basically lying coincidentally on the ground near some unrelated crime). In one playthrough I saw the president assassinated but had no way to help him; in the next, I got critical information I would have required to intervene, but somehow missed ever getting the chance to be present at the assassination attempt. In each case, the overall story experience I had was quite disjointed, with a lot of hints of many different storylines, but no clean narrative arc.

After several plays (including a bunch of rewinding), I came away feeling like I could win this thing, but only if I exhaustively mapped the narrative labyrinth first, working out all the places where clues could appear and all the places where they could be applied. And I don’t have the stamina for that: too much time, too much repetition, too much exposure to this brightly plastic world. I’d feel differently if this played like a proper puzzle, if I thought that some careful thought would clue me in to the best way to move through the narrative. Despite the considerable surface gloss, it’s a design that gives the player very little help to experience a story.

The story is weird tonally as well. It’s mostly bouncy, colorful, and silly, with exaggerated and implausible threats; no Dark Knight stuff here. But you’re pretty unlikely to get all your superhero interventions to work, and so at least a few times per game you’ll probably run into a situation where an innocent person dies in front of you (sometimes as a result of your inept meddling). The text really doesn’t address the implications of that much at all. You lose some Hero Points, but you don’t experience any trauma or have much of a reaction at all. Young kid eaten by shark because I made a bad choice about how to rescue him? Oh well! Time to go home and have a pizza.

It’s striking to compare this thing against the less flashy but narratively chunkier Hero trilogy from Choice of Games. Despite their shared tropes, they’re very different takes on the same thing. Choice of Games pieces don’t kill you off arbitrarily early in the story (something that happens easily and often in Appointment with FEAR); the protagonist customization is more substantial and is taken more seriously; and pretty much no matter what you do, you’re guaranteed an actual story out of the experience, rather than a sequence of partially connected incidents. They’re also low on challenge, usually, but that’s a trade I’m happy to make if the type of challenge I’m turning away is that of meticulously exploring every narrative pathway long after the story incidents have lost their surprise.


November 19, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

A Year Without Zombies

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at November 19, 2014 08:01 PM

I don’t generally do New Year’s resolutions, but here’s the one I’m planning on. For 2015, I won’t buy or play anything that features zombies. (This is mostly a computer game thing, but I also won’t play RPGs or consume static … Continue reading

Post Position

#! in San Antonio Fri 11/21 – #! in Austin Sat 11/22

by Nick Montfort at November 19, 2014 07:58 PM

I’m doing two Central Texas readings from my book of programs and poems #! this weekend:


San Antonio: The Twig Book Shop

Friday, Nov 21 at 5pm
The Twig Book Shop
in The Pearl (306 Pearl Parkway, Suite 106)


Austin: Monkeywrench Books

Saturday, Nov 22 at 4pm
Monkeywrench Books
(110 N Loop Blvd E)


#! (pronounced “shebang”) consists of poetic texts that are presented alongside the short computer programs that generated them. The poems, in new and existing forms, are inquiries into the features that make poetry recognizable as such, into code and computation, into ellipsis, and into the alphabet. Computer-generated poems have been composed by Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville, Alison Knowles and James Tenney, Hugh Kenner and Joseph P. O’Rourke, Charles O. Hartman, and others. The works in #! engage with this tradition of more than 50 years and with constrained and conceptual writing. The book’s source code is also offered as free software. All of the text-generating code is presented so that it, too, can be read; it is all also made freely available for use in anyone’s future poetic projects.

Nick Montfort’s digital writing projects include Sea and Spar Between (with Stephanie Strickland) and The Deletionist (with Amaranth Borsuk and Jesper Juul). He developed the interactive fiction system Curveship and (with international collaborators) the large-scale story generation system Slant; was part of the group blog Grand Text Auto; wrote Ream, a 500-page poem, on a single day; organized Mystery House Taken Over, a collaborative “occupation” of a classic game; wrote Implementation, a novel on stickers, with Scott Rettberg; and wrote and programmed the interactive fictions Winchester’s Nightmare, Ad Verbum, and Book and Volume.

Montfort wrote the book of poems Riddle & Bind and co-wrote 2002: A Palindrome Story with Willliam Gillespie. The MIT Press has published four of Montfort’s collaborative and individually-authored books: The New Media Reader, Twisty Little Passages, Racing the Beam, and most recently 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, a collaboration with nine other authors that Montfort organized. He is faculty advisor for the Electronic Literature Organization, whose Electronic Literature Collection Volume 1 he co-edited, and is associate professor of digital media at MIT.

http://counterpathpress.org/nick-montfort

ATNE Salon Today in Boston: Reditions of Artworks

by Nick Montfort at November 19, 2014 07:47 PM

Today I’ll offer a discussion of porting and translation in computational art and literature at the ATNE Salon, Boston Cyberarts Gallery. The event’s at 7:30pm; the gallery is in the Green Street T Station, on the Orange Line in Jamaica Plain.

IFComp News

A nod to those who waited

November 19, 2014 03:01 PM

Several reviewers of 2014’s competition made the observation that this year seemed remarkably free of unfinished, untested, broken, prankish, or similarly inappropriate entries. Even the entries they’d end up giving lower scores to possessed admirable levels of experimentation or ambition, though perhaps not coming together as well as the higher-rated games.

I choose to connect this with the fact that I made a conscious effort to advise would-be authors to not submit unfinished work, emphasizing this message on the authorship guidelines, and stating it again in the email to authors just prior to the entry deadline. I have reason to believe that past years would often see a number of entries by authors who found the creative process taking more time than they’d accounted for — and, on the cusp of the deadline, they would just submit whatever they had. Inevitably, these entries would not fare well against the more complete and polished work. Furthermore, since competition rules forbid the entry of any previously released work — even if the entry improves on an older release — this represented wasted potential, preventing a future IFComp of seeing more developed versions of these games.

Most authors who submitted intents to enter this year did end up choosing to withhold an actual entry. I saw circumstantial evidence on social media suggesting that many directly took my advice to hold onto their unfinished game, and continue to work on it for a future competition, rather than rush it unready into the crucible of the IFComp.

To all those who took this route, I say: thank you. It can be a hard decision to choose to wait it out, but I think you made the right choice, both for the competition and for your own work. And I also say: the 2015 competition will start accepting intents eight months from now. I sincerely hope to see what you have for us then!

IFComp debrief on IFMud: Nov. 22

November 19, 2014 02:01 PM

Once a month for the last several months, an IF “theory club” has gathered on IFMud to discuss some topic of relevance to the craft of and study of interactive fiction.

This coming Saturday, November 22, at 3 PM Eastern time, please join us for a debrief and open discussion of this year’s IFComp games and results. As the discussion’s announcement post states:

Talk about the comp games, trends, favorites, memorable moments. NB that this is not the second Saturday of the month, in order for this to take place after the comp results are in. Authors will also therefore be welcome to join, comment, and share thoughts about their work.

More about the monthly discussion group here.

November 18, 2014

Emily Short

Procedural Text Generation in IF

by Emily Short at November 18, 2014 02:00 PM

In the Missing Tools discussion some time ago, one of the things people mentioned wanting more of in IF was procedural text generation, which here is meant specifically as the ability to have the computer describe complex world model states or story events without having to hand-author every possible variation.

This is an area where there’s a lot to learn from work going on in academic research, but as far as I’m aware there’s relatively little communication. As I mentioned in my ICIDS writeup, James Ryan at UCSC and Dr. Boyang Li at Georgia Tech’s Entertainment Intelligence Lab are doing work on a) how to better represent a richly complicated world model and b) how to procedurally alter narrative features such as the tone of narration. One of the things we particularly don’t seem to do in hobbyist IF, perhaps for lack of resources, is experiment with large word databases such as WordNet or crowd-sourced work in particular areas like that used on Scheherazade.

Speaking for myself, I’ve also tended to stumble towards solutions in this space based on trial and error and the needs of my own projects, rather than having a strong grounding in the relevant academic work. Most of what we’ve needed — and most of what we’ve done — is pretty much work in the shallowest end of this pool.

And, of course, text generation for parser IF comes with special additional challenges, in that the player usually expects to be able to refer to any generated noun or noun phrase element; therefore if we generate a description of a thing as “blue”, the system also needs to remember how we described that object and accept the input “blue” to refer to it.

Here are the things I’m currently aware of. Unfortunately, I’m inevitably more aware of the internals of my own libraries and games than I am of other people’s work, so if I left out something cool that you did, please by all means say something in the comments: I am eager to know about it. In particular, there may be a lot I don’t know about under the hood in Kerkerkruip.

Common

Substituting text based on a variable and/or world model information. Pretty much all the major systems are capable of this. Inform also allows syntax such as “understand the color property as describing a brick” also to affect parsing to make this easier to parse.

Choosing randomly from multiple text options. Inform’s [one of]…[at random], [one of]…[as decreasingly likely options], [one of]…[sticky random], and similar features; TADS and Twine also provide this functionality. Most of the time it’s used to handle randomized atmosphere messages and NPC idles, or to diversify the responses to player behavior instead of using just one default message all the time. Counterfeit Monkey uses some randomness and cycling in default messages in order to make the narrator character Alex seem more personable and less like a computer.

At the more ambitious end, this technique can be used to build out randomized room descriptions: see the maze rooms in Hunter, In Darkness and the entirety of My Secret Hideout.

Recording and reusing user-supplied strings. Probably the most common application of this is to ask for the player’s preferred name, as exemplified in the example Identity Theft in Inform; all the major systems that I know of have some way of doing this, since it’s just collecting text and then subsequently using that variable for generation.

Ultimate Quest kind of went to extremes with this by allowing people to rename objects however they wanted, permitting them to assign their own synonyms or nicknames to things. This occasionally had an in-game value but often was used to do things like rename villain characters to JERKFACE. (The code obviously needed a few checks to make sure that players weren’t naming objects the same as some other existing object.)

Selecting singular and plural forms, or generating them. Inform and TADS both deal with this to create plurals of nouns and to make verbs agree properly; the systems have over time gotten more and more elaborate, and tied in with

Revising person, number, and tense of narration. Curveship got here first; the TADS libraries adv3 and adv3lite, and Inform’s 2014 builds all supply ways to do this as well. (And before the 2014 build, there were more clumsy ways of doing this with library message replacement libraries such as Custom Library Messages.) Because this applies to verb forms and not to nouns, it doesn’t tend to raise the same parsing challenges.

This can be useful to shift the descriptions of an entire game; Shelter From the Storm rather dramatically lets you choose your own person and tense of narration as you like. It also turns up in flashback sequences in only part of a game; I think All Hope Abandon does this, and I know Dial C for Cupcakes does. (It’s also possible to find first person, third person, and past tense games on IFDB using tags. I checked for future tense games and didn’t find any, which may reflect a genuine absence thereof.)

Semi-common

Selecting and ordering information to be narrated. The Inform libraries Complex Listing and Room Description Control; Inform’s writing a paragraph about and locale activities.

Room Description Control is the most systematic of these, and is designed to allow the author to

  • write her own rules about what room description information should be mentioned at all, which means one can write rules like “anything marked as invisible should not be mentioned” or “things on high shelves should not be mentioned” or “open objects should be mentioned”; then
  • once a list of information to report has been established, write rules controlling the order of that that report, e.g. “people should be mentioned last”; then
  • using the “write a paragraph about” activity, provide more or less specialized templates for describing particular sets of facts or objects. This means one can, say, provide a special override for the case that the statue bust is on a pedestal vs. in any other location.

One of the major points about “write a paragraph about”, both as used by RDC and in its use in vanilla Inform, is that it’s not necessarily trying to assemble a human-sounding paragraph from scratch (though Tailored Room Description does provide some attempts at that for generic cases). Instead, it’s matching an author-generated paragraph to the particular selection of salient information it needs to report, and falling back to default descriptions if it can’t find any such paragraphs available.

This is closer to the approach taken by the Prom Week engineers and James Ryan’s current work, though in practice IF often needs to rely on mix of both methods.

RDC demands a lot from the author, so it has a companion extension Tailored Room Description that exemplifies how much of the heavy listing is done (and can be used as an out of box solution, though I imagine the only reason someone would go to the trouble of using it would be if they wanted to make some major changes).

See also this article on generating physical descriptions for characters on a MUD.

Talking naturally about lists and quantifiers. The aim here is to avoid clumsy reports of world state concerning sequentially related model data, such as “The left drawer is open. The middle drawer is closed. The right drawer is closed.” The rather vaguely-named extension Assorted Text Generation mostly does one task: write phrases identifying members of a group, such as “Both of the doors are open” or “All but the white door are closed”. It includes a number of minor variations on these, and also has some ways of talking imprecisely about large numbers.

Building on this, the Automated Drawers extension is basically an excuse to use this functionality; to the best of my knowledge it has wisely been avoided by other authors, though I did use it in Counterfeit Monkey. Its function is to allow the author to say that a given desk has N drawers and that they’re vertically or horizontally arranged, and then autogenerate and auto-understand input such as “open the top drawer” or “the top drawer is open”.

Combining clauses into paragraphs. The challenge here is to take a sequence of single-clause sentence texts such as “Mary enters the room. Paul enters the room. Paul sits on the bed. A dog is on the bed.”, generated by world model information, into a more natural-sounding paragraph, using strategies such as combining sentences with shared information, but avoiding erroneous over-combination:

“Mary and Paul enter the room. Paul sits on the bed.”
“Mary enters the room. Paul enters the room and sits on the bed.”
* “Mary and Paul enter the room and sit on the bed.”

Savoir-Faire does this with its object-throwing-and-landing code: things can be thrown at other things, and the target objects might break, roll away, fall, spill, etc. In theory, liquid can pour out of a broken vase, or a marble fall out of a glass box and then roll off the shelf the box was sitting on: the possible ramifications are numerous. SF also provides mechanisms for reporting less-vital “color” information like what sound is made when one object strikes another. So to report all this, it needs to

  • assemble a list of clauses describing all the different things that happen, labeling them as instant (things that could happen at the same time as other things) or sequential (things that in themselves take time)
  • choose which if any clauses it can eliminate (if there’s lots of important stuff to report, color information may be omitted; if not, it will leave that information in to keep the report interesting)
  • generate output sentences by stitching clauses together in a way that respects their temporal information as well as trying to minimize redundancy

It’s actually even a bit more ridiculous than that, because each verb that can be the main verb of a clause was implemented as an object with special rules about how to print itself, including making alternate short, medium, or long instantiations of those clauses in order to produce stylistic variation, and doing some stuff to automatically create verb plurals where needed, and so on.

Honestly I am not sure that players noticed or cared about most of this; the point was mostly that I was enjoying the mad science of it all.

The I7 extension Approaches, meanwhile, deals with traversing large amounts of territory and putting together descriptions of all the rooms the player passes through.

Most rigorously of all, a generalized combination of reports of player actions are built into TADS 3 in order to present. I’m not an expert in how this works, however, since TADS 3 has not been my main language of choice. Games like Return to Ditch Day demonstrate the effects, though.

Unusual

Adjective selection for complex objects. The last category slightly gets into this one: sometimes we want to apply identifying vocabulary to a particular object based on multiple aspects of the world model; an NPC doesn’t just have the property “angry”, for instance, but can be described as “apoplectic” if she has both the mood angry and the personality profile domineering.

Noisy Cricket is an Inform example that constructs a name for an alcoholic beverage depending on the mix of liquids included in that beverage; otherwise I don’t know of a large number of things that do this much in practice. In that case, it’s assumed that player actions will directly prompt changes in the object name, which may not always be the case. If it’s necessary to respond to world model changes that might be happening for multiple reasons, one might calculate and reassign descriptors to objects each turn in order to keep them up to date with the world model.

Filtering output to add verbal tics and similar features. These are filters that are added after the fact once the text is already fully composed in order to add surface-level effects or defects. Versu has a drunkenness filter built in which automatically slurs text output by a character that registers as drunk. Curveship’s examples include an um-inserter to make characters seem to hesitate.

*

Other obvious examples I’m not thinking of?


Post Position

Reading from #! at UNH Tomorrow

by Nick Montfort at November 18, 2014 04:12 AM

I’ll read from my book #! at the University of New Hampshire tomorrow: Memorial Union Building, Theater 2. 12:30pm.

Storycade

Mobile: Necklace of Skulls

by Amanda Wallace at November 18, 2014 12:01 AM

Necklace3

For most of them the veteran’s report carried that special thrill of distant alarm. A great but far-off city reduced to ruin; a disaster from halfway across the world. Cataclysmic news, but an event comfortingly remote from the day to day affairs of home.

You are Evening Star, a hero in the making, about to find out what happened to your lost twin brother Morning Star. This is the setting of the mobile game Necklace of Skulls, set in a colorful, well developed world populated by myth and legend. Through your journey you encounter a variety of characters; from cannibals to albino dogs. You must face these things with the skills that you have, the tools you collect and your own wits.

The primary strength of this game is the rich fantasy world it creates. As someone well versed in Western mythology (Greek, Roman, Norse mostly) this foray into Mayan symbols and characters was a welcome and exciting foray. The art that accompanies the text is rich, colorful and fitting with the tale. While the story takes place in the second person, it holds a certain “campfire” quality. It feels like you could sit around a campfire with an older patriarch (or matriarch) of the family and listen to them create the same type of yarn. In that sense, it has mythology and folklore nailed.

Necklace2

The writing is of an acceptable quality and a play through can be completed by a diligent reader in about a half hour. The game teases the promise of multiple playthroughs with the available characters (Warrior, Huntress, Wayfarer & Sorceress), but this promise is one I would not suggest fulfilling. The prologue appears to be the same for all four characters — no matter what, in this tale you are Evening Star on a quest for Morning Star. There are routes tantalizingly blocked off from you from the beginning because you lack certain skills, but you can access them on later playthroughs. However, it didn’t seem worth the effort to replay some of the scenes over again for those few clues and objects. There is little reward for going a different route.

He snorts contemptuously. “You mortals are so predictable. There are greater victories than revenge.”

In what is problematic in most interactive fiction, including gamebooks, I managed to find myself “choiced” into a corner. I was near what felt like the end on my first playthrough of Necklace of Skulls only to find myself stymied at a four forked path. I tried all options, explored each path. It did not matter. I died anyway. With no way to return to a previous decision, to right my own wrongs, I was trapped within reaching distance of the games conclusion and had to just quit. It’s not an ideal situation, and it does happen, but I felt incredibly thwarted. My second playthrough was riddled with repetition before I died inelegantly in a forest without being able to find my way out.

This is a game with a combat system, and it was not my favorite. Without direction in my first fight, i found it truly puzzling. Here’s a picture of the interface:

Necklace

This is a fight between your character and the cannibals. You have three options with limited stamina and you must land your blows. I might not have been getting it, but there didn’t seem to be a recognizable pattern of attack that I could plan for. Instead I just kept dying. Fighting became so troublesome that I took the coward’s way out in every battle. The fighting system is something that Necklace of Skulls could’ve done without.

I found Necklace of Skulls entrancing, with beautiful art and a tie to folklore that I truly appreciate. But I was stymied by the difficulty level and the repetition that made me unwilling to seek out more playthroughs. If you’re willing to fight past the difficulty, it’s definitely worth the cost. Necklace of Skulls is currently available on iOS and Android for $2.99.

The post Mobile: Necklace of Skulls appeared first on StoryCade.

November 17, 2014

Choice of Games

iOS VoiceOver Users: Please Upgrade to iOS 8.1.1

by Dan Fabulich at November 17, 2014 10:01 PM

Apple released iOS 8.1.1 today, which fixes a bug in iOS 8 that prevented our games from working in iOS VoiceOver mode. Visually impaired users who upgrade to iOS 8.1.1 can now play our games normally.

Sibyl Moon Games

Welcome to Adventure: Lesson 3 (Doors, Keys, and Text with Variations)

by Carolyn VanEseltine at November 17, 2014 09:01 PM

Introduction

This is the third in a series of quick-start Inform 7 tutorials using examples from Colossal Cave Adventure. More information about this tutorial series can be found here: A Quick-Start Guide to Inform 7.

Making Doors

In Inform 7, a door is a thing that connects two rooms by way of a direction. The code for a basic door might look like this:

There is a room called My Office.
There is a room called The Hallway.
A wooden door is a door. The wooden door is east of My Office and west of The Hallway.

This will produce a basic door that you can walk through by way of a direction, or by entering the door. The player can open and close the door at will. The player will attempt to open a closed door automatically before walking through it, and the player will stop entirely if the door is locked.

example door behavior

As with other things, you can learn about the properties of a door by using the SHOWME debug command.

showme example door

Doors are automatically fixed in place. Doors also have a few special properties of their own, including open/closed, openable/unopenable, and locked/unlocked.

A Door By Any Other Name

A door doesn’t have to be called a “door”, and many are not. The stairs between At Top of Small Pit and In Hall of Mists are a door that cannot be opened or closed. The source code:

There is a room called At Top of Small Pit.
There is a room called In Hall of Mists.
Some rough stone steps are an open unopenable door. Some rough stone steps are down of At Top of Small Pit and up of In Hall of Mists.

Multiple Descriptions for One Door

The appearance of the stone steps changes depending on whether you are in At Top of Small Pit or in In Hall of Mists.

steps description

We can replicate this effect by giving the steps an initial appearance with two built-in states, like so:

The initial appearance of some rough stone steps is “Rough stone steps lead [if the location is At Top of Small Pit]down the pit[else]up the dome[end if].”

By default, the Inform 7 term “location” means “location of the player”, which means the room the player is currently in. But it doesn’t have to be the player. Consider this source code:

The initial appearance of some rough stone steps is “Rough stone steps lead [if the location is At Top of Small Pit]down the pit[else]up the dome[end if][if the location of the player is the location of the food]. It looks like a lovely place to sit down and eat some tasty food[end if]. “

Here’s the result.

steps for tasty food

You can also affect the description of a door based on a property. Going back to the first example:

There is a room called My Office.
There is a room called The Hallway.
A wooden door is a door. The wooden door is east of My Office and west of The Hallway.
The initial appearance of the wooden door is “A boring wooden door leads out of the room. The door is [if the wooden door is open]open[else]closed[end if].”

This kind of description change is not door-specific. It can be enacted on any piece of text, including room and object descriptions. For example, you could change the initial appearance of the bear based on whether or not the food is in the room:

The initial appearance of the bear is “There is a ferocious cave bear eying [if the location of the tasty food is the location of the bear]the tasty food[else]you[end if] from the far end of the room!”

Altering text on the fly is an incredibly powerful tool that deserves far more attention than it will receive in this quick-start tutorial series. It is covered comprehensively in chapter 5 of the Inform 7 manual.

A One-Way Door

At the very beginning of Adventure, instead of going east, you can type “go building” to enter the building, so the building is clearly a kind of door. But once you are in the building, you cannot type “go building” to exit the building again. This is a one-way door.

Here is an updated version of the code to connect End of Road and Inside Building.

There is a room called At End of Road.
There is a room called Inside Building.
The well house is an open unopenable door. The well house is inside of At End Of Road. Through the well house is Inside Building. Understand “building” as the well house.
Outside of Inside Building is At End of Road.

Note that “Inside of At End Of Road is Inside Building.” is no longer part of the source code. Leaving it in would produce an error, because Inform 7 would see that going inside from At End Of Road reached both a door (the building) and a room (Inside Building).

Doors that Lock and Unlock

At Slit in Streambed, there is a locked steel grate. The grate can only be unlocked with the keys. Here is one way to set this up:

There is a room called Outside Grate.
There is a room called Below Grate.
The steel grate is a locked lockable door. The steel grate is down of Outside Grate and up of Below Grate.

Here’s the result:

locking and unlocking the grate

Note the debug command PURLOIN, which will move an object from wherever it is in the game into your inventory. It is very useful for things like testing a key that you have not actually placed in a room (as is the case with the set of keys in the source code above.)

Containers that Lock and Unlock

Like doors, containers can be locked and lockable, and they can be unlocked with a matching key. This is useful in a wide variety of ways, although none of them are exemplified in Adventure.

Further Reading

To learn more about doors, keys, and text with variations, see the following parts of the Inform 7 manual:

§3.12. Doors
§3.13. Locks and keys
§5.6. Text with variations

IFComp News

2014: A year of firsts among fives

November 17, 2014 04:01 PM

Thus ends the 20th annual Interactive Fiction Competition. As I have said elsewhere and repeatedly, I could not have asked for a better welcome as my own first time organizing the event. I look forward to many more years with the IFComp.

I have a lot of thoughts about this year’s collection of forty-two entries, but I’d like to begin by sharing some observations about the entries that finished at the top of the list this year.

  • The top five games were created with five different systems, running the gamut of different player experiences. This variety is unprecedented for the IFComp, and it is my single favorite fact of the this year’s outcome. For me, it speaks to the ongoing growth of and experimentation with new forms interactive fiction — even as it holds true to its roots.

    Counting from the top, we have:

  • Creatures Such As We, by the author of last year’s first-place winner Lynnea Glasser, placed better than any non-parser game ever has. The record was previously held by Dierdra “Squinky” Kiai’s The Play, which took third place in 2011.

  • Steph Cherrywell’s Jacqueline, Jungle Queen! represents the first appearance of a Quest-authored game in the top ten, let alone the top three. (Last year, Alex Warren’s Moquette captured 15th place.)

  • Porpentine and Brenda Neotenomie’s With Those We Love Alive fared the best of any Twine-based game so far, arriving one place better than last year’s Solarium by Alan DeNiro.

    I also find it quite impressive that this game’s ratings were quite divided, with the highest standard deviation among all the entries, and the work still managed to land in the top five.

  • If we count co-credits, then women outnumber men two-to-one among the top five games’ creators.

  • Two game titles found among the top five are from famous quotations — one from Carl Sagan, and one from the Bhagavad Gita.

As I now find myself marveling at trivia, I’ll leave the list there. Suffice to say that — not even delving deeply into the content of these games — the diversity of form on display here makes me feel very proud to have helped bring attention and accolade to these works and their creators. This speaks to a bright future where IF keeps evolving, finding new ways to be brilliant, and new people to be brilliant through.

Emily Short

IF Comp 2014 Results, and upcoming post-mortem discussion

by Emily Short at November 17, 2014 10:00 AM

ifcompIF Comp 2014 is over! Congratulations to Sean M. Shore for the winning entry Hunger Daemon, a thoroughly enjoyable piece of work. Full comp results, including the stats breakdown on all the votes, can be found at the IF Comp website. There are also some interesting author post-mortems on various games turning up on the intfiction forum; currently these include background for Hunger Daemon, Krypteia, Raik, Missive, Eidolon,
Transparent, Alethicorp,
The Entropy Cage, Following Me, Fifteen Minutes, Tea Ceremony, and Ugly Oafs. (And my Roundup post is no longer stickied, but if you want it, it’s here.)

For those who’d like to discuss any aspect of the Comp live, we’re having a session of IF Discussion Club on that very topic! It’s 8 PM British time, 3 PM Eastern, noon Pacific, on November 22 on ifMUD (and there’s also an IRC channel set up to access the discussion for those who have trouble with ifMUD for whatever reason). I don’t have a strong planned agenda for this discussion; I feel like I’ve said a lot about this comp already and I’d rather hear about what others think.

But maybe you have something you’d like to see discussed: things that you particularly liked, trends you found exciting, experiments you hope will see some followup, or something else entirely? If there’s something you’d like to get people thinking about prior to the discussion itself, please feel free to post questions/thoughts here, and we’ll take that as a bit of a springboard.


These Heterogenous Tasks

Best Critical Writing of IF Comp 2014

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at November 17, 2014 01:01 AM

One of the reasons I like IF Comp is that it prompts an annual Great Flourishing of IF criticism. Outside comp season, writing about IF can be a lonely task: but in Comp season everybody is paying attention to the same … Continue reading

November 16, 2014

Emily Short

ICIDS: The future of interactive storytelling, plus some Versu thoughts

by Emily Short at November 16, 2014 02:00 PM

Hartmut Koenitz submitted a talk for ICIDS that was essentially a manifesto about what needs to happen next in interactive digital narrative, and accompanied this with a workshop on the future of interactive storytelling. The points of the manifesto are as follow:

  • We need a new theory of narrative for interactive digital narrative in order to get rid of accumulated preconceptions.
  • Interoperability is key: tools need to be developed in such a way that they can be hooked together and progress on one hand can be used by others.
  • Sustainability is essential. Lack of archiving has already destroyed a lot of valuable research work.
  • Interactive digital narrative needs to be author-focused. There is a challenge in training new authors in procedurality in order to get useful feedback from them.
  • User experience is crucial. We need to focus on how people actually experience and enjoy this work.

I don’t have strong feelings about the narratology issue.

In re. interoperability: I think this is an interesting point, but in my experience you don’t get tools that can work together until after you’ve already reached a pretty strong community consensus about what you’re even trying to do. This pertains in some areas in the IF world (Vorple being designed to plug into multiple back-end engines, for instance), but it’s not so applicable in areas where people are doing really fresh research. It’s not clear what it would mean to be able to plug together even such related projects as Facade and Versu. They’re both doing some agent modeling and tracking social practices, but in many other respects under the hood they’re extremely unlike.

Sustainability: yup, I agree, and this is something that affects everyone working in this field. The IF Archive is terrific, and one of my biggest concerns about the current IF diaspora is that it’s no longer standard for a majority of interesting IF in a given year to end up archived there. A lot of Twine work is hosted individually and could vanish again at any time; likewise a lot of individually created projects. I’m not sure what we should be doing about this, though possibly more advertising the existence of the IF Archive to creators outside the community would be a good step.

Focus on authors and on player experience: these feel to me like issues related to the distance between academia and actual practice (by the IF community, by indie devs, etc). This is something I talked about a good bit while I was at the conference: a number of researchers lament the difficulty of finding authors with an interest in procedural or interactive aspects of storytelling, but have not been in the habit of reaching out to communities where experienced IF authors could be found.

Likewise the issues about thinking about player response. When I gave my talk about Versu and Blood & Laurels, I framed it by explaining that B&L was a commercially released app, that I hadn’t done academic-style player response studies but that I was going to be talking about some feedback that I’d gotten from reviewers and players of the game. I knew that this wasn’t how things are usually handled in this community, but even so I was surprised to get several questions afterwards from questioners who seemed taken aback by the whole concept: basically, that the process of releasing a game to the public, and seeing it reviewed by individual players and by publications, was so unusual that they actually did not understand what I was referring to.

I think this is a problem. There’s much to be said for rigorous data collection about specific aspects of what players think or feel about your game; the work done by Juhana Leinonen and Aaron Reed in analyzing transcript and other IF-related input is really cool and I wish we could do more of those sorts of things. It might be interesting also to do some survey work into particular aspects of people’s IF experiences. But the flip side is that with a survey you get back information of the kind you were looking for, and you can often skew that information pretty hard (intentionally or not) depending on how you ask the question. Open-ended reviews and feedback are harder to control but much more likely to return types of information that you didn’t know you should look for.

*

Subsequent discussion. Koenitz also publicly discusses his manifesto with Chris Crawford in several sections here: 1 2 3 4 (so far — it may be that they’ll post more of these).

In the discussion, Crawford writes (predictably, for those who have been following his work):

The whole boolean approach imposes an overly simplistic black and white mentality on the infinitely subtle processes of drama. Michael Mateas recognized this with Prom Night and used 4-bit numbers to obtain greater resolution, but I think we need to go all the way to floating point… The fundamental thing that both sides miss, in my physics-centered weltanschaung, is the necessity of modeling character interaction using numeric algorithms.

Here’s the thing I found with Versu: yes, it is useful to have character reactions and mutual evaluations modeled numerically, to have a sense of accumulation and of actions having large and small effects. It’s useful to measure several different axes of affinity between characters, because there are frequently events that need to be gated on more complicated criteria than whether people like one another. A lot of drama comes from internal conflict, and having warring feelings about another character is a good source: the person you find charming but don’t trust, the person you dislike but grudgingly admire, etc.

It’s also useful to be able to scale, for different works, how much characters are affected by a particular action. If you’re writing a fifteen minute comedy piece, there’s not much time for character feelings about you to accumulate, so it’s important to make big changes and drive exaggerated reactions, whereas if you’re writing a two-hour epic, you want to move emotions in smaller increments, to show a relationship evolution over multiple scenes. (This is one of many reasons there’s no simple one-size-fits-all library of actions and interactions that will be able to serve all drama models. And no, I don’t think a simple multiplier would resolve it.)

But the numbers and thresholds by themselves are not enough to produce satisfying drama or a sense of agency. You also need to communicate to the player what the current status is, and when the characters are close to one of those thresholds, and which if any actions are likely to have some effect. “George is .952 angry” is not story content, and “George is very angry” is only somewhat better. You really want, if possible, “George is so angry that one more rude remark will push him over the edge.” That puts stakes on the player’s activities and gives them a context for their own character’s actions. It may feel as though the player ought to just be able to sense how the interaction is going, that it gives too much away to say “George is nearly ready to punch you”; but in a system with so many moving parts, being explicit is preferable to being vague if we want the player to have any hope of acting with intention.

As for a sense of drama, a lot of that comes not only from what we see happen, but from what we apprehend might happen. In the case that George is very angry but winds up calming down and not punching the player, there is dramatic charge only if the player knows that the punching was a possibility, in which the player character deliberately backs off from prodding him or perhaps even attempts to pacify him. If the player doesn’t know about the implicit threat, then it’s just a scene in which seemingly not much happens.

I don’t claim, by the way, that in our released Versu work we have entirely got this down. But these are my conclusions from the work we’ve done so far, and this is something that I talked about in my own talk about what we’ve learned from Versu so far. One reviewer mentioned not understanding why a certain character was present in Blood & Laurels because it wasn’t clear how that character affected the plot — meaning that, without realizing it, he’d avoided triggering that character to betray him. If the player had been conscious of that jeopardy, presumably the relationship would have been more interesting and its plot relevance clearer.

*

There’s a lot else in this discussion, much more than I can take on here — about whether progress can be made by community action or by individuals working on their own visions, about how and whether we ought to be trying to relate our work back to existing narrative and dramatic forms, and about the education of a procedurality-literate audience.


Post Position

Forbidden

by Nick Montfort at November 16, 2014 06:19 AM

You don’t have permission to access /memslam/IN A GREEN, MOSSY TERRAIN,IN AN OVERPOPULATED AREA,BY THE SEA,BY AN ABANDONED LAKE,IN A DESERTED FACTORY,IN DENSE WOODS,IN JAPAN,AMONG SMALL HILLS,IN SOUTHERN FRANCE,AMONG HIGH MOUNTAINS,ON AN ISLAND,IN A COLD, WINDY CLIMATE,IN A PLACE WITH BOTH HEAVY RAIN AND BRIGHT SUN,IN A DESERTED AIRPORT,IN A HOT CLIMATE,INSIDE A MOUNTAIN,ON THE SEA,IN MICHIGAN,IN HEAVY JUNGLE UNDERGROWTH,IN AN OVERPOPULATED AREA,BY A RIVER,AMONG OTHER HOUSES,IN A DESERTED CHURCH,IN A METROPOLIS,UNDERWATER on this server.

November 15, 2014

Emily Short

ICIDS: Interactive Documentary

by Emily Short at November 15, 2014 04:00 PM

I mentioned in my general ICIDS post that William Uricchio spoke about interactive documentaries: interactive story forms designed to convey information, sometimes by journalists to support news articles, sometimes as stand-alone long-form projects. He showed us his team’s project _docubase, a collection of (currently) 172 documentaries: these aren’t hosted at _docubase, but have catalog entries there, allowing the curious to link through and see the originals.

There was quite a lot in his keynote, and what follows isn’t so much a summary of that as a reflection on some of the specific tools and examples that he shared.

Tools: Uricchio pointed out the popularity of one called StoryMap designed for building a story around geographically-pegged words and images, and embed associated tweets, vines, Wikipedia excerpts, and YouTube videos.

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 1.01.19 PM

The image here shows the preview editing page, where I’ve just uploaded a photo from my trip, given it some captioning, and pegged it to a geographical location; StoryMap supplies the map itself and all the transition UI. My photo is GPS-stamped, but StoryMap didn’t pick up on that by itself — but that may be user error on my part, rather than an absent feature.

StoryMap reminded me also of BeeDocs’ Timeline, which I occasionally used for classes a few years ago; I actually also used it as a backstory tool and kept the history of Counterfeit Monkey in a Timeline application while the game was in development. I flirted with the idea of releasing that timeline later as a feelie for the game, but ultimately didn’t feel it added quite enough to be worth it. StoryMap feels a bit fuller-featured than that. But what I found striking is that both it and Timeline are designed to support a primarily linear user experience, with a clear sequence of steps to follow; you can view the map and even use it for navigation if you want, but the main thing this tool wants to do is provide a guided walk through a particular sequence, not very far off from Google’s auto story generator for your photographs.

*

Individual works:

Uricchio mentioned a number of individual projects, in particular Trash Track tells the story of a piece of garbage as it makes its way across the landscape and Fort McMoney is a multi-episode documentary on the Canadian oil rush. But he also noted that sometimes interactive documentaries show less use — and in particular less user retention — than one might hope: that people often engage with an interactive documentary just long enough to figure out how it works, and then move on to look at something else.

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 12.39.02 PMThere are exceptions. Bear 71 tracks people’s contact with bears and the life of one particular bear in a Canadian park area. Uricchio cited this as one of the more successful interactive documentaries, perhaps because it provides information about how long the experience is expected to run and gives the user a clear understanding of what completion would mean.

Having been through Bear 71, I think there are a host of other reasons for its success beyond the clear countdown. The interface provides both direction and freedom. There’s a voiceover track that tells the main plot, which runs for the whole time and is skillfully constructed to give you all the information you need, but there’s also a juicily-responsive dynamic map on which you can watch the bear’s movement (and the movements of other animals, people, and vehicles) and select various objects to get a closer look at them.

For me this deftly solved some of the main anxieties that I feel when engaging with this kind of work: that I might miss some important information, that I might not be able to identify the point of diminishing rewards (I don’t want to keep poking an interactive system after I’ve already seen everything it has to offer), or that I might be under-engaged. The latter point is a little tricky to describe, but sometimes I’ve felt when playing with interactive maps and their ilk that this process of clicking on pictures to look at them was using up 100% of my active attention — it wasn’t really possible to split attention and do something else at the same time, the way I could split my attention from a TV show in order also to do a boring task, say — but that it wasn’t rewarding that attention with enough information to keep me interested.

With Bear 71 I felt assured that I would get all the story I wanted and know when it was supposed to stop, while at the same time enjoying the secondary activity of exploring the landscape as a kind of evocative counterpoint to what I was hearing. Sometimes I chose to investigate things related to the main storyline, and sometimes I poked around in odd corners. The game also, rather cleverly, tries to use your laptop camera to surveil you. I said no, but I got the point.

Really, I recommend this one: even if you don’t have a special interest in interactive non-fiction generally, it’s well worth a look. It’s easy to imagine interactive fictions told with an interface sort of like this one, particularly fictions that are about an individual’s experience within the setting of a larger explorable social domain. I’m not sure most hobbyists have the resources to make something this slick and beautiful, but… well, I found it inspiring.

*

In more or less total coincidence, while I was working on this post, I got some email from an unrelated source about another interactive documentary, a piece about Somali pirates called Last Hijack. Last Hijack presents a bunch of interview footage in video clips, but allows you either to explore those clips on your own, jumping around the timeline, or else (by default) it will select following one of four pre-fabricated paths. So this feels like another attempt to resolve the “how long should I spend/how do I find a coherent story” anxiety, and it’s certainly offering more freedom than the average StoryMap sample. But for me it’s still a bit less satisfying than Bear 71 because the directed and interactive aspects seem to be at odds with one another: either I can have a good curated experience or I can look into what I’m curious about, but not both at the same time.


Sibyl Moon Games

In memory of R.A. Montgomery

by Carolyn VanEseltine at November 15, 2014 03:01 PM

I was saddened this week to hear of the passing of R. A. Montgomery, the author and original publisher of the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

Several years back, my brother and my sister-in-law decided to give me nostalgia for my birthday, so they sent me a copy of The aMAZEing Labyrinth and some Choose Your Own Adventure books. I unwrapped my present and discovered a window straight into memory.

I wrote dozens of stories when I was little, the kind of stories that are written on very broad-ruled paper with a stick-figure illustration every page or two. They typically featured princesses, unicorns, and dogs, all wandering through a patchwork world built from fairy tales, King Arthur legend, Greek mythology, and Xanth.

And some of them were Choose Your Own Adventure-style stories, because I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books. They taught me that narrative didn’t have to hold still, that you could flip backward and forward and make decisions that would make a difference. I would blithely order the reader to turn  to page 24 and trust that I would write 23 pages in between.

The Choose Your Own Adventure series was ridiculous and marvelous and fun, and it existed because Raymond Almiran Montgomery loved games and books alike. Montgomery was the publisher who saw the potential for magic in Edward Packard’s interactive manuscript Sugarcane Island. Sugarcane Island became the first  book in the Adventures of You series at Vermont Crossroads Press. After Montgomery sold his interest in Vermont Crossroads Press, he brought The Adventures of You to Bantam Books as the Choose Your Own Adventure series. He was also a writer of Choose Your Own Adventure books, taking equal writing responsibility for the series with Packard.

cyoa books250 million copies across 230 titles followed. Some of those books are still on my shelf now, and many more have passed through my hands.

Thank you for all the adventures, Mr. Montgomery. I hope you found a happy ending.

R.A. Montgomery’s full obituary is available at the Choose Your Own Adventure site.

This year’s IFComp has been dedicated to his memory.

 

Post Position

Memory Slam and Code Poetry at ITP

by Nick Montfort at November 15, 2014 08:12 AM

I was delighted to be at the first NYU ITP Code Poetry Slam a few hours ago, on the evening of November 14, 2014. The work presented was quite various and also very compelling. Although I had an idea of what was to come (as a judge who had seen many of the entires) the performances and readings exceeded my high expectations.

A reading I did from historical computational poetry kicked off the event. I read from a new set of reimplementations, in JavaScript and Python, that I developed for the occasion. The set of four pages/Python programs is called Memory Slam. It contains:

Love Letters
Christopher Strachey, 1952

Stochastic Texts
Theo Lutz, 1959

Permutation Poems
Brion Gysin & Ian Somerville, 1960

A House of Dust
Alison Knowles & James Tenney, 1967

These are well-known pieces, at least among the few of us who are into early computational poetry. (Chris Funkhouser and his Prehistorical Digital Poetry is one reason we know these and their importance; Noah Wardrip-Fruin has also offered a great discussion of Love Letters, and Stephanie Strickland, who was in attendance at the slam, has done two collaborative poems based on A House of Dust, one with me and one with Ian Hatcher.) Some implementations exist already of many, perhaps all of them – although I did not find one for A House of Dust. My point in putting these together was not to do something unprecedented, but to provide reasonably clean, easily modifiable versions in two of today’s well-known languages. This will hopefully allow people, even without programming background, to learn about these programs through playing with them.

If I didn’t implement everything perfectly, these are explicitly free software and you should feel free to not only play with them but to improve them as well.

These Heterogenous Tasks

Comp 2014 Roundup

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at November 15, 2014 02:01 AM

I have a couple more reviews to write, but those aren’t happening until a little post-comp. So it’s time for a wrap-up post. In line with the trends of the previous few years, there were relatively few utter-bullshit games. Even the games … Continue reading

November 14, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2014: With Those We Love Alive

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at November 14, 2014 10:01 PM

With Those We Love Alive is a choice-based game by Porpentine and Brenda Neotenomie. . . . . . This is the last day of comp voting, so I don’t have the time or mental space to do this full justice just … Continue reading

IFComp News

Dedicated to R. A. Montgomery, 1936 - 2014

November 14, 2014 10:01 PM

I’m sad to learn of the passing of R. A. Montgomery, the original publisher and author of the Choose Your Own Adventure game-book series for children.

I would like to dedicate this year’s competition to his memory. Interactive fiction would be a very different and much poorer place without his early body of work under the CYOA brand, and the million, million stories — and story-machines — that it inspired.

Storycade

Interactive Novel: The Vanishing Game

by Amanda Wallace at November 14, 2014 09:01 PM

Vanishing Game

After all this bad luck — the burglary, the totalled car — here was the world paying me back.

Land Rover has commissioned a piece of electronic literature, and in what is surely news, it actually isn’t bad.

Called the Vanishing Game, it is an interactive tumblr/short-story following the tale of Alec Dunbar, a down-on-his-luck actor who is given a strange opportunity for a banal delivery that turns into a fodder for mystery and intrigue. The work is by British novelist William Boyd, best known for his work on a James Bond continuation novel “Solo” in 2013.

Before delving into this work, I was unfamiliar with Boyd, but I get a good sense of him as an author. It bears all the hallmarks of classic spy novels, with a dash of an almost-everyman thrown in the middle of something out of his control. There’s a beautiful, injured woman with a job for our attractive, British narrator. There’s a mysterious package. There’s accents and intrigues and long nights on the road. There’s a car.

Where does Land Rover factor into this? When you look at a piece of literature, specifically one that has been commissioned by a company, you need to take a long look at what they’re selling. In this case, the corporate sponsorship is actually pretty minimal. The version I played, available at this link, didn’t even have a Land Rover watermark. They mention the name of the car more than most stories would, but I’ve honestly already forgotten it. However, there is one element that was out of place and completely ruined immersion.

Vanishing Game

 

Interactions in this novel are done through clicking on links. They’re fairly mild interactions, and they don’t seem to have an effect on the story overall. Instead they are about seeing slightly more of the background image or another visual or sound element. The exception of this is the sponsored links — which take you to a list of really excited Land Rover owners talked about something mildly related to the premise. In the case of the above image, it was the word “forded.” They’re all linked through the #wellstoried hashtag, an element put in for the commercial effect. They are strange and break the effect of the overall very enticing story. At the moment when I passed the “forded” term, I was in the middle of rising dramatic action and was not expecting to see someone excitedly driving their Land Rover across a small creek. Those instances of corporate heavy handedness mar an otherwise exceptional intrigue story.

I felt strangely excited: this was an adventure, out of the blue. A beautiful woman had offered me this bizarre opportunity – and a lot of money for one day’s work. This was what life was all about, I told myself – to be lived to the full, come what may. Happenstance.

The story is itself intriguing and if you enjoy the kind of novel that Boyd is selling — a land of mystery and deception — then you’ll like The Vanishing Game. Boyd wants to give his hero a unique variety of skill-sets, but he’s no special forces James Bond. He’s informed by the movies he’s been in, by the television and film culture that serves as the basis for a lot of our popular culture. Needs to relax? No worries, he did a shoddy martial arts movie where he learned some Tai Chi. Survival skills? Actor boot camp. It’s a handy way of making an average guy a jack-of-all-trades, but it gets a little obvious after a time. Every problem has a fancy movie solution, and that’s a bit deus ex machina.

VanishingGame2

 

The interactivity is very limited, and for most intents and purposes the story is simply scrolling text with a pretty decent British narrator telling it as it goes past. There’s little draw to click on the links — in fact after a time I simply stopped. For starters, there isn’t any effect. You just get to see an unfiltered version of the background image or a visualization of the movie poster from the film he’s referencing. Additionally, clicking on a link might take you to a advertisement, which is impetus enough to never click a link again.

Overall, I’d definitely suggest checking out the Vanishing Game, if for no other reason than it’s tense and well written story. It may be on the low end of interactivity, but it’s certainly worth a look.

The Vanishing Game’s eight-part story is available through a customized Tumblr page, and is also available as a free eBook on Apple’s iBooks Store (iPad and Mac), and the Kindle Store (either on your Kindle or through the Kindle app for Android, iOS, PC, Mac.) It does seem that the eBook version is not as nuanced or interactive as the Tumblr version, and from my experience I would suggest that one.

The post Interactive Novel: The Vanishing Game appeared first on StoryCade.

IFComp News

IFComp 2014 will close this weekend!

November 14, 2014 07:01 PM

The judging period for the 2014 IFComp will close the minute after 11:59 PM Eastern time on Saturday, November 15 — that’s tomorrow night, by my watch. Please remember that judges must rate at least five games in order for their ballots to count towards those games’ final scores!

We’re also accepting prize donations right up until the last minute of judging, as well. If you’ve had a nice prize idea but haven’t gotten in touch yet, please do so soon.


We’re going to wrap this year’s comp in a new and — I hope — fun way on Sunday afternoon. Starting at 3 PM Eastern time on November 16, tune into the competition’s Twitter account for a live-tweeting of the 2014 IFComp’s highlights. We’ll announce, one at a time, the winner of this year’s Golden Banana of Discord (the game whose set of ratings achieved the highest standard deviation), the Miss Congeniality side-contest (representing the games ranked most favorably according to other authors), and finally this year’s top ten IFComp entries.

After all that’s done, we’ll update the website with the complete, final results. The competition ballot page will remain up in between polls closing and that time, so y’all can continue to play the games, but voting will not work. Afterwards, the results page will redirect visitors to each game’s entry on the IFDB, just like every other past year’s results page does.

I’d like to offer a special thank-you to Andrew Schultz for organizing the effort to get all of this year’s games catalogued on the IFDB, and to all other authors who assisted with that.

The Digital Antiquarian

Alter Ego

by Jimmy Maher at November 14, 2014 01:00 PM

Alter Ego

Peter J. Favaro started blending computers with psychology some eight years before Activision published his groundbreaking “life simulator” Alter Ego. In his first year as a graduate student of Clinical Psychology at Long Island’s Hofstra University, he and another student developed an obsession with the early standup arcade game Space Wars (a direct descendent of that granddaddy of all arcade games, MIT’s Space War).

During one of the many psychological discussions which developed around those sessions, I wondered whether the games served some kind of therapeutic function for us. They took us away from the pressure of graduate school for a short time and gave us a chance to act out some of our competitive urges. I also wondered what kinds of motor and reflex skills the games were training in us. One of the last things we said about video games that day was that they would be fun to study in some small research projects.

Games and the mostly young people who played them would come to dominate Favaro’s years at Hofstra.

As arcades and the Atari VCS grew in popularity over the course of those years, an anti-videogame hysteria grew in response. The Philippines and Singapore banned arcades outright, claiming they “cause aggression, truancy, ‘psychological addictions’ akin to gambling, and encourage stealing money from parents and others to support children’s videogame habits.” Closer to home, the Dallas, Texas, suburb of Mesquite banned children from playing videogames in public without a parent or other adult guardian, prompting a rash of similar bans in small towns across the country that were finally struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1982. Undaunted, Ronald Reagan’s unusually prominent new Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, waded in soon after, saying videogames created “aberration in childhood behavior” and, toting one of the anti-videogame camp’s two favorite lines of argument, claiming again that they addicted children, “body and soul.” Others colorfully if senselessly described videogames as substitutes for “adolescent masturbatory activity,” without clarifying what that deliciously Freudian phrase was supposed to mean or why we should care if it was true.

Favaro labored to replace such poetic language with actual data derived from actual research. His PhD thesis, which he completed and successful defended in late 1983, was entitled The Effects of Computer Video Game Play on Mood, Physiological Arousal, and Psychomotor Performance. One of the first studies of its kind, it found that there was nothing uniquely addictive about videogames. While there were indeed a small number of “maladaptive” children who played videogames to the detriment of their scholastic, social, and familial lives, the same was true of many other childhood activities, from eating sweets and chips to playing basketball. With regard to the other popular anti-videogame argument, that they made children “aggressive,” Favaro found that, while violent videogames did slightly increase aggression immediately after being played, they actually did so less than violent television shows. Also discredited was a favorite claim of the pro-videogame camp, that the games improved hand-eye coordination. Favaro found that playing a videogame for a long period of time made children better at playing other videogames, but had little effect on their motor skills or reflexes in the real world. Favaro would remain at Hofstra doing similar work until several years after completing his PhD.

While he was conducting his research, Favaro, an ambitious, personable fellow who had become something of a hacker following his purchase of an Atari 800, fostered links with the computer-industry trade press. After contributing articles to various magazines for some months, he became a “Special Projects Editor” with SoftSide beginning with the January 1983 issue, curating features on education and the relationship of children to computers until that magazine’s demise a year later. He then spent almost two years with Family Computing in largely the same role. He wrote cover-disk programs like Relaax…, which walks you through a series of relaxation exercises, and Pix, which lets you draw pictures by assembling, collage-like, smaller images on the screen. His most notable creation of this period for our purposes is Success, a multi-player Life-like computerized board game that starts by having you choose a personality — “aggressive,” “impulsive,” “pragmatic,” or “romantic” — and a goal in life — “money,” “knowledge and intellectual curiosity,” or “health and happiness.” You then move around the board flipping “cards” that affect your progress in the various goals: a “recent swamp purchase” decreases your money by $150, while a marriage proposal sends you to an arcade-style mini-game that places you behind the wheel trying to get to the church on time. Other ideas that would be incorporated into Alter Ego can be found in his articles on game design. Presaging the innovative character-creation system of Ultima IV as well as Alter Ego, he suggests in SoftSide‘s September 1983 issue quizzing the player of an adventure game about her personality before kicking off the proceedings in earnest:

In a situation where danger was imminent, would you

A) Ask for help.

B) Take charge and take action.

C) Run for your life.

The same article suggests a scoring system based on the player’s “display of bravery, risk-tasking, judiciousness, pragmatism, or whatever else you would like to reinforce.”

In an interview he gave in 2007 which contrasts weirdly with the idealistic tone of magazine articles like that one, Favaro claimed he made Alter Ego for very pragmatic reasons: out of his “love for game design and the prospect of making some money,” using his academic background as “a way of breaking out of the pack of other designers.” It’s not clear how rigorous his claimed research for the game — interviews with “hundreds of people” about their “most memorable life experiences” — really was, or whether it was even conducted solely in the service of this project or was a more general part of his ongoing psychological research at Hofstra. What is very clear, however, is that his idea for a “life simulator” was just the sort of high-toned, innovative project that Jim Levy’s Activision 2.0 swooned over. It didn’t take much to convince them to sign the project. Favaro would write and prototype the game on his Macintosh, while Activision would contract the final programming out to two outside developers: Kottwitz & Associates to do the Apple II and MS-DOS versions, and Unimac to do the Macintosh and Commodore 64 versions. Activision loved the cachet bestowed on the project by Favaro’s status as an actual psychologist so much that they always made sure to refer to him in the packaging, the manual, and advertisements only as “Peter J. Favaro, PhD.”

Alter Ego on the Commodore 64

Alter Ego on the Commodore 64

Alter Ego, which comes in a male and a female version, begins with a multiple-choice personality test that sets your initial scores in twelve characteristics that will be tracked throughout the game: Calmness, Confidence, Expressiveness, Familial, Gentleness, Happiness, Intellectual, Physical, Social, Thoughtfulness, Trustworthiness, and Vocational. You then get to live an entire life: the first scene has you in the womb getting ready to make your big exit (or, if you like, entrance), while the last is the scene of your death, at whatever age and in whatever manner your choices and the cruel vagaries of chance cause that to be. The years between are divided into seven distinct phases: Infancy (birth to age 3), Childhood (ages 4 to 12), Adolescence (ages 13 to 17), Young Adulthood (ages 18 to 30), Adulthood (ages 31 to 45), Middle Adulthood (ages 46 to 64), and Old Age (age 65 to death). Each phase plays out as a series of little interactive vignettes, both universal “life experiences” in the form of the track running down the center of the screen and “life choices,” having to do with relationships, marriage and family life, your career and finances, etc., represented by icons to either side of the experience track. Playing Alter Ego is a matter of choosing to have a life experience or to make a life choice by clicking the appropriate icon, then reacting to what follows as you believe you would in real life — or as you believe the character you’ve chosen to play would. The outcome of most vignettes will affect you in some way, whether by changing some of your twelve characteristics or by bringing more concrete changes to your life, like marriage, a new career, the death of somebody close to you, or for that matter your own death. If nothing else, some time will pass and you will age that little bit. (In a ludic illustration of the way time just seems to fly by faster as you get older, time jumps in larger chunks between later episodes as compared to earlier.) Your personality characteristics, relationship and marriage status, income, etc., in turn affect the vignettes themselves — closing some off to you entirely, altering what transpires in others. While there are still plenty of times where the lack of more comprehensive state-tracking can make the episodes feel inappropriate for your you, Alter Ego does its best, and its best is sometimes better than you might expect.

Leaving aside for a moment the larger thematic innovations of Alter Ego, the interface itself is well worth considering. It is, first of all, yet another impressive implementation of a Macintosh-style interface on computers that predate the Mac itself by years. But more important is Activision and Favaro’s decision to not try to make Alter Ego work through a parser. I’ve railed before against games that want to present big, life-changing choices rather than dwelling on the granular minutiae of Zork, but that insist out of misplaced traditionalism on forcing you to make those choices through a parser. Alter Ego, however, at long last shows the courage to break with tradition. Rather than offer only a few options but force you to wrestle with a parser to divine what they are, Alter Ego just shows you your options and lets you choose one. That may seem reasonable and unremarkable enough today, but it makes Alter Ego one of the first computerized hypertext narratives, a forerunner of Storyspace and the many similar systems that followed. I don’t make any claims to absolute firsts for Alter Ego; our old friends Level 9 in Britain among others were also experimenting with choice-based narratives by the mid-1980s. Still, Alter Ego stands as the most prominent early example of the format. Given that a menu of choices is so much easier to implement than a parser and the relatively complicated world model that must lie behind it, one might well wonder what took the industry so long. My suspicion, for what it’s worth, is that developers were consciously or unconsciously concerned about differentiating themselves from the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were all the rage at the time in children’s publishing.

But now it’s time to get beyond mechanical innovations and the brilliantly original concept itself and look at what it’s actually like to play Alter Ego. More so than even a typical text adventure, which has puzzles and other logistical concerns to distract, a game like this lives and dies for me on the quality of its writing. In this department Alter Ego is, at best, a mixed bag. The early vignettes are the most natural and effective — perhaps because Favaro was technically a child psychologist by trade, perhaps because he was only in his late twenties at the time he wrote the game and thus had only his book learning to draw from when describing the later stages of life. I’m afraid I’m going to be pretty hard on old Peter J. Favaro, PhD, soon enough, so let me first offer a couple of childhood episodes that I really like. One might make you laugh, and the other might… well, okay, it’s a bit sentimental and contrived, what with both husband and daughter managing to get themselves killed by the same freight train, but it’s also very sweet. (In the extracts that follow, I’ll be mixing the male and female versions of the game pretty freely.)

You are sitting in a large place, and a furry man walks up to you. He's walking around you in circles.

Select a mood:
curious
frightened X

Select an action:
point at the furry man
make noises at/talk to the furry man X

The furry man walks right up to you and smells you up and down. His nose pokes into your face and neck. It's cold.

Select an action:
cry X
grab the furry man by the head
push him off you

Your mom comes over and says the furry man is just playing. She takes your hand and puts it on the furry man's back and says, "Nice 'doggie'."

Select an action:
pet the man X
stay frightened and go away from the man

See? It isn't that bad. You pound on the man's back and say, "Nice 'doo-gee'."


There is an elderly woman who lives in a house up the street. Everyone calls her "the witch." Some people say she's really paranoid, calling the cops on kids all the time and screaming out the window, even when there is nobody there. At night she keeps her light on all the time and sits looking out the window.

For the past few days the light has been off. Some of the kids think she's just dead in there or something. They jump in front of her house and sing "Ding dong, the witch is dead, the witch is dead," and laugh.

Select a mood:
sad X
happy

Select an action:
sing with everyone else
try to see if anything is wrong X

One afternoon after school, you look from outside the gate to see if there is anything going on inside the house. There is nothing. You can:
go through the gate and knock on the door X
ask a friend to go with you

You hear a voice call out from the back of the house, "Go away and leave me alone!" You can:
say "I'd like to know if you're o.k. in there." X
quit trying and leave

You hear nothing for about 30 seconds. Finally, the door opens. The woman looks pale and dazed. She seems smaller than you imagined and very delicate. In the corner of her almost-bare living room there is a television set; beside it is a large box of old rubber balls and toys that were left, or had accidentally fallen, on her lawn.

She asks you why you have come. You mention that you noticed that the light has gone out, and you thought she might be needing some help. She explains that she has no way to replace it. She is too old to climb up to do it. You can:
ask her if she would like you to do it X
excuse yourself, now that you know it's just a problem with a light bulb

She thanks you. Her face softens. While you are fixing the light, she tells you a very sad story: A long time ago, she had a little girl very much like you, so polite and so kind. She says her daughter was beautiful, and repeats it over and over--"as beautiful as a picture."

She and her husband lived with their daughter not too far from the train yard. She used to tell her child, "Anne Marie, stay away from the tracks, or you'll get hurt." One day, her daughter and her husband went out to play catch with an old ball. The ball got away from Anne and rolled across the tracks.

While she was chasing it, her foot got wedged between two rails. Her father and she struggled to release it, but before they could, they were both struck by a freight train and killed. She's been alone ever since.

When you are finished fixing the light, the lady gives you some milk and freshly-baked cookies. It almost seems as though she doesn't want you to go. Before you leave, you:
thank her for the cookies and ask if she would like someone around to do odd jobs X
thank her and excuse yourself

Her face brightens. "You must be paid," she says. "I can't afford much, and you'll have to do a fine job, but you can have all the cookies and brownies you can eat. I promise you that." You have done a much kinder thing than you can probably imagine at your age. You've given this woman a reason to live.

Many other vignettes unfortunately manifest the clunkier qualities of the one above without the same endearing sweetness.

The subject of sex has inspired far more bad writing over the course of history than any ten other topics combined. For better or for worse there’s lots and lots of sex in Alter Ego, so much so that it obviously made Activision more than a little nervous; there are prominent warnings on the box and in the manual, and when you actually stumble into a vignette with naughty content you get a big warning message so you can quickly back out with your delicate sensibilities undisturbed. (When we played Alter Ego as kids, of course, that warning meant we’d hit pay dirt.) Some of these episodes feel like they’re lifted from a late-night skin flick.

Perri Barber is an acquaintance who has taken a few of the same classes you have. She is a petite brunette with gorgeous green eyes, a nice smile, and a slim athletic body. She approaches you on campus and asks if you would be interested in helping her paint her dormitory room. What will you do?
help her decorate X
pass on the opportunity

During the course of the afternoon, you get to know one another very well. You work together in close quarters (the room is very small), so a lot of accidental touching and bumping occurs during the day. You aren't sure, but you think that Perri is coming on to you.

Select an action:
suggest that the two of you shower off together
ignore any signals that she might be giving you X

I guess this is not your style. It IS Perri's style, though. She asks if you would like her to scrub all that paint off your gorgeous body.

Select an action:
accept the offer X
reject the offer

The two of you take a nice, warm, romantic shower together. I'll leave what comes after the shower up to your imagination. [Thank God for that!]

When not indulging in teenage-boy fantasies, Alter Ego‘s attempts at the risque manage to be weirdly, anticlimactically square, the sort of things a gaggle of Monty Python housewives would define as transgressive.

Until now, your sexual experiences with your wife have been the standard fare. You've done a little experimenting with positions but that's about it. Have you been thinking about suggesting something a little more out of the ordinary?
"as a matter of fact, yes" X
"no"

What would you like to try?
oral sex X [Shocking!]
being tied up and tickled [No, I couldn't possibly...]
experimenting with marital aids (vibrators, creams, etc.) [Gasp!]
suggesting a menage a' trois (sex with your wife and another woman at the same time) [Now we're getting somewhere... and why do I find the game's need to define this phrase so unaccountably hilarious?]

Your wife is too inhibited to do this, she tells you she would rather not. [Oh, well, it was worth a try...]

In case you were wondering: no, if you play as a woman, you don’t get to ask for sex with two men at once. The woman always gets the short end of the stick in Alter Ego, about which much more in a moment.

Alter Ego is relentlessly hetero-normative. Apart from the ménage à trois, which at least in this context is of course really a heterosexual male fantasy, there are only a couple of places where the game even acknowledges the possibility of alternative sexualities. At one point you can be asked by your French teacher, Mr. Andre, “who everyone in school claims is gay,” to stay after school to help him clean his office. If you ignore the teasing of your classmates and brave the danger, he turns out to not be a Big Scary Gay Man after all: you learn he has a wife and a beautiful daughter, whom he sets you up with to boot. (The game’s blasé assumption that because he has a wife he doesn’t have feelings for men and doesn’t desire you is… interesting.) In another vignette a friend tells you that he believes he is gay, a revelation that the game treats with the same tragic gravity as a terminal disease.

But then, considering the time and place that spawned it, it’s not really fair to expect much more from Alter Ego. It’s very much a product of its time — sometimes depressingly, oppressively so. And, as Adam Cadre once hilariously noted, that time never changes even as a lifetime’s worth of personal experience plays out. Alter Ego‘s milieu is a frozen-in-amber world where a 512 K PC is the best you can buy, where The A-Team and Miami Vice rule the television, where Jordache jeans and Members Only jackets rule in schoolyard fashion, where Madonna is all over MTV (okay, maybe some things really are eternal). Whether you find this horrifying or nostalgically comforting depends on the player I suppose; I lean toward the former personally. Social change — history in general — just doesn’t happen in Alter Ego, which can be as strange to experience as it is understandable from a design perspective: having already tried to create a complete interactive life story, it’s a bit much to expect Favaro to create a believable future history to accompany it, and likely wouldn’t have turned out very well had he tried. Still, playing Alter Ego is like living your life inside the white-bread confines of a 1980s version of The Truman Show. Literally white-bread: apart from the occasional socially-inept immigrant kid you can choose to feel sorry for, everyone in this game is the whitest shade of pale.

If Alter Ego‘s lack of inclusiveness is to some extent forgivable given its origins, I do have more problems dismissing Favaro’s cluelessly demeaning sexism. As with a lot of games I write about, I played Alter Ego with my wife Dorte. She played with the female version, I with the male, and we took turns playing through a life phase at a time and comparing notes. Our agreed approach was to each play ourselves, making the choices we thought we would make at those ages in those situations. As we played, I found myself getting more and more angry at the game and sad for Dorte, as I kept getting to do cool and/or bold things and she kept being offered only meek girlie stuff. I got to go skydiving; she got to get an eyebrow tattoo. I slashed a hated teacher’s tires; she got a new hairdo. I got to buy video equipment or a flash new computer; she got to buy jewelry or “gourmet cooking accessories.” She always got offered the subordinate role, the pretty girl cheering on the boys who were actually doing something. I got to try out for the baseball team; she got to try out for the cheerleading squad. I got to start a rock band with some buddies; she got to call in to a radio show and win backstage passes to a concert (“Could you SCREAM?”).

Favaro’s concept of feminism feels at least two decades behind the times — i.e., about five decades behind our modern times. Alter Ego treats the decision to pick up a single restaurant tab for your steady boyfriend as a blow for “Woman’s Libbers” — when was the last time you heard that term? — everywhere, one so bold that it makes your boyfriend feel “uncomfortable” and emasculated. A male chauvinist you meet at work is just a mustache-twirling villain who says things absolutely no one would dare say openly even in 1986 and who has little to do with the real issues women still confront every day in the working world.

You have been going through a difficult time with an influential businessperson who seems to really enjoy making people miserable with his sexist attitudes, his arbitrary decision-making and his arrogance.

You get called into his office to take the heat for a relatively minor error. The conversation begins, "Look, Darling. I've always believed that a woman's place is in the home. Unfortunately, those bleeding hearts upstairs have made it impossible for me to deal 'man-to-man' around here. There are some problems here that I want resolved, AND NOW!"

One of the interstitial quotes Alter Ego occasionally puts up is this bit of condescension by Sigmund Freud: “The great question… which I have not been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'” Peter J. Favaro, PhD, also doesn’t have a clue. I normally resist the urge to psychoanalyze the people who write the games I write about, but, given that Favaro spends the entirety of Alter Ego analyzing me and offering commentary and criticism on my every action, I’ll make a slight exception and wonder if this passage, which is worthy of a certain rotund cigar-chomping radio host, reflects deeper insecurities.

Mary Lou Stoker is a friend of your closest female companion and a staunch feminist. The truth is that she is not a feminist in the true sense of the word; she simply despises and resents men, misapplying the feminist philosophy to suit her needs.

One afternoon, you overhear Mary Lou telling your best friend that the love of your life "really doesn't give you that much room to breathe." She says, "I mean, he's okay, considering the rest of the garbage that's out there these days, but I wonder if she feels a little trapped in the same place day in and day out?" She goes on this way for quite a while.

My favorite, unintentionally revealing part of this is the phrase “the feminist philosophy,” as if feminists represent a political party — or conspiracy — who all march in lockstep to the same play book.

The most cringe-worthy parts of Alter Ego as a whole are those parts of the female version that deal with the sexual side of puberty and adolescence. Really, can there be any worse subject for a less-than-subtle 28-year-old male writer to tackle? Despite close competition from the likes of discovering your breasts are growing, getting your first period, and having your first orgasm, I think your first visit to a gynecologist makes for the creepiest episode in the game; this fellow is actually far creepier than the Chester the Molester who tries to pick you up outside your school. After making inquiries with one or two women of my acquaintance, I’ve confirmed that if you’re spending any time at all “naked” in a gynecologist’s office then something is very, very wrong.

Your mother calls you in for a talk about something she says is "very very important." She thinks that it might be a good time to go for a checkup with a "gynecologist," a doctor who specializes in women.

Select a mood:
afraid X
comfortable

Select an action:
go for an exam X
don't go for an exam

On the way over, your mother explains to you, "It's a little embarrassing at first, but he really is a gentle doctor." You dwell for a moment on the word "he," and realize that a man is going to see and "mess around with" all of your most intimate parts.

Select an action:
change your mind and tell her you don't want to see a man doctor
go anyway X

The gynecologist is a very sweet old man. Most of the time you spend naked is with a nurse who helps prepare you for the exam. The doctor is kind enough to warm up the instruments before he examines you.

When the examination begins, he shows you various different parts of your reproductive system and teaches you how to give yourself a breast examination, which he says is very important.

He asks your mother if she would be kind enough to leave the room. When she does, he asks you whether you are sexually active and if you are using birth control. He then asks if you would like more information about birth control.

Select an action:
get more information
say, "no." X [Get me out of here!]

He sees that you are feeling a bit uncomfortable and tells you that if you ever need information about birth control to give the office a call. He leaves you with a little warning. "Don't experiment before you get the facts, young lady."

Alter Ego strictly enforces the law of social averages. There are very good design reasons that it can’t allow you to become an astronaut, a rock star, an international drug smuggler, or even a homeless tramp; doing so would invalidate virtually all of the other vignettes that deal with daily life as most Americans of the 1980s knew it. But if the emphasis on the ordinary is defensible given Alter Ego‘s design constraints, the reductive judgments the game is constantly making about your actions certainly are not. Alter Ego is forever telling you why you’ve done something, and then whether that’s good or bad. If you respond to a blue period by just “letting it pass,” it tells you you’re “denying your feelings” and that “it’s okay to feel blue some of the time.” (When did I say that it wasn’t?) If you fail to gush with loving support after your dad gets fired from his job, you’re scolded for not telling him “he is a worthwhile and cherished human being.” (What if I’ve always had a difficult relationship with him and can’t help but remember that he was never really there for me in similar situations, and thus my feelings are more complex than just a “cherishing?”) If you fail to volunteer time or money to a charity that knocks on your door, you’re called in so many words a selfish jerk who can’t be bothered to think of the children! (What if I’m a bit suspicious of big international charities, and prefer to do my giving in other ways?) If you commit suicide — presumably due to all that feeling-denying that was going earlier — you’re told that suicide is always “an act of anger,” but the last laugh’s on you, because “the people you leave behind will try very hard to put this event in their pasts as quickly as possible.” (Suicide is way more complex than just another way of acting out, as someone with a PhD in Psychology really ought to know.) If you try to offer a little advice to a friend who’s having an affair, you’re mockingly told to butt out, “Sigmund.” (Oh, the irony…) When you have your inevitable midlife-crisis, you’re given this semantic drivel about “wishing” and “wanting”:

One of the key things to consider is the difference between WISHING and WANTING. You can spend the rest of your life WISHING for something magical to happen that will change your unsatisfying situation. If you WANT something badly enough, you do whatever is necessary to make it happen, even if it is difficult.

Playing Alter Ego today as a crotchety 42-year-old, my reaction to stuff like this is to ask what the hell do you know about it, Peter J. Favaro, PhD? No one has the right to pass such easy judgment on the complexities of life. If you’ve ever spent time flipping through self-help books, passages like those above may have a familiar ring, and for good reason: Favoro has since built a career around such pat aphorisms, writing a number of pop-psychology books and appearing on the low-hanging fruit of the talk-show circuit — places like The Montel Williams Show and Fox News morning shows — as a “television psychologist.”

I know I’ve been awfully hard on Favaro today, and perhaps not entirely fairly. His project was in a way doomed from the start. I’m sure that neither I, nor you, nor any one person could have done it justice, brilliant as the idea of it is. I’d therefore like to see a modern version of Alter Ego that would try a different approach. Instead of a single author, inevitably blinkered by her experiences and prejudices, I’d like to see a crowd-sourced Alter Ego. People from all over the world, and of all ages, races, genders, and sexualities, would be able to submit their own vignettes reflecting their own lived experiences. The result would be a constantly expanding tapestry of the human experience, accessible to anyone who ever felt an urge to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Rather than flatten the human experience into some idea of the psychologically normal, it would celebrate all of the different ways there are to think and feel and be.

As for the original Alter Ego, it did moderately well commercially; Favaro claims it earned him enough to buy “a house and a car.” Activision and Favaro made plans to release a follow-up called Child’s Play, “a humorous simulation about raising children,” but sweeping changes at Activision in the months after Alter Ego‘s release soon brought an end to that project, and with it Favaro’s career as a game designer.

Alter Ego enjoyed a big revival in the mid-2000s thanks to Dan Fabulich’s web-based version. He’s since also made it available as apps for Android, iOS, and even Kindle e-readers. It’s safe to say by now that many more people have played Alter Ego in its accessible modern incarnations than did so back in the day when it was a $35 boxed game. And indeed, while it does kind of annoy the hell out of me with its dodgy writing, lecturing authorial persona, and blinkered worldview, it’s still worth a look. Not only is it interesting purely for what it tries to do, but many other players genuinely enjoy it on its own terms. And hey, even if you feel like me about it you can still enjoy yourself a lot by making fun of it. Dorte and I had a blast doing that.

In that spirit, I’ll leave you with my favorite male-version/female-version juxtaposition of all.

The female version:

You are getting dressed one day and notice a small red mark on your lip. Could it be some kind of disease? You think about all the boys you've kissed in the past month and decide to kill anyone who has given you a terminal disease.

And the male version:

You are getting dressed one day and notice a small red mark on your penis. Could it be some kind of disease?

Maybe I should take back what I said about the female always getting the short end of the stick…

(Notable writings by and about Favaro can be found in the October 1982 Compute!; the April 1983 and October 1983 Creative Computng; the November 1984 Family Computing; and the November 1982, March 1983, August 1983, September 1983, and January 1984 SoftSide. His three pre-Alter Ego games that were mentioned in the text appeared in SoftSide Selections 54, 58, and 60.)


Comments

November 13, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2014: Missive

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at November 13, 2014 10:01 PM

Missive (Joey Fu) is a Twine game about reconstructing someone else’s torrid affair through old letters. Man, after so many customised games it’s kind of odd seeing the white-and-blue-on-black of default Sugarcane. The protagonist of this story is a mess, depressed and drunken and … Continue reading

Sibyl Moon Games

Get feedback. Change the plan.

by Carolyn VanEseltine at November 13, 2014 07:01 PM

For today’s blog post, I wrote an article about the value of positive reinforcement in video game design. It was focused, detailed, and loaded with examples, including a funny dolphin trainer analogy. I even made a short video with my dog to illustrate the principles involved. I was really excited!

Sibyl Moon has two beta readers. Full of pride, I showed them both the post. “What do you think? Isn’t this awesome?”

Both of them threw an immediate red flag. One said, “You’re comparing human beings to animals,” and the other said, “You’re advocating operant conditioning on human beings.” They chorused, “This is not cool”, even though one was sitting in my office and the other was sending responses via IM.

I was completely taken aback. I rewrote the post to be more player-centric. I tried to emphasize the benefits of timely feedback for the player, rather than to the developer.

They both shook their heads.

I said, “Well… shit.” And then I went away to get lunch, feeling pretty rotten about the whole thing.

After lunch, I took a deep breath, thought about the feedback I’d received, and took a moment to review the literature on operant conditioning and video games. I made a brief strategy in my head for justifying my existing approach. Then I sat down to write this article instead.

When you ask for feedback from a trusted audience, you can’t take only the parts you want. If you trust someone enough to tell you when you’re doing something right, then you have to trust them enough to tell you when you’re doing something wrong.

Am I willing to stand by an article where my readers feel disrespected? Well… no, actually. It wasn’t my intention to make anyone feel disrespected. I screwed up, and no amount of saying “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful” could have compensated for actually being disrespectful.

I still think the core idea was good. I want to rewrite that article someday, because positive reinforcement is a valuable tool in video game design.

But the article didn’t work in its current form. And I’m grateful to my beta readers for telling me so.

November 12, 2014

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 3 new game entries, 9 new solutions, 1 new map, 2 new fixed games, 2 new clue sheets

by Gunness at November 12, 2014 03:35 PM

Image
There are still a number of files and corrections in the pipeline, but for today I just want to point your attention to the recently released film From Bedrooms to Billions, which documents the rise of the UK gaming industry. If you have any interest in the subject matter, I think you will find that it's well worth your time.
It doesn't focus on adventure games in particular, but names such as the Austin brothers of Level 9, Ian Livingstone, and Charles Cecil are featured - as well as pretty much every UK arcade and strategy luminary you can think of.
If you're interested, have a look at the official website!

Contributors: Alex, Richard Bos, Gunness, Juan

November 10, 2014

Sibyl Moon Games

Welcome To Adventure: Lesson 2 (Making Objects)

by Carolyn VanEseltine at November 10, 2014 04:01 PM

Introduction

This is the second in a series of quick-start Inform 7 tutorials using examples from Colossal Cave Adventure. More information about this tutorial series can be found here: A Quick-Start Guide to Inform 7.

Making Basic Objects

I said this lesson would be about objects, but we’re actually making “things”. It sounds informal, but it’s a technical term in Inform 7.

One of the first places you find in Adventure is a small brick building. You can enter the building by going east from where the game begins. Upon doing so, you will find:

Inside Building

In its most basic form, the source code to build a thing is:

Some food is a thing.

The “some food” item now exists in game, but it needs to be placed in a room, or the player will be unable to access it. Establish Inside Building as a room (discussed in Lesson #1) and then update the source code to:

Some food is a thing. Some food is in Inside Building.

basic food

The food in Adventure has some additional text attached. When you first see the food, the game prints “There is tasty food here.”, and if you examine the food, the game prints “Sure looks yummy!”

We can replicate this by altering the initial appearance (text on ground) and the description (examine text) of the food. Here’s the source code:

Some food is a thing. Some food is in Inside Building. The initial appearance of some food is “There is tasty food here.” The description of some food is “Sure looks yummy!”

descriptive food

If the food were a singular object, such as a steak, you would declare it with “A steak is a thing.” instead. Inform will adjust the pronouns according to what you use.

Scenery Objects

Some objects in Adventure do not appear in the room text, such as the stream and forest at At End Of Road. In Inform, these objects have a property called scenery. Here’s the source code for the forest, which sets the “scenery” property immediately:

The forest is a scenery thing. The forest is in At End Of Road. The description of the forest is “The trees of the forest are large hardwood oak and maple, with an occasional grove of pine or spruce. There is quite a bit of undergrowth, largely birch and ash saplings plus nondescript bushes of various sorts. This time of year visibility is quite restricted by all the leaves, but travel is quite easy if you detour around the spruce and berry bushes.”

Fixed In Place Objects

It would be a problem if you could pick up the forest and walk away with it. Fortunately, when an object is scenery, Inform automatically sets the “fixed in place” property as well as the “scenery” property. You can see this by compiling your source and then using the SHOWME debug command on the forest.

forest not going anywhere

Even if something is not fixed in place, you can make it fixed in place by setting the property deliberately, as follows:

The example is a fixed in place thing. The example is in At End Of Road.

This will produce an object called “the example” which cannot be picked up in the At End Of Road room.

Making Containers

The small wicker cage in In Cobble Crawl is a container. It is open when you find it, it can be opened and closed, and it can contain objects. Here is the source code to create the cage:

There is a room called In Cobble Crawl.

A small wicker cage is an open openable container. A small wicker cage is in In Cobble Crawl. The initial appearance of a small wicker cage is “There is a small wicker cage discarded nearby.” The description of the cage is “It’s a small wicker cage.”

What if you wanted to generate the little bird in a conveniently pre-caged state? You could declare this in the source:

A bird is a thing. A bird is in the small wicker cage.

Making Supporters

A supporter is like a container, but the player can place objects on top of it rather than placing objects inside it. Most supporters are pieces of furniture, such as tables and chairs.

Adding Synonyms

When playing Adventure, you can call the forest in At End Of Road a “forest”, but you can also call it “trees”.

To add a synonym to an object, use the following syntax:

Understand “trees” as the forest.

You can also call the forest “hardwood”, “maple”, “pine”, “spruce”, or a number of other things. Fortunately, you can combine all of the options you want into a single sentence.

Understand “tree/trees/oak/maple/hardwood/pine/spruce” as the forest.

Edibility and Other Properties

The SHOWME for the forest includes the property “inedible”, but there is an edible thing in our game – the food. By adding the edible property to the food, as follows:

Some food is an edible thing.

…we can make it possible for the player to eat the food.

Edible/inedible was reasonably obvious, but there are other properties (such as “openable”) that may be less obvious. For a list of properties attached to things, containers, and supporters, go to Index and then to Kinds, and then scroll down until you find a list that starts with “object (plural objects)”.

kinds from index

You can see a full list of properties here for every kind of object in your game. Searching the Inform 7 manual for the name of a property will give you more information about what it is and how it should be used.

Just Scraping the Surface

This lesson covered how to make basic objects, but the things in the wellhouse all have customized functionality.

  • The keys unlock the grate and the chains
  • You can eat the food, or feed it to the bear
  • The lamp allows you to pass safely through the darkness
  • The empty bottle can hold water

I’ll cover this ground in future lessons, but if you want to get started on custom functionality now, read chapter 4 (Kinds) and chapter 7 (Basic Actions) in the Inform 7 manual.

Further Reading

To expand your understanding of things, including scenery, supporters, containers, and properties, see the following parts of the Inform 7 manual:

§3.5. Kinds
§3.6. Either/or properties
§3.7. Properties depend on kind
§3.8. Scenery
§3.10. Properties holding text
§3.11. Two descriptions of things
§17.8. Understanding names

>TILT AT WINDMILLS

WordPlay 2014

by Aaron A. Reed (noreply@blogger.com) at November 10, 2014 04:09 AM

I had the great pleasure this past weekend of attending WordPlay 2014 in Toronto, the second incarnation of this festival "celebrating the most interesting uses of writing and words in contemporary games."

Demoing Inform at the Toronto Reference Library. Photo courtesy Jim Munroe.

A one-day event held at the beautiful Toronto Reference Library, WordPlay's schedule was jam-packed, including a reading, a performance, a debut, several design talks, tool demos, an exhibition of twenty-five games, and even an awards ceremony. Recordings of many of the events are already up.

Making its debut at WordPlay was a new tool for interactive story creation, Texture, created by IF authors Juhana Leinonen and Jim Munroe. Texture looks to combine the simplicity of Twine authoring with some of the verb-noun flavor of parser IF: authors write passages of text, but can also create verbs for each page, and cause parts of a page's text to change by dragging a verb onto a word or phrase. Players will do the same thing while playing: instead of clicking a link to go to a new node, you drag one of the available verbs onto that link to alter the text within that node. Authors can make a "next page" button appear after a specific change, and each page can have its own verbs. The tool is quite straightforward at this point-- despite a more parsery surface veneer, there's none of the world model or state machine features more commonly associated with that model-- but it's interesting to see a new platform trying to engage the traditional aesthetic, and think about how to make it function more naturally on touch devices.

Other highlights: Andrew Plotkin gave a talk on the origins and development of Hadean Lands, his massive new IF puzzlefest, and though it's only been out for a week it was great to hear a new report from the "selling text games" trenches (which after decades of retreat have finally begun to advance a little). I was happy to see 80 Days win one of the (new this year) WordPlay awards, and also to see another go to the wonderfully unconventional bit of awesome that is Nested. Finally, Porpentine wrote a Twine just for WordPlay that successfully convinced the entire atrium of the Toronto Reference Library to shout out choices, caw like birds, pronounce unpronounceable noises, and otherwise do an excellent job at public outreach, while also touching on the less-playful truth that many indie gamemakers don't have the means to attend events like this.

For my part, I got to dust off a live-coding introduction to Inform 7 that I first gave at the 2010 Critical Code Studies conference, taking the audience through a rapid-fire tour of some of Inform's capabilities by rebuilding some of the character development mechanics behind Sand-dancer. (Despite worrying this approach would be totally baffling, I got a few "mind = blown" comments from people afterwards who hadn't heard of Inform 7 and seemed excited to check it out. So I guess at least it was the good kind of baffling.) Ice-Bound was also one of the games on display in the festival's "reading nook," and after wrapping up a successful Kickstarter just a few days before leaving for Toronto, it was great to sit back and watch people have fun with it. And it was a great joy to reconnect with some old IF friends, meet some online compatriots in the flesh for the first time, and meet some new people in Toronto's active indie games community.

A crowd of international guests, Toronto games folks, and confused library patrons. Photo courtesy Jim Munroe.

Many thanks to Jim Munroe and the Hand Eye Society for organizing this event again, and for all the volunteers and sponsors who helped make it happen.