Pythonic Textuality at NYU

I was very interested to learn that Adam Parrish, whose own Interactive Telecommunication Program (ITP) masters project was “New Interfaces for Textual Expression,” is now teaching Digital Writing with Python at NYU’s ITP. The course is concluding; Parrish and his students will mount a final performance on August 5 at 7pm. Parrish eschewed powerful, cryptic Perl for clarity of Python in this course on creating text machines, as I did in putting together The Word Made Digital, which I’ll be teaching again this Fall. His reading list overlaps with mine a bit and includes a nice article on appropriation in writing – I may just rip that right off. I won’t manage to be in New York to hear students read their programs’ output, but I hope the conclusion to the class goes well and that I’ll be able to read and run some things that will give me a sense of the event.

Introducing Curveship

This is the first of a series of posts about my interactive fiction system, Curveship.

Curveship is an interactive fiction development system that provides a model of a physical world, and its workings, as do existing state-of-the-art IF systems (such as Inform 6, Inform 7, TADS 2, and TADS 3). It will not have as many libraries, and will have no multimedia features, when it is released, but it will provide another significant capability: it will allow IF authors to write programs that manipulate the telling of the story (the way actions are represented and items are described) as easily as the state of the IF world can now be changed. While existing IF systems allow for the simulation of a character who can move around and change the state of the world, Curveship provides for control over the narrator, who can tell as if present at the events or as if looking back on them, who can tell events out of order, creating flashbacks or narrating what happens by category, and who can focalize any character, not just a fixed PC or a hard-coded series of them, to tell the story from the perspective of that character’s knowledge and perceptions.

Curveship will have a closed round of testing and revision soon, and will be publicly released soon thereafter. This may happen as early as the end of summer, but if that timing makes little sense for the project or the IF community (IF programmers may be too busy finishing their IF Comp games at that point) the release could happen later.

I have had a very short page about the system up for a while at As it explains in slightly more detail, the system’s starting point was my too-cleverly-named research system nn. I have been working for a while to get a usable programming interface set, to clean up the code, and to add some capabilities that are necessary for a usable IF system but didn’t have much research value to me, at least initially. Finally, the name of the system comes from a poem by Hart Crane. “Curveship is being fashioned to model the essential qualities of variation—the curve of a story through its telling—just as friendship and authorship represent the essence of being a friend and author.”

I’ve recently given a talk about the system to a group of roboticists and computational linguists at a workshop, and more recently (yesterday) got to discuss the practicalities and details of the system a bit with the Boston IF group; those folks provided some good suggestions at the levels I’m most concerned about now. I’m now going to begin writing, as often as I can, about the system, what principles it is based on, and how it works at high and low levels.

Curveship is a Python framework; to write a fiction file you simply write some Python code, instantiating classes for the most part, writing your own subclasses if you want items to do something unusual. There are a few fairly radical differences between Curveship and existing IF systems, but the two that will probably be most visible are the modeling of actions and the string-with-slots representation that is used for text generation. In Curveship, items do not change their own state. Changes of state, and the movement of items from one place or container to another, are accomplished only by actions. And, when actions are narrated or objects described, this is done based on a formalism that is a bit harder to write than a simple string would be. These are two of the the main aspects of Curveship that, although they demand more work from the IF author, allow for powerful, general ways of narrating.

Ideally, as I continue these posts, I’d like to write in response to your particular interests and curiosities. I’ll be glad to answer questions in comments if there’s a reasonably sort answer; if not, I’ll try to answer them in the context of a longer post.

Web Comics Touched by the Brush

The Moon Fell on Me is an infrequent, gemlike Web comic by the itinerant Franklin Einspruch, who happened to come to my recent interactive fiction talk at AXIOM. He told me he was trying to do something different with this Web project. Visit his site even briefly and you’ll see that he has done it. No pen was used in the creation of this Web comic. The panels are not organized to lead toward jokes. The lines of images are clearly based on personal experience, but they reach out beyond an individual or subculture. Instead of the occasionally hilarious, forward-a-link, forget-in-moment frames of the typical Web comic – however incisive that comic might be about geeks or life or both – The Moon Fell on Me offers sequential art that is worth looking at again and again, that resonates with its moment and seems worth contemplating beyond it.

Story Generation with Pookie and JR

Excerpts from the Chronicles of Pookie & JR:
Previously, Pookie and JR had only ever met at parties.
For the first few nights, Pookie and JR keep to their corners.
JR changes Pookie’s water. Pookie makes a mess of his feeding dish.
JR cooks slowly, foraging in this strange kitchen.
Tonight’s dinner puts one withered leek out of its misery.
JR hasn’t been sleeping much lately.
Pookie keeps his thoughts to himself.
To be continued…

J. R. Carpenter, author of Words the Dog Knows, Entre Ville, The Cape, and other fine works of e-lit, print, and xerography, has delightfully repurposed one of my 1k story generators to have it tell stories involving her and a hermit crab named Pookie. The program has grown to about 2k, but it uses the same simple (and surprisingly effective) method as my first generator does: It simply removes all but 5-9 sentences from a sequence, eliding some of what’s been written. Sometimes the reader is left to wonder who the hermit is. Here’s a direct link to the Python code for the program, and here’s the page on Excerpts from the Chronicles of Pookie & JR.

Rafael Pérez y Pérez to Speak at MIT

Next week, the Purple Blurb series offers a second special summer talk by a leading researcher in creative text generation. Rafael Pérez y Pérez will speak on …

MEXICA: A Computer Model for Plot Generation of Prehispanic Stories

MEXICA is a computer model that generates plots for short stories about the Mexicas, the old inhabitants of what today is México City, based on the engagement-reflection cognitive account of writing. During engagement MEXICA generates material guided by content and rhetorical constraints, avoiding the use of explicit characters’ goals or story-structures. During reflection the system breaks impasses, evaluates the novelty and interestingness of the story in progress and verifies that coherence requirements are satisfied. In this talk I will explain the main characteristics of the system, I will show how emotions are employed to progress a story in a coherent way and generate novel situations, and how the dramatic tension of the story in progress might be employed to evaluate its interestingness. I will present results showing how story generation is affected by various model parameters and I will compare MEXICA with other story-generators programs. Finally, I will mention how we are employing MEXICA as starting point for new research projects.

Pérez y Pérez will speak on Wednesday July 15, 6pm-7pm, at MIT in room 14E-310. This is in the same location as Pablo Gervás’s talk in May, and just one more floor up the stairs from the Trope Tank, where other Purple Blurb events were located. The talk is (as with all Purple Blurb presentations) open to the public.

Rafael Pérez y Pérez.
Rafael Pérez y Pérez, creator of the MEXICA story system.

Rafael Pérez y Pérez earned a BSc. in Electronics and Computers at Universidad Iberoamericana in México City, a MSc. in Knowledge Based Systems and a DPhil. in Artificial Intelligence at Sussex University in England. His research has focused on computer models of creativity. He and his students have developed programs that write short stories, compose music, and solve geometry problems, among other things. In 2006 he organised the Mexican Creativity, Cognition and Computers research group (MCCC) which aims to gather together a multidisciplinary group of researchers and students interested in computational creativity. He has published different papers in the area and has participated as a PC member and co-chair in international events related to computational creativity. Currently he is a researcher and lecturer at The Autonomous Metropolitan University (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana or UAM) in México City and an invited Lecturer in the MSc and PhD programs in Computer Science at The National Autonomous University of México (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México or UNAM).

Academic Job and Event Postings 2009

If you have an announcement of a faculty job opening in digital media or want to mention an upcoming event (conference, workshop, or symposium), this is the place on Post Position for that. Just leave a comment.

Grand Text Auto is Back

Grand Text Auto, for six years (May 2003-May 2009) a single blog with six co-authors (Mary Flanagan, Michael Mateas, your very own Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg, Andrew Stern, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin), is now back as an aggregator of four blogs by the original GTxA authors, including this one. Check it out. Update: Thanks to Josh McCoy of UC Santa Cruz, who set up this new formulation of Grand Text Auto.

Plotkin on Rule-Based IF Programming

I’ve been meaning to write something deliberate and detailed about the May 3 Penguicon talk, “Rule-Based Programming in Interactive Fiction,” by Andrew Plotkin (a.k.a. Zarf). And I’m still waiting to do that. I didn’t want to wait any longer to mention the talk on here, though, since it is presented very well in its Web version and will be useful for many people. It’s an intriguing discussion of the other major idea behind Inform 7 – the one that isn’t “natural language” programming. The discussion of how to code interactive fiction is one I’ve been mulling over as I continue to work on Curveship. I think providing first-class representations of actions is very helpful in dealing with some of the problems Zarf addresses, although it doesn’t solve everything by itself. And I think that having representations, within actions, of atomic events (such as exerting force on something and thereby touching it) deals with another of the problems that Zarf mentioned. But I’ll have to leave the extended discussion of that for another post.

Computational Creativity at ICCC-X

The First International Conference on Computational Creativity will be taking place in Portugal on January 7-9 2010. ICCC-X will follow on a decade of smaller-scale workshops and symposia. The call for papers lists the deadline of September 26 (extended 5 days) for papers, and promises:

The conference will include traditional paper presentations, will showcase the application of computational creativity to the sciences, creative industries and arts, and will incorporate a “show and tell” session, which will be devoted to demonstrations of computational systems exhibiting behaviour which would be deemed creative in humans.

Note also that contributions are solicited in several areas, including “specific applications to music, language and the arts, to architecture and design, to scientific discovery, to education and to entertainment.”

Twine is Rolled Out


Chris Klimas, the hypertext and IF author who runs Gimcrack’d, has just released free versions of Twine for Mac and Windows, along with documentation and several screencasts that explain how the system works and a command-line tool, called “twee,” for working with stories in Twine’s format. Twine is a system for constructing interactive stories using a visual map, not unlike Eastgate Systems’ Storyspace. While it lacks the august heritage of that piece of software, Twine is freely available and free to use for any purpose, even commercially.

When Twine build a story for publication or for the author’s examination, it does this in HTML/CSS. That means that readers won’t need any special software to explore stories written in Twine. Lots of text formatting can be done without getting into HTML and CSS, although authors are welcome to get into it as deeply as they like. The system supports some sophisticated presentation capabilities, including a stretchtext mode. It’s not quite a guard field, but the “choice” macro locks off certain options when others have been taken. Under the hood of Twine is TiddlyWiki, a personal Wiki took for the Web. This handy personal notebook system has been reshaped for interactive narrative rather than productivity, though, and pretty thoughtfully.

Having just started up Twine and fiddled with it a bit, I’m impressed at how easy it is to use, even if one doesn’t read the documentation or watch the screencasts first. It seemed at first that there would be no way link two different occurrences of a word to two different texts, but after a quick bit of reading I was able to figure out how to change [[word]] to [[word|word2]] in one place and give one of the links a different internal name. I’m looking forward to using Twine (and probably twee) further. It could be useful for doing a small project – perhaps a collaboration? – and it might work well as an option for students, too.