netpoetic.com Surfaces, Launches, is Erected

Thursday 20 August 2009, 12:31 am   //  

netpoetic.com, a rather massively multiposter blog, is now hosting writings, news, and conversations about digital poetry and electronic literature: “On these pages you will find links to new digital poetry/literature, ideas about what the heck that might mean, experiments, calls for work, exhibitions, activities, news, his/herstories and just about anything that the authors feel needed.”

Recently on the site I’ve read Sandy Baldwin’s discussion of permissions (“How does chmod relate to the absent body?”) (part 1, part 2) and have learned that Brian Kim Stefans’s arras.net has been reskinned. I’m going to make whatever contributions I can to the site, too.

Jason Nelson and Davin Heckman were the ones who laid the foundations for this enterprise, driving piles deep into the loam and shale of the Internet. The site seems to be building some of the energy of the net’s important mailing lists, although it seems to lack flame wars so far. I also appreciate that the site has modestly hidden its obligatory tag cloud behind the “categories” tab.

Digital Writing and Readings

Thursday 20 August 2009, 12:27 am   //////  

[As I wrote on netpoetic.com:] Adam Parrish recently taught a class at NYU in the ITP program: Digital Writing with Python. I was very interested to learn about it and to see documentation of the final reading/performance, with some links to students’ blog entries about their projects. Here at MIT, I teach a class called The Word Made Digital in which students do poetry, fiction, and less classifiable writing projects using Python and other systems and languages. And, I know that Daniel Howe has taught the RISD and Brown class Advanced Programming for Digital Art and Literature.

I suspect, though, that these classes that are mainly focused on writing and programming are rather rare – much more rare, I’d bet, than design and art classes that are heavy on programming. It may have something to do with the number of galleries and curated Web sites exhibiting programmed visual art, which seems to me to be much greater than the number of similar edited venues for digital writing that’s driven by code. I’m not sure which way the causality flows. But several of the art-loving among us have some idea that, say, Processing programs can be aesthetic, even though they’re made of code. It’s not as common for literary folks to think of Python, Perl, or other programming languages (whether or not they start with P) as ways of creating literary art.

My sense is that having readings, of the sort that Parrish hosted at the end of his class and of the sort that the Electronic Literature Organization has sponsored and organized over the years, is a useful way to address this gap between literature and the visual arts. (Full-blown festivals, of course, don’t hurt either.) A reading allows writers to show off a program, which may be intricate, and explain how it works. It’s fun for those who are already into digital literature, and an accessible way for other literati to see what computational writing is about and how it bring certain literary qualities into the digital realm – even if it does radically subvert others. And since there aren’t as many official, edited, and well-promoted publication options for computational writers, going to do a reading can be a good way to appear in a context of other writers and reach a public.

I’m trying to do my part here by running a reading series for digital writing, but that’s grist for the next post [of mine on netpoetic.com].

This was posted here on Post Position for the convenience of those of you who subscribe to the feed or visit the site. If you want to leave a comment, please head over to this post on netpoetic.com.

Presence in Interactive Fiction

Wednesday 19 August 2009, 2:33 pm   /////  

The first issue of the Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, from earlier this year, sports a nice article by Alf Seegert, “Doing there’ vs. ‘being there’: performing presence in interactive fiction.” In it, Seegert sharpens the existing discussion of reader-response theory and IF to explain how IF may need to balance between boredom and overstrain and how the writerly role allows for new sorts of presence. He then conducts some good discussions of Jon Ingold’s All Roads (highlighting how the body of the player character is indicated) and Paul O’Brian’s Luminous Horizon (looking particularly at the subjective narration).

Looks like a single issue of the Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds costs £18, unfortunately. (Institutional subscriptions are £150.) Too bad, particularly since there are least three peer-reviewed, open-access, no-page-fee journals in the field (Game Studies, Digital Humanities Quarterly, and eLudamos) that were up and running before this one was founded. Update: That is the advertised price, but the issue is currently available for free, as is the article.

Read and Jump in Silent Conversation

Thursday 13 August 2009, 4:27 pm   /////  
“I had with me many tools, and dug much within the walls of the obliterated edifices; but progress was slow, and nothing significant was revealed.” - H. P. Lovecraft, “The Nameless City”

Gregory Weir, who fashioned the very nice piece The Majesty of Colors, has a new game with levels built out of existing texts, including “The Nameless City.” The new platformer is called Silent Conversation, a title taken from poet Walter Savage Landor’s description of reading.

The Prufrock level in Silent Conversation

The second Nameless City level in Silent Conversation

My impression is that this one is not as short and compelling as The Majesty of Colors, but is more elaborate and is, if not a success, at least a very interesting failure. It’s not a particularly good or fun platformer qua platformer and doesn’t offer a very good model of the reading process, but it reveals more about about the potential of games as digital objects that can be both played and read. I don’t think that making levels out of pre-existing texts works nearly as well as would original writing, but the setting of those texts into interactive concrete was certainly done with care.

The model of reading is one in which you have to touch every word with your eye (your “I”, in this case) to seek a good score (represented as a letter grade, believe it or not). “Powerful” words fire slow-moving letters at you, which clear away your accomplishments on the screen if they hit you. In some places you can fall to your death and undo the reading on the screen, too.

If this were done as a parody of the reading process as conceived of in the educational system, it could work effectively. Playing the game does suggest to me things that I do when I read – looking back over the text for a word I missed or misread, trying to progress by looking at at least each phrase along the way. But the reading of these texts is numbed, rather than heightened, by having them as elements of play in this way. Just to stick to the mechanics, rather than looking to deeper aesthetic questions about reading: Words are either powerful or not, and I need to simply tag them in either case, carefully if they might undo some of my progress, quickly otherwise. Whether in a long fiction work or a short poem, I can, when reading on paper or e-book, skip back to re-reread without slogging back past each word, as I have to go in this game. And I can re-read sections when I’m done, too. While the phrases used as decorations add color and visual interest, this game, perhaps surprisingly, makes a less unilinear reading experience into a more linear experience in reading and playing. It also rewards a perfunctory glance and touch rather than requiring discernment, figuring out, and comprehension, as do some other video games made entirely out of words – works of interactive fiction.

Reading and playing are not two great tastes that taste great together in this case, but I appreciate Weir bumping them into each other in this piece and trying to figure out how they might enhance one other. And for those interested both in gaming and in digital writing/electronic literature, Silent Conversation is certainly required reading.

From nn to Curveship

Wednesday 12 August 2009, 1:08 am   //////  

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

I was recently asked to elaborate on the difference between nn (the research system I developed during my dissertation work at the University of Pennsylvania) and Curveship.

The most important difference is that nn is a research system that I used for making some advances related to computer science, computational linguistics, and narratology. The system was developed to prove certain points; it was used only by yours truly to implement narrative and text generation ideas and to run demos.

It worked pretty well for this. Using nn, I developed a new representation for the order of actions, one that can be used flexibly in text generation. I put together a string-with-slots representation used in templates, one that is much less cumbersome to use than a general abstract syntax representation. And I worked out how a focalizer world (now called a “concept”) can model an actor’s theory about the “real” or “actual” world that is central to an interactive fiction.

That’s not to say that you’d want to pick up this system, though, and start writing games in it. While nn in 2007 had all the basic components of an IF system (a parser, the ability to save an restore games, the ability to model a world), they were not all ready for prime time, because my development work was focused on trying to answer particular research questions.

So, I took the nn code and began working on a new project, Curveship. I wanted to release a system that was developed with other IF authors, other AI researchers, and other teachers of narrative theory and electronic literature in mind. Curveship is getting close to being this system – within a few months, I hope, I will get it to that point, with the help of a group of people, the Curveship crew, who are testing and commenting on pre-release versions.

Concretely, there are three main sorts of differences. First, bugs in nn that my limited use of the system didn’t expose have been fixed – and more will be. Second, there are improved capabilities that didn’t relate to my research goals, but which are important to IF authors. These range from better parsing and clarification (disambiguation) to better ways of formatting text to better capabilities for simulating physical aspects of the world. Finally, I have impeoved the interface, which includes changing the names of some components of the system. What used to be a “plan for narrating” is now “spin.” What I called “existents” (a perfectly nice but abstruse term from narratology) are now, more simply, called “items.” To avoid confusion, I even changed the name of the “Narrator” module, because “narrator” is a narrative function and a parameter that can be set within the system. This module is now called the “Teller.” There have been other name changes and a great deal of refactoring, some writing of docstrings, and other improvements to make the Curveship code more understandable and manipulable to those who want to get into it. The way string-with-slots templates are written has changed, too, as has the way items and actions are created.

The discussion of reply structures, focalizer worlds, and similar aspects of the system in previous publications (such as my dissertation) remains largely applicable to Curveship. But because Curveship is being developed with an eye toward a new group of author/programmers, researchers, and teachers, there have been many changes beyond the parts of nn that implement those core research contributions. Even some of publications and talks about Curveship from recent months have names for components that are now different and mention the old style string-with-slots formalism. That’s one of the reasons I’ve started in on this series of posts.

Worlds, Spin, and the Revolution of Curveship

Saturday 8 August 2009, 1:33 am   //////  

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

Before I start descending into detail, I’ll explain why I think Curveship is a big deal.

Curveship does the usual work of an interactive fiction system when it comes to simulating a world: There are discrete rooms that make up the fiction’s locations, actors can inhabit and wander around these rooms, and things can sit in them, be taken and carried off or otherwise moved around. Items can change state, so that a lamp, for instance, can be turned on and off. Items can go into or onto other items, if they allow it. None of this is surprising; plenty of interactive fiction development systems already do all of it very well.

Hypertexts don’t do that. Hypertexts, including Web hypertexts but also pieces in HyperCard, Storyspace, Twine, and similar systems, present a structured document in which some phrases are hooked up to other pages. They might have guard fields or other pieces of code, but at their most essential, they are really strange surfaces of text, with phrases connected in an unusual topology.

Nothing’s wrong with hypertext. If you want to create an unusual language surface, to link pages together into a curious structure, it’s clearly the form to use. The play and connection of language can be intriguing and relevant. You can make a compelling literary work in this form, as several people have done.

But interactive fiction systems allow something else. You can put a simulated world underneath the text that people see. This lets you create different types of literary systems, which can be nice: Several people have created interactive fiction systems that are compelling literary pieces and that couldn’t have been realized as hypertexts.

In an important way, Curveship is to interactive fiction what interactive fiction is to hypertext. Just as interactive fiction added a new and significant model – a model of a simulated world – Curveship adds a model of the telling, of the narrating, of the way that the simulated world is represented in language. Curveship adds spin, as in the spinning of a tale and as in Spin Alley.

Curveship can leave actions out of the narrative, can reorder actions in the narrative to create flashbacks and flashforwards and retrograde narration and narration by category, can narrate at greater or lesser length, and can represent several actions in one statement or repeat the narration of a single action several times. The system can tell about what is happening in the simulated world from the perspective of any specified actor, based on that actor’s knowledge and perceptions, or it can narrate from a global perspective. It can tell about what has happened in the past just as easily as it can represent a current action.

The system is able to do this because it models every action that happens in the world, just as existing IF systems model every item. First-order representations of actions differentiate Curveship from other IF systems. And on that of that, a complete text generation system has been built, allowing for grammatical changes that follow from high-level narrative parameters – the spin.

Consider The Odyssey. Why is it interesting? Why has it shaped world culture and remained memorable for thousands of years? Yes, lots of interesting stuff happens in it. But the way it is told is also tremendously compelling – Odysseus listening to the song of his own exploits, shielding his eyes and weeping, being identified as the great hero, and then going on to tell the next part of the story in his own voice. That’s as fascinating a part of The Odyssey as is the encounter with the Cyclops or the slaying of the suitors. And the telling surely becomes more important in contemporary literature. Is Lolita really more interesting because of what happens or because of how it is told? What about Ulysses? To the Lighthouse?

Curveship’s modeling of the telling adds to the significant power that IF already provides by way of a model of a simulated world. Just as IF adds a simulated world to hypertext, Curveship adds control over the telling (that is, it adds spin) to the simulated world.

Those who want to create strange surfaces of text will want to work in hypertext. Those who want to have a simulated world will probably use an existing IF system. For those who are interested in varying the telling, as many great authors have done in oral, written, typed, and word-processed literature, it will be best to use a simulated world and spin: Curveship.

Jimmy Maher’s Interview and Game

Tuesday 4 August 2009, 9:06 pm   ///  

There’s an interview about interactive fiction with Jimmy Maher that is well worth checking out. It’s on on Adventure Gaming Classic. And, Jimmy also has a new game out: The King of Shreds and Patches. This one’s strange story features connections to Shakespeare and Cthulhu.

A Lexicon of the Curveship World

Tuesday 4 August 2009, 1:03 pm   //////  

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

In writing about Curveship in any detail, I’ll have to use terms such as action, event, and order, which sound ordinary but are used in a special way in the system. Furthermore, I’ll have to use terms such as focalization and narratee, which do not sound ordinary, but have a meaning within narratology (a.k.a. narrative theory) and are important to the way Curveship works. I’m going to define a few of these terms – some I’ll save for later. Rather than sort them alphabetically, I’ll group them by how they figure in the system.

Worlds of Curveship

Actual World. Following Marie-Laure Ryan’s terminology, I consider the main, simulated interactive fiction world to be the “IF actual world,” that is, what is “actual” from the standpoint of the player characters and other actors. I’ve bothered to give this a special name (rather than just calling it the world) because it isn’t the only ball in play in Curveship.

Concept. A concept, formerly called a “focalizer world,” is a particular actor’s theory of the actual world, based on knowledge (put into a fiction file to begin with) and perceptions (gained as the actor moves around and looks at things). Concepts are almost never complete, and they may be wrong. They allow the telling of actions and the description of items to be focalized, that is, based on what a particular actor knows and sees.

What Exists in the World

Item. Basically, any object that has a representation. I could have called them “objects,” but that term means something different in object-oriented programming, even though items do end up being represented as objects. I could have called them “existents,” the term Seymour Chatman and other narratologists use, but that caused gnashing of teeth among some of the people I consulted, including one researcher whose first language wasn’t English. Items must be in one of three categories.

Actor. An item that can take action on its own, due to either code that an IF author has written or a script the author has dropped in. Any item can react, but only an actor can initiate action. Actors are also the only category of item that have concepts.

Cosmos. The special actor that is the root of the item tree. Responsible for earthquakes, power outages, and any occurrence where the author doesn’t want to model the cause as its own actor. The cosmos can also change the plan for narrating, which allows for a connection between the simulated world and the way the telling of this world is done.

Room. A discrete location which has exits leading to other rooms. Rooms are all on the first level of the item tree, directly below cosmos.

Thing. Generally, an inert item. Any item that isn’t a room and doesn’t need to act or have a concept is a thing. Things can react when something is done to them or done in the same room, so that pressing a switch on a lamp can cause the lamp to react by increasing its glow.

Item Tree. A structure representing all of the items in the actual world (or in a concept) and the relationship between them. It is a graph with a designated node (cosmos), directed links from parent to child, and no loops – that is, no item is its own descendant. Hence, a tree.

Parent-Child Relationship. The relationship between an item and an item a level under it, and connected by a link, in the tree. When an actor walks into a room, he or she becomes the child of the room. If the room moves (perhaps it’s an elevator) the actor will move with it. If the lights in the room become brighter, the actor and everything else in the room will be better illuminated. An apple placed in a sack similarly becomes the child of the sack and, for instance, is stolen if the sack is stolen.

Link. The edges (as they are called in graph theory) of the item tree, each one connecting an item to another item and indicating a parent-child relationship. Links are labeled, with the label indicating more about the relationship. If a person is holding a sack with an apple inside and wearing a cloak, the sack and cloak are the children of the person and the apple is the child of the sack. Furthermore, the link between the sack and the person is labeled “of” (indicating a possession) and the link between the cloak and the person is “on” (indicating something being worn). The link between the apple and the sack is “in” (indicating containment). If you have ever tried to use Inform 6 to model a desk that you can put things on (on top of) and in (in a drawer), something which is not very straightforward to do, you will see an advantage to the way Curveship works.

What Happens in the World

Action. A specific but fairly high-level action taken by an actor. An intended command (such as “get lamp”) usually corresponds to a single action. It also usually doesn’t make sense for an action to partly succeed; it either works or doesn’t, although the first components of it may succeed and later ones may fail. The set of actions is open. Authors can easily make up new ones. Actions are what the system narrates, because they are meaningful and high-level.

Event. A lower-level component of action. There are only five, representing different things to be done in the world. Any action is made of one or more of these with appropriate arguments. The five primitive events are sense, impel, misc, modify, and configure. Only the last two change the state of the actual world, modify by changing a feature of an item and configure by changing the item tree. Events are good for simulating the world – unlocking and opening doors, moving actors from room to room, and so on. But because they are so low-level, they are not very good as a basis for narration. We usually do not want to hear that an actor exerted force on a switch, then turned the lamp on, and then increased the glow of the lamp. But it’s nice to be modeling this under the hood, because if the lamp’s battery is dead, an actor might be able to do the first two things but not the third. If the battery is then replaced, the lamp should glow brightly right away, since the switch is in the on position.

Files of Curveship

Fiction File. What others call the “story file” or “game.” It can be a game, of course. Essentially, though, it defines a fictional (and simulated) world.

Spin File. A very short file with a few parameters and perhaps a bit of code, all of which could be included in a fiction file. These parameters determine how the story is told at a fairly high level. Released games probably won’t use spin files, but sets of these may be used in research and teaching dealing with narrative, because they allow different methods of telling to be applied to the same fiction file (or a set of fiction files).

These are the building blocks of the simulation done in Curveship. I should note that Curveship is designed to mainly simulate the physical world, not emotional states or conversations between actors. And, of course, it models the way actions are represented and items are described based on concepts of that world – it narrates in different ways based on parameters and code provided by IF authors. I’ll discuss how it does that in a future post.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
(c) 2014 Post Position | Barecity theme