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.

6 Comments »

  1. Interestingly, my Hypertext 2009 paper, “On Hypertext Narrative”, explores the interplay of story (what happens), plot (how the story is explained), and presentation (the surface layer) in the context of hypertext.

     ACM DIGITAL LIBRARY
     http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1557914.1557920
    
    SLIDES AND PAPER
     http://www.markbernstein.org/Jul09/OnHypertextNarrative.html
    

    I still find your successionist rhetoric unconvincing, but there’s nothing new about that. Curveship is new, and we’re all looking forward to seeing it!

    (That said, I think the claim that the framing story of Odyssey is central to its lasting appeal is perhaps not the strongest argument you could advance. Indeed, compared to Illiad, Odyssey’s narrative strategy seems fairly straightforward. Worse, when we see Odyssey reimagined — for example, in Rinde Eckert’s Highway Ulysses — the framing story is seldom preserved. Compare “Heart of Darkness”, which adopts a similarly prominent frame, and “Apocalypse Now”, which adheres to Conrad but dispenses with the frame completely.

    Comment by Mark Bernstein — 2009-08-08 @ 10:48 pm
  2. Thanks for the comment and the link, Mark. An excellent topic – I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Comment by Nick Montfort — 2009-08-09 @ 1:52 pm
  3. I love the idea of having an overarching spin connected with a virtual, object- and contextually-linked world, but I’m curious, how do you plan on implementing it?

    Clearly, the ability to have narrative style control in a sandbox-like environment is a holy grail for interactive fiction, but I have no sense of how the system works from your article.

    Actually, that is not true, you do give a sense of how it works, except that directly after you give us a glimpse of your system, you immediately negate the advantage you have described Curveship having by saying that other systems to this quite well already. Then you downplay how your system links the different styles of dynamic game-story-telling, especially when you said that it “adds to the significant power of [something other then what you are presenting]“

    All that being said, I like the angle you are taking on this type of fiction, and I think all the ideas you have presented sound good. I want to see more of how your system works; how do the semantics and action-objects link together? How might a story be told from being able to use actions as an object? What does it look/feel/seem like to interact with objects (physical and actionable) using the interactive grammars (if you will) that you described in your previous article.

    If you can pull off the enhancements/integration you are talking about (and can show it off well), this sounds like a great project.

    P.S. Any ideas about how gameplay for a story using your system might look? What type of interactivity do you expect to see?

    Comment by Rob Rhine — 2009-08-09 @ 3:19 pm
  4. Rob, thanks for your interest and your questions, which will help me as I continue to write about Curveship. This is just the third post in what will be a much longer series about the system, digesting, updating, and expanding upon the existing publications about Curveship. Please do check back for more.

    The best existing writings on the system are probably my two previous posts related to Curveship (scroll down).

    If you want to read on past those, there’s an 8-page paper, “Curveship: An Interactive Fiction System for Interactive Narrating,” written to accompany my invited talk at the CALC-09 Workshop on Computational Approaches to Linguistic Creativity, 4 June 2009. I have changed the string-with-slots formalism and some of the terminology, but the basic workings of the system are described accurately there.

    And if you want to read further, there’s my 228-page dissertation from 2007, “Generating Narrative Variation in Interactive Fiction.” Again, the research advances are described well (and in much more detail, in this document), but it doesn’t make for a very good Curveship manual since names, syntax, and other details have changed.

    I’ve been writing these Post Position posts because those last two documents are now a bit outdated, and because they are addressed to particular audiences that don’t include, for instance, IF authors.

    I love the idea of having an overarching spin connected with a virtual, object- and contextually-linked world, but I’m curious, how do you plan on implementing it?

    I don’t plan on it – I did it more than two years ago in the research system, called “nn,” that Curveship is based on. What I’m working on now is releasing a well-documented, clearly-coded system with a reasonably good programming interface, suitable for IF authors, AI researchers interested in narrative, and teachers of subjects ranging from narrative theory to electronic literature.

    As for your other questions – they will supply me with a good outline for several future posts. Thanks again for them. I’ll answer them as soon as I can, dealing with any necessary preliminaries along the way.

    Comment by Nick Montfort — 2009-08-09 @ 3:51 pm
  5. P.S. Any ideas about how gameplay for a story using your system might look? What type of interactivity do you expect to see?

    What I’ve always imagined, though I’ll have to wait to hear more to find out if this is how it works, is being able to set up a story where the actors have knowledge of the events, both past and possible, according to their own perspectives and personalities (concepts). Then when the player interacts with these actors in conversation you get their interpretation of events ‘for free’ as an author…you don’t need to script their perspective like you would in Inform or TADS because their perspective is embodied within the Curveship concept. Similarly with actions, the actors could act based on their concepts of the actual world, which is integral to the system. As a player then you get actor ‘personality’ from the get-go. This is just my interpretation though based on the details I’ve read.

    Comment by georgek — 2009-08-09 @ 4:31 pm
  6. George, Curveship will provide a basis for that, but in the first version there won’t be conversation generation and the imagination of possible events. It’s a good vision, certainly. With some further work, the underlying system of concepts in Curveship could allow actors to plan complex actions based on their own knowledge and perceptions, answer questions and engage in discussions, and signal their different personalities.

    But Curveship is first and foremost about creating better narrators rather than improving how actors function, and I’m hoping to get the system out the door in a few months rather than a few years. I’ll soon explain more about what it means to have better automatic narration, and will describe some of how Curveship is able to offer that to IF authors.

    Comment by Nick Montfort — 2009-08-09 @ 4:57 pm

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