Nonstop Interactive Fiction in Boston

Hello from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I’m currently dressed as a grue. The streets are unnervingly lit up tonight for some reason and many people are about. Perhaps my quest to find a dark, quiet place will lead me to Fenway Park.

There is a lot of news about upcoming interactive fiction events, and the first part of a two-part article by Illya Szilak, “A Book Itself Is a Little Machine: Emily Short’s Interactive Fiction,” is just out in The Huffington Post.

If you weren’t there, you missed Arden Kehoe presenting on her visual novel Kindness Coins at Women in Games Boston on October 29, but you can read a bit about her work at the page for the event.

There will be another reading of Lost Pig (the award-winning game by Admiral Jota) on Sunday, November 3, at 6pm, at Pandemonium Books in Central Square.

There will be a reading of Adam Cadre’s award-winning Photopia on Tuesday, November 5, at 5pm in University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Olsen Hall, room 311. Adam won’t be at this reading, and I don’t believe Admiral Jota will be at Pandemonium Books event. Adam did read from Photopia himself at this event in Boston way back in 2001.

The “People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction” (PR-IF) meetup for November will be on Saturday, November 9, 4:00 pm, in my lab, The Trope Tank, MIT room 14N-233. (We usually meet Monday or Tuesday at 6:30pm; this is an exception.) Special guest Emily Short will be demonstrating the authoring tools behind Versu. Emily will also be speaking on Versu in New York City on Wednesday November 13.

PR-IF now is on teh Twitter, as @IFinBoston, which is a good thing since there’s so much going on. Our Twitter presence is backed by the amazing technology known as Jason McIntosh.

An introduction to writing interactive fiction will be offered one week after the Photopia reading, on Tuesday, November 12, same time, same place: 5pm in University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Olsen Hall, room 311. These two events at UMass Lowell are sponsored by that school’s Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

Finally, the 2013 IF Comp is currently going on. There are 35 entries. You can download, play, and vote on the games, with votes due November 15.

Fox Harrell’s Talk and New Book

Fox Harrell’s talk on evaluation at the Media Systems workshop, in August 2012, was great, and I remember many things from it vividly. Fox really helped us see some of the absurdities of trying to apply the evaluation techniques from one domain (such as engineering) to another (such as the arts) — but also the potential of cross-cutting work for new insights. See “Matching Methods: Guiding and Evaluating Interdisciplinary Projects” on YouTube.

This is one of many Media Systems talks that have been uploaded so far.

Fox, who is my colleague at MIT, has also just had MIT Press publish his book, Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression. I have been following the book from early stages. Reading it has been provoking and informative. It presents a new, powerful concept of digital media that deeply engages with our concepts of identity and our cultural imagination. I highly recommend it.

Only the Staring from the Twilight Saga

You can now watch a 26-minute supercut of all the instances of staring in all the Twilight movies.

I recommend it.

Yes, the framing is a bit corny, as if it were a video game or an educational video made to inform you about how much staring there was. Less could have been more.

There are earlier video art projects that do similar things, and more of them. One of my favorite precursors is the brilliant Every Shot, Every Episode by Jennifer & Kevin McCoy. Housed in a suitcase, it is an interactive installation that allows access to 10,000 clips from Starsky & Hutch which have been categorized in 300 ways — every extreme closeup, every yellow Volkswagon, every affirmative response, and so on.

In fandom there seems to be less interest in exhausting every shot of a certain type, but I think each of the individual parts of 21 Vidlets about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a bit like this.

I liked the video because it raises questions about movies in general (is this amount of staring too much? What’s typical? Which directors have the most staring?) and about staring (how can it be different? What counts as staring?). And, of course, the movie or YouTube viewer’s activity, in the most stereotypical case, is nothing more than staring.

Videogame Editions for Play and Study

Now available: TROPE-13-02 – Videogame Editions for Play and Study by Clara Fernández-Vara and Nick Montfort.

>We discuss four types of access to videogames that are analogous to the use of different sorts of editions in literary scholarship: (1) the use of hardware to play games on platforms compatible with the original ones, (2) emulation as a means of playing games on contemporary computers, (3) ports, which translate games across platforms, and (4) documentation, which can describe some aspects of games when they cannot be accessed and can supplement play. These different editions provide different information and perspectives and can be used in teaching and research in several ways.

Enjoy, and please let us know here or elsewhere if you have discussion about this.

Gamebooks and IF Conference at Villanova

Gamebook guru Demian Katz is putting on a conference on interactive fiction, print and online, in Villanova’s Popular Culture Series. The conference does have an academic focus, but also seeks to introduce new sorts of academics to IF.

Info is up now at the vupop site, where you can read about the conference or submit a proposal. Or, if there’s enough light available, examine yourself/take inventory!

Aha – and the deadline for submitting something is November 1!

Michael’s Narrative Candy Store

Michael Mateas gave the keynote today at Intelligent Narrative Technologies 6. With reference (early on) to the Hero’s Journey, he presented a sort of “developer’s journey,” noting that indie developers (as seen at Indiecade) have been turning away from concern with structure and mechanics and toward narrative. He similarly encouraged those working in AI and narrative to turn from structuralist narratology and look at concrete traditions of narrative based in communities of practice.

I thought his repudiation of structuralist narratology was in some ways similar to someone in computer graphics objecting to the pixel or the polygon becuase pixels and polygons do not provide any guidance as to how to create beautiful images. He’s right, and if people are missing this, it’s worth pointing out. But the core problem is with one’s expectation for structural understanding. If people are interested (as Michael is) in modeling “internal processes and conflicts” mapping to “external conflicts” … what are these external conflicts made of? Aren’t they made of events? And wouldn’t it be great to have a solid model of events so more complex narrative phenomena can be built up out of them?

Michael gave us an array of options for work motivated by specific poetic ideas, and these (in keeping with his practice) were extremely grand plans, with a panpoly of dissertations needed to make real progress. His suggestions were that we build huge AI systems, implementing Beckett, Boal, detective novels, flash fiction, and the levels of intentionality in Virgina Woolf. I don’t object to attempting to deal with goals of this sort, but this tour of the interactive narrative candy store seemed to be proposing 23 different manned space missions.

My idea: Why not create & compose simple models of narrative aspects that are indeed culturally grounded and for which there is a poetics, but which seem lower-level (or easier to start on) than the ideas Michael has – aspects such as repetition (seen in Beckett, of course), ellipsis (and its relationship to suspense, as treated in Michael Young’s research), and the like?

These sorts of questions seem to have easier starting points and offer the potential to generalize to some extent across genres, while yielding specific insights as well.

A repetition or ellipsis system would be as culturally grounded as any one that Michael suggested, and it too could be “fully realized” and produce outputs.

My very simple system “Through the Park,” described in “Small-Scale Systems and Computational Creativity,” is an attempt to show how low the stairs are for those interested in investigating ellipsis. Although extremely simple, it is a real model of an aspect of narrative and has been useful to me in thinking about it.

Ian Horswill pointed out in the discussion after the talk that understanding repetition may not be easier than generating romance novels, flash fiction, or work like that of specific authors. This is true, but with repetition there are more concrete starting points. One can certainly start with a lightweight simulation of the world, and of narration, and then elaborate.

Richard Evans mentioned that the repetition in _The Odyssey_ and in Beckett’s plays doesn’t have much in common. I would say that this is true, but that they have _something_ in common – creating a coherent and distinctive texture of language. On the other hand, even within the _same work,_ or work by the same author, there will be different types of repetition that do different things. That’s what makes this aspect of narrative (or, really, textuality) a rich one. It seems to me that these different uses, within a single work or across different works, could be understood analytically and modeled computationally in useful ways. The focus on a single aspect, rather than a genre or community of practice, would make this more tractable and offer a foothold.


Will compounding words lead to compounding interest? Check out my word/name generator, Upstart, and see what you think.

Upstart, a company name generator

As always, you should feel free to develop a modified generator or name your company one of these terms.

Sound Poetry in Cambridge & Boston

I was fascinated to find that Non-Event, “a Boston-based concert series devoted to the presentation of the finest in experimental, abstract, improvised, and new music from New England and around the world,” will be bringing several sound poets to the area soon. Steve McCaffery and Christian Bök have graced my Purple Blurb series at MIT recently, and I am very much looking forward to the ululations and other sounds of other sound poets.

Vincent Barras and Jaques Demierre are coming to the misnamed swissnex Boston (it’s in Cambridge) Monday, October 7 at 6:30pm, for $10/$5 for students. That’s tomorrow.

Jaap Blonk will be at the (correctly named) School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston at 8pm Saturday, November 23, for $5.


A new short, snappy, and expanding poem by Nick Montfort, Jerome Fletcher, Talan Memmott, Serge Bouchardon, Samantha Gorman, Leonardo Flores, Scott Rettberg, Jason Nelson, and Flourish Klink is now online.

It’s pop, an ELO 2013 anthology. It requires the use of arrow keys. And it was written at the Electronic Literature Organization’s 2013 conference, Chercher le texte, in Paris.

pop, an ELO 2013 anthology

Puzzle out the constraint that was used, and feel free to continue the project…

(I have the feeling that I’ve omitted the name of at least one contributor … please let me know if I left you off the list; I will gladly remedy that on this post and on the pop page itself.)

A Stray in the Woods

A Stray in the Woods, Alison Wilgus, 2013
A Stray in the Woods, Alison Wilgus, 2013. (I was given a review copy of this book.)

Here’s an intriguing feline adventure, pleasingly illustrated and narrated. This brings a lot together: It’s the Kickstarter-funded book version of a Web comic in which readers were asked to provide interactive-fiction- or tabletop-RPG-style commands for each situation; the one readers voted up was then chosen and the story proceeded from there. Perhaps I’ve been primed for this, but I thought the book’s presenation of this rather elaborate process was effective. I thought at first that page numbers would help, but perhaps these might have suggested a CYOA-style book, which this is not. While decisionmaking by mob is not always best, and can rule out nuanced plans, it works well enough in this case. And while the freely-available Web version of the story is good, the print presentation also sets the illustrations well. The text narration is consistently set on the recto, with commands below. Other IF transcripts (or the like) could be treated this way, too …

Ouliperrata and Palindromes

The End of Oulipo? : An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement by Lauren Elkin & Scott Esposito (2013) claims that “Georges Perec … wrote a palindrome of over 5,000 words …” (p. 15, also mentioned on p. 25). However, this is wrong, unless these authors have access to an extraordinarily surprising never-before published palindrome of Perec’s. His long palindrome does not have this many words.

In 1980, Hachette published Perec’s La Clôture et autres poèmes, which contains “Le Grand Palindrome,” written in 1969. “Le Grand Palindrome” is also online; it is posted on another page without its title but with a declaration that the palindrome is 1247 words long.

Wikipedia states that this text has 1247 words and 5566 letters, and the French entry on Perec agrees. (The number of letters was probably the source of the confusion about 5,000 words in Elkin & Esposito’s book.) Since the palindrome is online, we can do some original research to determine the word and letter count – someone must have, because the cited source does not say how many words and letters there are; the source is simply the text itself. The Web is littered with different numbers that are supposed to be the length, in words, of Perec’s palindrome. David Bellos, who quoted and translated the beginning and ending of Perec’s long palindrome in his extraordinary biography, Georges Perec: A Life in Words, described the palindrome as consisting of two halves, each of five hundred words (pp. 428-429).

Standard word-count programs come up with a larger number of words than either Bellos or Wikipedia have: The Gnu utility wc counts 1367, for example. In part, that’s because some of the punctuation is set off with spaces. But it may also have to do with a reasonable way of counting words in French being different than wc’s method.

So, leaving aside the question of words for the moment — but noting that the answer seems to be in the 1000-1400 range, and couldn’t be 5000 – let’s take a look at the number of letters. I placed the palindrome’s text (all of it, including the strange title that is a reversal of Perec’s name and the place and date of writing) in a file called perec.txt and did the following to count the letters:

% fold --width=1 perec.txt | grep -c '[[:alpha:]]'

The result is 5219. Yes, I checked to make sure that accented letters are being counted on my system. I’m not sure where the extra 5566-5219=347 letters are supposed to be. There are only eight digits, so the ‘1969’ at the end (and ‘9691’ at the beginning) couldn’t account for the larger number. And I counted 736 punctuation marks, so the puzzle isn’t solved by considering punctuation marks to be letters, since that (in addition to being incorrect) would make the palindrome too long. Unless my text is corrupt, I suppose that some of the punctuation marks were counted as letters before.

You can read in Daniel Levin Becker’s 2012 book Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature that Perec “wrote a palindrome of more than 1,200 words, the world’s longest until a computer program eclipsed it” (p. 181). The approximate word count seems right, but what about the rest of the statement?

On January 1, 2002, the first edition of Nick Montfort & William Gillespie’s 2002: A Palindrome Story was published. This text, published in a much nicer edition later in the year and made available in several formats online, is a 2002-word palindrome that we wrote together. We had actually hoped that the suite of software we developed, Deep Speed, would generate text for us and serve as a third co-author, but unfortunately its main use ended up being to check our work. In the end, 2002 was about as much generated by computer as “Le Grand Palindrome” was generated by typewriter.

(Perhaps Becker was referring to the data-driven palindrome found by Google’s Peter Norvig? That was composed and published on February 20, 2002, weeks after 2002 was first published in celebration of the new year. Also, while I consider it a brilliant hack, and while I certainly think that computer programs can produce literary output, I’m not sure how to understand or learn from this program and this text as a literary project. In terms of pure length, it’s a long palindrome, yes, but so is this; in fact, that one is longer than any that Norvig has produced.)

Now, to reassure Oulipo fans, 2002 and “Le Grand Palindrome” are written in different languages, so it would be awkward at best to claim that we directly outdid Perec. Also, it took two of us to write our English palindrome and only one of Perec to write his palindrome in French, so Perec still holds the record per-person per-palindrome. And finally, as my parenthetical remark and link above is supposed to show, it’s just silly to compare palindromes’ length alone; it’s important to read them and see how compelling they are. Writing a palindrome of more and more words involves conducting a more lengthy and profound exploration of language. Perhaps that type of exploration means falling off a cliff – as some thought Perec did; as some surely thought that William & I did in writing the exceedingly difficult text 2002. But it’s an exploration, and for us, as for Perec, it resulted in a radical and unusual literary work.

2002 received praise from members of the Oulipo and a positive review in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. It certainly wasn’t the usual one-line palindrome fare that many are used to. Although it’s challenging, I hope that more intrepid readers will eventually engage with text. I’m disappointed that a major magazine article on palindromes and the Wikipedia page on the topic don’t mention it. I’m disappointed that scholars and literary critics (who have devoted time to other works of mine and of William’s) haven’t delved into 2002. And it doesn’t give me much hope when the well-known long palindrome of a tremendously famous and influential French writer, however well-known it is, is still widely unread. We can’t even figure out how many words and letters it has.

Funk’s SoundBox 2012

Chris Funkhouser’s SoundBox 2012 has been posted in the online gallery space of DDDL, which I believe stands for Digital, Digital, Digital, digitaL. Or maybe Digital Digital Digital Littérature? There is a rich array of work up there; Chris’s contribution blends sounds with the carefully-recorded speech that he has recorded across many conferences and beyond, providing a rich audio record of activity in electronic literature and E-Poetry. As the description of the work says,

> Combining music, demented artistic performances, lectures, and studio experiments, Funk’s SoundBox 2012 draws from hundreds of digital recordings produced by poet-critic Chris Funkhouser, who condenses them into a single interactive space. Users of this personal archive – a balance of words and sounds Funkhouser wishes to remember and share – will find ambient and raw materials amidst discussions led by some of the most influential figures in the field of digital writing, grand improvisations featuring a range of instrumentation, software play, and more weaved into a unique sonic projection.

Except — wait. Those are documented artistic performances, lectures, and studio experiments. Sheesh.

New bleuOrange Revue with Three Rails Live / Trois rails sous tension

Except for its celebratory nature, it may ultimately have little to do with the New Zoo Revue, but the latest issue (number 7) of the French-language bleuOrange revue, from Figura and Laboratoire NT2, has now arrived. The issue publishes the results of a competition to translate electronic literature into French.

In this issue there is a rich selection of new translations, including translations of work by by J. R. Carpenter and Mark Marino, who are here with me now at the 2013 ELO conference Chercher le texte. One of these, too, is the translation of Three Rails Live by Roderick Coover, Nick Montfort, and Scott Rettberg. The translation is entitled Trois rails sous tension and is by Carolyne Ouellette and Jordan Tudisco, with the voices of Serge Bouchardon and Laetitia LeChatton. For now, there is video documentation of our piece and its translation, as the piece was developed as an installation. Next year a Web version of the video generator, the combinatory database narrative film, will be published on bleuOrange in English and French.