Festive Coders Make Curveship Codefest a Success

The Curveship Codefest today was all I hoped it would be – a source of ideas, a way to discuss how to progress toward release, and even a time for the development of several fiction files (games) and spin files (specifications for narrating), some profound, some amusing, some both. I have received some very useful patches, representing the first contributions to the core Curveship code from others since I started this project in 2006. It looks like – with some serious work on my part, and with further consultation from the Curveship cognoscenti – Curveship can finally be ready for release in a few months.

I want to thank everyone who participated in the codefest today, from Amaranth to Zarf. So I will: Thank you, Amaranth, Angela, Brad, Doug, Jake, Jason, Kevin, Luis, Flourish, Fox, Ralph, and Zarf! Communities represented at the fest included the Boston area IF community, MIT’s Programs in Writing and Humanistic Studies and Comparative Media Studies, and the MIT Media Lab. In particular, thanks to Flourish for breakfast and lunch food for everyone; thanks to Zarf for the cookies; thanks to Amaranth and Brad for the donuts; and thanks to Fox for suggesting the event in the first place.

Yay Book Party

Thanks to all who came by to the Tuesday book release party for Riddle & Bind at Grafton Street. Riddles were pondered (and some solved) and many good times were had. Jason Scott stopped by, driving up from his archival compound in New York State! Recently kickstarted Andrew Plotkin (a.k.a. Zarf) was there, too. Fiction writer Ralph Lombreglia, my mentor from Boston University, was one of several current colleagues from MIT’s Writing and Humanistic Studies who stopped by despite their teaching and event schedules – thanks as well to Bill Corbett, Ed Barrett, and Magdalena Rieb. All right, enough shout-outs for now. I do appreciate all of you who were able to come by and celebrate the publication of Riddle & Bind.

Remote readers can find the book for sale via Spineless Books (my very dedicated publisher) or Amazon.

Lebling Lurks, Zarf is Kickstarted

As my very crummy photo shows, Dave Lebling joined us (the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction) at MIT yesterday for a productive play session of his game The Lurking Horror. (We got 55 of 100 points, which isn’t bad for three hours, even if some of us who’d solved the game did nudge the others along now and then.) Afterwards, we went on a tour of MIT, checking out some of the locations that inspired those in Lebling’s game.

In other great interactive fiction news, a Kickstarter project by Andrew Plotkin, a.k.a. Zarf, was fully funded almost before one could type “transcript on.” Zarf has promised to write Hadean Lands, an IF game for the iPhone, and to work on other IF-related projects. You can still donate money to support Zarf’s work.

Horror Lurks on Halloween

A special event: The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction is hosting a session in which we’ll play The Lurking Horror, October 31, 2-5pm, MIT’s room 4-145. We’ll take a tour of some MIT campus locations that inspired the ones in this game, and David Lebling, the Infocom implementor who created the game, will be joining us.

Also, remember that there’s a Tuesday Nov 2 book party for the release of my Riddle & Bind, at Grafton St. in Harvard Square, 6-9pm. And on Sunday Nov 7 we’ll have a codefest where people can work on games in Curveship, or on the core system, if they like. Contact me (the login name is “nickm”, the domain to use is this one) if you’d like to join us for that event.

Riddle & Bind is out. Party!

My book Riddle & Bind (with an official publication date of October 31) is out. One day Amazon will have an image of the cover. But for now, anyone can order it through Spineless Books or Amazon, and … there’s a book release party here in Cambridge, in Harvard Square:

Grafton Street Restaurant and Bar
1230 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA 02138

Tuesday November 2
6-9pm

You’re invited to stop by, peruse the book, and hang out with us. The book will be available for sale, too, but if you just want to come by and flip through it, or try to crack the code of Christian Bök’s encrypted back-cover blurb, that’s fine too. Grafton Street serves fine food and drink, and you’re welcome to purchase yourself some of it – there are no retail obligations, though. I’ll hope to see you there.

Curveship Codefest Coming Up

Anyone who is in the Boston area and interested in spending a day (or a good chunk thereof) helping me push Curveship toward release should shoot me an email. Thanks to a great suggestion from Prof. Fox Harrell, I’ll be hosting a one-day Curveship Codefest soon in MIT’s building 14. People are welcome to write games, to write spin (ways of narrating), and to hack on the core Curveship system with me. We’ll be working toward a release of Curveship under a free software license in December or January.

Creativity (ICCC-11) Deadline Looms

A reminder that the deadline for the 2nd International Conference on Computational Creativity, taking place in Mexico City, April 27-29, 2011, is now in less than two months:

  • December 13, 2010 – Submission deadline
  • February 14, 2011 – Authors’ Notification
  • March 14, 2011 – Deadline for final camera-ready copies
  • April 27-29, 2011 – ICCC in Mexico City

I posted about the conference back in July; the CFP has been out since then and information has been up on the Web. Our site (I’m one of the organizers) now has resources for authors preparing papers as well as travel information.

Good luck to those preparing papers. I’ll hope to see some from Post Position and Grand Text Auto there in Méxio, D.F. at the end of April.

Talk, Talk

I had a great time speaking with people and giving a talk about Curveship, my interactive fiction and interactive narrating system, at Tufts University today in the Department of Computer Science.

Next up is my panel discussion with two others at the Boston Book Festival. It’s on Saturday at 10:30am in the main auditorium of the Boston Public Library. If you read the following incisive paragraph very carefully …

Phoenix in flames

You’ll see that Eugenia Williamson of The Boston Phoenix considers me “a novelist of supreme confidence” – wow! I’m flattered!

My New Book, Riddle & Bind

Riddle & Bind My new book – a book of poems entitled Riddle & Bind – has been published by Spineless Books. The book contains figurative language that does not explicitly state what is described, but leaves this for the reader to discern: riddle. And I have placed myself within certain constraints to write poems in this book: bind. The official publication date is October 31, but thanks to the attention and deft work of my publisher, I was able to lay my hands on a book and volume today. I will follow up soon with details about this tome and its availability, but for now: Riddle & Bind is bound. And it even has a spine.

On Researching Adventure Games

Clara Fernandez-Vara, a postdoc here at MIT in Comparative Media Studies who researches at the GAMBIT lab and is part of the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, has written a short, helpful piece for Adventure Classic Gaming, explaining some ways that academics have studied adventure games – and some of what’s useful about that activity. The piece is called “Adventures in games research.” Give it a read and, if you have one, drop a comment there or here.

Death and the Powers Arrives

The opera and “robot pageant” composed by Tod Machover, directed by Diane Paulis and with a libretto by Robert Pinsky has finally been staged in Monaco. I won’t see it until it comes to the Boston area in a few months, but I’m delighted to see the project reach the stage. Death and the Powers (discussed in this WBUR interview) has been in the works for about a decade. I wrote about it as we rang in the new year (2006) at Grand Text Auto, and I was very pleased to hear the workshop performance of the opera at A.R.T., here in Cambirdge. By now, we not only have the performances in Monaco: The libretto has been printed in Poetry and is available online at the Poetry Foundation. And those of us in the US can look forward to the March arrival of Death and the Powers in Boston.

Notes on the IF Community

I was a sort of “international observer” at the latest ELMCIP Seminar in Bergen, Norway. ELCMIP is a European project, funded by HERA, which looks at the ways electronic literature communities function and foster creativity. On the first day of the seminar (Monday, September 20) I presented about the IF community, supplementing that evening’s screening of Get Lamp at the Landmark Cafe. I offered some thoughts, summarized here, for those working in other types of electronic literature practices.

By “interactive fiction” (often abbreviated “IF”), I mean pretty much exactly what you will find if you Google for the term and starting looking through the first several pages of results. In my dissertation, I defined interactive fiction as: “A form of text-accepting, text-generating computer program that narrates what is happening in a simulated world in reply to input from a user, or interactor. Interactive fiction can have literary qualities and qualities of a game.” In recent decades, people have used the term in different ways, but this is how the interactive fiction community understands IF today and has understood it for a while. This means that IF is not defined by a particular platform, the way that Flash games are, but that people do expect something to work like a “text adventure,” with the simulation of space and objects and natural-language-like input, to be considered IF. Members of the interactive fiction community may find chatterbots, story generators, hypertext fiction, point-and-click graphical games, and other things very interesting, but these productions would not have a place in the annual Interactive Fiction Competition, for instance, because they aren’t interactive fiction.

I have to note at this point that I can’t offer any proper sort of study of the interactive fiction community, as I am not an anthropologist by training (or pretension) and I don’t understand the workings of community in the way that people with a better background would. What I can offer, as a member of this community, are some notes about my experiences and some pointers to ways I have seen the community working together. My hope is that may notes may be of some use in generating ideas about e-lit community or for someone undertaking a systematic study.

Also, I’ll explain at this point that what I and others call “the IF community” is not the only IF community, even for English-language work. One other community is that of authors and players of ADRIFT games. ADRIFT (Adventure Development & Runner – Interactive Fiction Toolkit) is an easy-to-use shareware system for IF development. Another locus of interactive fiction practice and playing is “adult interactive fiction” or AIF, which prominently depicts sexual activity. The AIF community has its own annual awards, the Erins, which are analogous to the IF community’s XYZZY Awards (discussed later). Beyond these communities, there are IF communities, or at least IF activity that involved several people and that I know about, in Spanish, German, Italian, French, and Russian language communities.

An important early resource for the IF community was the IF Archive, originally hosted in Germany thanks to Volker Blasius. The archive was announced on November 24, 1992 and is mirrored today on sites throughout the world, with the main site being ifarchive.org. The archive was originally accessed only by anonymous FTP and can still be reached by that method today, although there is a simple Web interface at the main site and a searchable interface at Baf’s Guide to the IF Archive. The “archive” is not a repository for an organizations old, inactive files; it a system for publishing and sharing new work, including the games for each year’s IF Competition.

The IF community communicated for many years on two USENET newsgroups – and some in the community still read these newsgroups. rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction were not originally devoted to what we now call IF, but those discussions came to predominate. The “arts” and “games” groups do not argue for different perspectives on interactive fiction; they are simply for discussion of making games (“arts”) and playing them (“games”).

A central institution in the IF community – perhaps the central one – is the annual IF Competition, which began in 1994. Now in its 16th year and run by Stephen Granade, “the Comp,” as it is called, showcases a wide variety of short games, some poorly written and/or poorly programmed and others quite exemplary. While winning the Comp or placing well in it is certainly desirable, anyone who enters the comp can be sure that dozens, if not hundreds, of people will play the game submitted. Many will even write review of it, since it is a tradition among the most enthusiastic members of the IF community to review all of the Comp games. Competitions are central to many popular communities of digital practice – the demoscene as well as creators of Flash games, homebrew 8-bit games, and graphical games. These comps or compos usually do not involve substantial rewards for winners or agonistic competition; instead, they provide an event (in person in the case of the demoscene, online in other cases) that focuses the interest and energy of the community.

Recent years have seen other IF events of different sorts, including “minicomps” with different themes and the “Speed IF” sessions in which several participants each write a themed or constrained game in two hours. Some of the community’s events highlight the different metaphors that are in play, ones that work across literary and gaming concepts. Although works of interactive fiction are conventionally called “games” and the people who interact with them are called “players,” the person who writes a game (almost always the same person who programs it) is an “author.” The online “Interactive Fiction Book Club,” founded in 2001, brought together those who had played a particular game for conversation modeled on conversation about books. In 2009, “Interactive Fiction Writing Month,” with some in-person events that took place mainly at CMU, made an obvious connection to National Novel Writing Month. The annual XYZZY Awards for interactive fiction, on the other hand, are styled after the Oscars. Although they are awarded by popular nominations and popular vote, they are named in the manner of Academy Awards and presented at an online event. Many IF community members even virtually dress up for the award ceremony.

The XYZZY awards take place on ifMUD, a simple text-based MUD that serves almost entirely as a chat room. That is, role-playing and puzzle-construction and -solving have little place there and RPG-style combat has none. The people on ifMUD do use some of the unique MUD-like facilities to support their communications, however, and they also program new capabilities into the MUD for that purpose. There is a bot, Alex, who parrots things that he has been taught, allowing people to query him for the definition of terms and acroymns. An “automeeter” keeps track of which pairs of people have met in person. People use another bot, Floyd, to play IF together on ifMUD, participating in “Club Floyd” sessions. People also ask for programming, design, and writing help, and sometimes even discuss theoretical or critical ideas. Much of the discussion is not directly focused on IF, but when one does want to discuss IF in real time, ifMUD is a great place to do so.

There are now local groups that meet in person to discuss and play interactive fiction. The one I know most about is the one I host in Cambridge, Massachusetts, The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, organized by Kevin Jackson-Mead. PR-IF meets monthly, and had a hotel room with snacks and talks, thanks mainly to Andrew Plotkin, at Penny Arcade Expo East. They have also produced a card with instructions for first-time IF players. I organized the first meeting of the PR-IF writers’ group, Grue Street. And two successful events have been held in which the public was invited to play interactive fiction together: the early MIT version of Zork, in the first case, and Admiral Jota’s Comp-winning game Lost Pig in the second.

By now, most people who deal with electronic literature in some way seem inclined to accept that interactive fiction falls under this umbrella term. But even if some resist this, it’s hard to ignore that the community itself connects its meetings, events, roles, and practices to literary ones. Of course, simply importing the institutions of IF into other communities is unlikely to be helpful: Other e-lit communities may not need an FTP site, two USENET newsgroups, a MUD, and so on. But understanding how different structures, conventions, and tools have helped IF authors and players could have broader applicability. For instance, the IF Comp has worked to encourage the annual production of games, but it has also dominated IF production so that the best-known games are those short ones released for the IF Comp. (The community has responded with other comps and with projects to review other games, so the IF Comp is not too much of a victim of its own success.) Nevertheless, this situation can highlight the benefits and the dangers of a regular, central activity with its own format requirements. Considering the IF community may also point the way to other groups that are less obviously literary, but are creative communities of practice involved with computing.

A Deterministic ppg256

Last night I premiered ppg256-6 in Bergen, Norway:

perl -le '@d=split/ /,"eros won to tree for fire sex sever ate nice tin elfin wealth";@t=split//,"_bhlmnpstw";{$_=localtime;/(..):(.)(.):(.)(.)/;print"\n$t[$3]".($4%2)."ck $t[$4]".($3%2)."ck\n"if!$5;print"\\"x$5." $d[$1%12] $d[$2] $d[$3] $d[$4] $d[$5]";sleep 1;redo}'

This is the latest in my series of 256-character poetry generators written in Perl. An unusual feature of this one is that it is deterministic: If run at the same time, it will produce the same output. Those who run Windows should check the ppg256 page for a .pl file that will run on that OS, on ActivePerl.

The New Electronic Literature Directory

I interviewed Joseph Tabbi, author of Cognitive Fictions and editor of electronic book review, about the Electronic Literature Directory project that he’s currently heading. I took over from Joe early this summer as president of the Electronic Literature Organization. The Directory, which has already had success in its “version 1” form, has been reworked to allow collaboratively-written and richer writing about e-lit work.

nm: Joe, what sorts of people are going to find something compelling in the Electronic Literature Organization’s new Directory?

jt: I imagine the majority of readers are going to be teenagers and college students, people who have come of age learning to read in different ways than you or I learned. You and I may have retrained our habits of attention with each new delivery device. But the current generation of readers likely started with web browsers, wikis, blogs, texting, sexting and so forth.

nm: What do you envision this project will offer when it’s – “completed” is perhaps the wrong word, but when we’ve had large-scale participation and significant coverage of e-lit?

jt: The renewal of a general audience for literary arts – the way that Grub Street writers and publishers turned newspaper and letter readers into an audience for novels. (But of course, e-lit does not, and surely won’t, look at all like nineteenth-century realist fiction.)

nm: What stage of the project are wehttp://deviantforms.wordpress.com/2010/07/21/eld-1-0-vs-2-0/ at now?

jt: We’ve got a sample of works and some model descriptions of works. We have a cohort of editors to build on that sample, and a programmer and graphic artist who will turn the current wrap into a designed interface. That will happen early next year. We’ve also got a number of prominent e-lit authors who are going in to ‘tag’ the works, which ought to expand the language we have for talking about works that in many cases will be sui generis. Others will be right in the mainstream of literary production.

(By “mainstream,” I mean antecedents like Oulipo’s processual writing, Musil’s conceptual writing without character or ‘qualities,’ the novel before Fielding and Richardson, and very likely the formulaic, generative epics in oral traditions.)

nm: The ELO had previously developed a directory with a different format and different sorts of listings. Can you tell me some about what you learned from that project, how the current one builds on it, and in what ways it’s trying to go beyond the “1.0” version?

jt: Now, as then, we have plenty of writing by women, people of color, writers whose first language is not English, and so forth. But there’s no need to divide all this up, at the start, into special-interest group-writing, the way it’s done at a Borders or Barnes & Noble. That’s how 1.0 was set up, but the idea here, in version 2.0, is not to impose top-down categories (however inclusive and open-minded the categorizers might imagine themselves to be): the thing is to use the low-level tagging (an affordance specific to networked media) as a way for semi-autonomous communities to elaborate their own vocabularies, their own favored works, and ultimately their own values.

Another difference – I learned that you need many, many editors, not a few. And you need to set things up so that a contributor who’s not an editor, not an e-lit author, and not anyone special – can feel comfortable drafting an entry and see it live the moment it’s submitted. If it’s not that easy, people won’t bother to write about works they have discovered. And if that happens, we’ll lose the chance to locate, cultivate, and renew a general literary readership.

nm: It’s clear that the Directory will benefit the reader who is seeking e-lit to read, seeking to learn about new and different forms of writing, and looking for critical perspectives. How will the Directory benefit the contributor? Why should people interested in different forms of e-lit want to write entries and take part in the Directory project?

My expectation is that the more people use it, the more people there will be who want to use it. We need to make better known the Directory’s common cause with other existing projects – directories of interactive fiction, the Siegen-based Directory of critical writing on e-lit, NT2’s directory of French e-lit, the Australian directory under development at the University of Western Sydney, and many, many others. A number of us, from the ELO board, will be in Sydney in December to discuss that particular co-development. But it has to be more than an exercise in mutual respect and swapping entries. We need to instantiate these affinities with a design that makes, for example, an Australian or an IF entry stand out as such. And we need to use the same community-building processes that are current in software development and so familiar to the next generation of readers.

nm: So, once someone does want to take part in the project, how can that person get involved and contribute?

jt: It depends I think on where people are coming from, whether they approach the field as a researcher/scholar, an author, or a general reader. Anyone can post a description of works they’ve discovered, comment on an existing post, or compose an alternative description. Those who have works of their own, can fill out a stub entry so that others can draft a description. And those who have a professional stake in the field can join the editorial workgroup, where they can participate directly in the project development and their entries will be credited as academic publications.

By bringing the scholars, authors, and audience this way into a single forum, maybe we can begin to change the current situation where intellectuals and creators talk only to themselves. At the least, those who read around in the directory should get a sense that literature is not a settled body of work but a field that’s in the making, and nothing’s stopping anyone from taking part in that.

I encourage readers to leave any questions you have about the Directory for me and/or Joe in comments.